For long-term followers of the blog, you may have noticed a couple of things about the two resident writers of the blog. Amongst the heaps of negatives, you may have noticed we are massive football fans, as such we love our football games… naturally, well to a point. You see, I’ve played football and sports games for a long old time, I remember playing FIFA ’98 and Tiger Woods PGA tour on Play Station 1. My co-writer has owned every FIFA game since like ’98 or 2000 or something (if this is wrong, I’m sure he’ll correct in the comments) – that is until this year. This year we both decided to take action for a trend that has been worrying to us, and perhaps all too apparent to those outside the sphere of football titles, and not buy this year’s instalment of the FIFA series. That is not to say we have not picked up sports games this year, we both have Pro Evolution Soccer and of course Football Manager. But something had to be done about FIFA…
The Problem with FIFA
FIFA, the organisation, has its share of issues with money and corruption and it would be lazy to use this as a segue to then talk about the greed that has ground down the footballing video game market. But seeing as soo many of the issues with FIFA can be linked back to greed I’ll do it anyway.
The first big issue with the FIFA series and many other EA titles (Madden and Battlefront 2 for example) has been microtransactions. In FIFA this manifests in a mode known as “Ultimate Team”. In case you haven’t heard of it, this is essentially a mode where you collect “player cards” of real players to assemble a team, there are rarer, coloured versions of cards that come out to celebrate events such as “team of the week”. The way to obtain cards is to grind out against CPU or real players in this game mode for coins to buy “packs” or trade for players on the market where players can buy or sell their cards. The much, much faster alternative is to of course to use your (parents, let’s be honest about the target demographic) hard earned cash to buy FIFA points to buy packs. I have played this mode a few times and it is possible to play without sinking cash into it and assemble a decent, functional team, I particularly enjoyed using players from leagues that many people ignore as the cards are cheaper due to the “chemistry” mechanic. But, it fails to keep my interest for more than a few days, when the grind becomes clear to me, and the fact becomes clear that I’ll never get hold of a legend or Messi card unless I sink ungodly hours into this mode.
With each successive FIFA, one thing becomes clear: Ultimate Team has become EA’s cash cow. I believe this is why we have seen such bleeding of microtransactions in all of EA’s releases. It has become core to their corporate strategy. This has also become clear in the design of FIFA each year. EA know people will buy the title each year, even if it is pretty much identical to the year before: they know their demographic and the power of peer pressure. So in the games design process less and less time goes towards the aspects gamers like us prefer such as “Manager Career”, “Player Career” or “Pro Clubs” or heck, even the little know thing called “Gameplay”. This is alienating for those who don’t play Ultimate Team, you feel like the third wheel in the relationship between EA and their Whales, an unwanted presence who made the mistake of paying £40 for dinner but no-ones talking to you. Forbes has pointed out in the linked article that of each unit sale of FIFA in 2016, EA made $121 dollars. Assuming the base game cost $60, Ultimate Team doubled the value of the game to EA.
The problems with microtransactions run deeper than this, it is literally gambling, but I feel commentators such as Jim Sterling have already done this topic more justice to the topic than I could possibly in this piece. Long story short: why is it okay for a developer to charge you money to gamble for items in a game you have already paid the full retail price for, especially when they offer you a tangible benefit in a competitive game!
I stated at the onset of this article that FIFA has got worse, but overall it’s true sports games across the genre have been following suit. But there is somewhat of a reason: EA. You see, FIFA isn’t the only example of EA ruining a market. I’m aware they have done this to the Madden series also (also attaching its blood-sucking microtransactions in the process). EA have achieved this by slowly accumulating the image licences of multiple major football leagues such as the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga as well as properties such as the NFL or whatever league is relevant to the sport they intend to acquire. This allows them to have sole license over the image rights to the well-supported teams and players in these leagues, and prevent rival companies using certain aspects of the image such as team badges or kits. This obviously has a significant effect on consumer opinions with games such as FIFA now coming across a lot more “professional” and shiny, whilst games without the licence such as Pro Evolution Soccer become a meme due to having to use fake names for teams.
There exists a clear issue of the market being artificially manipulated to support the guy with all the money, just like with the recent net neutrality vote. Sticking to my area of expertise, games like Football Manager have managed to create a niche despite these restrictions by offering a product that is completely removed from what FIFA is offering, and mastering the craft to such a point that offerings from larger companies just can’t compete. A monopoly, yes, but one based on an even market. FIFA isn’t allowing this, and have essentially locked themselves into the driver seat for core-football titles.
When sports games came into my consciousness as a kid there seemed to be a lot of new things going on, and a large market of games to choose from. In terms of football titles, there was the FIFA series, ISS (later Pro Evolution), Red Card, David Beckham Soccer and LMA manager just for the PlayStation 1. Currently, for the PlayStation 4, there exists just Pro Evolution and FIFA. The variety of games likely comes down to games being easier to develop in the early 2000’s compared to now, but also as to what games won in the mainstream.
This is a slightly unclear problem, but for analogy think of the Simpsons. When the Simpsons started it had unbound creative freedom, but over time it becomes weighed down by its popularity, by becoming mainstream any jokes the show make are really just self-deprecating. When FIFA was a younger game, there used to be a fun element to it, it could escape the bounds of reality by having elements such as indoor football and legendary teams you could pick and choose, the animations were slightly goofy and you forgave it – it was fun, competing in a competitive market. Nowadays, FIFA is the big dog with everything to lose. The game is followed by millions, with a tonne of boring Youtubers ready to dig into any possible hole in it’s boringly bland modern corporate shell. The game has become afraid to innovate, the shell of the game is boring and inoffensive. Any innovation it offers has to be weighed against the long-term sales strategy least the changes back them into a corner. It is no longer a game and more a handle by which to turn the money-making machine.
As a huge football manager fan, some of what I have said so far may come across hypocritical, but I have said all I have said from a place of wanting FIFA to be better, I want it to be better. But what I’m about to say may come across even more hypocritical. FIFA needs to stop trying to be realistic.
This is very much like the old saying goes “shit or get off the pot”. FIFA has long been trying to add features to increase the realism of the game, whilst at the same time peddling features such as Ultimate Team. Look, you either make a game based on realism such as football manager, or you go the other way and make a football game based on the concept of fun. For this reason, the best football game released in 2015 was Rocket League, and that’s not even close, and don’t even have feet. Also, this is not to say that games based on realism aren’t fun, just perhaps a different audience.
I’m not saying that FIFA needs to get rid of Messi and bring in a Mazda, but what I am saying is to stop focusing on calling your game a “football simulation” and just focus on making it a fun game, in all aspects, not just Ultimate Team. Alternately, FIFA can focus on the realism aspects, and for me, this would be a greatly welcomed change. However, this would be pretty incompatible with market appeal and their favourite game mode so it’s somewhat unlikely. EA needs to be decisive about future direction.
Where from here?
My problems with the FIFA video game series are not beyond redemption but require sweeping changes. I will not be going into in-game specifics here, but we have done before. These changes are overarching changes, that will just not happen if I’m honest. So with that out, I will suggest two possible combinations of changes based upon future game direction:
The Fun Way
- Move away from the yearly release structure
Okay, these are very pie-in-the-sky so let me explain. The yearly release structure of many sports game really hold them back from innovation, this and the fear that comes with being the industry monolith. If FIFA moved to a two, or even three-year release cycle they could maybe even justify the use of microtransactions using a system similar to that of Rainbow Six: Siege, where the quality of life improvements are used to keep players playing. This kind of change would sit better with an approach to the game that is more based on “fun”, where games like Rocket League could show the way moving forward.
The Realism Way
- No microtransactions
- Focus on single player
This method would be based upon a yearly £40 release schedule, but all microtransactions would have to be removed from the game. Instead, the focus would go to improve AI in the game as to improve the single player experience focusing on deepening mechanics in game modes such as “manager career”. The removal of microtransactions may be forced due to potential changes in gambling laws, but if not, the changes here would be large to justify yearly releases. Microtransactions in yearly full-price release titles are just ludicrous. A greater focus would also need to be given to gameplay. The ultimate result would look somewhere between Football Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer.
Why Won’t This Happen
Well, with those two approached suggested let’s briefly go over the list of reasons they won’t happen:
Unfortunately, these changes are sure to divide a fan base. This is the position EA has worked themselves into as the monoliths of the industry, they are the mainstream of football games, they can’t do anything different, they are immobilised by success. From the perspective of trying to optimise money earnt, whilst minimising risk and work time the current FIFA strategy wins every time. And honestly, fair enough, I disagree with a lot EA do, but whilst they can get away with it they are just going to sit on the market. Not much can be done in the space FIFA occupy unless Pro Evolution Soccer can pull off something special. The monopoly over licenses seems a mountain to climb in gaining popularity. It seems the only way to win here is to not aim for the middle ground because you are not going to get around that sleeping Snorlax, instead aim to the sides: realism or fun. In short – Sports games, please innovate.