FIFA 2004 Interview: EA's plans for an online footy revolution
9th Sep 2003 | 15:42
In every other sporting genre EA turns its hand to, The US publishing giant is the undisputed master. But with the mighty Pro Evolution wowing an ever more football-crazed European market, the purists argue that EA's FIFA series might have the fancy presentation, but is second best when it comes to gameplay.
Brand manager Dan Holman visited our offices recently to tell us why the latest FIFA game is the best one yet, why a fully online mode gives EA the edge over its rivals - and why EA's online sports series is going to become ever more prevalent in Europe over the coming years.
To begin could you outline what you've done differently with FIFA 2004 compared to past games in the series?
Holman: In 2003 we started using a new game engine, which vastly improved the game from 2002. With 2004, we had more time to improve some of the more basic football elements in that game, stemming from player attributes, so each player has 20 attributes and will play like that said player. Zidane can control the ball much better than a Nationwide league player will control it.
The AI of how the team works together has been improved - we worked with an official FIFA coach, to work with our programmers and actually have the eleven players on the pitch synch up the play like a real team would, so that if the guys are attacking down the right wing then the team will be defending on the left.
Also, there's basics like shooting, passing and crossing which have all been greatly improved. So passing is a lot crisper than it was before. The big new feature for this year is off the ball control, which is a feature that can or cannot be played - you can still play FIFA the way you've always played it in the past if you prefer to do that, but this control has been designed so that it's intuitive, and also a challenge for the more hardcore football gamer to actually master.
Also, key to the UK this year we've added Nationwide league teams, so Divisions 1, 2 and 3 are represented - you can now play as West Ham in the first division or Yeovil Town in the third division. Also we've added numerous other leagues from around the world, so you can play as the Dutch or the Portuguese leagues as well as lower leagues from other countries as well.
So have you used the same amount of detail on lower division teams as you have on the premiership teams, for example?
Holman: In terms of detail there's a great deal with the official clubs, the official kits, the official authentic players - in terms of player likenesses we make them as spot on as we can, we're actually going through the process at the moment of looking at every individual player at every club and making sure that they're kicking the ball with their favoured foot, that their hair colour is the right colour, that they're the right height, the right shape.
We do go into more detail with what we call our 50 star players, where the likes of Beckham, Zidane, Henri, Ronaldino, Del Piero we'll actually really focus on, the actual facial textures and everything will be as real as we can possibly make it.
Do you have a series of haircuts for Beckham, just in case?
Holman: Yeah, y'know, we've got his hair up, the mohican one, just sitting in the wings, waiting to put them in at the last minute.
So the new stars you've enlisted for the game, do they actually have much bearing on the way the game's made or are they just there for promotional exercises?
Holman: Whenever we work with these guys we always show them the game, getting their input; someone like Henri who's actually a big gamer plays a lot of football games, so he'll have a lot to say. So yeah, we'll always work as close as we can with these players to get their input.
So what do they think of it?
Holman: They're loving it so far, they think it's great. Obviously they're working with EA and we're happy they're working with us, great talent like that - but yeah, they're very happy with it.
The big thing that separates you from the competition we guess is online play.
Holman: Yeah; as far as we're aware, FIFA 2004 will be the only online console football game this Christmas. So you'll be able to go online, play head to head with anyone else around the world, through the Sony headset you'll be able to speak to these people - you'll be able to enter tournaments, knockout tournaments as well, use chatrooms, all those kinds of things.
And also they'll be very much the same sort of thing going on with PC as well, so we're really building an online football community this year with FIFA 2004.
The big head-to-head in the media's eyes is obviously between your game and Pro Evolution Soccer - do you think the online gives you a very definite edge?
Holman: Yeah, online gives us an edge. From what I've heard there is some online element to Konami's game but I don't think you can actually physically go online and play against other players round the world. Konami has a great product, and we've got a great product this year as well, so I think both games will really stand up well against each other.
How do you compare FIFA alongside Pro Evo?
Holman: I think with FIFA we deliver the whole package in terms of authenticity; all the clubs, all the players, all the leagues, all the teams, all the stadia, and I think this year we've really ramped up the gameplay. We're taking on Pro Evo at what it does best, which is gameplay; at the end of the day it will be for the consumer to decide, but we think we've got a very strong product which stands up against Pro Evo.
With PS2, can you tell us how the eventual subscription service to online playing is going to work?
Holman: Well, eventually it will be a subscription based service for a nominal fee paid monthly. But in the initial run of FIFA 2004, I think we're offering something like three months free trial and the potential to extend that free trial further. I don't want to get drawn into a price on it but it's going to be a nominal figure, a few pounds a month.
Is this fee going to be set across all the EA sports titles?
Holman: We're building a big raft of online sports games, so obviously you know the US are leading the way on this, they've got much better broadband penetration than we have in the UK, but yeah, I think eventually you will see pretty much all of our sports games going online in the next few years.
It's well documented that you're not supporting Xbox live just in terms of the business model - obviously something that's going to disappoint Xbox players. Can you see that situation changing any time soon?
Holman: That's kind of a bigger question; it's not something we're ruling out, but it's not going to happen for the moment.
Where do you feel EA Sports is as a brand now?
Holman: I think EA Sports as a brand has always been very FIFA led in the UK, whereas in the US you've got many different big US sports products - the whole set-up out there is completely different to the UK, but I think this year with Tiger Woods 2004 at the end of September which is a benchmark quality sports game that gamers love playing
Also, we've got Rugby 2004 just before the World Cup, we've got a cricket game coming out next year - the correct branding in the UK is to build upon traditional English sports so I think we'll see the brand go from strength to strength.
So what is it about this game that should win the gamer over rather than any other footy title out there?
Holman: It's simply the most authentic, true football simulation on the market, and has the gameplay to match any other football game.