As I've said, FIFA 10 comes as close as any sports game I've played to being just like the real thing. Begging the question: how do the developers actually turn a sport like football into a video game?
After all, football is not like most other sports represented in video games. It is not a game of inches, of innings, of lines, or mechanical plays. It is, as die-hard fans of the game will tell you, more than a game.
It's an artform.
Few, if any sports on earth are so free-flowing, so open to an individual player's interpretation of how the game should be played, and how they'll go about playing it. It's why arguments over who is the "best" player in the world are often pointless; Pele and Maradona are incomparable, as are Best and Beckenbauer, Figo and Zidane. It's like arguing whether Picasso is better than Van Gogh, or Mozart sharper than Beethoven.
What makes the game such a joy to watch, and gives the players the freedom to express themselves individually, should make a video game adaptation a nightmare. In American Football, for example, things are very structured. There are self-contained plays, there are limitations on what is happening at any one time. It's very mechanical. A lineman blocks, within a small area of the field, and that's that. A field goal is from a fixed point on the field, with the kicker making the same approach every time. You see where I'm going with this.
But football is all over the place. Ten of the eleven players could be anywhere on the pitch at any given time. The ball can go anywhere, in any direction, in the air or along the ground. Possession can change hands ten times in two minutes. It's a playground, a well-manicured sandbox.
None of which seemed to matter while playing FIFA 10, which both looks and plays as close to the real thing as any sports game I've ever played. So how do you model a video game, which by its very nature is a long string of pre-determined actions and reactions, on something so free-flowing and unpredictable?
The answer is both simple and very, very complicated: you go and bury yourself up to your neck in the sport.
After all, it's hard replicating something if you're not intimately familiar with it. So we caught up with the brains behind FIFA 10 to see how the team go about turning what for the developers is a lifelong obsession into something millions more would call the same thing.
According to FIFA 10's producer, David Rutter, it all begins with the development team's diversity. "We're in the process of building a ‘team wall' at the studio with pictures of all the guys showing where they're from and what teams they support", he says. "At last count we had people from 18 different countries, speaking 10 different languages".
And the variety doesn't end with the developer's passports. The teams they support reflect the corners of the earth from which they all hail. Being a Western studio means support skews heavily towards the English game – not just Man United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs fans, but also less glamorous sides like Leicester and Queens Park Rangers. There's plenty of international support as well, from Barcelona to Inter to the…Vancouver Whitecaps, the studio's local team.
Being, you know, important to the job, EA Canada staffers are able to indulge that support in a number of ways. Live games from all the world's major leagues are broadcast both on TVs in the studio and streamed to the developer's monitors, while for more real-world research they also have a number of season passes to the aforementioned Whitecaps (who, interestingly, engage in an annual showdown with Microsoft fanboys the Seattle Sounders). And that's just the local stuff; with members of the team always travelling across the globe, they also take in games across more prestigious competitions, like the Premier League and Champions League.
For a more hands-on approach to studying the inner workings of the game, the team can draw on the knowledge of some former players. One of FIFA's gameplay producers, Aaron McHard, was a former member of the Jamaican national team's youth squad, while Kantcho Doskov, an animator, is one of the best "tricksters" (think juggling, balancing, etc) in the world, having been a finalist at the Red Bull Freestyle Championships.
For everyone else — the team's Sunday league superstars — EA Canada have built the developers their own football pitch on the site, so they can pop out and do some "research" whenever the urge takes them.
THE GAME PLAN
In order for the game to play like a realistic game of football, the actual players on-screen needed to do a decent job of mirroring their real-life counterpart's abilities and performance. After all, it's no good to anybody if Wayne Rooney can't shoot, Lionel Messi can't dribble or David James suddenly learns how to keep something out of his net.
To make sure FIFA's players act like real players, then, EA have gone Roman, managing their "scouts" in multiples of ten. So, there are ten core database managers at EA Canada. Those ten then supervise another 100 "football experts", who are the ones actually inputting each player's individual attributes into the game. Then, below those 100, there are another 1000 or so hardcore fans from all over the world, who go over each stat with a fine-tooth comb and provide feedback.
And if that's not enough, Rutter also says the development team are constantly receiving "feedback" from Premier League stars themselves, satisfied (or dissatisfied!) with their numbers.
With the attributes in the database, it's then over to the animators, who have an equally important task ahead of them; just as it would stand out if Wayne Rooney wasn't scoring, so too would it stand out if he ran around all legs and arms like Peter Crouch, instead of all shoulders and potato head like he should.
Every year, professional players are invited into the studio to perform motion capture work on every aspect of the game. Dribbling, free kicks, shooting, tackling, throw-ins, penalties, slide tackles, you name it, it has to be captured. Sometimes, these are "professional" in the sense they're local players. Other times, they're "professional" in the sense that they've captured moves performed in the studio by the likes of Ronaldinho, Miroslav Klose and Sergio Ramos.
During FIFA 10's initial marketing push, much was made of the introduction of 360-degree dribbling, something that sounded minor but actually promised to revolutionize the way the game controlled. Once the game was released, however, things turned out a little differently. Sure, the 360-degree movement was a big improvement over previous years, but it wasn't the best part of the game's controls.
No, that went to something intangible. Something you couldn't really put on the back of the box. It was like the Force, all around you, binding everything together.
"I do think a lot of the fluidity of 10 came, not just from 360, but from improvements to our trapping system which is the system that controls how the player moves and controls the ball", says Gary Paterson, the game's creative director. "This system was improved in lots of different ways to ensure that it was as fluid as possible and this I think made a big difference to the feeling of fluidity."
The other key aspect of gameplay is the ball physics, which determines how the ball reacts to things like player contact and weather. For a game built entirely around the movement and collision of a round ball, it's obviously very, very important.
"The process we go through is like this", says Kaz Makita, executive producer on the game. "We will build a foundation of how we want the ball to behave in different situations, then test the different situations in game. We focus our testing on how we want the ball to behave and we go through a process where we refine it until looks, feels and plays authentically.
"The big challenge is how the ball interacts with a player because these interactions are limited by the number and variety of animations, something we are constantly updating each year. We make huge improvements each year with ball and player interactions but sometimes the variety of animations do not enable us to satisfy realism. We built a new animation engine so we could create a much deeper library of player behaviours, which enables us to create deeper, more authentic ball movement, but the challenge remains to build animations to fit with ball physics that look and feel authentic."
Patterson adds: "I guess the ball physics has two components: the physics formulae and the variable constants that we pass into those formulae... We have some very smart guys here who have been able to provide us with accurate ball physics formulae, but getting the constants for how a football passes through the air is very tricky. So much so in fact that we contacted a Physics Grad at a local university to help us define them. I'm pretty happy with the results but I think we will continue to tweak and tune."
Realism, however, only goes so far. "Once you have the ball physics, you have to use it authentically, and this part is just as tricky", Paterson says. "For example how much spin should be on a cross, what does a shot look like when the player miss-kicks it? All these things obviously affect the authenticity of our game and this is perhaps where we bend the rules a little to try and ensure we get a fun game. For example, in real life, crossing the ball is very inaccurate, many crosses go too far, or out of play, but in FIFA this would be very frustrating and upset the balance of the game (as you would be discouraged from crossing), so yeah, we have to bend reality a little bit."
While FIFA 10 is currently king of the sports games, both in terms of sales and critical approval, the "10" after its name and the fact it's from EA Sports means it will only remain so for another ten months or so. Once FIFA 11 rolls around, changes have to be made. After all, just because it's the most realistic sports game on the market doesn't mean it's perfect.
So, what can we expect from next year's game, as the developers continue to strive towards presenting us with the perfect game of football? "We have been having a lot of conversations this year around game speed and game difficulty, as some of our gamers want slower and harder gameplay, more simulation" says Paterson. "This is a tricky one as it would mean we would have to alter one of the core gameplay concepts that we have built the game on thus far…"