Each and every year, around E3 time, EA reveals what's new with the latest FIFA.
Usually, these are tweaks to the physics and core gameplay, or – recently – innovations within the lucrative Ultimate Team mode. But this year's changes to FIFA are more significant than we've seen in years, including the introduction of a story mode.
Yes, you read that correctly: a fleshed out story starring one Alex Hunter and told in cutscenes between matches. It's made with the aid of Mass Effect narrative gurus BioWare. It even lets players make choices at key moments.
It's something the players have been asking for,” senior producer Nick Channon said.
We've been asked for a narrative-driven story mode. It's something that we have wanted to look at ourselves, too. While we believe we have a very deep game, we wanted to look at how we can broaden that even further. And obviously a narrative story was the one area that was missing from FIFA entirely. It's been something we have wanted to do for a while, but we didn't have the technology in place to be able to do it easily. The move to Frostbite helps [more on that later] – that engine has been doing that for years. Battlefield has had narrative story, BioWare's games, too. It's the perfect time to bring it in.”
He continues: We just felt it was important to do a story. We want to create a game where players have got lots of options. We have Career Mode, which is very popular. We wanted to give players another option: to create a story that felt very different and took players to places that they hadn't seen before, like the tunnel and changing rooms.”
Story Mode isn't the only big change to FIFA this year. EA Vancouver has changed engines.
The publisher made a lot of noise about the Ignite engine before the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The tech was going to be its sports engine for these new machines. But just three years after it was rolled out, EA has ditched it in favour of DICE's Frostbite, the engine on which Battlefield, Star War Battlefront and Mirror's Edge Catalyst have been built.
Having such a great engine within the company is amazing,” Channon said.
It's genuinely one of the world's leading engines and for us to be able to move to that allowed us to be able to work with the great teams more closely. We always talk to DICE and the Battlefield team, but once you are on the same technology, you can really start to do cool things.
We've worked closely with DICE; the team there has helped us out with things like lighting and how we can use some of their techniques. Now we are on the engine it's much easier to be able to collaborate in that way. We learnt lots by working with BioWare on narrative as well and they have learnt lots from us, too. It's a great thing for the game, as well as the company.”
As Channon says, EA Vancouver has collaborated with a number of the publisher's other studios for FIFA 17. It has turned to BioWare for help with the football game's narrative, while DICE has provided guidance in getting the most out of its Frostbite engine. This is a similar style of development to Ubisoft whereby one studio heads up a project while drawing on the expertise of other teams within the publisher's roster.
We're very fortunate to work in a company that has an amazing portfolio of franchises,” Channon says. We get together and talk about the games that we are making and the ideas that we have. But when you are then on a technology base that is shared, then you can truly collaborate closely in terms of what you are doing and the features you are creating. With the lighting, that came about by collaborating with DICE using the same toolset. It makes it a much easier process. You can get a philosophy but when you are doing it in the same toolset it's something you can bring to life pretty quickly.”
One accusation that has been fired at FIFA in recent years is that the developers have become obsessed with the lucrative Ultimate Team mode and not given much attention to the gameplay – a view Channon refutes.
And this year, FIFA's core gameplay is getting a real overhaul. EA Vancouver has changed how physical play work – how character models work together, in essence. Not only that, teammates have improved AI, meaning they will move into space. Set pieces have been revised, too.
Our core will always be gameplay,” Channon insists.
Driving gameplay is what drives a game. Every year we innovate and create new things within the gameplay itself because that's what people really want. We have continued to do that and it's one of our biggest gameplay years, too. We have huge innovation in physics.
Going back to Story mode – for us it was about looking at the game itself. We have lots of fans who play Ultimate Team, lots of players who enjoy Career Mode and play the various modes we have on offer. We felt that we wanted to add to that depth of the experience and that Story Mode was one of the key missing ingredients.”
FIFA 17, with its Story Mode, new engine and masses of core gameplay tweaks, certainly feels like a bigger-than-usual entry in the football series.
We have some big things this year,” Channon says. It's a huge point for us in our series. Frostbite is a massive step forward for us and it builds a platform for a great game this year and also sets that platform for future years to come.
Story Mode is the biggest new addition since Ultimate Team. It is incredibly exciting.”
Normally the big football video game battle is between two players: Konami's PES and EA's own FIFA series.
But last year, another football title stole headlines: car five-a-side game Rocket League from indie developer Psyonix. That release has gone on to generate more than $110m in sales and has sold well over 5m units.
Has EA taken anything away from that different, more arcadey approach to the beautiful game?
Authenticity is always going to be the bedrock of FIFA and I don't see that changing,” Channon says.
People want a realistic experience. That's what we are and that's what we'll continue to be. At the end of the day, having more diversity and choice for players can only be good. We can learn from any title. We are all gamers and play a huge variety of releases and are inspired by many things. It can't be a bad thing.”
Last year's FIFA featured female players in a first for the series.
It was clearly a positive step to take, but some of the more unpleasant commentators were, inexplicably, angry about the decision.
However, Channon says that introducing female teams was one of the crowning moments of his career.
I have been doing FIFA for six years, and announcing the women players last yea