Like winter in Westeros, FIFA 16 is coming.
But rather than bringing with it hordes of the undead it'll arrive bearing the usual FIFA updates: improved graphics, refined gameplay, the latest squads, kits and stadiums and a few new features (this time round: women's teams). And unlike the real, human-run game, it'll do so without a hint of corruption.
We had the chance to play it at a recent preview in Singapore during the Barclays Asia Trophy 2015, then sat down afterwards for a chat with EA Sports' Creative Director Matthew Prior.
You might be surprised at what we found out.
1. There are people worldwide watching football for work
Ever wondered how the points for each player's stats in FIFA are allocated? It involves people. Lots of them.
EA Sports has localised teams of data collection staff all around the world evaluating players during games; this info is then entered into the game’s engine. In short, there are people in every major footballing country who spend most of their lives analysing every single aspect of every single player’s game.
“It's their job to watch games and provide the data," says Prior, "because there are dozens of stats for each player, such as acceleration, tackling, and strength.
"That's a hugely important part of the game, because essentially when users play with Ronaldo or Messi, we want it to actually feel like they’re playing with Ronaldo or Messi. It's a very complex system that goes into that, and it's something we consistently try to improve.”
2. Pro players constantly complain about their stats
Got a problem with how the developers have rated your favourite player? Imagine what it’s like for the players themselves.
“It's interesting, we're going to meet a few of the players from Everton in a bit," says Prior, "and they almost unanimously play our game - which is great. But one of the funny things is, I guarantee when I meet them they'll say ‘Oh, my stats aren't good enough in the game, I'm faster’, or ‘I'm better at shooting’. It's common feedback from the players that they feel that they're underpowered in FIFA, which is interesting to hear.”
3. EA doesn't want to make the game “too real”
There’s a reason FIFA is fun to play even if you don’t play football in real life: EA consciously makes an effort to balance authenticity with entertainment.
“There's a fine line where you take authenticity to a point where the game becomes dull," says Prior, "and you don't want that.
"When people play our game they want to be entertained and have fun. I don't think we're ever in danger of getting rid of that aspect, but it’s a balance we need to keep. Our game is a representation of a real world game, but it's intrinsically not that. It's much smaller, with things like 12-minute halves instead of 45, so that experience fundamentally has to be different."
Contrary to popular belief, when you play Career mode, the AI doesn’t make you lose just to spoil your perfect record. Some games may seem unwinnable, but that’s just the net effect of several factors in the game that come into play.
Prior says, “A lot of people think there's some special rubber band logic [where the game’s AI tweaks it to ensure the player doesn’t get too far ahead] or momentum and all that kind of stuff. There isn't, but it's hard to convince people when they lose. They look for an excuse, and the easiest excuse is to blame me, blame the AI, and say it's cheating.
"I can guarantee there isn't any of that in the game. It's something we get accused of every single year, and our gameplay guys get very frustrated about it. There is natural stuff in there, like there are certain players who might get an extra wind after 85 minutes, so there's lots of little elements. But it's not forced, it's just irrespective of the score."
5. Including women’s football was a big deal
There’s no denying that women’s football differs in some respects from the men's game, which is why EA dedicated extensive resources to including it in FIFA 16.
“We've tuned the physics and all the rest of it around the women's game, so you're going to find that and inherently feel a different game," says Prior. "Authenticity is a big part of what we do across every aspect, and I think we've done a good job in making it feel like a different game to the men's.
"Technically, there's a difference in the players’ speed, power, and all that kind of stuff, so I think you'll notice that. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's less fun or entertaining.
"We've been wanting to do this for many years, and now was kind of a perfect time to do it. We've gotten to a level of sophistication with our underlying systems, like the physics engine and all the rest of it, that allowed us to tune it to authentically represent the women's game."
6. EA does listen to the gamers. Really
Prior says, “There is a kind of hierarchal laundry list of what we want to do, and some of that is driven by community, some of that is driven by the feedback of the previous game. We don't know or have an idea of how each edition will be received, but as soon as you put it out there and millions of games happen every day, you sometimes get feedback that you didn't expect. So it's a combination of those things.
"We deal directly with certain aspects of the games, we monitor the forums, we get a lot of feedback, we get a lot of people in to focus-test the game. All the most important people - and that's the people who buy and play our game.
"It’s a case of prioritisation, and certain features make sense at certain times. We need to be very specific with what we think will make a big impact. We want to keep a reason for people to pick it up and play it every year. So it's important that the features we do choose are sufficiently game changing.
"That can be challenging because we're on a very short cycle – we come out at a similar time annually. Another game might have the opportunity to try different things and push the release date out by two months. We don't have that luxury. I think it's one of our strengths that we do choose the features well."
7. Long shots might be the way to go in FIFA 16
While previewing the game, we found that defenders appear to be even smarter this time round, meaning it’s now harder to get the ball into shooting situations than on FIFA 15 - and it was hard enough there. As a last resort, we started letting fly from distance... with instant success.
Whether that's because the goalkeepers have been made easier to beat, or the shooting has been improved, is as yet unknown.
“Balance is the eternal challenge, because you want to introduce features that have an impact so people use them, but at the same time not overuse them so you can always score using this pass or whatever," says Prior.
"You want to introduce things that make a difference but won’t break the game. I think we've done a great job this year, it's interesting to hear your feedback on that [Stuff scoring more with long shots]. This is an early code, and I know that is an area they're looking at, with our gameplay guys having that as one of the top things on their list. You'll see a very different game when it comes out though."
8. EA wants to make you a better player
If you’ve ever tried to play Seasons online, you’ll know that it’s a great place… to get slaughtered by impossibly good players.
The developers don’t want that to happen, not least because you'll probably rage-quit and never play FIFA again, which is why they’ve included a trainer this year to help players improve their skills before they venture into the virtual colosseum.
“A lot of people go online too quickly, and if you're not ready for it it can be a very crushing experience. The standard online is so high, that if that happens you could lose 10-0, and there's a chance - depending on your personality - that you'll never look at the game again. So, part of the rationale behind the trainer is to get people better sooner, and we'll be doing things in future to improve that.”
9. EA works on each version years in advance
As mentioned earlier, with such a short cycle between games, EA can’t afford to start from scratch after every edition.
“We have a long-term plan for FIFA. It often changes, but we have a long-term vision where we look a couple of years ahead. Then we build features with a view to where they will be in two years time. We don't just build for the now and think ‘what next?’ There is a kind of method in the way we build things.”
10. The EA Sports team actually like PES
It’s one of the great rivalries in football: FIFA vs Pro Evolution Soccer. In fact, most players agree that you either play one or the other, and never both. However, Prior doesn’t think the rivalry is a problem.
“We're ultimately trying to make the best game possible, so we don't really kind of factor ‘These are our guys, these are their guys, how do we pull those guys away?’ I think if you make the best football game possible, you'll attract people.
"We like PES, we're glad it's out there. We think competition from the user perspective is good, so we're happy that they exist. They make a good game, it keeps us on our toes, and I'm sure vice versa.”