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Xaor’s Corner: Automation

What should you, and shouldn’t you have control of in FIFA?

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Philosophy of Design

I’m a strong believer that good gameplay stems from a consistent philosophy about how the game should play. As a player who is fairly sure that he’s looking for a simulation, much of that philosophy, for me, is informed by “how it works in real life”. All the same, there are some areas where that doesn’t work all that well: there are some elements of football which I would rather not see simulated; there are others where following real life simply isn’t possible.

Cheats & Racists

We’re probably all more than usually aware right now about the nasty side of football. Racism, bad refereeing, and cheating are hot topics of discussion match after match, and while they are all real parts of football, they are also parts of football which should be left out of a simulation. I don’t want to lose a game because a referee fails to see the ball cross the line, nor do I want my player to go through a tabloid hurricane due to claims of racism, and nor do I want to lose out in the knockout stage of a major competition because a certain infamous Uruguayan decides to use his hands to block a certain goal.

Some, at least when it comes to cheating, might disagree with me. Perhaps they won’t go as far as recommending Hand of God style incidents, but there are plenty who call for diving, and even EA have condoned some level of cheating in FIFA 13 with wall encroachment. Personally I am happy that, unlike in real football, the clock stops for a dead ball situation, which prevents timewasting – in fact, I wonder why real football doesn’t follow suit.

Allowing any form of major cheating would make a mockery out of FIFA as a competitive game. I could perhaps see some exception to this in modes like manager mode, where cheating, or poor refereeing might add a further level of authenticity, but on the whole it is for the best that FIFA is devoid of officiating errors and cheats.

Further Design Philosophy Choices

The more intriguing questions for me are how you deal with the most inherent ways that FIFA differs from real football – the things which have to be true because FIFA is an interactive video game, not a non-playable simulation. Most obviously, EA have to condense a 90 minute experience into a 10-15 minute one.

It’s a challenge which can account for a lot – we want to play a match with goals six times as frequent as real life: a lot of sacrifices have to be made off the bat. This is not the question I’m focusing on here though. With this article, instead, I want to delve into the question of how FIFA is an interactive game, and how it is a simulation.

Coming up with a way to translate a sport which involves eleven players per team, to a game in which a single person can control the team using just a controlpad, is no easy task.

In the large, all major football games have had the same philosophy on this one. You control one player at a time, and the AI does the rest. This is as true of FIFA 13 as it is of FIFA International Soccer, Pro Evolution Soccer, or This is Football. There are variations – like Be a Pro – which lock you to a single player – but that overall schema is more or less omnipresent.

When you look to the more specific areas though, the differences in philosophy become a little more obvious. Certainly, if you compare PES and FIFA, there has always been a design split when it comes to personality. In PES, there is a much greater emphasis on the differences between players. FIFA has made some strides with this recently, particularly in emphasising physical differences, but it’s still lacklustre when it comes to the technical differences, and even more so with the mental ones.

FIFA, for better or worse, has always been the game where your performance on the pad is paramount, whereas in PES, making the right choices is emphased. Neither of these paths is correct – it really is a subjective question. All the same, getting the right balance is very important to a satisfying experience.

Automation versus Control

In a sense, this all comes down to a question of what you do, and don’t have control over. You can imagine two theoretical extremes – on the one side you have the perfect simulation of real football that you have no control over, but hardly a game. On the other, a game which you have total control over, but one where the authenticity is merely a paintjob. Even if these two extremes were possible to create, which they aren’t, it’s fairly obvious that neither of them would make for the best game.

In finding a really good balance between the two extremes, there are a lot of important considerations. The most important is simply feasibility: it isn’t currently possible to simulate a human on a football field, nor is it possible for us to fully control a simulated human, let alone eleven.

It’s also important that there is enough of a game to keep you occupied. Get too close to a “simulation” of a football match and you’re more spectator than participant. Get too close to a “simulation” of being a footballer, and the experience’s authenticity disappears.

In FIFA

This may all seem quite abstract, but actually I see people talking about this a lot, in comments, on Twitter, and on the forums. There is a huge amount of backlash against mechanics in FIFA which assist you, which act for you, and which take control away from you.

By necessity, FIFA does a lot for its player. In translating simple, digital button presses to the entire range of human motion FIFA is trying to interpret your wishes based upon context. At the lowest level, this includes the player deciding where to place his feet to turn, which obviously has to be. At high levels, it may be choosing where to aim for you. At it’s most extreme, it’s actually doing things autonomously.

So what does FIFA do for you right now? It controls all your non-selected players entirely. It aims your passes, your shots, and your crosses. It tackles for you. Contains for you. Clears for you. Intercepts for you. Blocks for you. Jostles for you. Shields the ball for you. Locks into the path of the ball for you. I could go on – it’s undeniable: FIFA does a lot for you. In defence, if you want, it will pretty much defend for you.

I’ve seen plenty of people saying that all of this is bad, that FIFA shouldn’t do any of it. That it simplifies the experience and makes it ‘for noobs’. Personally, I think this is hyperbole – I will happily argue that it should do many of the things listed above. Even so, I definitely agree that FIFA goes too far – though in some areas it probably doesn’t go far enough.

Assistance

I’ve discussed my feelings about assistance many times before in detail (here, and here), so I’ll be brief about them here. I’m a manual player – I think it’s far and away the best way to play FIFA. I think that the assistance settings available in FIFA are very poor, and that they reduce the user’s control far too much, and make many things unrealistically easy. The settings are also terribly balanced, so that an assisted user has an enormous advantage over an unassisted one.

For me, this is not because manual controls are always better than assisted ones – I just think that FIFA’s manual settings are far better than FIFA’s assisted ones. I actually have a lot of issues with manual controls – I’m thoroughly unconvinced that it’s the best way to deliver an authentic football experience. I think it massively reduces the potential for personality to come through in the game, and it makes FIFA a game where dexterity trumps “footballing IQ”.

I think some manual players are far too quick to dismiss the idea of assisted controls – and not ready enough to admit the flaws of their chosen system. In theory, the difference between the systems should be that in the assisted scheme, you indicate what you want the player to do, whereas in the manual one you are directly in charge of where they aim.

There is nothing wrong with either system in theory, but it is crucial for both systems that you have realistic error being applied, and it’s also crucial that the assisted scheme can interpret the user’s input well. FIFA does neither of those things. In both schemes you have far too little error, though this is made up for in part by user error in manual. Assisted controls give you far too little choice of how you pass, and very often misinterprets what you want anyway.

Automation can be necessary

What about clearances, interceptions, and blocks? I don’t really buy the argument that we should be solely in charge of these things. I absolutely believe that players should be automatically moving to intercept and block passes and shots which are close to them, for example, and I have no issue with the game clearing from me when things get scrappy.

I do not mind the game taking over in instances where speed is of the essence. Sometimes, you’re put in control of a player unexpectedly thanks to player switching, or you might not be able to see what is going on thanks to the camera. In these situations, we can’t react as fast as a real player would, and thus it makes sense for the game to take over. I’d even go as far as saying that I wouldn’t mind players automatically shooting in extremely scrappy situations.

What’s important to me is that the game only takes over when absolutely necessary. Most of the times the game clears for me, it does so when I was actually in control. Those few occasions where you really need it most, it tends to let me down.

Automation can be a nightmare

It’s really important that when the game does do something automatically, it does so in a way which is realistic. In most cases, when FIFA’s automation takes over, you get the benefits of the CPU’s high reaction speeds and near infallibility.

This is true of interceptions and blocks, but it’s especially true with tackling. Prior to FIFA 12 and Tactical Defending, I had a number of times proposed that automatic tackling should be removed in favour of a manual system. With Tactical Defending, though the press buttons were removed, and replaced by the contain buttons, and though we did get a ‘manual tackle’ button, we are still very much reliant on automated tackling.

I’m no longer convinced, as I once was, that it would be possible to remove automated tackling altogether. What is obvious to me is that in FIFA 13, the automatic tackling is wholly ridiculous and one of the game’s biggest problems. Again, it comes down to their tremendous reaction speeds and their near infallibility when making a tackle. Tackling on FIFA is still as simple as this: charge at a player, and you’ll almost always come out on top.

The reason charging in is so viable is that the defender reacts so quickly to the movement of the ball. In real life, if you sprint in, you are going for the high risk option. If the ball is moved as you commit, you’re liable to miss entirely or foul. Even if you do tackle the ball, you’re likely to have kicked it quite a way away. In FIFA though, it seems to just work it all out for you.

Let’s say you’re a centerback and the ball has just been passed to the striker you’re marking. In real life, you’d probably close up behind him and try to stop him from turning as he receives the ball. In FIFA, you can just sprint straight at him. Instead of crashing through the back of him and giving away a cheap freekick, your player will somehow manage to get around him, and probably nick the ball away. Even if the striker tries to turn as you go in, it will very often work out in your favour.

Once you’re playing with better teams with high tackling stats, particularly if there is a mismatch in strength, this becomes a total farce with insane tackle after insane tackle being made automatically, almost almost without error, by the CPU. It isn’t that they are automated, it’s that the automatic tackles are so good.

It’s very hard to know whether you could make a defensive system which removed automatic tackling altogether. It certainly isn’t necessary to go to an entirely manual system to solve the problems we’re having right now. What is absolutely necessary though, is the toning down of automatic tackling in FIFA.

Automation can be unnecessary

The situation is similar with contain. It’s simply far too good, and far too quick at following the attackers movement. Getting past a containing player, or getting a shot past them, is almost impossible because they react to your movement like a mirror. With contain, I think there is a much stronger argument that it’s actually unnecessary. If the jockeying mechanics were improved to be realistically responsive and the contain mechanics were nerfed so that it was less like a mirror and more like a human trying to mirror someone, then the contain mechanic might well become redundant.

Good positioning is the #1 thing when defending. To have a system which gets the game do it for you is not only unnecessary, but it also makes defending (in a more realistic, non pressure centric manner) a passive affair where you feel far less involved than when you’re attacking. Defending should be a satisfying experience when done well, right now it varies between being positively dull, unless you take the more active approach which tends to be completely detached from reality.

A better philosophy for Automation

As I said earlier, there is no ‘right’ amount of automation. FIFA is an example though of how automation can be implemented poorly.

1. Automated features must be true to the abilities of the footballers performing them

In almost every case, the automated elements of FIFA are too effective. In cases where there is a choice between doing it yourself and allowing the CPU to do it, the CPU is almost always better whether it is assisted passing or containing an attacker. In cases where there is no choice, the CPU will do it with near infallibility, and this is usually due to their seeming omniscience regarding what is about to happen, and their superb reaction speeds.

2. Areas which we cannot realistically control ourselves should indeed feature automation

There are some things which it is unreasonable to expect us to do. It would be unreasonable in my mind to expect us to block or intercept, and fortunately FIFA does help us out in those areas. However, there are areas where we are expected to do too much, particularly with the passive, error prone defensive AI.

3. There must not be so much automation that we lose reasonable control over events

We’re playing an interactive game, and we should be heavily involved. We should be expected to take control of things with in reason. Instead, we have a game which will position your player for you, because it’s so, so hard to move around yourself. Instead we have a game where the control assisted players have over passes is as simple as: who are you passing to, and is it a through ball or a direct pass. If you remove the ridiculous level of perfection with containing and assisted controls, you get left with two practically useless systems because they wouldn’t give you enough choice to do anything especially useful.

4. You should be able to override automation

Player switching in FIFA 13 is still pretty flawed, and this is particularly apparent for manual users. That it often gets it wrong though, is nowhere near as annoying as the game’s stubborn attitude when you try to fix it yourself. If I press player switch, I mean it. Currently, it will very often refuse to switch in these scenarios. Similar things can happen with some of the push & pull features. Far too often my player will start using his body to block someone off when I would prefer to just go and get the ball. I don’t mind it doing this automatically, but if I tell my player to go to the ball he should go to the ball.

Conclusion

I think it’s pretty clear that FIFA goes too far when it comes to automation. Automation is not the devil – it has a massive place in any sports simulation – but in FIFA there is far too much automation in areas where it is unnecessary, and sometimes the reverse is also true. It, as much as anything, leaves us with a game which is difficult to play realistically, usually because there are effective but unrealistic alternatives based around exploiting automation.

There are plenty of reasonable questions about whether FIFA finds the right balance between control and personality and about what we really are doing with our controllers in FIFA. Before those questions can really be broached though, FIFA’s problematic implementation of automation needs to be dealt with.

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