Back in 2005, EA began a brief dalliance with the UEFA Champions League licence.
It only ever resulted in two games, with the last launching in 2007. And they weren’t particularly special, with some critics dismissing them as cheap re-issues of the previous year’s FIFA.
Yet the final game in the short franchise, UEFA Champions League 2006 – 2007 on Xbox 360, introduced a mode that would go on to define the modern-day FIFA Ultimate Team.
Ultimate Team is a tricky mode to explain. A sort a manager mode-meets-fantasy football, with the in-game player’s stats reflecting the performance of their real-life counterparts.
Yet for all its complication, Ultimate Team has become hugely successful. The game’s optional microtransaction elements (players can spend real money to acquire player packs) generated $30m for EA in Q1 this year. And Ultimate Team has now eclipsed career mode to become the most popular part of FIFA?– with 35 per cent of FIFA?13 users playing it.
Not bad when you consider FIFA now boasts 21 different game modes, and that up until two years ago, Ultimate Team was merely an optional downloadable extra.
“It has really surprised us,” said Ultimate Team producer Marcel Kuhn. “Nine months after launch, there are still millions of people playing FIFA Ultimate Team every day. That shows how deep the mode is and engaged people are.”
EA has undertaken a promotional tour for Ultimate Team, taking the mode to retailers and journalists in a bid to educate them on its new features and intricacies.
“Ultimate Team is quite a complicated thing,” continues Kuhn. “Everyone know what a career mode is, right??But if you want to explain Ultimate Team in a sentence, it’s quite tough. We held an event with the biggest retailers where we talked Ultimate Team. This is the first time we have done an Ultimate Team press tour. And that just shows how big and mainstream it has become.”
“Everyone know what a career mode is, right?
But if you want to explain Ultimate Team in a
sentence, it’s quite tough. We held an event with
the biggest retailers where we talked Ultimate
Team. This is the first time we have done an
Ultimate Team press tour. And that just shows
how big and mainstream it has become.”
Marcel Kuhn - producer, Ultimate Team
EA’s love for Ultimate Team makes sense, especially when you consider how lucrative the mode has proven to be.
Yet during EA’s FIFA?14 press event for Ultimate Team, this microtransaction model went almost unmentioned. The term ‘microtransaction’ or ‘paymium’ have become dirty words to some corners of the games industry. And Kuhn is keen to stress that, unlike other free-to-play games, playing Ultimate Team the slow way is actually worth the effort.
“I am not going to lie to you, it is doing really well in terms of revenue. But the majority of people do grind and don’t use real money. Because that is fun to do. It is fun to play a season or tournament.”
EA has clearly invested significantly in Ultimate Team. The mode has been significantly updated this year, with a big announcement set for Gamescom (an announcement so exciting that Kuhn can’t even sleep, apparently).
And what’s more, it’s keeping gamers playing. Ultimate Team is constantly updated depending on events in the real-world of football. And that’s keeping consumers engaged all season long.
“The more engaged people are, the more likely they are to come back to the next iteration of FIFA,” says Kuhn. “That’s what FIFA Ultimate Team does.”
Ultimate Team – and indeed FIFA as a whole – has undergone a number of changes this year to make the game easier to navigate and less daunting for newcomers. The biggest change is a new tile-based interface, which should aid in discovering the game’s frankly huge number of modes.
“We are a victim of our own success,” says Kuhn. “We want to trim the fat, we want to make it more streamlined, but you can’t just remove something because there are so many people who will like that mode you want to remove. The last time we removed something was a party mode, and we saw from the stats that very few people were playing it. But those that were playing it were livid about us removing it.”
Producer Sebastian Enrique adds: “We are changing the user interface. It is more state-of-the-art and convenient. We now have a user experience director who is helping us build something that helps discoverability and accessibility for new users, and also makes it better for seasoned players. We are also trying to simplify the access points.”
The user interface is just one of a number of big new changes made to FIFA 14 on Xbox 360 and PS3 this year. The game feels noticeably different to last year’s title, putting to rest any fears that EA would only tweak this year’s current-gen game in favour of the next-gen versions.
“We are not resting on our laurels,” says Enrique. “Just because next-gen is coming, it doesn’t mean current gen is being left behind.
“Our goal is to create something that is a leap from last year, so that people can justify going out and spending their money on the game. We want to make the best football experience ever with the time we have. The expectation of the people is huge, the expectation from EA is huge, so there is pressure all the time. But we like working like that.”
“Imagine playing FIFA for 90 minutes, as in
real-time. You cannot play it like that. Yes
FIFA is a simulation, we want to create the
immersion of a football game, we want to
make you believe you are playing a real
football match. But where is the limit? Where
is the threshold where something doesn’t work?"
Sebastian Enrique - producer, FIFA 14
The major changes to this year’s game include more variety in touches, precision movement and improved shooting. Basically the game is more realistic than it has ever been. EA has always stated it wants to make FIFA as realistic as it is popular. But when does that realism go too far?
“When it is boring,” answers Enrique. “Imagine playing FIFA for 90 minutes, as in real-time. You cannot play it like that. Yes FIFA is a simulation, we want to create the immersion of a football game, we want to make you believe you are playing a real football match. But where is the limit? Where is the threshold where something doesn’t work?
“In real life, a player going from full-stop to full-speed takes about five seconds. If we take five seconds to do that, it breaks the game. It’s not fun anymore. Imagine a photograph. Some people see a real nice photograph and say: ‘That’s photoshop’. But it’s not, it’s just a great photo. And then there’s some pictures that have been done in photoshop, but people believe it to be real. It is what people perceives to be real that is important.”
FIFA 13 was yet another critically acclaimed success and the biggest selling FIFA to date. Ultimate Team is keeping gamers playing all year round, and getting them to spend even more money. So you have to wonder where else is there for FIFA to go? Are we approaching a point when the development team has achieved what it set out to do.
Enrique concludes: “We have everything left to achieve. We are super-ambitious.
“We don’t think we’ll ever create the greatest football game. Every time we ship the game, I see the flaws and see how it can be much better. The day I ship I am happy, and then I always want more.”