With the coming of a new age of consoles, we begin to conclude the 360/PS3 era. Within that era, one can’t deny the dominance of FIFA over the football gaming market - which went hand in hand with a new EA that avoided franchise fodder. But while the FIFA franchise shifted its emphasis from royalties to loyalties, it failed to capture the style and system of the world’s greatest club.
It’s a footballing philosophy catching fire all over the world. Attacking football. Total football. Other top clubs and national teams are emulating it, and our own Craig Foster travelled to Barcelona’s La Masia academy to bring back knowledge on how to implement the same practices and culture in Australian programs.
The influence of Barca is undeniable, and pundits with more football experience than I have not only called the team the best of its generation, but speculated on it being the greatest of all time. Such questions will never be answered. But from Cruyff and Ronaldinho, to Pep and Messi, to Martino and Neymar, the strategy and skill of this club has changed football.
So why is that not reflected in FIFA?
Let me be clear, I’m not asking for improved stats so I can beat my friends easier, although Messi not falling down when the wind changes would be a good idea, since he’s actually quite tough in real life. What I’m talking about is a disconnect between FIFA’s philosophy, and the direction football has been heading for the last half-decade (at least).
There’s an obsession at EA Canada with physical play. A disproportionate amount of time has gone into the shoulder-to-shoulder moments, the push and pull, and the collisions. It’s a necessary element, but I get the impression from the referee’s calls that this is less the World Game, and more the English game. A constant criticism of the franchise is the uselessness of smaller, technical players.
Attempts have been made. EA Canada has given highly skilled players more touches on the ball, and every touch is a potential change of direction. It’s a smart idea. But when 20 of the 22 players are controlled by AI, the clever turns and momentum shifts that trick out a human player don’t work so well. And when these technical players lose the ball whenever contact is made, what’s the point?
It’s a situation that sees me taking Iniesta and Xavi, easily among the best midfielders on the planet, out of the starting lineup in favour of Alex Song and Marc Bartra, simply because the latter two have a bit of muscle and height. Song’s not bad, but he’s no Xavi. And Bartra? It’s actually a bit of a joke.
I like to think deeply when I criticise, and try for a solution, but there are two inherent issues here that I don’t know how to fix. Firstly, a computer will more easily recognise strength and speed among player stats. It’s easy for a computer to calculate how far one player will get relative to another. It’s also easy to see one player is stronger than another, and will always win a tussle if the button is timed right. But what of the qualities of Modric? Of Ozil? These smaller gentlemen play at the top level for a reason. We need to work at implementing that reason into the game.
Secondly, strength and speed require no additional effort from the player. Hold the joystick left, and you’re using speed. Simply exist, and you’re using strength. But the intricate dribbles of a technical player, the reading of the play, the quality balls in… These are things the players have to perform themselves. Modric doesn’t have speed, but he has speed of thought. How do you program that into a videogame? With no solution present, Modric is less useful. The onus of speed of thought is passed onto the person with the controller in his or her hand, who might as well palm Modric off for a player who won’t fold like origami under so much as a cold stare from Vidic.
It would be possible to develop animations and routines for Iniesta to simply get past a player now and then, but it’s also important for EA Canada to think about how much automation is too much. It’s important that the player actually does the good move, or it’ll feel like a die roll. It’s a tough nut to crack.
I get that we need to make a good game first. That’s the priority. All the other stuff is polish - but aren’t we at that stage of polish? There were recent versions of FIFA that solely concentrated on gameplay improvements, with no engine alterations, and there have been others that made sweeping improvements to the tech. Why have these improvements been so fixated on physicality?
The next-gen FIFA is more responsive, which does help when trying to thread the ball through compact defenders. But it’s not enough. We need a change of focus. We need to tackle this at the design level. Whether Barca is the best team in the world at this very moment is debatable. I think so, but there’s a strong argument for Bayern Munich. Regardless, the last six years has been a powerful era for both the Spanish club and the football game - it’s just a shame the greatest football simulation of this generation failed to capture the greatest team of this generation.