Don’t call David Rutter the man who fixed FIFA. He doesn’t like it.
MCV found that out at EA’s Guildford office last month. “I am just one small part of it,” he insists. “We have a bunch of very clever people on the team.”
He certainly doesn’t look like someone who is in charge of Europe’s second biggest video game series. Wearing an old polo shirt and cargo shorts, he looks more like the journalists in the audience than the execs that heralded him on stage. His presentation style is more ‘chat down the pub’ than the usual diatribe of meaningless buzzwords.
Yet make no mistake, Rutter has had a big impact on FIFA. He took charge of the team for FIFA 09 – the game that began to turn the tables on Pro Evo in terms of quality. FIFA 10 completed the transformation, picking up multiple game of the year awards in the process. Incredibly, FIFA 11 was even better.
But Rutter says this process started long before he showed up – he’s just kept the ball rolling.
“A while ago the team made a decision – and it was before my time – to look at what we are doing as a company,” explains Rutter.
“Which is: rather than just have authenticity around a sport based on licensing and marketing, actually do something about simulating the sport in an authentic way.
“I joined at a kind of tipping point between FIFA 07 and 08, and I was lucky enough to have been given the mantel of leadership for FIFA 09. I think it was obvious at that point what we needed to do to finish the job off.”
FIFA 10 was the watershed moment for the franchise. EA Sports overlord Peter Moore set the team the challenging task of getting a 90 Metacritic score. Rutter and his crew delivered a 91.
The question is, once you’ve made a game of such high quality how do you stay motivated to do it all again next year? And then the year after?
“When you are that deep and that close to the game, every little thing gets on your nerves,” answers Rutter.
“If you hear the same thing, play the same thing or see those behaviours all the time that niggle you, it is frustrating. The same thing applies to our fans. FIFA is one of the few games in the world that is almost as popular today as it was when it launched. People play it to death. And it is at that point when weaknesses in the game come out.
“Also, every game of football I watch or am involved in, even if it is a kid kicking a ball in the street, an idea sparks in my head that makes me go: ‘Oh man, we have to get that in the game.’”
At the start of each development cycle Rutter is tasked with coming up with two lists – one that features all the things they did well and one of things they need to do better. The latter list is always far longer than the first one.
“I get in trouble for that, Peter [Moore] is always telling me off,” Rutter jokes. “Every year we present what we have planned for the next year, and it goes through a series of reviews, such as my boss, then Peter. And eventually we end up presenting to John Riccitiello and by that point I have had to be a little more reasonable on the feedback about our game.
“The reason we have got to where we are is because we are quite critical. We are rarely massively happy with what we have produced.”
The FIFA team is based in Burnaby near Vancouver, Canada, a country not known for its love of soccer.
Canada’s national sport is hockey, its football team is ranked 76th in the world – that’s lower than Scotland.
Yet Rutter says location has nothing to do with it.
Football is a global sport and his development team is a global one, too. It’s made up of 18 nationalities that speak 20 different languages.
“People ask how do you make a football game in Canada? Well we just imported the right people, myself included,” he adds.
“We have people from pretty much every part of Europe. We have a lot of Chinese guys, Korean guys and Japanese guys who are all massive football fans.
“And I think that brings different flavours and experiences about football to FIFA. One of the things we started to do with FIFA 09 is introduce some more cultural aspects. When I tour around Europe I see each country has different styles of football. And we need to produce systems in our game that allow for that level of complexity and behaviour. That’s why I think we have been so successful.”
Rutter loves his football. From his own teams Hitchin Town and Leicester City, to the Premier League giants and the European leagues. He watches it all. It’s a key part of what makes him so good at what he does. Watching, understanding and studying football at all levels.
And he is a football game veteran. Out of the 20 games he has worked on, 19 of them are football titles – including management sim Championship Manager (the only non-football game was LEGO Island: Extreme Stunts). So surely now that he is leading the world’s biggest soccer franchise, he has reached his zenith? Unless, of course, he fancies joining Konami and fixing Pro Evolution Soccer?
“I would be very honoured to be asked,” he says. “But my roots are very much in the EA Sports culture in Vancouver and being surrounded by that amazing team of people and everything we do there. So I have no intention of going anywhere else… unless the Canadian Government kicks me out for being British.”
And that’s good news for EA Canada. FIFA is more popular, more lucrative and more acclaimed than ever. And from what MCV has seen of FIFA 12, gamers are in for a treat come September 30th.
Rutter may not like being called the man who fixed FIFA, but he is at least the one making sure it doesn’t get broken again.