Leipzig isn't the only thing kicking off today - EA Sports has also chosen this morning to unveil the highly anticipated next-generation version of FIFA 07, due out later this year on Xbox 360.
A PlayStation 3 version is set to follow in 2007, but for now EA's focusing on Microsoft's console - something that's likely to provide a huge boost over the coming months as Xbox 360 tackles Christmas for the second time. Yesterday, prior to the announcement, we spoke to Xbox 360 producer Hugues Ricour about what fans can expect.
The first thing to note is that the game has been completely rewritten over the past to year, to create a game where the ball is a completely separate entity from the players, and where interaction with it is far more varied - the idea being to make something a lot less predictable, that really embodies the benefits that next-generation hardware offers.
Ricour tells us that EA's already maxing out the 360 hardware, and while the Interactive Leagues online element of current-gen FIFA 07 is absent, fears of less content ought to be assuaged by the inclusion of 20 major leagues, four-versus-four online gameplay, and a host of updates to the gameplay and Manager Mode. Read on for the first interview.
Eurogamer: We're conducting this interview before the official announcement is made, so could you tell us which formats you're targeting and explain how the next-gen versions differ from their current-gen counterparts?
Hugues Ricour: Well, our Xbox 360 version is based on a completely new gameplay engine. We will release a PlayStation 3 version, but not this year. So two years ago we decided to rewrite the engine, and it took us more than 100,000 man-hours of work to do this.
This is a technology to really bring responsiveness, to bring intelligence, and bring a new feel where the ball is detached from the players' feet and you really have to manage the ball as a separate entity thanks to a new physics system.
We rewrote the animation engine, the physics engine, and an AI system. The AI system is data-driven which means it takes into account what happened before, what could happen after, and has a decision layer depending on the context in real-time. It's driven by all the specific attributes and traits of each player.
Eurogamer: How does that compare to what you were doing before?
Hugues Ricour: In the past the players didn't really have these traits. In this case a trait is a tendency, so for example Frank Lampard has a very strong shot as an attribute, and his trait is his tendency to shoot from distance. So we know he does this quite often and he's tagged to specifically do it.
We've doubled the number of attributes on next-gen, because we can calculate more things in real-time. And the context is the same thing - we can take a lot of things into account that we couldn't before, and we can also calculate that for the 22 players on the field, whereas for current-gen we could maybe calculate it for 6-8 players. So that really changes the experience, because the 22 players really have a brain and think, and that makes the experience way more organic, realistic and tactical.
On the responsiveness side, when we say we rewrote our animation engine, the idea was that you can branch the animation at any time, interrupting the cycle and blending it to the next one, while on current-gen we don't do that; you always have to finish the cycle of the animation so they always have to be very short. Calculating all of this in real-time of course is very expensive in terms of performance, and that's why we couldn't do it on current-gen.
Eurogamer: How much of the Xbox 360 are you using then?
Hugues Ricour: The hardware is really already at the limit. We designed this new engine based on the capabilities of the next-gen hardware, which are quite similar - the architecture is different, but in terms of power we believe we can reach approximately the same level on 360 and PS3.
Really priority number one was the gameplay, so we talk a lot about the graphics engine, which is always a high priority for EA of course - we want high end graphics and Fight Night proved that we could do it - but FIFA is trying to prove what gameplay means for next-gen.
And the last component of this new FIFA, to go back to it, is the new physics engine. The ball now has real physics and proper behaviour in terms of curve and spin. On current-gen the ball was based with the animation, so when we were motion-capturing each animation the ball was actually part of the animation, which gave the feel that the ball was attached with elastic to the boots. This is gone now with our new engine, because the ball is a separate entity. We want the player to go to the ball and not the other way around.
Eurogamer: Presumably you've had to adjust the controls and the way you play the game to take advantage of the rewritten engine.
Hugues Ricour: Yeah, there is a notion of assistance in the controls that you didn't really have before, and that's context-based. For example, on current-gen you have, let's say, three trapping animations - one with the feet, one with the knee, one with the chest. Now you can trap the ball with almost anything - any part of your body. Depending on the speed and the height of the ball, the players adapt to where it is.
It can deflect too because maybe the player was too far away, or it was struck too hard, whereas before if he could get the ball he would just trap it perfectly as though it was glued to him. That's a big change for us, because now you really have to deal with the ball in terms of its context.
We've also given a notion of athletic performance to the animation with this in mind, to really give feedback to the player at any time in terms of how the player's receiving the ball. The camera's pulled way back too so you can see multiple players, which helps with tactics - you really need to feel what kind of move they're building, how they're protecting the ball, and that kind of thing.
Eurogamer: And presumably you see a lot of deflected shots and that sort of thing now.
Hugues Ricour: Yep, it adds a lot of variety to the game, with rebounds dependent on the spin of the ball. Each situation is unique and because each player thinks, it really becomes quite unpredictable and that brings a lot of fun to the game. It's very fluid, very natural, and you really have to build your actions and react to each situation.
Eurogamer: In terms of online, the current-gen production team has said that Interactive Leagues won't be included in next-gen, so what have you got instead?
Hugues Ricour: The 360 version will still have many features, of course. One of the reasons that we decided to limit Interactive Leagues to current-gen was that you really need a large audience of online users to make that work, and we didn't feel the next-gen installed base was large enough today to really make it compelling.
What we have on next-gen is this desire, for the first time, to become a kind of broadcaster, where in real-time we'll offer radio podcasts, news and statistics about more than 20 real-world leagues in your own language. Obviously most of our FIFA gamers are first of all football fans, and they want to be connected - they want to know at any moment what's happening at their club, so we'll have all the news for all the clubs of the major 20 leagues. That way FIFA really becomes a single destination for a football fan who loves gaming and can't necessarily watch a game on TV because it's pay-TV or something.
Eurogamer: But in terms of the actual online gameplay, what kind of modes of play will you be including?
Hugues Ricour: Well, for the first time in FIFA we'll have four-versus-four online, and we really worked on the overall experience quality - connections, the type of responsiveness that you need online, minimising lag and all these things. And that's how we can afford to have eight players playing at the same time, because all these systems now are high quality enough to bring more users at the same time.
Eurogamer: Will you be retaining the Manager Mode from previous FIFAs?
Hugues Ricour: Yes, we have the Manager Mode in there, and what is brand new for this year that we couldn't do on current-gen because of memory limitations, is that we track in real-time everything that the players do. And not only do we track but we also evaluate if the passes, shots, tackling and so on were good or bad, which gives a sort of RPG element to the Manager Mode, and you can see how the players are growing or not based on points.
Eurogamer: And will you be able to download data updates that reflect things like the end of the January transfer window?
Hugues Ricour: Yep - we'll have a roster update in February, which is part of the online offer, and that will be free.
And with that, Hugues was whisked away from us to do another interview. Current-gen FIFA 07 will be on hand in Leipzig for people to play, while FIFA 07 is set to be demonstrated behind closed doors.
FIFA 07 is due out on Xbox 360 in the US and Europe this autumn.