You won't find many studios as prepared for the impending console transition as EA Sports.
Next-gen sports engine 'Ignite' is the result of what group GM Matt Bilbey calls EA Sports' "positive paranoia" about Xbox One and PS4 - a clear reaction to the mistakes it made during the last console transition, when the Vancouver studio planned late and paid the price.
"A lot of us worked on that last console transition and... it didn't go well for EA," Bilbey told CVG. "We decided to rewrite everything and it didn't go well - we played catch up for the first four or five years of the console cycle."
At E3 in June, the fully playable next-gen FIFA 14 was revealed to be running at a silky 60 frames-per-second, but there are still plenty of hurdles to clear if the series is going to make a real leap from its current-gen offering, not least the mammoth task of updating hundreds of player assets and stadiums.
CVG met with Bilbey to discuss the challenges involved with preparing the world's biggest sports game for the next-generation of consoles and hardware.
Where are you at currently with the development of next-gen FIFA?
We made a big deal about announcing EA Sports Ignite [at E3], which is sort of like EA Sports' answer to Frostbite and allows us to do numerous things around physics animation across FIFA, UFC, NBA and Madden. It allows our teams to be much closer together and share a lot, which means our architecture can stop worrying about base level technology and create better games.
We've got FIFA running at 60fps on Xbox One - right now. It runs to a level that is playable and fun already, and we're months away from releasing it. So we're exceptionally excited about having that base architecture to share and being able to actually show our fans the living worlds, 3D crowds and ball boys running off the pitch because it's a home game and their team is 1-0 down...
Our players now turn and move so much more realistically, based on a new Locomotion system. It feels so much more responsive and human-like... using new AI systems players can now anticipate collisions and move out of the way. We're so excited and our fans are going to love it. As football fans and gaming fans, it's our dream come true to be able to release and talk about this.
The only thing I would warn you against is when you go and play next-gen FIFA and go back to playing gen-3... you will notice it.
"We actually put together the software tools to enhance [Sky's] broadcasts. We did something for the instant replay tool that Gary Neville uses... that's the FIFA game"
How crucial is it that EA invested in that new engine technology in preparation for the new consoles?
It's unbelievably crucial. A lot of us worked on that last console transition and... it didn't go well for EA. We decided to rewrite everything and it didn't go well - we played catch up for the first four or five years of the console cycle.
Now we have positive paranoia to a certain degree. When we rebuilt the FIFA engine from scratch about five years ago, we were thinking about building it off of a technology base that was broad enough that we could keep on building on it, rather than having to keep on throwing everything away.
It's been crucial and it's put us in a position where we've got the game playable right now. Part of the reason that the team pushed to get it running was because we wanted people to get their hands on it, give us feedback and allow us to tweak and tune. If we hadn't made that tech investment, we wouldn't be in that position now.
So the new FIFA clearly looks better, but how does it feel to play compared to current-gen?
It's not a fundamental difference in control and feel. The difference is in the atmosphere and the environment; having 3D crowds stand up and sit down based on the intensity of what's happening on the pitch brings you so much closer to the action... that immersion when you see the way the players react and anticipate the opposition.
You need to put that on the back of the box! You could call it 'Headering AI' as your feature buzz word.
(Laughs) That's my job!
Once you get in to it and start playing it, you start to understand that by having real, believable characters - going from robots to humans with intelligence - means that your responsiveness improves because of that. When a player goes from standing to defending or attacking... historically if we were aiming for responsiveness we'd actually cut animations out, but now with the Locomotion and physics you actually see the player lean down and burst into a sprint.
Does the new engine mean that you can now be more dynamic with your presentation? We noticed camera shots that were actually in the crowd, for example.
It does, and you'll see a lot of that over the next few months. We base it a lot on watching sports on TV and Sky Sports. With a lot of our instant replays historically we've asked, 'should we do what they do on TV, or do what TV would love to do?' And I think what we're going to end up with is a middle ground - use the TV cameras to set the scene, but then use the ability to get in close to show new angles that TV couldn't show.
What the new consoles allow us to do is remember key moments that happened during the 90 minutes, like a skill move, and actually start cutting them in to the instant replays as well. We've referred to the overall package as 'beyond broadcast' - it will give you what you sense from watching Sky at the moment, but it will also get you closer to places where the TV crews can't go.
In January we actually had one of our art guys spend two days with Sky at two different matches to get reference photos and understand how they shoot the match. It helped us understand not just the camera angles but why they were there, what perspective they were looking at, what parts of the action they were looking to capture and stuff. He brought all of that home.