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.