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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
"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.
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.