The big FIFA 20 interview
"We don't think it's gambling, we think it's a fun form of engagement."
There's quite a bit more to Volta Football, FIFA 20's new street-style small-sided mode, than we've been shown so far.
After EA's initial reveal on Saturday, I sat down with Matt Prior, FIFA 20's Creative Director at EA Sports, as well as Lead Producer Sam Rivera, lead Volta Producer Jeff Antwi, and Executive Producer Aaron McHardy, for a more in-depth look at both Volta mode and the 11-versus-11 sides of the game. There was also the chance to put some question to them about both - and plenty inbetween, including FIFA's business model, the persistence (and EA Sports' defence) of pay-to-win mechanics and loot boxes in Ultimate Team, and why it takes a full year for what feel like pretty critical updates to the flow of the game.
But first! Before all that, the things we actually learned about Volta mode and those eleven aside updates themselves.
Volta, I'm told, is "additive". By that EA Sports means that developers haven't been taken off any other parts of the game to make it. More people have been brought in and Volta goes on top of everything else in FIFA like some kind of nice street-cherry on the footballing cake (apart from the Nintendo Switch cake, that is, which is now a "Legacy" title and shall remain Volta-less).
Only Volta's kind of a cake of it's own (and that is as far as I'll be stretching the cake metaphor for it). You can play 3v3 with no goalkeepers, 3v3 with them, 4v4, or 5v5 with regulation futsal rules as an option, too. The teams are mixed between male and female players - the first time in the game's history, and something the team is keen to emphasise as it's "most diverse" mode yet (Prior mentioned the team have always been keen on bringing more women into the game but have been hamstrung by the actual regulations of football itself).
Volta's also split into two distinct sub-modes, too. There's the Kick Off Volta mode that'll let you use real-world players in mini versions of their teams - play with Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, Luca Modric and Sergio Ramos in 3v3 Rush, for instance, in a derby against Atlético - but that's pretty much that.
In the World mode, however, things are quite a bit more substantive. You create one player, your own avatar, at the start. They can again be male or female, with all kinds of options for their appearance from tattoos to clothes and footwear (unlocked with in-game currency or through completing challenges - more on that below). You then set up your home pitch, where you choose a set team size and pitch type.
This seems like one of the most interesting parts of Volta so far - how you set up your home pitch is a strategic decision. In World mode you'll play a kind of FUT Rivals-style League and in that League you'll play home and away matches against other players online. Your home match will be on your pitch, with your custom logo on it and your rules. The away match will be on theirs. So you could set yours up to be a 3v3 Rush game with no 'keepers, and no walls on the cage (meaning no using-the-wall-to-pass-to-yourself moves). And then you'd go away to the opponents and play five-a-side regulation game of futsal, walls and all.
The players on your team obviously play into that too - you'll want to try and set yourself up for a specific type of player to specialise in your home game, probably, and the way you do so sounds like this other big, interesting part of Volta. When you beat an opponent, you get to 'steal' one of their players (including their own avatar player if you fancy it), creating a copy and adding it to your squad for you to use.
What you want be able to do, however, is play Volta mode with more than one friend. You can do couch co-op with a pal who's next to you in person, but an EA spokesperson confirmed that that's your lot - or at least it is for now, as there's every chance Volta "will evolve over time".
Away from The Journey-replacing Volta mode, however, and the rest of FIFA 20's changes - at least the ones we know about - are very much under the hood. The big PR beat is the three balls - on the ball, off the ball, and the ball itself - where EA Sports has split its gameplay tuning into sections.
I played about a match and a half of FIFA 20 (in less than perfect conditions against a FIFA newbie, sadly), so take my impressions as very tentative at best, but the all of the lengthy bullet point lists of minutia (we've a FIFA 20 guide for those, if you're dead keen) add up to one obvious thing: the game is much slower.
Pace has been tweaked to make faster players feel like faster players, AI defending has been nerfed, and being in control of the ball has been tweaked to at least try to be more fun. The result of all that is the spacing of the players on the pitch has been spread out, in order to set up more "one-on-one" situations where you're not crowded out and bundled off the ball in the middle of the pitch.
The ball - subject of a physics rework - moves slower and less predictably, bobbling off the turf and your shins alike and moving according to its spin. Moving it around is more deliberate - attacks feel more like patient probing before a sudden cut through the backlines with in incisive pass, which is a plus. The more immediately identifiable set tactics of FIFA 19 are less identifiable (and, I suspect, probably less effective too), because swarming the opponent with a high press is suddenly a bit less swarmy. That's less of a plus - but like I said, very early days. (There's also a reworking of set pieces - both penalties and free kicks - but I only got to try one free kick in my demo which I obviously fluffed. The new system is intricate and complicated, but will probably shake out nicely after some practice.)
No comment on the state of the gameplay for now then, sadly. But there's plenty of comment from EA Sports on plenty of other things in and around the game. Here's what they had to say.
During the presentation you showed a screen with the customisation options for Volta. There was a currency there, that was GC?
Aaron McHardy: That's just a working title, we haven't finished building it - there's only one currency the Volta Coins, it's just we haven't updated the entire screen yet.
Matt Prior: GC was the working title.
AM: Grind currency - which obviously we're never gonna call it that! (laughs)
And how do you earn that, is it that purely through gameplay, can you buy that?
MP: Yeah purely through gameplay.
So are there any real-world money interactions you can have?
MP: Nope, we won't have MTX for launch. I mean we'll see how things happen in moving forward, but no MTX for launch.
So you're not ruling it out?
MP: We never rule anything out. Because we continuously evolve so never say never, but no nothing for launch.
In the league mode in Volta, are there rewards, FUT Rivals style? You mentioned it was sort of ongoing forever rather than having an end point so how does the reward system for that work?
MP: No we won't have the rewards mechanic as FUT Rivals do, what we do have is obviously the rewards via earning the grind currency and the challenges, and this player stealing, which is all part of that world. So, inherently there will be things where you can earn items by doing, but in terms of the kind of FUT Rivals mechanic of rewards no.
So in terms of the players - what's the kind of progression like for them, do they have their own player ratings, same set of attributes?
MP: So again, I'm happy to answer the question but we'll be getting into the nuts and bolts of the mode as we roll to campaign but yes, there is a robust player growth system element, where you grow your player through playing, through training, and there's also a kind of a whole 'trait tree' where you can unlock traits and then choose to grow your player in a certain archetype. I'm not gonna go into what it is but yes - and then when you go into the player stealing, so when you steal a player, you will steal a snapshot of that player, so the players around you don't grow, only you grow, so that encourages continually kind of improving and getting new players. So if you're an 80 and I steal you, you remain an 80, and if I play you again and you're an 85 I could steal that version of you.
Is there any downside to having one of your players stolen?
MP: No - you don't lose them.
Can you mix formats within the league? Like how you mentioned 3v3 no keepers on your home pitch?
MP: Yeah totally, so you will play a home and an away match, and that home and away format is dictated by who - so say yours is 3v3 and mine is 5v5 futsal, if I play away against you I'm playing 3v3, and if you play away against me you're playing 5v5. So as you're going around the world of Volta you're experiencing all these different - not only formats but environments, the look of the players, the logos
Jeff Antwi: And not to get too into the team management side of it too but you might be considering who you're acquiring from other teams based on if you have to play 3v3 or 5v5 or futsal or whatnot.
MP: And there's also a fairly rudamentary chemistry element to it to kind of teach that simple mechanic and that -
AM: But we're saying too much (both laugh).
MP: And that adds another element! Another reason to choose a player, it's not just about who they are it's that extra layer of that "oh no, he's better for my team because" - I'm not going to tell you what feeds into it but, there's an extra layer of depth so it doesn't just become oh "I'll just pick the highest rated player".
AM: We're saying way too much - but you get the scoop!
[After the 11v11 presentation] Do you think that there's a time where you'll come to things like defending or shooting and you can move on from I don't know, tweaking pace up and down up and down every year?
AM: Yes and no. So there are features, like for instance... I'm trying to think of a good way to give you an analogy... Do you remember I think it was FIFA 13 where we first introduced trap error into the game [when a player miscontrols the ball], I think it was First Touch Control, the feature name. Before that, there was no need for.. there was a need for your teammates to do a whole lot to close down the ball. The minute we added that there was a whole bunch of more features, in all other places, to keep the game in balance. But until that times, locomotion, defensive positioning, and all those things had probably been stable for two or three years and we hadn't touched them. But the invent of one system can then require and beget the inventing of a whole bunch of systems, so I don't think anythings ever gonna be the same in ten years as it is now, but there are things that are definitely stable. There are certain things that based on positioning and the spacial awareness on the pitch that warrant different tunings.
For instance one of the things we're working on this year is the pace of players, you brought it up, where fast players, really fast players, if you get two steps ahead of somebody, we want to do the work to make sure that you can take advantage of that, you're not getting caught up in a way that maybe you were getting caught up before. But that's actually a chain reaction from a number of dribbling changes, that have happened over the past four or five years, that at certain angles you actually slow down more than maybe you should. So it's always an evolution, I think the net result is that every year we're trying to get the perfect balance, where we feel like attacking and defending are equals, and you have the tools that you need to defend. But I don't think we're going to get to a spot where there's a system where we're like "we don't need to touch that for another decade" (laughs).
What I'm poking around here really is that there are elements that, in another service game, like Anthem to pick an EA one, that would just be addressed in a patch on, say, a monthly basis. They'd be tweaked as soon as you feel you can get to it and it takes as long as it takes and it's done. Whereas it feels like with FIFA, we have to wait until a new game comes out every September, in order to get these fixes, that might have been an issue for the full twelve months-
AM: No it's a good question, I think AI pressure's a very good example of the negative side of that conversation. I think with the little tweaks that we - we've done patching all throughout the year, up until very recently in gameplay to fix different things, whether it's finesse shots from 22 yards or different things that have been happening throughout the year. And we do patch things that we can change in isolation. Something like AI pressure requires a wholesale architecture of the gameflow, in order to solve it in a way that we feel the community wants us to solve it. If we were to just solve that without thinking about, okay now 1v1s are going to be a lot more prevalent, and we need to do all these "decisive moment" features that I've been speaking about, and doing without a load of other things then we can throw the game way out of balance. Like if we were to do that in 19, and tell your AI teammates to not come and help out, the scales would be tilted so heavily to attack that it wouldn't be a balanced game.
So there's some features that you've kind of got to wait until we rethink the whole picture, and then there's a lot of features all throughout the year that these guys are working on every week of the year, to try and make sure that, if there's something we feel needs to be addressed in the live game, we're gonna do that, if that makes sense.
So moving on to Ultimate Team - I play a lot of Ultimate Team and I do enjoy it - but it does still feel like a guilty pleasure playing it, because it is, almost by definition, a pay-to-win game mode. Do you feel satisfied that your players are coming into that, and a significant number of those are coming in at a disadvantage, because they're not spending as much as someone else?
AM: So, a number of things there. First, we're not supposed to talk about Ultimate Team so I'm not gonna get too deep into those answers, but I think it warrants an answer to the question. We've built Ultimate Team through the years on the premise that you don't have to spend a red cent to get anything in the game, and you can play it and without spending money you can get there. We understand obviously people do spend money in Ultimate Team, to chase content and do things like that. I want to talk about some mechanics that I can't talk about anything future-looking, but, fundamentally, we still believe that you know there are sections of the community that strive to not spend money in Ultimate Team, and just go out to try and compete, and are successful without spending money, and build - I don't know what the term that they use is for what kind of teams are - but there are people who do this and we know it can be fun. I know when I go and play Ultimate Team every year, I have access to people that can give me FIFA Points, and I always deny them (laughs).
That's very honorable of you...
AM: (laughs) No but I want to get the experience the way that it's meant to be, which is, not cheat and get FIFA Points because I work at EA and just buy all the best players. The reward in Ultimate Team is collecting that team and going after the chase and we still believe that that's one of the most fun ways to play the game. So, at the end of the day there's a choice for people who don't want to spend time to progress their team, but even still, you have to go through a process to get the players you want and whatnot, if you're gonna spend currency instead of time, that's a choice that we're giving people in that mode, because they want a certain incentive but, people who don't get every piece of content in that mode without spending a dime. And that's what lets us sleep at night when we build this mode. And stand behind it and be proud of it.
And the other thing that's still a conversation in the same sense is FUT packs, and that's a conversation that's probably not going to go away any time soon. Let's say the bill that's being proposed in the US at the moment, or the regulations in place in Belgium, are put in place in a major market like the US or the UK, do you have a backup plan in place for how you monetise FUT? Do you have a contingency plan?
AM: So, I won't speak of any future plans, but what I will say is - I know there's legislation talking about some of these things, especially related to gambling - we don't believe that what we have in Ultimate Team is gambling. In fact there's organisations that stand by us that don't agree with that as well so, we know that that is happening in politics around the world. If, for some reason, we were deemed to not be legal, we'd obviously react to that. But what we put out every single year we stand behind and we don't think it's gambling, we think it's a fun form of engagement for people to be able to interact with a video game in a pretty cool way. It would be a shame if the world deemed it something else as far as we're concerned! (laughs)
If and when that happened we would cross that bridge, obviously we're not gonna shut down a mode as engaging as Ultimate Team because the world loves to play it and we see that every year with the engagement numbers that we have and how many people are talking about it, whether it's on YouTube or Twitter or whatever, it's always some of the most engrossing content and highest-viewing content out there. So, we're gonna keep that going as long as people wanna play it.