As you'll read elsewhere on the site today, being all in love with us and everything, FIFA 08 is taking shape, and it's a shape we like. It's taking ball physics and simulation to new levels of fanciness, introducing a control-one-player-only mode, and developing a skill-blending system that could rival the best beat-'em-ups for versatility of gaming expression. Among many other things. Having shown us the game and let us play around with it, producer Joe Booth sat us down in one of EA Canada's swanky boardrooms and answered some more of our silly questions.
Eurogamer: What are the best and worst things about having the FIFA brand?
Joe Booth: The best thing is that stamp of authority - I think that's the best thing and that's the worst thing, actually, in that it can make us appear businessy, the guy in the suit, predictable. That's one of the things we've been trying to shake.
Eurogamer: Do you ever get emails or phone calls from footballers demanding you make them thinner or taller or anything?
Joe Booth: We haven't. Some of the North American sports [games] get into some argy-bargies. We haven't had it yet.
Eurogamer: Do you think there are better solutions waiting to be found for things like pressing the ball and making that feel interactive, or are you comfortable with the direction you've taken?
Joe Booth: I think we'll challenge ourselves to always innovate on that. If you break football down into micro-challenges, especially when you're on the ball there's very few. There's dribbling versus defending, there's passing versus defending, and shooting versus goalkeeper, so. We need to continue to refine those micro-challenges and reinvent how we approach them.
Eurogamer: What kind of tools does the recent technology shift give you to attack that?
Joe Booth: It gives us the ability to be more organic in the animation system so rather than being constrained to something that we've motion-captured we're now able to organically branch and to adapt that. And I think we'll get better and better. We're starting to see some new technology. We have this system here called "Anne", which was the animation system the guys first built for FIFA. What we've seen is that other teams have taken it and they've innovated that in new ways, so we had NBA Homecourt do the branching system for their product, and then we're starting to see some more subtle way that that gets... it kind of uses physics, but within an animation, so we'll definitely see some more innovation with it.
Eurogamer: Do you ever feel restricted by the need to make the games look more realistic, and feel like going the other way?
Joe Booth: I'm not sure for FIFA itself. I think what we've seen is that every time we've brought a new product to market in the football genre it's been successful, so there seems to be more and more appetite for football games. And the market seems to continue to grow and surpass our expectations. I think for FIFA when I look at art direction I'm trying to look in a different way rather than just reproducing broadcast or reproducing real life. I'm trying to ask how that art direction affects the emotion we want someone to feel at that point. The more we can shift things and make them a bit more dynamic, that will please me because I'll be able to use it more artistically.
Eurogamer: One of the things talked about during your motion capture session in Barcelona last week was the "uncanny valley" effect - in essence, that the more humanlike something is, the more you notice the things that aren't right, and the more you're put off. How close do you think you are to overcoming that?
Joe Booth: I still think we've got some way to go. Just because of the cameras that we use, and even the new cameras - the "Be A Pro" [over the shoulder] cameras - you're still behind the player so you're not necessarily seeing what's going on on their faces. What we find a lot of the times is that when we freeze and really go into stuff it can look great in one frame but it can look weird the next. The things I would like us to get to is how to use the player animation to provoke emotion; to use them as actors as well, so when you see a celebration that's more organic on the way they express themselves, or you see them running, feeling fatigued, or frustrated. These systems are more into the animations we have and increasing the facial animation system to be able to do that.
Eurogamer: Were you ever tempted to just back away from the faces?
Joe Booth: We're [literally] much further away from faces than other games anyway, and the system that we use - we call it "non-interactive sequence", like when you score a goal - that's still scripted and we'd like to get to a point where that can be organic in the game engine, and can tell more of a story of what's going on as opposed to something we capture in the motion-capture studio.
Eurogamer: Moving on to the subject of your competition, do you talk to the Konami guys?
Joe Booth: Yeah, Kaz [Makita - one of the FIFA developers] does when he goes over to Tokyo, so he was over there a couple of weeks ago and he had a name of someone that worked... one of the producers there, so he gave them a call and his counterpart that does the gameplay for Seabass, they went out and had a coffee.
Eurogamer: Did you bug him?
Joe Booth: It was sort of like the KGB versus the CIA, yes. A very caged conversation. But yeah, I think there's a bit of mutual respect there. We have huge respect for Konami.
Eurogamer: Master League remains one of its most appealing hardcore elements of Pro Evolution Soccer. Does FIFA have an answer to that?
Joe Booth: In terms of this year, the Manager Mode that we have will get to the depth of having the 30 leagues. We're also bringing back the tournament mode, being able to create tournaments. We're not doing something as such to try and do Master League. We may find ourselves going into that direction a little bit. My sense is that we'll probably try and do something that's more connected, or online, long-term.
Eurogamer: It's interesting that you've been talking about the single-player-control "Be A Pro" mode. One of my questions was to begin by pointing out that it's not since Libero Grande that we've had the one-footballer control, and the question was do you think it's something football games will ever tackle effectively. So I suppose now it's, how effectively do you think you'll be able to tackle it?
Joe Booth: At this moment it's still speculative. I think until we get the gameplay balance, we won't have a sense of how well we've done, and I think we're going in with an open mind so we're not trying to position this as the main new feature of FIFA. We haven't thrown all the resources at this. We haven't built this whole lifestyle mode around it. We get that there's a fantasy around playing as a single player, and we get why that could be appealing, and we get that it's a step to this 11 versus 11. But we need to be cautious and learn and get feedback as we go along.
Eurogamer: How far do you think we are from 11 versus 11, particularly over the Internet?
Joe Booth: We have some technology that could probably scale quite quickly. I think it would be slightly worse than the current experience. But what we're trying to get to is something that feels like offline. And that feels like it's at least a cycle away.
The problem is, the difference between a football game and a first-person shooter in terms of multiplay is that in an FPS you don't have the players colliding together, and so you don't have to resolve an instant collision. And that's a key component of football. So when you have that much interaction going on, I don't know how easy it is for us to solve that. We've got some work going on around that that's very sort of high-brow, predictive stuff. And we'd love to get there for 09. But definitely for 10, to try and get something for the World Cup. So we're working on different solutions to solve at different times. There's something called 'predict and correct' which FPSes use, that can run a local model and a server model. And if the local model gets out of synch it has to resolve that. So that can work for most of the time, but then it's dealing with those circumstances when it's wrong, because if a goal happens it's quite major.
Eurogamer: The generic boring interview question about PS3 development versus 360. Any comment to make about it?
Joe Booth: It's almost like people have been very anti-PS3 in the media. I don't think it's as bad as we've made out as developers. What I think it is, is it's just expensive. We've had a huge investment. I don't think we've added any 360-specific rendering features this cycle. Certainly the visuals have got better through better use of the technology, but it's all been about optimising and making it work for the PS3. So we hit 60 frames-per-second about a month ago, about five months out from launch. Which is actually three months ahead of the engine last year. So we didn't hit it on 360 until two months out from launch. And that's only because we started so early on it and we put in so much investment, and we had a really early milestone; 'we have to get to 60fps on PS3', and they kept missing that so they couldn't do all these fancy rendering things on top. The other side of it was that we always had the PS3 in mind. We understood the architecture from day one as we were rebuilding the gameplay systems. So we always had that distributed processing architecture in mind for these systems.
Eurogamer: Will there be any substantive differences between the two versions?
Joe Booth: No. The goal that we have is that they'll feel the same and glance-look look the same. And any visual difference will be very, very minor. We're not trying to do additional stuff for either platform at this point.
Eurogamer: How much control do you have over the schedule for FIFA games? Are you able to push a game back if you're not happy?
Joe Booth: It's not impossible to do that. FIFA 07 - that launched later in the cycle that we typically would do. I think our current management has been successful within the constraints of EA of doing that. So we didn't have a PS3 title at launch, and we moved it out last year. And that was almost unheard of within EA, of not having a FIFA for a console launch. I think the bottom line with EA is you've got to nail the business predictable side and do the creative. If you come in with the attitude that you're just going to do one, then you're going to fail. What's refreshing here is the senior management - they are all gamers, they do all want the quality.
Eurogamer: You mean the management here in Vancouver?
Joe Booth: And in Worldwide Studios. So it's not run by accountants. There are certain suits in the organisation like there are in anywhere, and it's certainly more fiscally aware than any other studio or publisher that I've worked for, but the expectation is that you do need to get to quality.
Eurogamer: The way it was portrayed in the media was that it was a big exclusive for Xbox. So was it just a natural thing?
Joe Booth: I think there were a number of factors going into that. We had questions of whether PS3 would make their commitments. We had questions of whether it was the right thing to do to have a team focus on PS3, doing a launch title and a new engine coming out on 360. And then there was an opportunity of doing an exclusive with Microsoft. So I think it was those factors working together. The way EA works is it's not just got one master guy plotting the whole organisation, it's kind of movements of opinion. So there was those things aligning to make that happen.
Eurogamer: And, on behalf of my editor, are Norwich City back in?
Joe Booth: Yes. Leeds first, and then we got Norwich back in.
Joe Booth is producer on FIFA 08 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. You can read more of what he had to say in our extensive hands-on feature coming soon.