Sebastien Enrique is the lead producer on the PS4 and Xbox One versions of FIFA 15. He’s been at EA Sports since FIFA 06 - in other words, when the series was still awful - and he’s been there to see its rise to greatness.
I think he’s bored of my silly questions after last time. ‘Will there be biting?’, I ask: “No. You can do it if you want when you’re playing the game, sitting next to your friends, you can bite them there. But we don’t encourage that.”
Still, he’s excited about this year’s game, in a way I’ve not seen him excited before. “It’s amazing,” he says, “Every time I see people playing it, I watch it and... it’s just amazing. It really excites me because it truly shows what we’re capable of.”
But at first glance FIFA 15 is FIFA-by-numbers. At second glance, too. And third. Because once again this is a series relying on iteration, rather than a vastly redesigned experience.
The goalkeepers - and the ‘emotion’ I had thrust at me last time I saw the game - are the big change, seeing a rewrite in their programming for the first time since... well, a long time.
What this means is they’ll react more fluidly and cleverly, they have the ability to change their mind (so no mindless punting the ball out of play for no reason), they can adjust their bodies to make better saves and generally will be improved from the odd ball-blockers they’ve been for the last however many years.
“When the ball is coming there are many situations in the game where you think ‘the keeper should grab it, why the hell is he clearing the ball?’,” Enrique says, “The thing is, with all the variables that are around, we couldn’t really know if the striker or any other player was going to get there faster, so the keeper would make the decision to clear it.”
“If he didn’t get there before the other player and then did something dumb then it was a stupid goal - that was the reason why he always committed to clearing the ball instead of doing something else.”
And now? “Now we can analyse the context better and more consider variables with the added processing power and memory and all these things, so he can start predicting all of the time ‘am I going to arrive first?’ and predict better, so he can make a decision of catching, or clearing or whatever.”
Obviously there’s the concern this might unbalance things, or fundamentally break the most important position on the field. But I put that to Enrique and he assured me it wouldn’t be the case - EA Sports is well aware of how careful it has to be with goalies, after all.
As is always the case, though, the truth will come out once the game’s been in the wild for a number of months. Playing a few matches on unfinished code doesn’t really show you much, to be perfectly honest, apart from - yep, this is FIFA again.
One area you’d expect improvements is the look - and thanks to EA Sports’ extended agreement with the Premier League, you’ll see all 20 stadiums and hundreds of players scanned in so they look freakishly lifelike.
“It’s probably the most difficult logistical problem we’ve ever faced,” Enrique told me, “It’s not like you can tell a club you’re turning up tomorrow and that they have to have all their players ready for us to scan them at our own pleasure.
“So you get set dates, you get to travel all around England with a lot of equipment - basically it’s a very difficult logistical problem of how to arrange it.” And what if someone’s not there? “If we didn’t get access to one player then it’s just hard luck.”
So if Michael Duff isn’t at Turf Moor on the day EA Sports need him, you’re not getting Michael Duff’s proper face. Okay?
One big difference this year is the step up to the current gen versions. In FIFA 14 we saw the introduction of the Ignite engine and all that marketing gumph, but it really just felt like a graphical update for the game over the last-gen versions.
This year, things are different. The goalkeeper improvements and emotional aspects won’t feature on PS3, Xbox 360, Wii or any of the older formats, because of processing power constraints. The current gen versions will actually have a real edge this time around.
And it’s something Enrique encouraged from a design perspective, as he tells me: “Last year we worked really collaboratively [between versions for each generation], but this year I took over as lead on the current gen version, got the staff together and told them to forget about the last gen. Forget about how something can work on the last gen. Free your mind. Dream. Let’s go for it.”
“It’s fair for whoever gets the current gen title that you build the best game you can. It’s fair for the last gen owners that whatever we can build on that console and optimise from the bigger version we try to do as well. But for me I truly wanted to stop the guys from thinking multiple generations, and to just go for their dreams, just go for what we’ve always wanted to do.”
One of those dreams seems to be no Wii U version, mind. Not that Enrique said that to me, it’s just FIFA 15 on Wii U doesn’t seem to be a thing.
But there was one thing bugging me: presentation is a key aspect of the FIFA 15 experience, clearly. A lot of effort goes into the look of the game, the authenticity, everything around the core ‘playing football’ attraction. But a lot of people skip it. I do.
People at our demo session were skipping the newly introduced teamsheets and stitched commentary after they’d watched it once. People skip. Does EA measure that kind of thing?
“We have metrics, yes,” Enrique told me, after I’d basically said to him I totally gloss over a lot of his team’s hard work.
“People skip a lot of goals scored against them - they want to watch their goals and they want to show their goals to other people... But overall, with all the work that we put into the presentation on FIFA 14, the amount of stuff that’s skipped is much less than was skipped on the last generation.”
But don’t worry: we’ll never be forced to watch it. “We’ll never prevent people from skipping things, you always have the option, but for those who want to watch it we want to have something that looks extremely good, professional and lifelike.”
It’s getting to the point where there’s not much to improve about FIFA except the presentation, to be frank - so it’s difficult to begrudge the developer these rather overwrought replays. People might skip right past them, but hey, it gives them something to do.