FIFA 10: The sound and soul of football
As FIFA 10s release date approaches, we go behind the scenes to look at the intricate process of creating the perfect soundtrack to the beautiful game.
The football season may be under way but for millions of video game football fans the first kick off takes place next month with the release of FIFA 10.
Despite once playing second-fiddle to Konami's Pro-Evolution Soccer series, EA's flagship football title looks set to conquer all this October.
Most of the reasons for FIFA's rise to the top of the league table have been covered at length, but perhaps the most overlooked aspect in its world-beating formula is its soundtrack. According to FIFA 10's Audio Director Jeff MacPherson the game's soundtrack is an integral part of its appeal.
"I think that for FIFA and for football games in general, I would go out on a limb and say the audio portion is a lot more important than a lot of other games – at least a lot of other sports games – because there are very few sports that reach the kind of passionate levels that football does," says MacPherson.
"A lot of that emotion is carried by the songs the crowds sing for their clubs, the atmosphere in the stadium, the players yelling at each other on the pitch and the commentators doing the play-by-play," he continues, "Everything comes together to provide that emotional score for you that is maybe a little subconscious but it’s equally as important as everything else. In the case of a football game, this soundscape is paramount."
The game's audio-track is divided into two parts – the commentary and the sounds of the stadium. In the case of the former, FIFA 10 boasts commentary in 12 different languages and, according to MacPherson, any given language has around 25,000 phrases on the disc.
This combined audio content has been built up over a period of about two or three years, although MacPherson says the developers try not to have anything in the commentary older than two years.
"We try to refresh everything that’s high traffic every year – high traffic mean that you’ll hear it very often. Even if it’s saying the same thing like “that was a nice pass” or “that was a clean tackle” – we try to get them to say it differently," he says, "Our biggest problem is repetition and anyone who has ever played a video game knows this."
"It’s a tough one to tackle, because when the commentators are in the studio and they’re recording, they’re used to commentating on a 90-minute match and then going home.
We’re asking them to do 100 90-minute matches in one week and there’s only so many ways you can say, 'that was a nice slide tackle' before it you start repeating yourself."
Irish FIFA fans have become used to the in-game punditry of Sky's Premiership commentators, Martin Tyler and Andy Gray. The pair have already put in many hours in the studio for EA, but for FIFA 10, the audio team decided to try something new.
"The biggest thing we did this year is we stopped giving them a script – they get no scripted lines from us. Everything you hear them say in the game comes straight from them. We create the scenario, give them a context and they look at the situation and play off each other, using their own words and their own vocabulary."
The decision seems to have worked because by allowing Gray and Tyler – and indeed all the game's commentators – to be themselves, FIFA 10 manages to capture the essence of their appeal.
“These guys are not actors, let’s face it; this is their job. They know everything they know about football, about sports and about punditry," says MacPherson.
"They’re not used to going into a studio and reading lines unless they’re doing a commercial for car insurance or something. They operate on the level of someone who’s got a passion for this, so we try and tap into that, rather than use an actor like we would on Medal Of Honour. We really respect their knowledge.”
The commentary in FIFA 10 has also become more contextual - a significant change. In the past, commentary was event-driven, which meant that pieces of audio in the game were triggered by the action.
Now the commentary takes account of the context of the match; who is playing, where the match is being played, the score, what the players have done and the importance of the occasion.
MacPherson explains that this is made possible because the commentary now has separate AI which 'listens' to the all the information coming from the gameplay. It also checks the information coming from the tournament manager and other areas of the game. But rather than just responding with something, it assesses the information and it may decide not to say anything immediately, or it may pick out what it thinks is more relevant to the bigger picture. Rather than talking about a tackle or a pass, it may choose to talk about your team’s winning or losing streak as it pertains to the season or the competition at this particular point.
"We’ve really tried to up the ante on the intelligence and I think we’ve started to push the limits there," says MacPherson. "This year’s commentary is much more engaging and a lot more connected to what you’re seeing on screen than just running parallel to what’s happening in the game."
As arduous and complicated as the process of the recording commentary tracks for a FIFA title is, it sounds like a doddle when compared to the complexities involved in recreating the stadium noises contained in the game.
"Crowds are tricky when you’re dealing with a game as diverse as FIFA because the game includes many different leagues from all around the world, and we need to take that into account," says MacPherson.
"Clearly, the sound of a game being played in England is not going to sound the same as a game being played in Spain, or Brazil, or Turkey, or somewhere in Eastern Europe."
"You’ve got two things to account for when you’re looking at the crowd element for a stadium. The first thing is the sound content you’ve got – and the second is the crowd’s behaviour," he continues.
"An English crowd are going to react differently to a Czech crowd. In one territory they’ll boo when they don’t like something, whereas in another, they may whistle. Turkey is going to be a lot more hostile to the away clubs than say, England is – you’ll hear whistling every time the visitors have the ball."
In order to reproduce these various atmospheres, EA employs people to attend games around the world, armed with state of the art recording equipment.
Noises in the stands and off the pitch are recorded using a surround sound capture device called a holophone. This is a ball-shaped device containing microphones facing in multiple directions, which 'listens' to its surroundings the same way a human would.
EA personnel also place incidental microphones around the pitch to capture audio from the players and, where possible, negotiate with channels which own the rights to broadcast football games for a share of their audio.
"We try to get into the broadcast truck so we can get a feed off of their mixer, so we can get the audio off their shotgun microphones that they’ve already set up," says MacPherson.
Once the audio returns to the studio at EA Sports HQ in Vancouver, the team starts to build audio beds containing reaction sound effects, which are region-specific.
If the developers don’t have audio from a specific region available they match it to an area of the world that sounds the most similar to it and recreate it by adding different individual elements like horns, or drums, or whistles or different behavioural sounds.
The other part of the crowd audio which presents the developers with the biggest challenge is arguably the most visceral part of any football match – the chanting.
"They're probably the most difficult part of our job," says MacPherson, "First, they change all the time. Second, they’re usually based on popular songs like Go West or Juan Ton Amera.
We have to license those melodies if they’re not already public domain, we have to track down the writer of the song, we have to hire a musicologist to listen to the melodies if we’re not sure because we can’t just put it in the game. We have to make sure that we can legally use these songs."
The third problem facing the audio team on FIFA, is the content of many football chants, which isn't exactly family-friendly. With chants from all around the world being recorded for the game, EA have to farm out a lot of the content to an army of translators to be checked and then double-checked to ensure it won't offend anyone.
"We can’t really beep anything out; it has to be left on the cutting-room floor," smiles MacPherson. "I would love an M-rated soundtrack download – I'm still pushing for that!"
The stadium audio, however, doesn't stop with the virtual fans; the developers work in other elements such as players shouting at each other on the pitch. Once again, because FIFA features players from all over the world, the player calls in the game have to be in a lot of different languages. The advanced in-game AI also presents its own set of challenges.
"In the past, you used to just hear a generic shout and it was a nice part of the atmosphere," says MacPherson. "Now, when a player’s running into space, he’ll call for the ball and you’ll hear it in the game – and you’ll hear it in the right language. There are also are stadium announcers we use from all around the world – for the UK teams we use the announcer from West Ham United’s home ground. He does a fabulous job – he’s great."
EA have done a stunning job of recreating the atmosphere of a live football game, and their technical know-how and meticulous attention to detail are a giant part of why FIFA 10 looks set to offer the best representation of the beautiful game on a console.
"We want you to come home and play your Xbox 360 or your PlayStation and have it sound the same as the game you saw that weekend," he says. "You'll hear the crowds in the game singing the songs you and your friends sang in the stadium. The goal is to get you into that space – you’re not even thinking about it consciously – and to create that emotional backdrop that really is the soul of football."