There was a time when FIFA wasn't the unstoppable juggernaut that it is today.
A time when it offered just dull, lifeless football in its bid to grind its way to the top of the Chart-Track league table.
Much has been written about FIFA's rise to prominence since then. Of its transformation into a game that not only wins trophies, but outclasses the opposition in the process.
But as anyone who follows football will tell you: Getting to the top is easy, it's staying there that's the hard part. And after several seasons of market dominance, FIFA has a title battle on its hands.
A new wave of mobile games are emerging to challenge the title's dominance. Meanwhile, Konami – EA's own ‘noisy neighbours' – has just released its best Pro Evolution Soccer for a generation.
So how does the FIFA team react to this pressure?
The idea that there are very skilled people in the world that are passionate about the subject and very keen to get the job done is motivating,” says FIFA 13 producer David Rutter. Having a competitor is always a good thing, and that helps keep us focused.”
Not that the FIFA development team needs motivating.
I'm lucky enough to work with roughly 18 nationalities,” continues Rutter. Lots of people from around the world have been imported into Canada to work on FIFA. The reason they have been imported is because a) they are from footballing cultures and b) because they are the best in the world at what they do.
In our team everyone's a football fan and a video gamer, and by nature, football fans and gamers are competitive people. We've got a year to make our game, we've got good plans about where we want to go. So competitive, highly skilled people in a pressured environment with a clear goal makes for a special combination.”
And indeed, FIFA 13 looks set to continue the team's recent tradition of releasing the year's most critically acclaimed sports title. The game features a wealth of new modes and gameplay options – including improved AI for your attacking players, plus a new first touch control mechanism that adds a level of unpredictability to the gameplay. And that's not to mention a plethora of new online modes, including one where the in-game players are updated based on real-life events.
Yet how does the FIFA team gauge whether or not its game has been successful? Is it that all-important metacritic score?
It depends who you are in the company I guess,” says Rutter.
Metacritic is a very big deal. It's like your teacher giving you a mark at school. You get your grades and you know what you did. But ultimately, not listening to your fans is a dumb thing to do. For a lot of us, that's also where a lot of the credibility in what we've done comes from.”
It also helps that after the initial launch phase, that conversation with fans continue. Once the critics have given their scores and the retailers have sold their allocations, the fans will keep on playing and keep one discovering new things they love and hate about the games.
Continues Rutter: FIFA 13 is definitely the closet we have ever come [in creating that ultimate football game] by a country mile. I've been making games for over 15 years and I've never yet been completely satisfied with what we've done. This one has got some pretty fantastic things in it, and we are extremely happy with it. But I know that within three, four, five months of the game being out, with many millions of people playing it, there will be a massive long list of things we'd want to achieve in the next year.
The key thing for me is that we have been incredibly lucky. We have got this sport called football which is our inspiration. Every single match we watch there is something that becomes an item on the list of things that we want to achieve. Every single game you see there is something and we have not run out of ideas or inspiration yet.”
NEW DIGITAL RIVALS
Pro Evolution Soccer may be FIFA's obvious rival, but there's a swathe of new football games on emerging digital and mobile platforms that are vying for the attentions of football fans.
Rutter himself admits to being a fan of these titles, but insists that FIFA is in a different league.
Fluid Football and New Star Soccer are big games on my phone and iPad. I play them a lot. The way they would affect our game is quite small. Our game is very much the equivalent to going to the cinema. It's an event where you're taking control of the television, taking control of the sofa and playing. There's a level of investment in time and effort in order to get onto our game and thankfully, a very large number of people are prepared to do that. I think those bite size chunks that those other games give people is wonderful and I'm a consumer of them.”
Indeed, FIFA is very much the Champions League of football games. So does that mean the development studio is looking forward to the next generation of Xbox and PlayStation and whatever new technology that brings? Or is it wary that new hardware could disrupt the team's current good form?
If I look at this console generation, we haven't yet gone to a point where there's something we wanted to do and haven't been able to,” says Rutter.
Are there things that we can't do on this console generation? Not that we are aware of. Are there things that we haven't done? Absolutely. And the reason that we haven't is because of prioritisation.
The one thing we get asked about the most is crowds. Why do the crowds not look like real humans? Ultimately, the team is focused on the quality of the gameplay. And we have been that way for many years now and will always be that way. So if we were to focus in on making the crowds look amazing, then you might not get things like first touch control or complete dribbling or the attacking intelligence features that we have done this year, because we are working on something else. And whilst that might make some fans happy, the vast majority of people – I am pretty sure – would prefer us to be working on something that matters to everyone, which is how the game plays.”
And it's this that has kept FIFA ahead of the game. The team's almost obsession with dreaming up new gameplay ideas and pleasing fans is why the franchise keeps making huge strides year-over-year.
New digital platforms and a new generation of technology will pose fresh challenges. PES is looking better than ever, and next year's game will be backed by a new engine and a UK studio. But while EA has this hugely motivated and ambitious team of developers beavering away in Canada, it's hard to imagine anyone taking FIFA's title. For the time being at least.