EA has poured serious time and effort into the FIFA brand over recent years, not just on painstakingly recreating the beautiful game, but complementing the package with ambitious online features like Be A Pro mode - where 20 real people each control one outfield player during a match - and Adidas Live Seasons, which each week update player stats to match real-life goings-on.
We've also seen EA recently knuckle down with Need for Speed and focus specifically on platforms and tailor-make games for each audience, and we've also seen EA adopt a much tighter stance on quality control. FIFA 09 online add-on Ultimate Team, and Football Academy for DS, are products of this era. The former bolts on an enormous card-trading strategy feast for the bustling online community to devour, while the latter bravely mixes an unknown Pokémon, FIFA and Brain Training concoction and awaits the result.
Keen to find out more, we sat down with Ultimate Team producer Matt Prior and Football Academy lead designer Chris Coates to find out more. And ask them some silly questions about football.
FIFA 09 Ultimate Team
Eurogamer: Who came up with the idea of a card-trading game and what does this add to the FIFA experience that competitors don't have?
Matt Prior: One of the key reasons we came up with idea is that it is very unique and not something FIFA gamers have experienced before. Obviously we could just do another competition or a cup tournament or whatever, but that's ground we've already covered. The other reason is that we did something similar in a Champions League game a few years back and it was universally well-received. That game was never quite as big at EA as FIFA, so we never really thought it achieved its potential. And it lends itself well to FIFA because the game covers a broader range [of leagues] and so there's much more depth in the card game because we can have a lot more players. It's something that just fits very well into the FIFA world.
In terms of the way we're offering it as a download and an add-on: the online usage figures for FIFA 09 are through the roof, and there seems to be an appetite for DLC and add-ons to keep games fresh. And we wanted to do that for FIFA users rather than do a traditional packaged game once a year and walk away; we want to keep content flowing through FIFA year round, so you don't play for a few months and consider it dead until the next one comes out.
Eurogamer: You talk about rewarding the fan base out there playing online, so why charge for it and for the booster packs? And do you have prices yet?
Matt Prior: Those are currently being finalised: expect an announcement soon.
It is an add-on to FIFA in the sense that you need FIFA 09 to play it, but it's important to note that it's essentially a full game by itself. It was an entirely separate dev team working on this for the past year, so it's not just a break-off from FIFA with a few people.
With regards to the micro-transaction card packs: very important to note that they're only there as a shortcut, really. There's nothing you can't get in the game that you can out of the game [on XBL Marketplace or PSN]. Buying a card pack for real-world cash is in no way more advantageous than buying with in-game currency. It's basically just a shortcut, because we didn't want to reward users who are able to just devote more time to Ultimate Team; obviously working guys are only able to go home and play for a few hours. If they aren't able to get to the same level because they can't devote the time, then maybe they want the shortcut and will spend a few pence and get one of the card packs.
I can't actually tell you the prices officially as yet, unfortunately, but they aren't going to be very much at all. We focus on very small micro-transactions rather than the kind of Tiger Woods four-dollar maxed-out golfer kind of deal.
Eurogamer: Are you worried that the sort of people who'll play this are already wrapped up in something like Football Manager? Are the FIFA crowd ready for something like this?
Matt Prior: I think we straddle between the two: we're more deep than regular gameplay, and you do actually play the game [of football] - it's not a sit-back-and-watch-type deal. The way our system works is a bit simpler, with the whole team chemistry deal. So yeah, we're aiming ourselves between the two, and give users who have experience of either something very fresh. I don't think people will play Ultimate Team and think it's like either end of that spectrum.
Also, we offer trading online with other users, which no game currently does. You can actually post cards for trade using an eBay-light system. And we've also implemented - hearkening back to the playground days of "swapsies" - an exchange system for up-to four cards and/or cash. That's a side of the game we've not really seen in anything else out there.
Eurogamer: What about BattleForge, that EA fantasy RTS online card-trading game?
Matt Prior: Funnily enough we didn't really know a lot about that and didn't have any dealings with them. But as we've gone along we've hit similar sort of issues that those guys came up against, so there has been talk between the two development teams with regard to things like micro-transactions and the minefield of those sorts of areas.
Eurogamer: How many cards are there to collect?
Matt Prior: Player-wise there's over 4000, and in terms of other cards, there's around... there's so many: there's around 30 different varieties and within those there's many, many sub-varieties. For example training cards: there's cards that let you train any of the player attributes and build players from a bronze rating to a gold rating. If there's a player out there that you like but that's a bit of a donkey, then you can actually grow him into a superstar. And within that training there's various levels: there's single-player, multiplayer and team training. Those sub-categories make for thousands and thousands of actual cards in the game.
Eurogamer: Can you have more than one of the same player in the game?
Matt Prior: There's duplicates throughout the community but it's very unlikely you'll get a duplicate in the same pack. We've seen it once during testing. But there's nothing there to prevent that. But what you can't have is two of the same player on your team, so you can't have two Rooneys or two Ronaldos - that's where the swap system comes in.
There's also the collection album. We wanted to make sure when you got a card that there was a use for it even if you already had it in your team. Think Panini sticker album, where you can send duplicate players for in-game coins. You get more coins for the better players you send, and once you actually complete an entire team you get a big credit bonus.
Eurogamer: So, if I had the Manchester United team, I could theoretically come up against another Manchester United team?
Matt Prior: Yeah, you could, but there's such a vast array of players in the game that you're very unlikely to come up against the same team. We don't really know what the best team in the game is, because there are so many factors involved.
Eurogamer: Who's the best player in the game?
Matt Prior: Best player? Ooh, probably the very typical ones of... the Liverpool fan next to me just said Steven Gerard! I'd say Robinho because I'm a [Manchester] City fan [laughs]. But it would probably be the Ronaldos or Kakas.
Eurogamer: How much can we alter players with the training cards? Will their stats drop off if they don't train. Could Ronaldo become rubbish?
Matt Prior: You always increase stats with training but to balance that out - because we don't want lots of 99 players on every team - there's always a negative. For example: if you have a speed training of plus-six, then there will be a bit of an offset - maybe your dribbling goes down by one. It's a balancing act. But no, the player attributes don't degrade.
Eurogamer: What sort of pack do you start with? Will they be rubbish like Brighton?
Matt Prior: The starter pack has 20 cards, the fundamentals you need to get going. That will be a starter squad, which is made up of predominantly bronze players, plus a home kit, an away kit, a training arena, a stadium, that kind of stuff. But it gives you the opportunity to grow it into your ultimate team.
Eurogamer: How long does it take to be amazing like Arsenal?
Matt Prior: It depends on how much you play and obviously micro-transactions in as well. And then there's the trading, which is a bit of a wildcard. If you play a good game you can earn enough to buy a bronze card pack after every match. Silver packs probably take four games, and then gold roughly every eight. But what we wanted to ensure was that you don't get a starting eleven of great players and then sit back and say, "I'm done". One thing each player has is a contract value with a starting value of about eight or ten, and every time they play their contract will be reduced by one. If you bench him it doesn't reduce, so you can always rest players if they're running low on contract. One of the cards within the community is the contract-increasing card, so you'll normally have to buy a couple of bronze players while saving for gold just to keep your team ticking along.
What we're finding in testing is a lot of people have an A team and a B team and use the B team to earn more coins, but when they go into the online tournaments, or when there's a big game, then they'll bring in their A team. So there's a very strategic element as to who you play, and when.
Eurogamer: Are the cards ever going to mirror real-life stats like they do with the Adidas Live Seasons? Will you ever re-update them to match the real-life players?
Matt Prior: It's based on the FIFA database to start with but that's not affected by the Live Seasons. It would be a little strange to train a guy up and then find, because he'd had a bad day in real-life, that his stats had dropped down.
Eurogamer: What's the difference between playing offline and playing online?
Matt Prior: We wanted to add offline because not everybody wants to play online. So there's 36 tournaments in all: 18 online and 18 offline. And then there's also online league games and offline league games that feed into the leaderboards.
Eurogamer: And what's the plan for Ultimate Team if everything goes well? Will this be integrated into FIFA in the future?
Matt Prior: Where we take this... we'll obviously monitor the forums and feedback. It's something we intend to keep taking forward. In terms of what format: that's yet to be determined. So yes, it's kind of an experiment in that sense.
Eurogamer: Thank you, Matt Prior! Now, on to you, Chris Coates.
Football Academy (DS)
Eurogamer: I like to think I know quite a lot about football: I shout at the telly because the referees and players can hear me, and I talk tactics and injuries with friends. What am I going to realistically get out of Football Academy? Or is the game not designed for someone like me?
Chris Coates: If you know about football then it's definitely designed for you; the game is for football fans. It's kind of aimed at kids and their dads, mainly, but at the same time people like myself, yourself; there's still a lot in there for people that are football fans. In terms of building up your IQ: there's a lot of different types of games in there, not just based around tactics - there's a lot of stuff based around general knowledge of football as well.
Eurogamer: Is there more to Football Academy than mini-games? Is there a core gameplay mode running through it?
Chris Coates: Yes. There's a couple of cores to the experience. The biggest core to the experience is improving your knowledge on and off the pitch. Off the pitch is your mini-games, building your football IQ, which is a bit like Brain Training and has a score, and you can compare that with others to see how good you are. That actually then feeds into the rest of the game, where you're trying to build a dream team by collecting cards of players, as your IQ affects your chemistry, the idea being that the more you know, the more the players will respect you.
But also as you play the mini-games you're learning formations and which players are best for what. One of the mini-games, for example, is pick your best eleven from the players that come up.
Eurogamer: Is this a feeler for a football management sim on DS? Why don't you think we haven't seen a successful one yet?
Chris Coates: I used to work on a manager game a while ago, and I would say that probably the biggest problem with DS is just the size. Manager games are huge, they take up a vast amount of data. Also, the trouble with DS users in the past is that it has predominantly been younger users. I know there's older users now with games like Brain Age, but also a lot of figures coming out show a lot of them are women.
I'd assume that [developers/publishers] probably felt that the core audience wasn't there, and that the actual technology probably wasn't good enough to make a really good football management sim, in terms of the number of players and data.
Eurogamer: How deep is Football Academy? How much game are we getting?
Chris Coates: It is pretty deep. When the idea was first touted around it was literally going to be a football knowledge game. I looked at this, and I looked at a lot of other DS games, and soon came to the conclusion that that was going to get pretty dull, pretty quickly, so we needed something else. The card thing worked because, in a lot of DS games - like your Pokémons, your Nintendogs - there's a lot of collecting, nurturing and trading in there. They're very popular mechanics. And then games like Brain Training are popular as well, so we thought, 'Well let's see if we can mix these together.'
As you're starting the game you'll get a starter pack that has one player from your favourite team and other not-so-good players. You'll then go through a series of mini-tests or IQ games. As you go through each test you'll get a score, and the card pack you get will depend on how well you did. Your knowledge really will help you build a better team.
You can trade like in Ultimate Team via local Wi-Fi, which gives the playground feel of 'swapsies' and collecting Panini stickers back in the day. We did this quite a lot whilst we were in meetings, but, er, obviously nobody knew about that.
You can play other teams as well. We've got five of the top leagues - UK, Italy, France, Germany, Spain - and the way it works is that you have a collector's album for your cards, but you need to fill in a certain amount of that page to unlock the team to play against. The idea is to get good scores to get better packs and unlock better cards to collect, and go from bronze to silver to gold. You can move between the leagues as well; it's a good idea sometimes to play some of the lower teams to get more points. As you beat those teams you'll earn badges to chart your progress. Once you beat all the teams you'll get a trophy.
So you can imagine you're playing an IQ test, you can practice those; you're collecting cards, you're trading; you're playing matches against every team in the league or against your friend - you're talking at least 80 hours of gameplay, maybe even way more than that if you really go into that, because the game doesn't really end as such.
Eurogamer: How do you actually play your friends?
Chris Coates: Originally we had this comic-book interaction idea, but it turned out that mechanic - as cool as sounded and looked - wasn't actually that dynamic or interesting. But at that point we'd already created a load of comic book images for the players. So we crossed it: imagine a cross between Pokéemon/RPG-style battles and Football Manager.
And the great thing about it, as with the rest of the game, is that it's all totally designed for DS: we don't use the d-pad or buttons at any point, it's all using the stylus. One game even uses the microphone where you play as the referee.
But going back to the match itself: you'll go in, pick your team, have all the chemistry stuff and then the match starts like an old-school Football Manager game with a left position bar and a clock ticking down. And then you'll go into a highlight, where we've used the comic-book idea, and at this point you'll have to make a decision, which is where the Pokémon bit comes in. You'll have to chose either a high-risk or a low-risk option, depending on the players you've got.
It'll fly-in the stats of the two players and put them side-by-side in a battle, which might be tackling, passing or shooting depending on how high you are up the pitch. You'll see the chemistry stats fly in, you'll see energy stats fly in, and then you pick your choice. As well as this, and while the match is on-going, you can pick which side of the pitch to play the ball down, increasing the likelihood of your star winger picking up the ball. But to stop you from routinely picking your tricky winger, his energy will go down each time he gets the ball. You can also choose to push up or sit back or play balanced. If you're on the attack and you push up you'll get bonus points, but if you end up defending you're going to lose points.
By picking a high-risk action during a battle you'll be less likely to win but, if you do, you'll have more success. Take a dribble, for example, a high risk will go past a player and move further up the pitch. It's a series of battles.
We've been playing this in meetings, because another great thing is that you can carry on a game whenever you want, such as on a train. I struggle playing FIFA or PES on the train because I'm always looking up to see if I've missed my stop, whereas with this you can shut the lid and carry on where you left off. Multiplayer is over local Wi-Fi.
Eurogamer: Very good. One thing: I noticed while perusing Football Academy screenshots is that you've rated Arsenal higher than Aston Villa. But Aston Villa are higher in the Premier League than Arsenal. What's going on? Are Aston Villa punching above their weight? Are they cheating?
Chris Coates: [Laughs] It all depends when we get the stats. DS titles actually take longer to manufacture than 360 and PS3 titles, because of the cartridge and so on and so forth, so the data will be based on when Arsenal were actually above Villa in the league. And I would still argue that Arsenal are a better side than Villa, having seen the Chelsea vs Villa game at the weekend.
FIFA Ultimate Team launches on 19th March for PS3 and 360. Football Academy goes on sale for DS on 20th March. Arsenal FC are a complete shambles and Bertie knows it.