Pace, Strength, Finesse Shots, Crosses. Those are the four most contentious points of FIFA’s balance that I can think of, and they come up, every year, as predictably as Antonio Valencia’s balls into the box. (Antonio Valencia’s balls into the box are very predictable, if you didn’t get that.)
This year, following the closed beta, there was also a worry that defenders were turning far too slowly – a pretty specific complaint, but nonetheless something that Sam Rivera, lead gameplay producer on FIFA 18, mentioned when we sat down for a quick chat.
Last year’s FIFA 17, we both agreed, was “very tight,” with what felt like one of the lowest goals-per-game averages that I’ve experienced. “One of the things we wanted is that FIFA 18 should have a few more goals per match than FIFA 17.” And at the same time, “One of the complaints in FIFA 17 was that the AI was defending too good, a lot of people would just let the AI defend.” That makes sense – make the AI defenders a little worse, and you’ll get a few more goals.
“We wanted to be more user-skilled,” he continued. “We need to create a skill gap so pro players can differentiate from regular players for example, the more you play the better time your tackle, the better chances you have of being a good player when defending. So, it’s still possible to defend for sure, and to defend very well, but your skill as a player matters more than before.”
A few more goals, a little higher skill cap for top level defenders – this all sounds great, but then we get the turning issue. “So, let’s say the ball is passing here and I wanted to go chase it,” Rivera says. “I could just go and intercept it, but my player would take a long time and get it… The reason why there’s stuff like that is not because we wanted it to be that way, it’s because we didn’t have time to fix is because of the closed beta. So we fixed it so players rotate and sprint right away without the hesitation.”
But all these changes have knock-on effects! “For example for pace, people at the beginning they feel like in FIFA 18 it’s a little bit slower, but after a few matches, the same people who said ‘oh it’s slow’ are saying ‘but it’s awesome, because now I can do more authentic behaviours, like if I’m defending I don’t just sprint at somebody, and if I miss I just recover and come back.'”
Pace is good and pace is bad. In a way I have an enormous amount of sympathy for Rivera and his team. Balancing beloved, competitive games is, I believe, utterly fascinating – but it does also sound a lot like a game of whack-a-mole played out in front of a crowd of people who really, really hate moles.
“Everything is connected,” Sam admits. “Sometimes you change something and that affects something else and then you end up [with people saying] ‘Oh sorry this is overpowered.’ Or just sometimes we need to feel we do something with a new feature and then we implement it and it becomes overpowered, so there’s different factors… but everything is connected.”
What about shifting to a service model though? Surely, in 2017, it’s time to at least consider hanging up the boots of annualisation and give the team the breathing room to tweak and tune the game’s balance over time?
“That’s more of a question for the people deciding the structure of the game and the use of the features” – of course it is – “but, what we are committed to is to have a game that is balanced and enjoyable.” Rivera also suggests that competitive players might suffer being forced to re-learn the game every month, but in a world where games of perpetual motion like League of Legends are the only ones to truly make the transition into sports, I don’t buy that.
The thing is, this year’s FIFA actually feels great. I only had a short time with it at Gamescom, but I played the version that was something between what players saw in the closed beta, and what we’ll see at launch. The defending felt snappy, use of pace felt circumstantial, not always-applicable – it is genuinely shaping up to be one of the best FIFAs, in terms of raw gameplay, that I’ve experienced for some time, a silky balance of arcade and sim, just the way I like it.
But there will definitely be something that needs tweaking. I did score a Finesse Shot, after all, so it’s probably that. There’s no sign of the cycle breaking. “That’s the idea for now,” says Rivera. “Sometimes it takes a few tries, a few patches, something like that, but that’s just how we’re working at the moment.”
Like I said, it does sound fascinating, but I’d rather them than me.