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Xaor’s Corner: Gamescom

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Gamescom has been used by EA to stage the last round of major announcements for FIFA in the last few years, and 2012 was been no different. On Tuesday via Andrew Wilson, David Rutter, and EA’s official Twitter account, we got the final pieces of the FIFA 13 puzzle.

We discovered the all important demo release date, got details on how FIFA 13 incorporates Move functionality on the PlayStation 3, but most importantly we got a huge number of details regarding online functionality. As a player of FIFA who spends his time mostly in multiplayer modes, offline and on, I was anticipating the gamescom announcements almost as much as the gameplay ones which kicked off the year. So what did we discover?

Ultimate Team & FIFA’s Future

I’m not going to talk much about the actual Ultimate Team improvements/changes, because I try not to talk about what I don’t know. I’ve never really got into UT, and so it’s hard for me to judge these improvements. I do want to open a discussion about Ultimate Team within FIFA. I think a lot can be inferred from the way EA handled their presentation. First, Andrew Wilson came on stage to talk briefly about FIFA Online 3, but quickly moved onto Ultimate Team. As much as making announcements about anything new, there was emphasis to explain and advertise FIFA Ultimate Team to the audience. The statistics are awesome: 92 billion coins spent, 30 million trades made, and 380 million games played on FIFA 12 alone.

Perhaps more than anything, it reiterates what we already knew: EA really, really want you to play this mode. Contrast that with the attitude to Clubs, which got not a single mention at EA’s presentation, nor in its trailer and you get an idea where EA’s focus lies. Ultimate Team isn’t FIFA’s most popular mode by any stretch – David Rutter revealed that over a billion games of Head 2 Head Seasons had been played and we know that some offline modes are more popular still – but because this mode gives FIFA an additional revenue stream it seems to not just be additionally important but ultimately the most important.

As well as receiving top billing at gamescom, it also means it gets a lot more attention from EA throughout the year. Anyone who follows any of EA’s main PR accounts will have this reinforced hourly the vast, vast majority of tweets regard the various and constant promotions in UT, and issues with the UT experience seem to be dealt far more attention than issues in any other part of the game. It’s slightly embittering for me because I wish the same attention was afforded to the modes I care about, but I’m more concerned about the trend of microtransactions and what it will mean for FIFA’s future.

They are quite clearly making an absolute fortune with the mode, and doing so in a way which is very cheap to them. Each additional purchase on UT is almost pure profit, and it allows EA to get a lot more than just the retail price out of their gamers. You can’t blame them for it – but you’ve got to be wary that EA will surely want to achieve similar success in other modes too. It’s nice that the integrity of the other modes is so far preserved – nothing hurts the fairness of an online experience more than a ‘Pay to Win’ formula, but EA are going to be increasingly encouraged to attend to it at the expense of other modes.

So is it possible that EA could go further with these microtransactions? Yes, but it’s not easy, and that’s probably the only reason it hasn’t happened already. The difficulty is that what makes UT profitable is also what makes it such a love/hate mode. I primarily see two explanations for why someone wouldn’t play UT, and I share them both. First, it is the most divorced mode from real football – about designing unrealistic fantasty dream teams and trying to maximise an equally unrealistic chemistry algorithm – but second it is a mode best described as spend to win – and personally that’s an instant turn off.

Now, I know plenty of people will say that you don’t have to spend money and you can still do very well by profiting from the trading markets. That’s absolutely true of course, but, for me this is just a grind. Trading cards, especially in such a repetitive manner, just doesn’t seem enjoyable to me. I want to play – not waste time so I can play. If it was a proper management minigame, like you might imagine in an online Career Mode, I’d have no problem obsessing over getting my team right, but when it’s a card game with no bearing on reality and one where your team’s quality is going to be governed mostly by how much time you’re willing to put into trading, it doesn’t interest me.

When I was younger, I used to be pretty addicted Everquest 2. Like with almost all MMOs, a large proportion of time playing is devoted to grinding, which I’ll define as doing something not inherently enjoyable for the pursuit of a goal perceived as enjoyable. At some point, I had an epiphany which saw me stop playing MMOs for good – I had realised that I was spending a lot of time doing something I didn’t actually like doing for very meagre rewards, and that isn’t what I want to do when I’m playing games.

In fact, grinding is something I now try to avoid at all costs. I have to be enticed by a very big reward in a game before I’ll take an unenjoyable path and I believe strenuously that it’s bad game design. In the context of FIFA, the grind is having to play the UT trade markets for profit so that you can then, in the end, build the team you want. I am totally aware that a lot of people do not consider that a grind – in fact, the trading element is a lot of what makes UT popular. For me though, it is what makes it intolerable, and I know many feel the same way.

The difficulty though, is that most successful “freemium” models do work off the basis of pay or grind. If the grind is enjoyable enough, then people won’t pay, and as such it encourages the game designer to ensure enough of a grind to entice people to pay instead. So the sticky issue is that while our favoured modes are not fettered by microtransactions they will not receive the attention we feel they deserve, but, frankly microtransactions done wrong would hurt them far more.

When (again, not if) Peter Moore’s recent prediction regarding FIFA becoming ‘free-to-play’ becomes true, we’ll have to hope that EA will try to profit through methods which do not include any kind of ‘Pay to Win’, and hence no arbitrary grind either. It feels a bit strange to hope for a subscription or pay-as-you-go or pay-per-mode system, but if that’s the way it’s going to, it’s definitely better than UT’s style of microtransaction and Pay to Win.

EASFC: Match Day

Enough of doomsaying: this was meant to be about gamescom, and fortunately for me, it wasn’t all about UT. A year ago at the 2011 gamescom, we heard for the first time about EA Sports Football Club. I distinctly remember how underwhelmed I, and frankly most of the online community was at the announcement, and with the clear exception of the EA Sports Challenges, similarly underwhelmed with the EASFC features in the game.

I always have a slight smirk when I hear lines like the “heartbeat of FIFA” about EASFC. Perhaps though, with Match Day for FIFA 13, it might start to ring true. I’m not particularly excited with either the ‘Games of the Week’ or ‘Live Fixtures’ – I can already do all these things in FIFA 12 if I want, but I suppose having the game actively encouraging you to play these high profile matches and your team’s next few fixtures can be no bad thing. The form updates are a far bigger positive. Live Season had brought similar updates since FIFA 09, but behind a paywall, so this is a major step forward.

In the presentation, we got shown a video replicating the Premier League’s final day matches. This was probably the presentation’s lowest point for me. No club in the world annoys/(revolts) me more than Manchester City, but watching a clip of that last minute Aguero goal sees the hair on the back of my end stand up watching FIFA’s version of this not only didn’t do much for me, it made the contrasting lack of emotion in FIFA that much more blatant.

Explaining the lack of emotion in FIFA would take weeks, but to pick on one thing alone, just compare the commentary on that final, all important goal. In FIFA, it’s matter of fact, in real life, it’s just so raw. The greatest, and most memorable commentary always comes from those moments when the commentator is truly taken by the moment – this almost never happens in FIFA, and nothing takes you out of the moment quicker after an important goal than the commentator talking about it with similar excitement to a description of what he had for breakfast.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no expectation of FIFA ever being able to make me feel what real football can make me feel, but FIFA’s presentation truly is miles away, and it didn’t help that the actual events in the game looked nothing like what happened in real life. It reminded me of a trailer used to advertise F1 2011, which successfully recreated the events of the first half of the F1 season. FIFA is a very long way away from being able to pull that kind of feat off.

FIFA Seasons

Fortunately, there were more announcements from the presentation, namely some upgrades to H2H Seasons, which now seems to have been slightly renamed as FIFA Seasons. They’ve reimplemented the local co-op that existed pre Seasons (naturally talked up as a new feature rather than a reimplementation), something to aim for above mere promotion, the ability to save team management settings, and a lot of improvements to search options.

I’m most pleased to see that there are improvements to the matchmaking based on team choice. My hope is that the new system will expand around the numeric team ratings rather than the star level, though there is no confirmation on the precise method yet. Complaints about the continual drudgery of playing Real Madrid, Chelsea, Man City (etc) are almost as common as any other, and I think this one change will solve a large portion of that problem.

It may not be enough though. No longer matchmaking based on the incredibly low fidelity star brackets will improve things, but it won’t solve them. You’re still advantaged by choosing the best teams because you can never be matched against a better team, and the best teams are more popular naturally. Those two things mean that on average, those not using the super teams will, on average, still come up against more teams which are better than theirs than worse. Due to that, there will always be an upward pressure encouraging people to choose better teams.

My hope is that while it will still be imperfect, it just might be good enough. If it isn’t, a more radical fix will be in order. At the very least though, it will be much, much better than last year. All in all then, the upgrades to the online are solid, but nothing extraordinary I had sort of hoped for more.

First, the calls for a proper dedicated 2v2 mode have been persistent and I was surprised to not see them answered yet again, especially when it could be done with some presumably very simple tweaks to the Online Team Play settings. Secondly, I had been hopeful that we’d see a more substantial upgrade to Head 2 Head Seasons, because since I saw the idea (detailed below) for the first time I have been sure it was the best way forward.

The idea is, basically, that for each season you would be locked to a single team of your choosing, and you would then have to deal with fatigue, suspensions, and injuries. In effect, making a proper season out of it. It would have the doubly exciting effect of for the first time adequately punishing players for abusing fatigue and making rash 90th red card tackles with no real punishment. It’s not my idea originally, but as a major supporter of this I’d love to know what you all think about it.

Virtual Pro Clubs

The presentation ended with all the above features announced and detailed, which did have me more than a bit worried about the future of Clubs. Fortunately, because I was slightly doing my nut, EA started to tweet out some details about the Clubs improvements. As each announcement was made, my smile grew it was like they were going down a list of things I was looking to hear.

Online Pros to prevent boosting and hacking. Check. Matchmaking options to deal with the ANY/No ANY problem. Check. Goalkeeper balancing and a filter for human keepers. Check. Check. The Seasons format incorporated into Clubs. Check. Tuning to the stats of a max rated VP, and tuning to the ratings of CPU teammates. Check and check.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a list of an improvements for FIFA, or perhaps any game which was so similar to what I would have prescribed – the things I’ve been looking and asking for and almost nothing else – and it’s yet another instance which proves very clearly that EA do listen. Every single one of the things on that list of changes is in response to a common complaint – quite a few of these are things which precisely match the suggestions I have made over the last few years.

This shows what the community can achieve together – on forums, on blogs, on twitter, from community sites like the FVPA, and so forth – when we are persistent in (constructively) arguing the case for what we feel we need.

We haven’t got some of the more exciting changes that people may have wanted – I know that a lot of Clubs players have been hoping for serious customisation improvements which we have not got, and I was personally hoping for a revamp of the Virtual Pro system. Those are changes which were wanted, but not needed. So we have got the necessities, and maybe that doesn’t sound like something to cheer about, but how many times have EA chosen to implement something gimmicky above the bare necessities before?

So where will these changes leave Clubs? This should certainly make a big difference to some really problem areas. No more hacking, which is great, but it should also make it much harder to boost as well. Boosting now will presumably require playing of Pro Ranked Matches or boosting as a Club – not impossible but so much more awkward than it was in FIFA 12 that only a minority will still do it.

No longer will it be a game of super players and nimrods, making for an imbalanced parody of real football. Instead, we’ll have a game where the Virtual Pros are merely an important participant – key players still, but not the whole team. This should bring Club’s gameplay more into line with the way FIFA plays generally, and hopefully it will reduce the viability of exploitative tactics like the 5-2-1-2 formation which sees you in effect playing against three superpowered attackers and seven defenders: no longer will the CPU teammates be so easily dominated.

Crucially, there are also changes to human goalkeepers. Banning assisted is a critical move – you might ask how much of a fuss we’d have to make to get the same extended to assisted passing! We’ve also got a couple of brand new filters so that we can choose whether we want to play against an ANY, a goalkeeper, both, or neither. So long as this doesn’t over fracture the population, it’s hard to see a downside here either. I’ve seen some people question this: why do we need a human GK filter if the keepers are fixed? My guess is it’s a matter of caution – banning assisted might not be enough, so this is the safer option. If the keepers are indeed balanced well enough this year, then the filter should surely be removed come next year.

I do think it’s important to not add filters carelessly, because there is always the danger that you’ll fragment the community, but I’m pretty confident the Clubs population will be sufficient to cope with these filters.

Finally, the Seasons format has been implemented for Clubs. This is great – I always felt this structure fit Clubs even better than Head 2 Head, as there is no need to worry about team star fairness, so I expect this to work a treat. It will be a great improvement on the dull game-after-game bore that we’ve had for the last three years. To fight for promotion and against relegation adds a lot of meaning to the solo affair, but with a team of friends or companions it will be that much more meaningful.

Virtual Pro Clubs has been hurt by many problems since its inception in FIFA 10, but the changes made in FIFA 13 should make a significant improvement to all of those areas. With the basics finally in order Clubs, we can look forward to the future. Every year, Clubs suffered as more and more players exploited the flaws in the game. The first few weeks were usually golden, and from there it just went downhill. This phenomena took hold faster and faster each year too. The choice to annoyed players was always to either join in or give up, causing tremendous damage to the quality and size of the Clubs population.

The changes brought to FIFA 13 should stem the degradation, and I hope to see Clubs boom thanks to this. If we’re lucky, it will see it gain greater favour in EA’s eyes, and maybe it will be worth a mention at the gamescom conference for FIFA 14, and not relegated to Twitter. Clubs will never be FIFA’s most played mode due to the organisation requirements, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t become the favourite mode of many – playing cooperatively with friends is the epitome of almost all online games, and FIFA should be no different.

The fixes should at the very least see us a lot closer to the ‘ideal’ Clubs experience than ever before. There will still probably be niggling issues and the balancing cycle never truly ends, but Clubs really ought to now be in a position where it can push onto greater things. I often talk up the potential of Clubs, and now it is finally time to really look to its future – the sky is the limit.

The Trailer

Every gamescom comes with the obligatory FIFA trailer and 2012 was no different. From a presentational stand point this was probably the best yet, but I am a little perturbed by the video’s content. To a large extent it was pretty much just a skill video broken up by the occasional buzzword or feature name. There wasn’t a single moment in the entire trailer where we saw anything which really resembled gameplay.

Particularly amusing was the clip accompanying “Attacking Intelligence” – effectively a man getting passed to. Surely this was the time for a proper broadcast view of FIFA showing how the Attacking Intelligence has actually improved? But no – this genuinely important, genuinely meaningful feature is relegated to merely being just another meaningless buzzword in a torrent of the same.

What does this trailer say about FIFA 13 if we knew nothing else about it? To me, it implies a game which has a frankly juvenile obsession with star players and skillmoves. Compare PES’s focus on individual players and there is a stark difference. FIFA is all about the name on the back of the shirt and that player playing skilfully regardless if its fitting to their personality – PES is about showing that Neymar in the game is like Neymar in real life. One of these is an obsession with realistic detail, the other is frank obsession with celebrity.

The trailer is obviously a very skewed representation of the game, but is this the representation of the game that EA idealise? There were about as many skills and ridiculous flicks in that 2 minute trailer as I saw in every Arsenal match last year. The longest passing manoeuvre shown was literally a single pass long. When I’d argue strongly that these ridiculous, obnoxious skill moves should be taking a backseat, they seem omnipresent.

Gameplay Videos

The outpouring of announcements has coincided with the first real gameplay footage of FIFA 13 becoming publically available, though the videos are, so far, all low quality ‘shakeycam’ clips. For those who’ve been waiting almost a year for FIFA 13, it’s enticing to read a lot into these videos, but I do think there is a limit to what you can take from them. There is a very large difference between watching something and playing it – without knowing what the users are pressing you lose a lot of the context behind the events. Furthermore, you are watching people who have a very short period of time with an entirely new game, and naturally the games are almost all being played on default settings and assisted.

The videos don’t so much lie about the game as give a warped impression of it. The problems that people are highlighting are there – they just don’t necessarily reflect that much on the experience you will have with the game. So much of how FIFA plays depends on how the people playing play – these videos almost by nature show the absolute worst of the game. Watch FIFA 12’s gamescom videos again, and compare that to your experience of that game and I’m sure you’ll agree that the videos show it in a harsh light. All the gameplay videos combined cannot come close to telling you what a single game of the demo will when you are the one controlling it – it’s painful, but you really have to wait.

I obviously haven’t played FIFA 13 since early June, and no doubt it’s changed quite a bit since then. I’ll reiterate that I don’t believe this game fixes a lot of the major issues with FIFA 12, but it does definitely deal with some of them, and in a more convincing way than, for example, Tactical Defending ‘dealt’ with FIFA 11’s defending problem. The key behind how successful FIFA 13 will be though is a matter of balance – and it’s very hard to predict when the game has changed quite a bit from when I last played it.

Verdict

I was honestly pretty worried before gamescom, particularly for Clubs. All said and done though, I think it was a pretty positive few days of announcements, new details, and confirmations. There was nothing really massive, or any huge surprises but there are decent improvements in every area. Plenty to be happy with, but also plenty of things to be concerned about for the future with the ascent of microtransactions within FIFA, and an increasing devotion to what could only be labelled as fantasy football.

Best of all, we really are on the home stretch now.

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