As part of an annual gaming fixture, one thing gamers can always count on is the yearly bout between EA’s FIFA and Konami’s PES, where people try to ascertain as to who will offer the superior footballing experience. And with the stakes being so high, the pressure is always on as both sides battle it out to win the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere.
As Producer of FIFA 17, Garreth Reeder is well aware of what it takes for EA’s football franchise to maintain its world class premier league status. And whilst PES shifted over to the Fox Engine a few years ago, FIFA recently made power-plays of its own by opting to be powered by DICE’s formidable Frostbite engine. In light of this, I talked to Garreth Reeder about the switch, and how the engine has enabled FIFA to maintain its competitive edge. Enjoy!
How long have you been working on the FIFA franchise?
FIFA 12 was my first FIFA.
What role did you start off as?
I’ve been working on a bunch of other sports titles in the past, so NBA, NHL… always in online modes. So that was always my focus. And then I moved into FIFA 12 and we worked on online seasons, which is kind of the first time we brought that mode into FIFA, and Pro Clubs, which was the 11-versus-11 online gameplay mode. So that was my primary focus. And then I worked on those modes for a number of years. And then I actually did some early development on The Journey, which is the new cinematic story mode that we have in FIFA 17. And so I started development on that. And then in the last year, switched over to FIFA Ultimate Team and worked on the new features that we’re launching with now.
What would you say are the biggest differences between FIFA 16 and FIFA 17?
I think where it starts is we’ve got a new game engine in FIFA 17. It’s the Frostbite engine, which is what we’ve seen amazing things from in Battlefield, Dragon Age, Need for Speed, these other titles within EA. And it gave us the ability to do new lighting, new environments… It let us be better at building environments that weren’t just the football pitch and the fans and the stadium. So we started to be able to do locker rooms, airplanes, hotels, apartments… All the areas of a footballer’s life that aren’t on the pitch.
Okay. And that helped with the story mode?
Exactly. And with that, knowing that we could do that, we started thinking like, “What can we do with this engine that we weren’t able to do before?” And that’s where a lot of the thinking with the story mode, The Journey came about. So we partnered with our friends at BioWare, our friends at DICE, our friends at Visceral, and found out what’s the best way to use this technology to get some of these new features in. And that’s kind of how Frostbite and The Journey started off.
So FIFA 17, as far as the yearly franchise is concerned, is the first FIFA game to utilise the Frostbite engine?
Usually for yearly franchises, there are massive teething problems such as performance-related issues. Sometimes you want to implement all the features that fans are accustomed to, but because of time, budget, and all of the other resource constraints that a studio suffers from, sometimes the title suffers as the studio is being too ambitious within the context of the resources that they have. With regards to FIFA 17, what assurances can you give to fans that even though you’re making these big, massive changes to the game, that ultimately, long-standing fans will still be satisfied with the FIFA experience, and where the Frostbite engine will be helping and aiding the experience rather than hindering it?
It’s a great question.
I’ve been through a lot of… either technology, big changes, or new console generations. And I think if I look way back to 2006, 2007, the transition from the old generation of – I guess it was like – the PS2 days up to PS3 and XBox 360… that was a really difficult transition. And I think we saw, across the industry, a lot of games falling back on features and content because it was such a struggle to get on that new technology. We learned a lot from that in FIFA 14 when we moved to XBox One and PS4…
Did FIFA 14 use a new engine as well?
Not a new engine… but the new hardware and the new technology to do that. I think we did it in the right way to ensure that we kept all of our feature content. We kept gameplay feeling traditional in terms of FIFA. And we took that same approach with this transition to Frostbite. So we started very early. We got the right people on the project. We got the right help from the rest of the company who has experience with Frostbite.
Yes. And by doing that, we were able to not only keep the feel of FIFA that I think our fans are used to, keep all the modes and all the content that people want, and then also add these huge new features like The Journey, new features in career mode and pro clubs and gameplay and FIFA Ultimate Team. So I feel like we really nailed that combination of, “Don’t mess up what you’ve already done but make sure you add the right content that players want.” Because at the end of the day, if you say, “Here’s our game, it’s amazing, it’s on a new engine, and it doesn’t have the right content,” people aren’t going to care. So I think we’ve done that this year.
PES switched to the Fox Engine about two years ago. And initially, the developers had massive teething problems, partly because the Fox Engine which, although it’s supposed to be scalable, the PS3 and the XBox 360 hardware just wasn’t powerful enough and wasn’t able to utilise the Fox Engine to the same degree. Would you say that using Frostbite is Electronic Arts’ way of future-proofing itself when it comes to future FIFA iterations, especially with what you expect from current gen and future gen hardware going forward?
I think it’s a great way to put it… We’ve got Frostbite as very much for us, that is exclusive to that next generation of hardware, so XBox One, PS4, and PC. And when I look across EA as a whole and I see Battlefield 1 and how amazing that game looks, and knowing that we’re on that engine, and that moving forward in future years, we can use all that technology and brain power within EA to really raise the engine for everyone, I think that’s what I’m most excited about moving forward. And as you said, with such a focus on that engine going into future hardware upgrades, I think we’re in a really great spot to utilise that and put that into our games.
A lot of people have commented that for the last two years, Pro Evolution Soccer has really raised its game, partly because of how it was able to jump onto the new hardware, even though the franchise had really awful 360 and PS3 generational gap teething problems. But ultimately, the developers of PES have really upped their game, and PES has been winning numerous awards since. How does that make the development team at FIFA feel? I know that competition is good and it makes people raise their game. But how are you ensuring that FIFA fans, who are like traditional football team supporters where their favourite team has a longstanding rivalry with another team – like Liverpool versus Man United… what steps are you taking to ensure that you don’t disappoint long-standing FIFA fans who want your game to succeed, where it’s regarded as being the best football game and franchise out there?
Pro Evo… of courses we play their game a lot. We always keep ourselves updated on new features that they’re doing or the new gameplay that they’re doing. And of course we play the game. I think what they do doesn’t affect our vision of what we’re trying to deliver in terms of our gameplay vision… our vision for modes and content for FIFA Ultimate Team. So it’s something that we are aware of and we review, but it doesn’t necessarily influence our decision. So I almost look at it as if we’re like a football club. We’ve got our own tactics around goals, around players that we’re trying to move forward. And there might be another really good team out there that we kind of keep an eye on, but not something that really influences how we go about making the game.
Everybody is talking about VR. Are there any plans for utilising VR as part of the FIFA experience, even if say, where you’re a crowd spectator?
Not that I am aware of. I’m sure within the company, we’ve got people who are working and thinking about VR, and I’m sure people thinking about how it could fit into the context of FIFA, but not anything yet that I’ve seen or been aware of.
You’ve placed yourself really well with regards to the current-gen PS4 and XBox One consoles. Looking ahead however, how is the FIFA franchise going to ensure that it’s able to take advantage of the forthcoming PS4 Pro and Scorpio hardware?
You asked a question before about Frostbite and if that’s helping to kind of future-proof some of that. I think that’s definitely one angle. Our technology platform is very robust and is able to handle all these new hardware requirements. Our appetite for making bigger and better experiences… visual and audio content, we’ll always be able to meet what the hardware is able to do. So I think we work very closely with both of our partners at Microsoft and Sony. So we’ll get as early access as we can to that hardware. And then we’ll work the best we can to get our experiences to match those expectations as we move forward.
Microsoft recently alluded to the notion that console generation cycles will soon be a thing of the past. And boxed products, in terms of revenue, I think statistics from Activision Blizzard recently stated said that a lot of their revenue comes from digital sales. Given that FIFA is a yearly-released product, even though I assume your revenue streams are also quite similar to Activision Blizzard… but with there being a greater emphasis on digital content, and given that games like Driveclub now have season passes, is there the possibility that FIFA might do something similar by which you just have the base game and then you have a yearly subscription model or season pass? Do you ever see the boxed version of FIFA maybe going away, especially when Microsoft and Sony have less of a focus on physical for our future consoles? And then one has to take into consideration traditional retail, which is already in an increasingly precarious situation, but relies a lot more on physical produce…
It’s interesting. One thing I always look forward to every year is… whatever day it falls in the calendar, but at the end of September, going on to social media, going on to websites and seeing all the people lined up around the world, waiting to get their new copy of FIFA and just the excitement that people have for that. I think we’re definitely always looking at the market in general, but I think especially what players want. So if that means in the future it’s a boxed product that happens every year, if in the future that means it’s a little bit more live-service driven… I think definitely, as you mentioned, in previous years, we’ve had a lot of success with both sides of people who are definitely starting to buy the game directly online and not through a store necessarily. We also have people who are playing a lot of FIFA Ultimate Team and engaging in that experience. And I think the days are gone for us of putting a product out, like the new yearly version of the game, and just saying, “Here you go. Here’s a new product. We’re going to work on the new one.” Now we have a full team that’s working all year round on the health of the game, the new features of the game, adding new content to the game. So I think in the next few years, we’ll really have to see where that takes us. It’s yet to be seen, but I think things will definitely change in the next three to five years.
What sort of pressure does that put on you, knowing fully well that your work is never done?
It’s been very different. It’s been very different from when I first started working in games. Some of the first games I worked on, you couldn’t even patch them. You couldn’t do a title update. You literally had to have everything working perfectly at release, and then you were done. And now of course, it’s very different. So it’s exciting. The future is very exciting. We’ve had to adjust our team structure to make sure that we’ve got the right people who are focusing on the current product that’s live, and not just always the next product. So it’s definitely reshaped how FIFA is set up and how we make our games.