Change is easy to promise, but much harder to deliver. The pleading husband, as his long-suffering wife threatens to walk out, insists he'll change; things will be different this time if only she'll stay. Why should she believe him?
So it is with PES. The fanatical devotion Konami's football series has inspired in fans has been a virtual love affair of breast-beating intensity. But the gnawing sense of late that it has let itself go has tried the patience and passion of even its most ardent devotees. As they remorsefully turn away and into the arms of a pouting rival, PES promises to change. Why should we believe them?
The reality of this change could not be clearer as I step inside Konami's headquarters in Tokyo, an imposing skyscraper in Midtown housing 2000 of the company's top talents. Kojima Productions is based here, as is the ever-palpitating Dance Dance Revolution team. This is the first time Konami has invited Western journalists into the heart of its operation, to see where and how its games are made.
Barely a week goes by without a European or American studio exposing its mind, body and soul to the press, but in Japan this level of access is still a big deal. Indeed, it's taken years of internal wrangling to reach this point, I understand; and it's fallen to the PES team to usher in this apparent new era of openness.
A major step for Konami, then, and one Shingo "Seabass" Takatsuka, the redoubtable producer of PES, realises is a crucial part of the reinvention of his series. Another part is his own frankness about where it's been going wrong.
"We are always challenged to make a change," he says, speaking through a translator. "In order to make the game feel like PES, this perhaps became an excuse for not making enough changes. This time our hidden slogan is 'break what is PES' - we wanted to take the change much further and we wanted to make the next step." To avoid misunderstanding, he adds: "We get asked if we'll lose the feeling of PES. I assure you this feeling will never be lost."
Strikingly, Seabass pinpoints the beginning of PES's problems at the advent of new consoles. "As the leader of the team, I really wanted to create PES 2011 at the start of the current generation of consoles," he reveals. "But from the PS2 to PS3 that timing was very difficult for us; probably we were not prepared enough. Looking back our team spirit needed a change as well at that time."
He adds: "We were running in many different directions; today I think we're pretty much stable on which direction we should go. We're not shy of saying we made our mistakes in the past, but we want to use that to give back double, even triple the expectations of our users today. I think we can do that with PES 2011."
'Change' and 'Freedom' are the key themes of PES 2011 for Seabass. He arrives at the initial presentation in buoyant mood, all smiles and handshakes as he leads us through this season's instalment. "The game isn't finished, but I want everyone to play it and give feedback".
It's by far the earliest the game has ever been shown to the press, a brave decision and another facet of the Change Agenda, inviting comment and criticism at a point where there is still sufficient development time to accommodate anything that resonates.
We're shown gameplay clips from PES 2010 followed by this year's version to highlight changes and improvements. Defence, Seabass notes, "has changed massively". Using the dash button to close down and press the player with the ball has been replaced by a three-pronged system using the X button (it's all PS3 in Japan) and directional input.
Hold X while directing the stick towards your goal to hold up play, a relatively passive option that makes it difficult for the attacker to pass you. The second option is simply to hold X and release the stick entirely. This stops your player and, if timed correctly, will halt the advance of the guy charging at you with the ball.
Finally, moving the stick towards the opponent while holding X results in a more aggressive effort to retrieve the ball. This is familiar to PES, but with greater risk attached, says Seabass - if the attacker anticipates your lunge he can pass you more easily.
In tandem, physicality assumes greater significance on the field as players jostle for the ball, with the aim to make players consider more the attributes of the player they are controlling and the best tactics to employ during these encounters. The essence of PES 2011 for Seabass is found in these one-on-one moments. It's the feature he cites to distinguish the experience from its main rival.
"FIFA is probably simpler because they have the overall gameplay balance just like we used to have - but the basics of football are one-versus-one, the ball carrier versus the defender," he explains. "So if you really want to go in deep, which we have, I think you'll get a more realistic flavour of this basic football element."
This has implications for attacking too, with the feints system overhauled. These tricks can still be performed manually using button/stick combinations; but there's the option now to automate and chain moves together into combos.
"I always thought in all of our games like PES and FIFA, feints were just used to show off," Seabass says. "What I wanted to do in PES 2011 was to make the feints and dummies useful to the player. I didn't want to make the controls super-difficult. In PES 2011 I was able to make the user perform these feints quite easily. At the same time if you overuse it there's a high risk - so it's more fun when combined with the defending I described."
Feints, then, work by holding L1 and using the right stick, with different approaches mapped to up, down, left and right. Aiding and abetting is a reworked animation system, with Konami claiming some 1000 new animations in PES 2011, equating to over 100 hours of motion capture in the studio's on-site facility.
In response to criticism that last season's "360 degree control", er, wasn't (it was 16-way), Seabass illustrates improvements here with a video of 2010 Messi versus this season's thrusting goal genie.
"For unique players like Messi, R1 dash dribble has changed dramatically in PES 2011," he explains. "He is now able to go in any direction; you can also see small touches just like real life. It's never been implemented well in our games before. Now it's properly reproduced."
Out of a roster of around 6000 players, there are only 15 "stars" - like Messi - with magic feet to bamboozle, befuddle and blind. Yet their pirouetting, pretentious ways remain fallible - balance, in other words, is preserved - through smart application of the new defensive techniques.
Elsewhere, the renewed focus on freedom is another product of the team's painful but necessary process of self-examination. "We've been developing PES for over 10 years since PlayStation 1," Seabass muses. "Every time we release a new version we've found that the freedom of the game has gradually disappeared. We maybe made it too complicated."
This manifests itself most clearly in passing, which, in tandem with a reworked shot power gauge, affords "unlimited freedom of passing" according to its creator.
Every pass or shot performed in PES 2011 brings up a power gauge on screen, which is situated in open play directly beneath the player so it is always in focus. Making use of this while holding L2 and pressing a pass button, the ball can theoretically be sent wherever you want it to go.
The team has clearly looked back in considerable detail over the history and development of PES to trace how it got here and where it needs to go. One unexpected side effect is the return of a long-forgotten feature: game speed.
"In PS1 days there was an option to change the game speed," Seabass recalls. "I looked up how long it was before I decided to have this back and it was about 12 years ago the last time. I've put it back in this year."
In practice, you can change the speed at any point via the pause menu, from -2 to +2, with zero being the regular setting. The difference between the extremes is clear enough and while its ultimate utility remains to be seen, its inclusion can be no bad thing and gives an extra way to tailor the experience to taste.
When it comes to playing the game, the flipside to being treated to an unprecedentedly early showing becomes apparent, with many features yet to be implemented and others not working as they should. The feint system, for example, at present produces looping, sliding animations that are clearly unfinished, and tackling hasn't been fully worked in, making it hard simply to get a foot in.
These aren't criticisms, of course: it's simply not possible to make any meaningful qualitative judgements on such elements at this stage. What is possible with this build is to get a decent feel for the ebb and flow of a game, the new power gauge, redone throw-in system, game speed, passing freedom and so on.
The latter could well prove to be the most significant addition. Experiencing it at first is to realise how much the playing of PES has been, if not on autopilot then certainly in a comfort zone of familiar ease. Which is a roundabout way of saying I end up blasting the ball to row Z and beyond in my early attempts to precision-place a pass.
But further experimentation yields rewards and the flexibility becomes engagingly apparent the more I practice. Konami's claim of total control over the direction and destination of passes holds up; the one potential downside is the need to rely on AI with no apparent way to send a free player into the space for which you're aiming.
Off-pitch, a drag-and-drop system tidies up tactical tweaking of player positions from a manager's-eye view. Meanwhile, automated switches can be set up to change tactics according to certain conditions. For instance, you could set it so that a 2-0 lead initiates a defensive strategy to preserve the lead; or so that going 1-0 down triggers a more pressing mindset as you push for the equaliser. This can also apply to formations, and should save a lot of menu fiddling while maintaining a realistic flow to a match.
The licence issue is always a sticky one for PES and at this stage it's too early for any concrete news on developments in this area other than a "yes" - that there will be new licences added. Watch this space.
And then there's Master League Online. A massive feature that's been a long time coming, sadly we're shown nothing of this, but we are assured that it's another vital part of the team's desire to change and improve - in this case an acknowledgement that online play hasn't quite cut it to date. Seabass also teases us with the promise of a further major "surprise" to come. But that's all he's saying for now.
The PES community is vast, deep and outspoken, and Konami rightly pays lip service to fans, insisting it now listens more closely than ever. An example of this, shared with us by PES European Team Leader Jon Murphy - his community-facing role in itself symbolic of this - is with nets. Yes, nets. A minor point to most of the universe, but enough fans have asked for the ability to edit the net style and so I'm assured it's now on the team's agenda (although that's not confirmation it'll make it into this year's version).
Seabass' team's passion for the beautiful game remains utterly undimmed. On my last night in Tokyo a few of us are taken out for drinks by senior members of the team. The language gap is unbridgeable for the most part; but in a wonderfully charming backstreet bar that might as well be (come to think of it, might actually be) someone's living room, at a table with a computer terminal, the exec producer beams with delight as he plays us YouTube highlights of great footballers: Zola, Ronaldo, Weah. Suddenly, we're all on the same page.
It's a side that has been sadly hidden from view before now. But for PES to move forwards and stem the flow of FIFA converts, reconnection with its fanbase is vital. And that connection will always be strongest on the pitch.
The PES team has, of course, claimed each year of this generation that its new game would be the profoundly improved, overhauled masterpiece footy fans crave. However, here in Japan the mood this time is unmistakably one of genuine, self-aware change. Whether that is, at last, the change PES needs and fans demand, we'll see more clearly over the coming months.
Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 is due out for PC, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii and Xbox 360 this autumn.