FIFA '10 kicks it up a digital notch
Electronic Arts (XBOX360, PS3, PC)
GAMER Soccer is the world's most popular sport, so it follows that soccer video games are among the world's most popular games. With such a mammoth amount of cash on offer, the battle to be the planet's premier publisher of simulated footy boasts extremely high stakes. For more than a decade, two of gaming's biggest names, Electronic Arts (U.S.) and Konami (Japan) have fought tooth and claw for the affections of the vast soccer-gaming constituency, releasing yearly versions of their dueling mega-franchises, FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer.
For years, the Americans came in second best, using their financial clout to secure licensing agreements with leagues and players, but delivering poor gameplay. The reasons at the time seemed obvious Americans don't like soccer. Americans don't understand soccer. EA's glossy licenses played into a narrative of U.S. imperialism, in which a rapacious corporation strip-mined the world's game and its gamer devotees, backed by its Madden millions. Embattled "Pro Evo" was the preferred product everywhere, attracting tournament players, couch-bound amateurs, and quarter-hoarding arcade addicts alike. Even the pros themselves played it.
This lasted until 2007. A new class had matriculated at EA's Montreal substation, led by producer David Rutter and programmer Gary Paterson, a Scot and a lifelong football fan. A talented group of designers, they were sick of living in Pro Evo's long shadow, almost as sick as the higher-ups at EA, who were perennially No. 2 at the gaming box office. Recognizing that only serious change would get FIFA back into the profitable sun, the team rebuilt their game from the pitch up. Instead of constantly chasing Konami's innovations with ineffective imitations, they would produce something completely unlike Pro Evo new, different, and worthy of being judged on its own merits.
When FIFA '07 was released, the differences were obvious. Paterson, realizing that the excitement of soccer lay in its unpredictable outcomes, spearheaded the redesign by throwing out all the canned animations. Instead of player and ball interacting in a scripted, predetermined fashion, player and ball became realistic objects, coming together in a simulated physical world that obeyed Newtonian rules like gravity, momentum, and acceleration. Shots on goal, which previously resembled shots you'd see coming from a gun in an action game, now hinged on a complex combination of variables, like ball speed, shooting angle, and player skill.
Seemingly overnight, the FIFA team had a game that felt more like real soccer than Pro Evo ever had. Fans and critics were stunned the world's soccer-gaming hierarchy had been abruptly turned on its head. FIFA '08 and '09 continued in a similar vein. The team in Montreal, not content to rest on their laurels, incorporated the massive strides made in realistic physics modeling to make the games better, more realistic, and much more exciting. Taking advantage of EA's huge marketing budget, they recruited marquee players and tapped consumers neglected by Konami, particularly Spanish-speaking game buyers in the U.S. FIFA '09 smashed sales records, and powered more than 275 million individual online matches. The franchise, often the bridesmaid, was finally the bride, and it was marrying rich.
On Sept. 17, EA released the demo version of FIFA '10, which hits stores Oct. 22. The game boasts a number of improvements, including a new dribbling system, which finally frees players from the strictures of eight-way movement one of the most transparently "game-y" elements of simulated soccer, but also the most intractable. Sales are expected to calcify EA's dominance. Ensconced on its newfound throne, the massive publisher would do well to heed the lesson that got it there: when the gamers are opening their wallets, you're only as good as your last game engine.