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Xaor’s Corner: Movement Physics

For the first article of the post-FIFA 13 era, I’m focusing on what would be my number one priority for FIFA 14: movement physics.

See all previous articles here

Since I started writing these blogs last Summer, there is one group of issues which I have mentioned over and over again, but never focused on for the whole piece that the topic undoubtedly deserves. As FIFA 13 has just released, this seems like an appropriate time to tackle this one now.

I recognise that in doing this, I’m going to end up repeating myself quite a lot, but if I do have any influence whatsoever, I want to make sure I have done everything I can to shine a light on this issue. Producing a single comprehensive piece now seems most warranted.

Since the demo, there has been one fairly consistent piece of feedback across the web regarding game speed, and these complaints have continued with the retail version. Notably, there is a thread on the Official Forums [petitioning EA to slow the pace of the game] which has received over 800 replies and counting. Having attempted something similar myself regarding FIFA 11’s weak implementation of Pro Passing, to no real effect, I’m not really a believer in the power of such petitions. Even so, it points to a community unusually united with a common complaint.

FIFA’s game speed reflects practically every facet of the way FIFA plays. It’s too easy to point at a particular area, like sprint speed, and blame it for the problem, and it is too easy to suggest fixes which might improve game speed at the detriment to other areas.

For example, I’d argue that the biggest reason FIFA 13 seems significantly faster than FIFA 12, is because crisper ball physics allow slicker passing, but then, in itself I don’t see that change as problematic. The passing speeds in FIFA 11 and 12 were best described as lethargic, but in fixing one problem EA have given rise to another.

It is important that EA ensure that each year, the game they put out is balanced, but for too long that balance has only existed in a shallow sense. Broadly speaking, no recent FIFA has been extremely prone to either goal-fests or goal-droughts, but this is precariously achieved with some elements of the game over-emphasised, and others under-emphasised. You can see this best in the defensive side of the game. There, painfully inept AI is made up for by stupendous shot stopping ability on the part of the goalkeepers, and  the over effectiveness of high pressure.

With some elements of FIFA still so far from being realistic, it is inevitably tricky for EA to find a satisfying and solid balance. It is inevitable that we judge the fairness of an experience against our understanding of football – the most satisfying balance will be the one which is most true to life.

To deal with game pacing, the focus has to be dealing with the right areas – not just areas which heavily affect game speed, but the areas which affect game speed and are unrealistic. We know that improvements to game speed can be achieved by slowing down passing and sprint speeds – to make the game run almost in slow motion – but there is no decent evidence that players in FIFA sprint too fast. It is surely clear that by utilising the wrong solution, even to the right problem, you will end up further mutilating FIFA’s balance.

I make these points about balance at such length, in an otherwise unrelated article, because I want to argue clearly why improvements to movement physics are not an option, but the only option. FIFA’s last five iterations have been plagued by issues with pressure, and game pace, and though there have been fluctuations in how bad these issues are, it’s time to look at the root of the problem.

Biomechanics

Due to the universal nature of movement within football, the locomotion physics in FIFA reflect more on the way that FIFA feels as an experience than anything else. Even small changes to this will have a dramatic effect on everything. FIFA’s locomotion physics have, for the most part, been set in stone since FIFA 09. We’ve had plenty of upgrades and additions to how you can move in terms of modifiers like precision dribbling, but very few to the core physics which govern movement.

In saying that, I’m unfairly neglecting the enormous change brought about in FIFA 10 with 360 degree dribbling, but I think the changes to FIFA 09’s movement resonate today at least as much. If anything though, it’s best to go back right to the start of the generation, before the release of FIFA 07. When unveiling their new engine to the world, there was one thing, above all else, that EA were talking about: movement physics – the following is a quote from the Leipzig Games Convention in 2006.

“The FIFA Soccer 07 engine unlocks ultra realistic player motion and delivers complete responsiveness due to its ability to branch animations and the real-time calculation of real human biomechanics. Essentially our software engineers are writing human decision-making code” – Hugues Ricour

Sounds good, doesn’t it? This generation’s FIFA was built around the one thing that many now believe it misses most. So why is that? Were EA perhaps exaggerating what they had achieved with FIFA 07? Perhaps a little – FIFA 07 and FIFA 08 were both famously criticised for being unresponsive – but if you do go back to those games there is no denying the believability of the way players move.

Sure, it’s still tied to 8 directions, and there weren’t many dribbling modifiers back then, and sure, in most ways those games seem prehistoric 5 years on. Look instead to the way players move and how it relates to the way their legs are moving, planting in the ground and pushing off, and you see something which you simply don’t see in the more recent games. Concepts like realistic foot planting, which some now consider to be a very ‘next-gen’ idea, were actually not so far off at the beginning of the current generation.

It is those criticisms of unresponsiveness that lead to the current state of affairs, because in creating a fluid experience, EA stopped abiding by the realistic biomechanics they had pushed so strongly just two years prior. Though the technology behind FIFA 07 and 08 still clearly exists in FIFA 13, a more fluid experience has been produced, not by improving the biomechanics, but by cutting corners with it.

A user on the Evo-Web.co.uk forums, Gab_, created a couple of videos a few years ago which illustrate this perfectly. In the videos, he records arena footage of Ronaldinho going through the various types of movement, from FIFA 08 and FIFA 10 for comparison. When asking him permission to use the videos here, he went a step further and created a FIFA 13 video, so double thanks to him for these. The FIFA 10 video is here.

FIFA 08

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FIFA 13

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The quality isn’t the best, but it’s a great showing of how video is a superb medium for feedback. It’s a pity, given how much FIFA video content is out there, and how much talent there is making it, how little of it is devoted to FIFA itself.

For me, the primary difference between the two videos is remarkably obvious. Where in FIFA 08 the players overall movement seems to be very much correlated to the way each foot is planted, the movement in the newer games seems more detached.

For example, compare the jockeying motion in FIFA 08 (1m 25s) and FIFA 13 (2m 00s). Watch how in the FIFA 08 video, Ronaldinho’s direction changes occur as he plants his foot, and uses it to bounce back in the other direction. The same is simply not the case with FIFA 13. Here, he slows down gradually, briefly stops dead, and then moves off again.

Interesting, this is the one area of movement in FIFA which is less slick than reality, precisely because FIFA is no longer simulating the biomechanics so well. Where in general this means movement is smoother than reality, with jockeying you lose all the benefits of settings yourself up in that way. You simply can’t make quick lateral changes in direction, and this is a major reason why containing is so much more effective than jockeying.

Though it is most obvious with those segments of the videos, similar things occur throughout, particularly with the off-the-ball movement. To me, it appears that the player’s velocity (speed and direction) in FIFA is now linked more directly to the user’s input, rather than velocity changing due to the way the player moves. The animations lying underneath no longer correlate nearly so well to how the players actually move.

It feels like, when you tell a player to slow down, he’ll do so as soon as he’s told, even though there is no real way of slowing yourself down mid-stride. It makes for a game which is more predictably responsive, but also one where in almost every case you’re slowing down far too quickly.

More generally, there is a clear difference in how fast things occur in the games. Even though in FIFA 08 we’re looking at Ronaldinho at the top of his game, whereas in FIFA 13 he is a shadow of his former self, it is on FIFA 13 that everything appears so manic, especially with the normal dribbling. The period at the start of the FIFA 13 video with a lot of back ‘n’ forth movement shows an incredible level of skill, making consecutive 180 degree turns without any sense that control could be lost.

I think most of us know how difficult it is to defend against people who dribble like this, or in a zigzagging motion. The CPU in FIFA 12 notoriously good at making sharp turns while keeping up a high pace, and in turn tearing your defensive to shreds. The CPU may be better trained to not do it in FIFA 13, but the potential is still there, much in the same way that the CPU is still inhumanly good at passing but less likely to try the truly sickening passes.

The great pity is that while there were definitely issues with FIFA 08’s movement, EA lost a lot of what was good about it when they took the quick ‘n’ easy approach to fixing the responsiveness. It might have been much harder to combine realistic foot planting, believable momentum, and high responsiveness, but when you look at what they had 5 years ago, its’ hard to believe we couldn’t now have a FIFA which combines all three.

Believable Movement

Even so, a major improvement to what we have now could be done more simply. It’s always going to be best for movement physics to be an emergent property of realistic biomechanics and animation, but large improvements can probably be made without making drastic changes. Alterations to the primary factors of movement physics – acceleration, deceleration, jogging speed, and turning speed can go a long way.

For one, who can say what the ramifications of going back to the old style might be. FIFA 13’s movement is far, far more complicated than the movement in FIFA 08, what with 360 degree dribbling, analogue sprint, plus skilled, complete, and precision dribbling. It would probably end up being a huge undertaking before broaching the question of whether the responsiveness would be there at the end of it. There can really be no doubt that a biomechanically faithful game is the future, but, whether it’s the future in the short term is hard to know.

Right now, a handful of different factors combine to blot FIFA’s realism. Probably the simplest to deal with are acceleration and deceleration. Both are on the quick side, especially deceleration. Try sprinting on FIFA and stopping dead – if you’re off the ball, let go of the stick, if you’re on, use one of the ‘stop-ball’ controls like LB/L1. It’s usually almost immediate. Go into the replay and it might seem even more egregious with momentum just evaporating before your eyes without the player even touching the ground.

This is patently not right – slowing from a sprint is not easy and cannot be done in an instant. Doing it while keeping control over the ball is equally tricky. Naturally, this ‘fluidity’ is hugely exploitable, something you see a lot in stop-n-go styles of dribbling. Because you can stop, pretty much without fail and pretty much regardless of the player, on a dime, you can typically utilise that to throw off defenders who cannot stop anywhere near as quickly.

The second issue is turning speed, and it’s a problem both on and off the ball. On the ball, players are too good at maintaining control while making tight turns at speed. Without having any concept of dribbling error (discussed here), it’s a little difficult to get this right, but I do think FIFA would benefit from a more conservative model.

One potential solution would be to lower player speed more significantly when they turn, particularly at higher angles and lesser players. This would prevent the turn-after-turn-after-turn effect that you can get currently. There should be a noticeable difference in ease between slight turns, and tight ones, something which I don’t really sense at the moment.

Another potential solution would be to lower the jogging/dribbling speed in the game. The ‘jogging’ speed in FIFA is, essentially, arbitrary. As it is, it’s pretty high, and it does pretty much govern how quickly players can turn (or, how fast they come out of each turn). Lowering the jogging speed would make the speed players can maintain through turns more believable.

A change like that is probably going to have quite a few side effects. It would probably have a pretty major effect on the speed of the game in general – probably no bad thing – but it might also constrain the ability to use dribbling to attack defenders, which would be a grave pity.

Off the ball, things are a bit clearer. Like with acceleration and deceleration, it’s just too quick, although the concepts are obviously related – you can’t really make a sharp turn without slowing down and then speeding up again. This is a huge factor which affects the risk-v-reward of pressuring.

If you sprint into a tackle in real life, and miss it, you’re pretty much done at that point. In FIFA, you can slow down, turn, and speed back up so quickly that you can quickly be on the attackers back again. The ‘high’ risk-v-reward defensive option in real life, becomes a low-risk, high reward situation.

On that note, it’s really important that the ‘low’ risk-v-reward defensive option, jockeying, doesn’t get left behind again in these changes. Jockeying ought to be the bread and butter for defending, so it’s really, really important it gets fixed for FIFA 14. Jockeying should come at the absolute top of the tree for responsiveness, and how fast you can go from moving in one direction to another. The attacker is advantaged in that they are the ones on the front foot, the defender should be able to counter that by being able to change direction faster than the attacker.

Stamina, is another area which heavily effects movement, though not in such a direct way. The current stamina model in FIFA doesn’t really seem to cut it when it comes to appropriately punishing those who pressure, relative to those who don’t. Part of the reason for this is that the long term stamina drain seems primarily tied to the distance your player runs. In terms of total distance run during a match, the difference between someone pressuring heavily and not is really not that high – they are only pressuring with one or two people at a time after all, and so the primary determiner of how tired your players get right now is their stamina rating, and what position they play, rather than any choice the user makes while playing or tactically.

An approach which might work better would be one which focuses long term fatigue on acceleration (which takes a lot more work than maintaining a pace), and long bursts of sprinting. Long term stamina drain when sprinting with no remaining short term stamina, should be noticeably higher. This would more heavily punish those who are constantly speeding up, slowing down, turning, speeding up, and those who start pressuring just after their attack ends.

One way or another, it is those factors which need to change. It can be done through accurate foot planting, but many of the same benefits would be felt by simpler changes. In fact, with FIFA 13, we can already start to make some of these tweaks ourselves.

Since FIFA 12, we’ve had two sliders which make a difference to the way players move – sprint speed, and acceleration, and the latter is one of the main ones I use to try and improve my experience on FIFA 13. Like with all of the sliders there are limits – a 1-100 slider can only give us so much control over a non-linear concept. The bigger problem, is that you have no control over the other major elements of movement.

In my eyes, one of the great pities with FIFA 13 is that there are no new sliders in the game (with the exception of a first-touch slider). EA can only ever go so far with sliders, and I am adamant they should not be considered a solution to the hardcore’s problems, but they definitely can help. With the minimal number of sliders currently in the game, a lot of that potential is yet to be unleashed.

We should hope that EA will go the whole hog and produce a far better simulation for movement in FIFA 14, but even if they don’t, some more in depth movement sliders wouldn’t go amiss.

Conclusion

The changes I’m proposing are ones which I genuinely believe would alter the FIFA landscape more than any other change we have seen in the last 5 years – bigger than the Impact Engine, or Tactical Defending, or even 360 Degree Dribbling. I may be entirely overestimating this, but I think it would be a change so blatant that you’d feel you were playing a radically different game the moment you picked up the pad, even if the majority of mechanics were still the same.

That’s obviously something hugely dependent on the implementation, but I think you get a sense of this when you swap between playing FIFA, and playing PES, where the movement physics are very different, and frankly far more believable (even though the technology behind it is probably simpler than that in FIFA).

It changes the way you see space, it changes the way you can thread passes and the way you can dice through defences, it changes how you try to shepherd an attacker into a channel, it changes how you try to negotiate moving up the pitch: it changes everything. Though lots of things are different about PES, you are feeling the changes in movement 100% of the time, because you are always, always moving.

It’s not some magic bullet, and it would have serious repercussions for game balance which EA would need to be wary of, but all the same I’m convinced it’s the change FIFA 14 needs.

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