A couple of weeks ago, we were able to get some hands-on time with an early build of FIFA 12, and were frankly surprised by how much more lifelike it felt than in previous years. Ball handling felt tighter, defense was more nuanced, player animations were more accurate—in short, the game felt much more like the sport we grew up playing than a video-game approximation. And it turns out that's exactly what EA Sports was going for. The game's devs are claiming that 12 is packed with the most year-to-year changes of the current console generation, and line producer David Rutter—who's been making soccer video games for 15 years—sat down with us to run through what footie fans can look forward to when the game drops later this year (there's no firm release date, but previous iterations have come out in October). So click through the screenshots above, or just read on to see how they made the pitch more perfect...
Complex: How would you lay out the primary improvements of FIFA 12?
David Rutter: Well, we've been talking about a trinity of gameplay innovations that revolutionize gameplay this year. So first is the Player Impact Engine, a totally real-time physics engine that drives the collisions between players. It leads to very fluid, very realistic and believable interactions, and a bunch of cool new features—a really engaging shielding system, no intersection of body parts, through to "true injuries" as we call them.
The other is Precision Dribbling, which is a very high-fidelity touch of the ball which allows you to create opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be there by taking close control of the ball and maneuvering yourself into space that you couldn't have done before. It also allows you to dribble the ball while shielding and spot opportunities, hold up play, and wait for support—very useful in congested areas, or if say you're pumping the ball up pitch to a player like [Manchester United's Dimitar] Berbatov, who's good at holding the ball and waiting for support play to come.
And then the third part of the trinity is Tactical Defending—we've ripped out our old defending system and introduced a new one. Instead of an automatic Press button, we now have a Contain button which drops you into this contain press where you try to shepherd your opponent into a disadvantageous position. If you want to try and tackle, it's actually a manual button press—if you time that badly, obviously he's got an opportunity to get around you with precision dribbling. So it's three things together that combine really well: one on the ball, one off the ball, and one with the two combined.
You've said that this is the biggest leap the franchise has made since this generation of consoles—were the improvements more driven by external pressures from the fan community or were they things that the dev team had always wanted to do?
I think it boils down to this. For the team, we've been trying to craft a brilliant soccer video game. A simulation of the sport. So to hear you say that you played growing up and love the game is reassuring to me because that's what we're trying to do. Since we transitioned to this console generation, we rebuilt the engine, rebuilt the game, and slowly but surely have been getting to a game quality level that we were happy with. The past couple of years we've been 90 or around it on Metacritic. For this year, we actually invested a small team offsite to build the Player Impact Engine, and they were working on that for a while. The reason we wanted to do that was that we realized that we were limiting ourselves with the technologies we'd built four or five years ago, and we needed to rejigger. So this was a team-based initiative, rather than a company-based one.
For tactical defending and precision dribbling, those two things came as much out of my frustrations with the limitations we had in our dribbling, and also to do with the fact that our defending was basic and wasn't engaging—it was powerful, but ultimately did not reflect what defending is. We had the jockey press and whatnot on double triggers, but that was not an accessible mechanic for the vast majority of people. So we wanted to remove the kind of un-engaging, basic, and ultimately dull defending mechanic and put in something much more interesting, with a lot more depth, but that actually reflected the sport and people's experience with the sport.
With the Impact Engine, how long was that offsite company working on it?
It was a full year off cycle and then this year as well, so two years total by the time we release.
So when you guys were finishing up FIFA 11, you had to have felt like, "just wait ’til the next one!"
At that point, it was still very early days, and we'd get the odd movie file around from that group saying "this is where we're at," and everyone would get very excited, but ultimately we didn't know whether it would work. Going from a canned physics engine to a fully real-time physics engine is a big investment. You'll have seen today when you were playing the game, there are moments of sheer beauty and brilliance compounded with over-the-top animation. So it's about balancing them out, making sure that it doesn't descend into an MMA game, let alone a football video game, is something else we've gotta work on. And also, you know, looking at the refereees and how they make their decisions, injuries, making sure it all works brilliantly. It's been a big balancing act for us, but the proof is in the playing. When you've played it and you see the fluidity, and the fact that when play breaks down it breaks down in such a believable and realistic way that you don't feel cheated, whereas if you go back and play FIFA 11, what you find are these moments where you're just "argh!"—it just grates really badly, and you probably didn't realize at the time what it was, but a lot of it's to do with that.
With the injuries, there's a line which you can't really go past. No compound fractures.
We're not breaking bones or showing blood or gore—that's not happening—but we have a range of injuries from minor through to major based on realistic data that we've sourced from real-world physios [doctors] saying "if this happens, how long would it take for people to recover?" We've put that into the engine so it knows how bad things are. So, in things like Career Mode, depending on the type of injury that you've had, there will be a period of time when that player needs to recover—but as a manager, you can take the risk of bringing them back earlier. The player can get re-injured. Depending on the type of injury, it could affect the player ratings. Or a player who's got a bad knee, if that knee gets hurt again, he's gonna be more frustrated when he gets injured than he otherwise might be.
As far as in-game content, other than promotions and transfers, are there any new leagues this year?
We're not talking about anything like that at the moment, sorry. I'll get a slap. [Laughs.]
Has the way you watch and play the sport changed as a result of your professional involvement?
Yes and no. It's weird. One of the most common questions I get asked is "surely there can't be much more to doing football video games—surely you've almost reached the pinnacle of perfection." I'm lucky: I get up every day, I play football video games, I watch and play football. And there isn't a game I play, a game I watch in real life, when I don't see something that is inspirational enough, based on human motion, ball motion, action, facial expressions, all of those kinds of things you see—that doesn't inspire me to go in to work and do something about it for future FIFAs.
At the same time, it does mean that when I'm watching a football match, I'm sometimes not actually watching what's going on. At the moment, when I'm watching football matches, I'm not thinking about what I could put in the game, I'm making sure that the features that we've put in the game this year look believable and realistic. We'll identify parts of a match and go "here are 17 of our 20 main features this year in the space of a 30-second play." And you're grinning to yourself because you think "we nailed it!" And then you watch another game and you think "holy ___, we've got to go and build that now!"