While Call of Duty has become somewhat infamous for its yearly releases, and that other franchises such as Assassin's Creed have begun to adopt the annual release schedule, sports franchises have been turning around new entries on a yearly basis for well over a decade. With other titles alternating between development studios (Call of Duty's Infinity Ward and Treyarch) or outsource modes to other studios (such as Assassin's Creed: Revelations' multiplayer), we were keen to see what goes into making a new FIFA game year-in, year-out, the process behind creating major new features and how fan feedback shapes each new entry.
As you read this, EA Canada is putting the finishing touches to this year's instalment FIFA 12, which is due for release in late September. Although all of its features are done and there's no new content to be added, it's still a mad scramble to get everything ready for release. "[Right now] it's just a case of fixing all the bugs, tuning and making sure it all works as well as it can within the confines of the features that we've made," said lead producer David Rutter. "We're at the point now - it's pedal to the metal, lots and lots of hard work, crunching through bugs."
However, at the back of the team's mind is what they could be doing for next year's instalment FIFA 13, which will be released the following year. With the team hard at work on FIFA 12 right now, formal discussions won't begin until after the game's release this October and November. The game is in pre-production until the end of the year, but development won't begin proper until after Christmas. That means that a FIFA game doesn't even have a year in full production, with the bulk of the project coming together in around eight or nine months.
So with the latest FIFA game hitting shelves, what goes into the decision process of creating next year's FIFA? How does the development team prioritise what things should be added, and whether they can be done in time? "One, we shortlist the stuff we want to do, we've kind of got a shopping list of things we want to do, short and long term within the FIFA team as far as features are concerned," explained Rutter. "We look at those and figure out which of those we can do this year."
The team has a mantra - Refine, respond to Feedback and Innovate - as to how it approaches new features and improvements. Refinements are essentially polishing and improving previous features so they play better. An example of that was the recently-introduced Career mode, which Rutter described as "great" but there was "a load of stuff" that the team wanted to add to make it better. There are countless other tweaks and changes that go into a FIFA game each year, the most visible of which are roster updates, which are left "until the last possible minute" since the game's packaging phase clashes with a transfer window.
Innovate is where the brand new features are discussed, ideas that are "something either significantly bigger and significantly different". FIFA 12 is described as "one of the bigger years" for the franchise, adding precision dribbling, tactical defending and the big innovation of the Player Impact engine, which sees players react realistically to physical challenges, something Rutter believes is a "standard setting" feature within the genre. Such a dramatic addition to the game - as well as previous features such as FIFA 11's 'Be a Goalkeeper' mode - are too big a task to be created within a the tight 12-month development cycle, and so are given to a smaller, dedicated team to work on for up to two years at a time.
"Talking about yearly iterative titles, we don't always do everything in a year," Rutter explained. "So we have a luxury in our team in the sense that if we really feel the need to do something we know we can't get done in a year, then we'll take some people and throw them into an advanced team for not for this year's game but for the year after, something like that. A great example of that is the Player Impact engine, where we knew to get to the next level of player physicality that we'd need to do more than a year to do the work, so we got some of the clever guys, collaborated closely with one of the more central core technology teams and together developed this amazing technology, and that's what we got over the period of just over two years."
The amount of people that are dedicated to working on FIFA is around 60, but the actual number contributing to development is far more, a number even Rutter doesn't know. FIFA, alongside EA's other sports titles, work with that 'central core technology' team, which produce the guts of the game, creating online technology, art and build pipelines, physics, animation and more. Rutter praises the "brilliant" collaborative nature of Electronic Arts and how its different teams, such as those working on Madden, NHL, and even games as far removed as SSX and Battlefield, can all share technology and expertise. "I know before I started EA I didn't know what to expect. Since having joined it's been extremely eye-opening as far as communication and collaboration is concerned," he said. "So if push comes to shove and we're not quite sure how to do something, we can talk to [one of] those guys."
Another major aspect of creating a new FIFA game is feedback. One type of feedback is critical reviews and websites such as Metacritic. But another is the fans themselves, to whom Rutter and his team pay very close attention. "When the game is launched, we'll listen to what the fans say, what they like and dislike, what they're happy with and want more of," he said. Thoughts and opinions of everyday players used to help refine the next instalment, and usually there is a lot of consensus between fans and the developer in that area. "What the fans want us to do is hopefully what we're going to be doing, so there's a lot of parity between our opinions and what's going on," said Rutter. As well as using forums and social networks like Twitter for finding feedback, EA invites 20 to 25 members of the key FIFA community to its Guildford offices to play the game several months before general release. Rutter says that the whole feedback process is something "we take quite seriously."
Although FIFA 13 is still far off, Rutter has a general idea of what next year's edition will bring. As the Player Impact Engine is "probably the biggest change we've made to our gameplay code base since we moved over to PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360", next year is likely to see more refinements than new features. "Next year, we're not going to reinvent a brand new Player Impact engine for next year, because the reason we've learnt this year is that it's future-proofing our game, but it's probably not going to be quite as dramatic as far as technology is concerned, but there'll be a large number of changes based around gameplay nuance on the back of that, perhaps. But we still don't know exactly what we're doing next year."
One feature confirmed by Electronic Arts at this year's E3 Expo is Kinect support, which is to be introduced across its entire sports lineup from next year. While developing ideas for the hands-free peripheral hasn't had a dedicated team assigned to it like the Player Impact Engine or Be a Goalkeeper (Rutter describes Kinect as more of a "creative 'does it work well in FIFA?' challenge" as opposed to a "brute force technology" one), EA has been experimenting with Kinect pretty much since it was first announced.
"We've kind of messing around and thinking of what would work, and since the Kinect came out, or the very first announcement almost two years ago, we've been asked, 'Will you have Kinect support?', and we've always said, 'Not until we can get something cool and makes sense working', and now that's the case and that's going to be next year, so it's just a case of finishing that off now." Rutter cannot, of course, disclose how it would use Kinect until the future for "competitive advantage" reasons.
EA's direction of refining, responding to feedback and innovating has certainly put FIFA in good stead, seeing great critical and player feedback over the last few years and putting its competitors in the shade. I ask Rutter whether at this point the team are comfortable with the yearly development cycle. "I think comfortable might be pushing it a bit!" Ruttler responded with a laugh. "We are very buttoned up as far as process and project management is concerned. I think with yearly iterative sports you kind of have to be. We have a great deal of very talented, very ambitious and very creative people on our team, and if we didn't have those checks and balances I suspect our games would be very late because we'd be trying to make the most kickass game we possibly could."
He added: "Thankfully, knowing that you have a date to hit at the beginning of the year keeps you, not conservative, but I don't really even think about it because we've been doing it for over 15 years so it's kind of normal. I don't know what would happen to me or a game I was working on if it took longer than a year, I don't know if I could do it."
> Read our preview of FIFA 12
FIFA 12 will be available on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC from September 27 in North America and September 30 worldwide.