Megafactories: playing ball with E.A.
THIS MORNING I WAS INVITED BY FOX & NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS TO ATTEND A PRESS SCREENING PEVIEW OF “MEGAFACTORIES” LATEST ISSUE, DEDICATED TO THE FIFA GAME.
This educationnal series, said to be one of the most popular programme of National Geographic Channel, decided to get a peek inside one another original “megafactory”: Electronic Arts (E.A.), the first worldwide videogame publisher, through it’s Sports dedicated studio in Vancouver.
Founded by Trip Hawkins in 1982, E.A.‘s initial goal was to set the spirits of gaming to higher grounds, giving this nascent industry the most edgy image and credibility. During the 90’s, the company turned out to be proeminent on the sports front, notably with the FIFA soccer franchise.
This yearly soft grew very popular, up until the international success of the Sony Playstation 2 platform, which saw the rise of E.A.‘s archrival publisher on the soccer field, Konami, and their International Superstar Soccer (ISS) then Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) franchise (respectively known as J League Soccer and Winning Eleven in Japan).
With the new domination of Konami, FIFA sales went down to a point and E.A. was suddenly stuck with the image of an outdated, resting-on-it’s-laurel, cashing-it-in major company. The game wasn’t just their own anymore. In Edge # 203, july 2009, creative director Gary Paterson, who is now producer of the Fifa Street side franchise, declared: “When I joined (in August 2004) they (E.A.) understood they were in a position where they needed to reinvest. It was the beginning of the change in their mentality around FIFA. You could tell it wasn’t quite right, and they were in the midst of transition”. After a couple of years working on Total Club Manager, Gary Paterson joined the team at the time of the 2007 release. At this time, the market was going through a change of platforms and the two companies “next gen” efforts on the field were greatly expected. E.A. decided to make at least two moves to stay on top :
- Innovating with the production of original games outside their trademark sports range. This resulted in the 2008 release of Dice‘s Mirror’s Edge and Visceral Games‘ Dead Space. In 2009, this segment was occupied by Tim Schafer‘s Brutal Legend and Pandemic‘s The Saboteur. While these games were not exactly instant huge hits, their aura as original franchises (or IPs for Intellectual Properties), with top of the range production values, gave them a great critical feedback and renewed their street cred among core gamers. Says Matthew Jeffery, as E.A‘s Global head of talent brand, for Edge#195, christmas 2008: “A few years back, people could accuse us of sequelitis and paying it safe, but now we’re not afraid to take risks on original games” ;
- Injecting loads of money, talent and innovation into FIFA. “We made serious investments in low level language to innovate” says E.A. Sports Vice President Matt Bilbey. If Fifa 07 was still a fledgling step, real progress was visible with the release of FIFA 08. At the time, the consensus in the specialized French press was: beware, for the franchise is back.
The three annual following deliveries kept the soccer sim back in the first league, thanks to they solid apprehension of the latest in terms of technology. Konami, on the other hand, had a hard time delivering the goods on HD home systems, as well as a lot of fellow Japanese developers. P.E.S, once a champion on the field, is now considered subpar to it’s opponent. But now E.A. has another efficient adversary to take into matters. If 2K‘s sports line of products currently lacks any soccer game, their efforts on the other fields of baseball, american football and basketball means serious competition.
That leads us to the office of Vancouver (above) where the Megafactories team was welcomed to follow the development of the latest FIFA iteration, FIFA 12. The goal was to attract talent there and give them the latest tools.
While the challenge remains the same for both companies, the firepower to produce a high octane soccer sim within the short span of a year is clearly not the same. If Konami‘s team is about a hundred at most (I may be wrong bout this), E.A. Vancouver regroups 400 people, coming from all over the world: Russia, England, USA, and ironicaly, Japan.
As the mocap feature is introduced to us (see below), with up to sixty movements captors on a dedicated suit, we get to apprehend the task of filming and capturing loads of solid motions. Integrating them into the computer allows to give a lifelike and less robot feel. Something that was clearly harder to get, if not impossible, on the preceding home systems. This goes along a tremendous investment for less scripted actions and combinations , with more horsepower put into artificial intelligence.
The same care goes for sound, including the crowd cheering and the commentary tracks, which have the goal to match every possible action within the game. For instance we’re told that almost every chant is recorded across the globe during playtime for the game’s atmosphere benefit. With some expugnated because of their profanity!
Some funny anecdotes reveal the meticulous work that is now done to perfect the annual formula and push it forward. As Manchester‘s Wayne Rooney decided to have hair implants, his face animation had to be updated for FIFA 12 (below). In fact every player in the game is photographed, wether on site or abroad with a detached team for the task.
All these renewed efforts helped the game to surpass its predecessor in terms of sales. Within its first week of release, FIFA sold 3 million copies worldwide. In september 2011, your humble editor worked for a week in a games shop in Paris la Défense: each day saw ten requests about the forthcoming game’s date release. A manager of a competing store told me, one month later, his own sales ratio: 1 PES game was sold for about 12 FIFA copies.
If success is present among soccer and gamer fans worldwide, the developpers team receive regular phone calls… from the players themselves, asking such things as “Why am I not faster on the field?”. Jamie McKinlay, as E.A. Sports global marketing senior director, comments the impact of the game on players’ careers and image: “To be on a cover of a FIFA game, for a soccer player, is equivalent to play in the national team”.
A little bit promotional at times, this Megafactories issue still gives us a great insight of a top notch place. As Canada is now on the forefront of the gaming industry, this insider look in E.A. Sports office in Vancouver is packed with recent images and up to date information. It gives a good idea of how the overall energy and foray put into these type of games are on the forefront og gaming, whether you take animation or Artificial intelligence into consideration. Patrice Désilets, creative director of the first Assassin’s Creed, now working for THQ, revealed recently that Creed mechanics were inspired by the latest soccer improvements. So if you’re a FIFA addict, a soccer fiend or a gaming enthusiast, give it a chance if you can catch it!
Most visuals provided by Fox Channels.
Thanks to Mrs Oliviero of Fox Channels for inviting TNS over.