FIFA 19 preview: Tackling lootboxes, enticing casual players and keeping the hardcore happy with the Champions League
FIFA producer Matt Prior on why lootboxes don't get a bad rap in his game and what the team are doing to attract a wider player base
EA took a right kicking for its implementation of lootboxes in Star Wars: Battlefront II. Even politicians became involved in the row over the lack of transparency, the poor value and the cynical attitude of a mega-corporation exploiting a cherished franchise.
It’s almost as if EA was taken by surprise, which is odd because the company has successfully operated lootboxes in FIFA for almost a decade without attracting much ire. So much so that the lootbox-toting FIFA Ultimate Team (or FUT) mode reputedly earns a billion dollars a year.
There’s no concrete explanation for why FUT escapes criticism given that it clearly enables a pay-to-win strategy (the more packs you buy, the more likely you are to get good players to enhance your team).
FIFA producer Matt Prior reckons it’s because his team have got the balance right and insists grinding can get you everything money could.
“There are players out there that don't spend a penny that compete at the highest level,” Prior explained at FIFA 19 preview event in London recently. “You can win without paying a single penny and there are people that actively do that. They take that on as badge of pride.
“In some games, you literally have to pay to get something that makes you better. I worked on the first FUT and one of the key things I wanted to do with that is there is nothing in the game that is purely pay to play. You can get everything in the game through just playing. That remains true. That was a fundamental part of FIFA from the outset.
He admits, though, that some people will spend, spend, spend to buy the greatest team (possibly a bit like Man City in real life, though City fan Prior is too canny to make the comparison himself).
“If you come up against a guy with players all rated 99, there is that potential that he didn't spend a penny to get there,” Prior concedes. “In that instance, it would seem unlikely unless he plays it religiously. But there is always that option because there is that chance element and everything is available without having to spend.”
As a response to the lootbox controversy – Holland and Belgium have already declared them illegal – EA plans to make its microtransactions a little less opaque. EA Sports games will show upfront the lootbox stats – or “pack odds” as the PR people would like us to call them – before you buy.
“That information is going to be made public ... soon,” says Prior. “We want to be transparent with how it works to give people an idea and an understanding of what's driving that. We’re gonna be issuing those percentages and the mathematics behind it all in the next couple of months.
“I think if you look at FUT, that's a very different system to some which are blatantly pay to play. I think you get a bit tarred with the same brush.”
Just don’t expect any more generosity in the odds – you’re still as likely to get Andy Carroll as you are to land Kylian Mbappé in your next pack.
That won’t stop FIFA 19 selling by the truckload when it launches next month, of course, not least because EA has wrenched the Champions League licence from Konami’s Pro Evo Soccer. The CL experience has been incorporated with typical EA attention to detail throughout the next edition of the game, including an entirely separate commentary team of BT Sports stalwart Derek Rae and ex-Arsenal defender Lee Dixon.
“We're always trying to push presentation to make it as lifelike as possible,” Prior explains. “In the Champions League, there's a very unique atmosphere – primarily because it's a night-time game over and above a regular league game. All the elements that feed into that, the branding, the Champions League anthem, the night lighting - they're all key elements we want to capture so it really does feel hugely different when you play one versus the other.
“We went with the new commentary team, to differentiate the experience both visually and aurally, in that it feels like a completely different experience. So you hear Derek Rae and Lee Dixon, who sound great.
“It was important that we spread the Champions League love across the whole product. Irrespective of what kind of user type you are, there is a Champions League experience for you. So that's why it's standalone in Kick-off, its own standalone mode, it's in Career mode, it's in (story mode) The Journey - it forms the narrative arc of the final instalment of Alex Hunter's trilogy. It's also in FUT as well.”
He makes the point that FIFA itself offers so much these days, with so many modes and options for everyone from the casual base to the hardcore.
“One of the beauties of FIFA as it stands is it's a great value proposition in terms of what you get. It's almost like five different games in of itself. One of the big ones is FUT. We see a lot of people dip their toe in Kick-off, maybe go to Career mode and then gradually as they familiarise and become better at the game, then they go into FUT.
“FUT is the most popular mode within the game in terms of engagement. FUT users play a lot longer and there's a lot of FUT users.. Some people are uniquely FUT, they literally never touch another mode in the game.
“That's eternally one of our challenges is balancing and when it comes to like: what features are we gonna do this year? Obviously, time and resources aren't infinite, so we have to pick our battles. We can't do everything for the hardcore because there are also new users and so on ... one of the challenges is finding that balance of what we build for different user types.”
FIFA 19, though, does make an effort to each to those who aren’t dedicating their lives to playing every day, the type who enjoy a single match now and then with pals. To that end the Kick-off mode now tracks stats for one-off games over time, giving you some continuity if you regularly play with the same pals. Players can also set handicaps or advantages such as 3-0 headstart to level out the skill base. You can choose big games such as the FA Cup final or Champions League. And most interesting of all are games with non-standard tweaks to the football rules – such as scoring only from headers and volleys, no-ref mode and survival, where a team loses a player each time they score.
“We see that Kick-off is something a lot of users often dip their toe in, because we have telemetry on what users go where,” Prior says “But sometimes they don't go much beyond that. They don't get engaged within the game. The idea is that with Kick-off is that it gives the casuals a little bit more to get their teeth into. It kind of gamifies the Kick-off mode where previously it was just a single game that didn't really mean anything.
And now every single game means something because at a minimum it's contributing to the stats. The other part of that is the advantage rules, so the ability to really level the playing field across any kind of users. So you could set a 99-goal lead if you want. So even if you're at massively different skill levels, you should be able to find a middle ground where it becomes competitive and fun.
And the other part is setting the AI of the team that you're controlling. You can set your Ai to be legendary versus your opponent who is a beginner. So then the advantage is with the person who has the legendary. There's a lot of levers you can pull to create a more competitive playing field irrespective of the user types. It's probably the most open FIFA has ever been to varying abilities.”
Prior even dangled the possibility of the community suggested modes that could be incorporated with a patch down the line.
“One of the things we can maybe do in the future is new rules as live updates, maybe even open it to the community. It offers us a lot of opportunity. We can see which ones are popular. There's certain limitations we have to work with. FIFA were really good with us in allowing us to do this because obviously we fall under the umbrella of FIFA, so we've got to adhere the terms of the licence. But they were very open to allowing for this because we pitched the goals of it as to open up the appeal of the game.