Our Liverpool-supporting dep-ed reckons FIFA's a bit like Gerard Houllier - so busy turning corners that it's no longer sure which direction it's facing. Even the recent World Cup edition - a definite improvement on the incredibly shabby Road to World Cup - had significant problems. It's been a fourth-in-the-Premiership sort of game for so long that it's difficult to figure out where it really needs updating. What it needs, you might argue, is new blood. A Rafa.
Producer Joe Booth knows this, and his arrival at EA last September and the development team's rejuvenation means new tactics, and new horizons (and helpfully sits well with the intro, innit). His job is to make sure that FIFA - probably EA's most recognisable brand in several areas of the world - continues to justify itself. We sat down with him at EA's recent showcase event to talk about how he's doing this, and what sort of thing fans can expect from FIFA 07.
Eurogamer: So let's start with the obvious question. What's different about FIFA '07 compared to FIFA '06, FIFA '05, FIFA '04...
Joe Booth: There's a ton of differences. First of all there's me, I'm different. We're investing a lot in next-generation, and that's creating a lot of opportunities for new people to come in to EA. I joined EA in September to work on FIFA; before that I was at Ubisoft in Paris, doing shooters like Ghost Recon and stuff, and as I was looking around, the last place I expected to end up was doing sports games at EA.
But the methods I was learning at Ubisoft and the approach I was developing, I thought that would work for sports and I started to get excited and interested about it.
Eurogamer: So what was that approach?
Joe Booth: Well, I was starting to think, as a director, what is the experience you want the audience to have? What's that emotional range, what are your means of expressing that and giving it back to a gamer? So in shooters it was things like, if you've got a glass table, that would give you panic; if you've got a steel table, that would make you feel powerful. So it was trying to apply those kind of techniques for sport. I was using the archetype of glory-shame, really focusing on competition and highs and lows. I'm a Leeds United fan, so I know a lot about shame and a little bit about glory!
I really began to have a vision about how it could work and how I could do something new. So that's my background, and then when I joined EA, I built my team around people that were young and hungry and had something to prove within EA, had an attitude, a passion for football and a passion for videogames. I wanted to take risks, and I wanted to innovate.
Eurogamer: Would you say it's unfair, then, that EA is often criticised for failing to innovate, and for churning out what some would say are the same products with different boxes? Has that been your experience?
Joe Booth: I've been in videogames for almost 20 years, I started when I was 15, and I used to be a huge fan of EA games in the eighties - they were very progressive, it was all about Electronic Artists. I was a big fan of things like Seven Cities of Gold and Mule and stuff, and there was something magical about EA. As a consumer, I felt that they lost that towards the end of the eighties and the early nineties.
What I've found is that over the last few years, more and more people that I knew and respected were coming to EA, and were happy, and were doing creative things, and were innovating. They were saying, try it, you can do some good stuff here, and I was surprised at how open it is.
I think EA wants to change - I think it slowly is changing. If we'd had this conversation five years ago, I probably wouldn't have been from Europe, and I probably wouldn't have grown up watching football and playing football and most of my team maybe wouldn't have done.
Eurogamer: Are your team members mainly from Europe, then?
Joe Booth: We've got a big chunk of Europeans, an Argentinean, two dudes from Japan, a guy from South Korea; I think there's 19 different countries that people were born in, 18 different languages that they speak. We do have the odd Canadian and the odd American.
Eurogamer: What are the key features of this iteration of FIFA, then?
Joe Booth: The key things are the gameplay and interactive leagues, which is the new online feature. With the gameplay, we're trying to add that realism and that depth, so it's still unpredictable, it's still organic after 50 or 100 hours.
To do that, we're fixing things like the ball physics so the top spin and back spin, we've now implemented that properly this year. The ball's now more realistic and less predictable. The physics of the players, the acceleration curve, are much more realistic, and there's a lot more variety and realism in the physical interaction of the players. You really have to fight for position and to keep your position.
The shooting system - you can't just turn and shoot. Well, you can, but you're less likely to be on target, so it's all about having composure on the ball and on the button. It's about taking all those micro-challenges and situations and just going bang-bang-bang all the way through, adding detail.
I think we've done a great job; I think we've made the biggest improvement to FIFA gameplay ever. But, you know, I think we could still keep improving it, at least with a couple of iterations, just with this current-gen technology.
Eurogamer: Aside from the enhancements, were there any things from previous games you wanted to get rid of?
Joe Booth: At a high level, the predictability. When you're playing a sports game, and you can learn a pattern of how you can score or how you can get an advantage, you stop being immersed in the sports simulation, and you're playing a videogame. You're playing those strengths and weaknesses. So that's really what we're trying to take away. And it's hard!
Eurogamer: Have there been many changes to the multiplayer?
Joe Booth: Yeah, the biggest thing is the interactive leagues. This is an online game mode, where we're building interactive versions of the Premiership, the French league, Bundesliga and the Mexican league.
What this means is that if you're, say, a Man City fan, and they're playing Everton at the weekend, then the fixture will open up online on Thursday night. You'll be matched against Everton fans, and you'll play many fixtures over that window. At the end of Saturday night, the fixture will close, and the team that gets the most across all platforms gets the three points in the league.
Eurogamer: Is that feature just going to be in the current-gen games, or is it something that'll also appear in the 360 version?
Joe Booth: We're waiting to see about how far we take it for next-gen. It's a complex feature, and it's something that we want to build with our community; it's not something we want to rush. So we're not doing the Italian leagues or the Spanish leagues, because the online penetration isn't there. We may not - we're just deciding now whether to take it to next-gen, or keep it on current gen, and then build it over this year. We want to take our time with it and learn from it.
Eurogamer: How long after the current gen versions can we expect the next-gen versions of the game to arrive?
Joe Booth: I don't know that we've announced the dates yet.
Eurogamer: Can you talk about the differences between the current and next-gen versions?
Joe Booth: We're not here to talk about next-gen today. The big thing they're working on is a new engine for the gameplay.
Eurogamer: Do you play Pro Evo? What lessons have you learned from that?
Joe Booth: Yeah. When you talk to Pro Evo fans, I think they get engrossed in that simulation, and that's why it's got such a hardcore following. We're big fans of Pro Evo; it's great for the genre that you've got two strong products there. We're years ahead of some of these other titles. But at the end of the day, consumers win, it just makes the genre stronger. They learn from us, we learn from them, but I didn't go into this thinking, right, I'm setting out to beat Pro Evo, or to copy Pro Evo, or to be different from Pro Evo. I went out to create the best simulation I could with the technology base I've got and the team that I've got.
Eurogamer: Do you think online is the future for the series?
Joe Booth: Yes, but not necessarily in terms of virtual athletes, those dudes that want to be a virtual centre forward or whatever. I think that will happen, but online is also about being connected, being closer to the sport; interactive leagues is an example of the way we can take it.
Eurogamer: Can you tell us about how the PS2 version of this year's FIFA is going to work with the PSP?
Joe Booth: We've been working with the PSP group, so they've taken the manager mode for this year. We've done that in a way to make it 100 per cent compatible, so we've got a link between the PSP and the PS2, and you can start your manager mode on your PS2, transfer it onto your PSP, go on holiday for three weeks, play five seasons or whatever, come back and take that on the PS2. It works with all the little mini-games on the PSP as well, so you can use that to train your players.
Eurogamer: Can you see the FIFA series going on and on and on for years yet?
Joe Booth: Yes. A billion people watched the last World Cup final. There's just a huge appetite for football, and what we offer now is very narrow - it only appeals to people that want a twitch experience, that have a console or a PC or a handheld. I think there's a lot of sports fans out there who want an interactive experience.
FIFA 07 is due out on PS2, Xbox, Cube, PC, DS, GBA, PSP and mobile from September 22nd.