Rejection, tragedy and billions of dollars - The story of FIFA

Christopher Dring
Rejection, tragedy and billions of dollars - The story of FIFA

“EA didn’t give a shit about FIFA.”

Neil Thewarapperuma (or Neil T to his friends) isn’t a man to mince his words. He was the European marketing boss for EA Sports back in 1993, the year the publisher would launch its first ever football game.

He wasn’t wrong. EA didn’t care about FIFA, or soccer at all for that matter. The US publisher had no interest in a sport that was practically non-existent in its home country.

But the persistent bloody-mindedness of EA’s European outfit made FIFA happen. And it was this team who would go on to work alongside a small group of talented developers some 5,000 miles away, to build what would become one of the biggest video game franchises in the world.

This is how they did it.

 

"They didn’t think we were going to sell a single copy of this.
They thought it would be a complete disaster."

- Marc Aubanel, FIFA International Soccer Assistant Producer

The voices calling for an EA football title were numerous.

In the US, EA Sports Network (or ESN, as it was called back then before ESPN asked them to change it) was a sales juggernaut thanks to the likes of NHL and Madden. Over in Europe, however, these games were non-entities.

“We did some research and found that 90 per cent of C&VG magazine readers loved football,” says David Gardner, the sales and marketing boss for EA Europe at the time.

“So we realised that if we wanted to bring the EA Sports brand to Europe we needed a football game.”

Members of the UK team lobbied the US to let them build one. And even EA Canada’s Bruce McMillan, a Chelsea supporter who would go on to lead the FIFA development team, tried to persuade the EA hierarchy to build a football game.

“I said that we should be in the worldwide football business. But when I first said that, EA was like: ‘well we are already in the football business with Madden.’ I said: ‘No, I mean proper football’.”

EA eventually said yes, driven in part by EA Europe's lofty sales predictions. Yet the UK team didn’t have a development studio at the time, and Mega Drive dev kits were hard to come by. So the team set out to find some local devs to help build them a prototype.

“Myself and my colleague Jon Law were developing something and we were hoping that EA would sign it,” explains Jules Burt, a UK indie developer at the time, working in Widnes, Cheshire.

“I remember someone from EA travelling all the way up north to visit us, where he told us our creative project wasn't going ahead. However, he also had news of another game they wanted us to help develop – soccer.”

That ‘someone’ who visited them was producer Matt Webster, one of the few members of the original FIFA team that still works at EA today, now at Need for Speed developer Criterion.

“These guys had a Sega Genesis development kit,” recalls Webster.

“I don’t know where they got it, I probably don’t really want to know, because at the time EA couldn’t even get one.

“Jon and Jules had done three tests for us. One was a side scrolling pitch, one was a forwards into the screen pitch, and the other was an isometric pitch.

“I remember going up there and saw the isometric pitch and thought: ‘Wow this is interesting’.”

Burt adds: “We'd already created a prototype for a beach volleyball game on the Sega Genesis [Mega Drive in Europe], so the first attempt we had was to create a similar soccer experience.

"It was rendered side on and layered with parallax to give the depth effect – similar to a moving TV camera on the sidelines.

"We realised the view just wasn't right – although it looked good – for soccer, and that we needed to see the field and goals for strategy. So at the time isometric was the potential alternative, and certainly would suit a more real TV view."

Jules Burt and Jon Law never got to turn their prototype into a full game, although EA did go on to hire the pair of them. Instead there was capacity at one of EA’s new studios to build EA Soccer (which was the game’s working title), 5,000 miles away in Vancouver, Canada.

“At the time it was soul destroying to see it go to Canada for development,” says Law.

“But in truth there was no way that we’d have been able to deliver the game to the quality needed.”

The original EA Canada  FIFA development team was tiny. Barely ten full-time developers worked on the project. Bruce McMillan led the team, alongside his good friends Jan Tian and new recruit Joey Della-Savia.

McMillan says: “The original team was very small and I worked very closely with the lead programmer, Jan Tian. Jan was Chinese and had a real passion for football.

“Joey was my development manager, and we had this team that seemed to get better every day. He and I were very, very close. He hadn’t shipped a game before but was a super people person. The team loved him. So that gave me the chance to be a super hard-nosed producer.”


THE FIFA TEAM: (Clockwise from top left) Jon Bruce, John Santamaria, Jan Tian, Linda Stansfield, Bruce McMillan, Joey Della-Savia, Lee Patterson, Jeff Van Dyck, Kevin Pickell, Mike Smith, Suzan Germic, Dianna Davies, Brian Plank and David Adams. Not pictured: Marc Aubanel and George Ashcroft

 

FIFA had plenty of competition at the time. The market leaders were Sensible Soccer and Kick Off, with their top-down viewpoints. If EA had any chance of competing, it had to do something different.

“Sensible Soccer was very popular at the time,” recalls Tom Stone, who worked under Gardner in the UK team, primarily on FIFA.

“But that was a top-down game and we thought if we could bring all of the values of EA Sports to a football game, with the realism of Madden or NFL, then we’d do well.”

McMillan adds: “We really tried to live by the ‘If it’s in the game, it’s in the game’; it had to be authentic, it had to feel correct.”

Central to this realism was this new isometric viewpoint, originally proposed by Burt and Law, but then improved upon and finalised by EA Canada’s Jan Tian. It may look old today, but at the time this new look was revolutionary.

“Everything about that first game was like: “How the fuck did they do this?’ You had the isometric view, you had these player animations, which I put on the box,” says Neil T. “They were so impressive.”



"It was only later we discovered there were no player names,
likenesses, or team logos included with the FIFA licence."

- David Gardner, former EA Studios boss


Part of the game’s quest for realism saw the UK team seek out an official licence. EA had secured official player names, stadiums and teams for its Madden and NHL games, and EA wanted the same for its new football title.

“We started discussing a name for the game. It was just called EA Soccer at this time,” says Webster.

“And a few of us said that if we were follow the EA Sports tradition, then we should go for the official association, which was FIFA.

“I ended up making the first call to FIFA’s press secretary, I explained who we were and he gave us the details of the FIFA marketing agent. Then I handed it off to Tom Stone.”

Stone continues: “My first job at EA was to get on a plane and fly to Switzerland to see FIFA.

“We met the head of ISL marketing who were the representatives of FIFA, and we shook hands on a deal there and then over dinner.

“The deal lasted through until 1998, it was a five-year deal. I’m not going to reveal what the royalty payments were, but it was miniscule.”

There was a reason why EA managed to secure the FIFA licence for such a small amount of money.

“It was only later we discovered there were no player names, likenesses, or team logos included because football wasn't organised in a commercial way like the US Sports leagues,” laughs David Gardner.

“In hindsight it is all quite funny and a great stupid American story that turned out quite successful anyway after hundreds of deals later.”

Stone adds: “In many ways our asking for these rights helped football become organised.

"I went to the Football Association, the Premier League, the PFA and so on. I got to know those people quite well and they were like: ‘Oh right, who has the rights to player likenesses then? Who has the rights to the stadium? These guys are asking for those rights.’ So in a way we actually helped the association work all these things out.”

But the full licensing deals would have to wait for later FIFA titles. For this first game EA had to go without. And so the dev team decided to put themselves in the game. Matt Webster went upfront for England. Joey Della-Savia was in the Italian squad. Assistant producer Marc Aubanel became a striker for French team.

“Just recently I stayed in hotel in France and I had someone come up to me and ask: ‘Hey weren’t you the striker for the French national team on the first genesis game?’,” says Aubanel. "I couldn't believe they remembered that."

McMillan even put his own child in the game: “I had a new-born son at the time that I wasn’t seeing much, and so I put him in the game and I gave him really good stats. Now my son is 20 but even today fans of FIFA – real hardcore fans – remember him. It even happened at E3 this year.”


"You’d see people at 8am, because we were working on UK time, too.
We’d do this right through the Spring and Summer to hit our deadlines.
We were working 16 hour days."

- Bruce McMillan, FIFA International Soccer producer


At this point, EA Canada and Europe were working side-by-side. Canada would stay up late to liaise with their UK counterparts. Webster would fly over for weeks on end to work besides the studio. It was a partnership unlike any the industry had seen before. Yet EA US remained unconvinced FIFA would be a success.

Marc Aubanel remembers: “At the time the American football league had collapsed. There wasn’t one.  And even worse we had this licence which EA had never heard of. They didn’t think we were going to sell a single copy of this. They thought it would be a complete disaster.

“We fought pretty hard to keep the FIFA brand and we thought we would sustain a market outside of the US. There were many, many meetings where it could have easily been cancelled. We had to constantly re-justify it.”

He adds: “This was a time where our budget was in the $50,000 or $100,000 region, so these were small budgets. If it was millions we would’ve been killed immediately. There was no way we could have justified that kind of expense. We were small enough to not really get noticed but I remember several meetings where people would say: ‘Didn’t we already kill this game?’

“I am sure that if it wasn’t in Canada and we were under the noses of the Americans it would not have survived. We just kind of just slipped through the cracks.”

There were other concerns, too. FIFA International Soccer (which was its eventual name) was scheduled for a Spring 1994 launch, just ahead of the World Cup in the US. But that would put FIFA up against the official World Cup game from rival publisher US Gold.

McMillan recalls: “I said to the team: ‘We need to beat them to market. We need to be on the shelf for Chrismas.’ So the team just aspired to that. We shrunk our schedule dramatically and worked around the clock. I remember in our old studio we had a kitchen downstairs and I remember Joey Della-Savia making spaghetti for the team. I mean we were working 16-hour days.

“You’d see people at eight in the morning, because we were working on UK time, too. We would be giving builds to the UK for feedback. We’d do this right through the Spring and Summer to hit our deadlines. We were exhausted but inspired because every day the game got better. It was just an exhilarating experience.

“When I called the team into the boardroom and told them we had to be out by Christmas, I said: ‘This is going to be really hard but I can assure you this is going to be something you will remember for the rest of your lives.’ And I know that kind of speech is corny but it kind of turned out to be true.”



"We had David Platt come to the office and we were all suitably star struck.
The games industry in those days didn’t have stars."

- Tom Stone, former EA Europe boss


Meanwhile, across the pond in the UK, hype was building rapidly. Neil T was busy promoting the title, taking the latest code out to the press: “There was no beta or alpha back then, normally you’d just show the full product. But it looked so good in development that we did sneak previews for the press. We showed them and they went bonkers. Then the sales predictions went up. The US didn’t have high hopes for it, but we had huge expectations.”

Webster adds: “Our PR guy was saying that the reviews were going to come back extraordinarily strong and that Virgin [Sensible Soccer publisher] was worried. It even delayed its game because the team there knew we were going to hit really strong.”

Sales expectations for FIFA were rising. The game was looking great. All the team needed now was someone to put on the box.

“We contacted the agent of David Platt, who was a real star at the time,” explains Stone.

“We had David Platt come to the office and we were all suitably star struck because, you know, the games industry in those days didn’t have stars.”

Webster remembers that day well: “It was when he had done his ankle in, and I happened to have injured my cruciate ligament and had an operation. So we were both in plaster and we just traded mutual plaster signings. That was quite fun.”

Everything looked to be in place for a blockbuster launch. There was just time for one last interference from the US management.

“It was very late in the day and the proposal was to call the game Team USA Soccer in North America and not FIFA globally,” claims Webster.

“I remember Nancy Smith (VP of North American Sales) and Larry [Probst, president and CEO] were involved in those conversations and in the end it was a case of: ‘Hey look if we do that, we are going to have a significant inventory risk. If you don’t believe in FIFA, you can always shift the cartridges back to Europe and sell them. Whereas if you keep it to Team USA you’re kind of stuck’

“I think this was a swinger really you know, if it was going to be called Team USA it wasn’t going to be a global product and that didn’t really make any sense.”



"I took the game home. I played it.
And I said to the UK guys: 'It's time to ship this thing."

– Bruce McMillan


It was September 1993 when an exhausted development team finished FIFA International Soccer. And it’s a moment that has stayed in McMillan’s memory.

“It was two in the morning and Joey, Jan and I were sitting at a desk. Jan liked to fiddle with the game and I’d say, ‘Okay Jan, leave it alone now.’

“Joey had Jan’s key to his PC. So he burned this cartridge and locked Jan’s keyboard.

“And Jan was like: ‘Wait a minute I just wanted to add this and that’. And we said: ‘No. It’s time to let go.’

“Joey wrote on the cartridge, handed it to me and said: ‘Take this home it’s yours.’ And I still have it right here.

“I took the game home and played it all night. And I just said to the UK guys: ‘It’s time to ship this thing’.”

After an intense few months, FIFA was finished. The EA Canada team could finally go home to their families, not to mention their beds. However, the UK team had plenty to be getting on with and took the game to Wembley.

“We hired the Wembley suite for the England vs Poland match, it was a World Cup qualifier. We invited 150 guests and we announced, very proudly, that we had signed a deal with FIFA,” says Tom Stone.

Neil T recalls: “We booked out some seats where you looked down on the pitch at roughly the same angle as you would in a game.

“People saw FIFA before the match and then immediately went out and watched the game from the same angle. It was kind of genius.”

EA expected to sell almost 300,000 copies of FIFA across Europe. But Neil T believed they could do more, and he was right. The game only launched in December, but still shifted almost half a million copies in just four weeks, becoming the best selling game of the year.

The story doesn’t end there, of course. Over the next 20 years, FIFA would go on to become the biggest video game series in the world.

And everyone behind the FIFA franchise would go on to achieve big things. Many are in charge of their own companies. Some are still building video games today.

That’s everyone except Joey Della-Savia. Shortly after the release of FIFA International Soccer, and while working on the next game, the popular development manager was tragically killed in a car crash on his way to work.

That’s the real reason Bruce McMillan still has that very first cartridge. Not because it is a piece of video game history, but because it was Joey that gave it to him.

“I was offered $1,000 for that cartridge recently,” says McMillan “I just said it’s not gonna happen.”

He adds: “You know, at least Joey saw the success of that first game.

“He was Italian and I remember going over to his parent’s place when his aunt and uncle showed up. They spoke no English at all and they kept smiling at me so I asked Joey: ‘What have you drawn on my face?’ and he’s like: ‘No, no. They’re just so happy that we work together because mum has told them what we have done.’

“Joey had built this soccer game that was number one all around the world, and they were just so proud.”

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Tags: Electronic Arts , ea , fifa , FIFA International Soccer

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