FIFA 17 launched earlier this week; and in so doing, it became one of the few sports sims to embrace a burgeoning trend in the genre-story mode.
I got a chance to talk to FIFA 17 creative director Matthew Prior about the creation of the new mode, the direction the team decided to take it, and whether it's the future of the genre.
USgamer: So let's talk about The Journey a little bit. It's a really ambitious mode, and at this point, NBA 2K is really the only sports game to tackle this whole story mode thing because it's so crazy ambitious. Tell me a little bit about the planning and laying the groundwork for this.
Matthew Prior, Creative Director: Yeah, so it is ambitious, you're right, and also is an area that we've not done before with FIFA; and then we've also got Frostbite this year, so it's kind of ambitious on a triple front. But it's something that we wanted to do, I've wanted to do story for a long time, because FIFA as a whole—we've done an amazing job at focusing on the 90 minutes on the pitch, but we've never really taken it off the pitch. And just as football's grown, so has social media, Internet, et cetera et cetera, and that's a side of football that's reasonably new. People can get football 24/7. They follow their players on Twitter.
So there's a window into that world like never before, and I think it's something that users find very interesting. So story is the side of football we've never had before, and we want to bring to the game because, like I said, there's an appetite for it from users. Secondary to that, or along with that, is that we also felt it was a great means with which to onboard users. So if you're not hugely into football, I think it will appeal to all our fans, but particularly the users who aren't particularly into football. Maybe they've heard FIFA's really good, they just want to try it out, because what we've seen in the past is a lot of users will come to our game, they hear it's a great game, number one sports game in the world, et cetera et cetera, they'll come and there's not really a mode that caters to them, help them to understand the nature of football, help them to understand, to play the game.
We know that people know that people go to the skill games that we've had in the game for years, they will stick around more, because fundamentally they understand the game more, they appreciate more, they enjoy it more. The challenge has always been, there's a certain mindset that actually goes to that. Most people want to get in, experience the wow, the big moments and all the rest of it, so they just dive into other modes, and it's particularly harsh if they go online and get hammered 15-0. It's not the most pleasant experience. So, the other aspects of The Journey is to just give users a way to learn to play the game in a safe environment. We kind of behind the scenes call it basic training for FIFA. You play through The Journey, you have an amazing time, you come out the other end knowing our game, knowing a bit about the culture of football. So, that's part of the reason, and in terms of the effort required, so, we've an annual cycle so it's always a challenge. So, this is one of the areas where I actually broke off and creatively led the charge on this, a couple of years ago. It is an ambitious mode, and to achieve that ambition it has taken longer than it ordinarily would have done. So, it's been kind of two years in the making, it's involved areas and expertise that we haven't had or needed to have on FIFA before, so it's a whole new learning experience in a lot of areas, and thankfully it's paid dividends, and all the feedback we're getting is phenomenal so far.
USG: What expertise did you end up needing?
Prior: Well, that's more of the technical stuff. So, things like cinematic directors, guys and girls who can create these scenes, position cameras. We have narrative creative director as well who works with actors. Casting, all that kind of stuff, that's areas that we as FIFA haven't needed before. So, that was a learning curve for a lot of us as well. From a personal standpoint, it's been great, because, like I say, I've wanted to bring story to FIFA for a long time, and doing that and seeing what it takes and all the rest of it has been a great experience.
USG: I was going to say, sports movies and story mode always seemed like a really natural fit for sports games, but it hasn't happened until now. What took so long?
Prior: Well, one of the reasons is the move over to Frostbite Engine. Frostbite is one of the most advanced engines in the industry, and one of the things is that it allows us to do is kind of create sets, environments, more easily than our previous toolset on FIFA. So the fact that we moved up to Frostbite this year kind of allowed us to break the creative shackles in some areas and bring this mode to the world of FIFA. Like I said, it felt like the right time in terms of the interest in that side of things and all the rest of it. We haven't had a new, from the ground up mode in a long time, so we felt there was an appetite for new innovation. We felt it was the right time to bring that because we haven't had that for a while. So, kind of a combination of things, a perfect storm of circumstance— the move to the tech engine and that kind of thing led to the reason we're doing it now.
USG: So, you decided to go with a pre-built character, Alex Hunter. Why do that instead of allowing players to build their own character?
Prior: So, this is something we bandied about through sleepless nights over a number of years. When we started the mode, obviously, we decided what we wanted to do. And there were a number of reasons we went with a fixed character. Part of it is that there's an expectation in sports that because we've had create yourself that we would go that route. The problem is, you can create yourself, and you still can in our game for Be a Pro career mode; but up until this point, it's been a representation of you on the pitch.
As soon as we go off the pitch-which we do in The Journey-we need to put a voice in his head. And, instantly, that's not your voice. There's a disconnect where you're like, "OK, maybe it kind of looks like me, it's got my name on it, but that's not my voice." To do an emotional journey and a movie-esque mode, you need characters, you need the family—so if you create yourself, that's not your mum. So, while people think that would be the perfect idea, we're going so in-depth like never before that there's this area where it just wouldn't have worked. So, that was part of it.
The other part of it was, from a visual standpoint, creating players who are not up to the level that we can get with scanned players. You would have had this created player who didn't have the same visual fidelity, looked a little bit weird next to the rest of them—so we wanted to create the most immersive experience we could. So that was another part of it.
The other element of it going back to the immersion, was, if you can create yourself, create your name, all the rest of it, you can't talk to that character as well as you could if it were a fixed character. So you can't have the crowd chanting your name, you can't have the commentators talking specifically about you, the other characters talking to you. It's all about this team, that team, that player. So you lose a huge part of the immersion, the connection, and to be honest the vast majority of games don't allow you to create your own character. You can't play Uncharted as you, you can't play other games as you. So some of that is the precedent sports set with the created player, but when you look at it, we're taking the created player, or would have been, to a whole new realm that didn't really work if you had that.
And then we just wanted to create an interesting character, and obviously having a specific background, specific area he comes from, allows him to do that much more immersive if we have the fixed character. So we did hem and haw about that for a long time. It wasn't an easy decision, but ultimately it was the right one. And all the feedback, when people are playing that and kind of get over that, and they connect with the character. We've got feedback that he's a likable character. They're interested in him. So, he's absolutely the right decision. I understand why people might come with the expectation that they can create themselves.
USG: My first thought was, "Oh, it's really cool that you can pick any of the teams in the EPL and it reskins everything properly." But, I chuckled when my team, West Ham, signed Harry Kane, because I just could not imagine that happening in real life. And it seems like, even more unlikely, if you pick, say, Watford or Burnley, or something like that. How do you square that?
Prior: Yeah. Because Harry Kane talks, you interact with him and all the rest of it. You need to know, we don't have infinite time and resources, so we kind of have to draw the line. So there is a huge uniqueness to the story based on how you perform, how you interact with characters, how you talk, whether you go for the fire or calm. Every kick of the ball on the pitch is unique to you, we didn't script any of that. So there is a very unique nature to the story. There are elements where we obviously have to live in the reality of-we can't do twenty completely different stories for teams, and you know, the money in Bournemouth just signed Jack Wilshere. Wouldn't have said that was possible a few years ago. Probably not, but such is the level in the Premier League now that I don't think, outside of a few players maybe, that there are any completely "that would never actually happen" kind of moments, because a lot of the teams do have the money now because of the TV deals. So, that gap of resources and what is squeezing every year on year.
USG: Spurs fans are going to be so mad when they see that you have Harry Kane going to other teams.
Prior: They might be, yeah, they might be. Such is the nature of football. It's a passionate thing.
USG: Is it possible to avoid being loaned out?
Prior: I don't want to give out any spoilers. The path varies based on how you perform, so there are variants. Not everyone goes through exactly the same thing. Obviously, there's the through-path of a narrative that everyone goes in and around, but as I mention, every kick of the ball is controlled by you. We didn't want to script anything there, so we didn't want to force you to get a red card, force you to score goals or whatever. So there is a through-narrative that everyone will be in and around, but then there is a lot of variation based on that.
USG: So it seems like you have a particular story arc going. What were some of the things that you wanted to capture? Did you want players to feel like they were in a sports movie, or were you going more for, let's be as realistic to the premiere league as possible? What were some of your primary objectives?
Prior: Well, both of those, really, because any story has ups, downs, highs, lows, if you can keep everything's great, then it isn't a story. Every movie, book, et cetera, has that kind of story arc, so we obviously wanted to keep that in the movie sense of thing. But to the authenticity thing, we also wanted to keep it authentic, and that was a big part of the creation of this. We broke the script. We went out to real world players-the Harry Kanes, the Marco Reuses-to run it through them and show them all this kind of stuff and see if they can relate to it, because authenticity in FIFA is a huge part of it, always has been. We wanted to create a story, that make sure if it was authentic to the journeys, if you pardon the pun, the real world players have gone through W did get that feedback, thankfully, and they had a lot of input on it, but thankfully the kind of core narrative is something they could all relate to-the highs and lows of professional sport. Things like the need for a support network of family when things don't go your way is huge. Every single one of them related to that, even though they come from Germany, Colombia, France, England, every one of them connect to that. So we wanted both: We wanted the emotional connection and feel of a movie, but at the same time keep it completely authentic to what happens in the real world.
USG: Were you guys going for more of an understated serious-minded approach with a real focus on let's be as realistic as possible?
Prior: Right. We want realism to be a big part of it, obviously, because part of bringing in The Journey to the world of FIFA is, like I mention, the ability to peek behind the curtain and show a facet of football we've never seen. And also the daily routine and daily life of a footballer. The Journey starts with him as a ten-year-old kid, but post that, you're in an exit trial, which is a real world thing. These guys are picked up at such an early age now. The days of when you could be discovered when you were 18 are kind of gone. Such is the mechanic of football now that great players are identified very early, so, they almost universally all go through an academy. So an Exit Trial is a real world thing, and what that is is the talent that wasn't picked up through the course of the academy has this one chance at the end of it in front of all of the scouts to try out. Kind of like the combine that you have over here. Bringing in that side of things and that journey that footballers go on was another part of what we wanted to do. So realism was a big part of it, but in addition to that to the point of the through-narrative we need these peaks and troughs that people go through to keep it interesting. If you just went in and you scored three goals every game and nothing happened, that wouldn't be the most interesting narrative. So, you can do that, and things will change based on that, but we do need this narrative to take people through, ultimately.