Online Producer Blog
FIFA 09 was the year of Online for the FIFA series. Usage more than tripled over FIFA 08 and each day since launch has seen more than 1 million matches completed. We even broke the 2 million-match-per-day bar in March.
Let’s step back for a bit, and see where this all came from...
FIFA console and online – the early days
I was brought on to the FIFA 2004 team as the PC and Online producer. Only PC had online play at the time, and the idea was to follow the early online success of console games like Madden. Internally, we wanted to focus on gameplay and Manager Mode, and we didn’t know what to expect of online on a non-PC platform. It was up to me to find that out!
We implemented 1-vs-1 gameplay on PS2 and focused on making the experience stable and fun. While testing and tuning, we started realizing how much potential Online had for FIFA.
[Side Story #1 – At E3, in 2003, we demoed very early PS2 online code on a big screen, during Sony’s conference... The game would 100% crash if you scored, triggered a cut scene, or tackled. The 2 minutes we spent playing online - me in Vancouver, the product manager at the conference - were the most intense in my whole life. I ended up taking a shot, missed it, but not close enough to trigger a cut scene, and we stayed alive!!!]
Once FIFA 2004 shipped, the early going was slow, with online usage mostly concentrating in North America. The year after, FIFA 2005 saw the arrival of Online on Xbox, and more and more people were playing every day. Learning from the first year, we had made the game more stable, had improved match-up and cheat detection, had cleaned up connection issues. Europe started playing more online, a trend that would continue in the next years.
The arrival of Online Team Play
Let’s fast forward to FIFA 08 and the 5-vs-5 update.
Ta-da! A dream had come true... play as a team, online, against another team of human players. The fact that it was delivered through an update was a tell tale sign that times had changed and that Online had become super important. Making an update is hard, indeed, as you work past the final date of the project (i.e. you go from crazy-tired to almost-zombie) and eat away at resources scheduled for the next iteration. However, 5-vs-5 online was considered a major addition and we couldn’t wait another year to get it out.
It was so successful that FIFA 09 took the obvious next step – 10-vs-10. Every outfield player controlled by someone anywhere in the world. Wow.
First though, we had to get to every outfield player controlled by someone anywhere… on the development team floor. The tech was such a jump over what we had done before, that it materialized only very late and very painfully. We spent long hours gathering people around to organize sessions, shouting over the cubicle walls to go into Quick Match at the same time. A chore at first (we were crashing a lot!), it slowly became a great time for all involved, with stability improving. At the end, we were all cheering on goals scored and laughing at badly timed tackles – ‘hey you took me out, we’re on the same team!’
Now that 10-vs-10 started fulfilling its promise, we had to make sure we had a good screen flow to support it. Quick Online Team Play was one avenue, but Clubs was the bigger ticket item. To play as a team, you have to play with friends, or at least with a group of people with a common gaming vision. And Clubs were the way to get these same-minded people together over multiple matches.
Unfortunately, with time running short on FIFA 09 development, we didn’t have the chance to iterate as much as we wanted on our Clubs feature. And, as you have told us multiple times, it showed. Clubs matches were hard to get into, involving sitting patiently for lengthy periods of time in the Room, most times failing to find opponents in a timely manner.
We saw this ourselves when we created a dev team Club, after FIFA 09 shipped. Nothing like playing in the ‘real world’ to get the best feedback. We were frustrated to have come short on this feature… and swore we would do better on FIFA 10. The 10-vs-10 gameplay itself was there, was fun, and people were definitely enjoying it! We just had to polish flows in and out of Team Play. And also not forget the rest of Online, following the comments that you guys in the forums were leaving for us.So we started working on FIFA 10 Online.
[Side Story #2 – So, right, I am the producer… but what kind of an online gamer am I? I started with a terrorist vs counter-terrorist First Person Shooter, while at Infogrames. Yep, playing at work! Got into the Elves vs Orks vs Humans RTS (version 3) a tad later, while a tester at EA. Yep, still playing at work! I finally played a bit of a turned-based French MMO for a while. Guess where I was playing it…
And what kind of a FIFA Online gamer am I? I must admit, I’m not too good at 1-vs-1, my favorite matches being when I can play my home team Metz, against other 2-to-3 star teams. I am a much better 10-vs-10 player, because I tend to play my position, I stay disciplined, and I focus on making the right play.]
So now, let’s go over what you can expect from FIFA 10 Online.
1-vs-1 is still the cornerstone of online play…
As much as we love our 10-vs-10 modes, 1-vs-1 is still, by far, the most played mode in FIFA, offline and online combined. It is actually likely the most played mode in all Sports games, period. As a result, we spend a lot of time keeping it stable, fun and safe.
… And 10-vs-10 is now your playground
We are providing you with the stage. Up to you to find the Club that you like, with the friends of your choice. We vastly improved the usability of the Club screens, making it easy to get into games. We show you more and better player stats, so that you can have that little internal competition going. We tell you who the best Free Agents are, if you are in the business of running a competitive Club. We even tell you who the best players in the world are!
We will also be using the web (Football World) as an extension to the feature, so that you can check out your Club status when not at your console.
We are confident that the improvements we have made will make Clubs an even bigger hit!
Everyone should play within their comfort zone
Some play for fun, some play for team pride (or glory hunting), some play to be the best out there. Some play for all three reasons! The idea is to make sure everyone gets a chance to stay within their comfort zone.
- Our Matchmaking logic has always matched in priority users from the same region, and within the same level ranges. We improved this again (especially in Clubs) and are showing the range searched in the matchmaking screens. In FIFA 10, you will see when your search hasn’t returned results within your range and is expanding to different levels. You will be free to cancel then, and possibly refine your search.
- A common complaint we hear is the lack of visibility in our ranking formulas. We addressed this, so now, at the end of each game, you will see how many ranking points you got, broken down by criteria: team level, rank level and our brand new match performance rating. Even if you lost, having played the game well (good passing % for instance) will get you extra ranking points.
- Something else we added after reading the forums – more end of match options. In 1-vs-1, you can end the match as a draw. You can actually see what your opponent is choosing: agree to the same choice, and off you go again. Disagree, and the session simply ends. We tried this end of match flow in 10-vs-10 but ultimately left it out, as it proved messy. 7 would agree to rematch on one side, 5 on the other… No way everyone would agree. So we left it at improving screen flows, so that finding a new session to play as a team is super easy.
- No more ‘any’ setting that imposes settings on you. This was a bug, and ‘any’ now means what it should have meant in the first place: ‘I don’t care for that setting’.
- While we are on the subject of settings…. You can search for matches by team level, with multiple ranges available. You can also create 5-vs-5 matches again. And we are improving the search logic for control assistance settings. Lots of good stuff!
- Some modes are not for everyone. If you play the FIFA Interactive World Cup, be ready to face the toughest competitors, in more restrictive matchmaking conditions. FIWC is now Quick Ranked only, as the community pointed to us that top players ‘chose’ the matches they were playing. If you are good, you should play anyone and win. We are also leveling all teams, similarly to Clubs – we want it to be based on skill alone. Call that tough love for our best players out there… Qualifying for the next FIWC Final will take 110% dedication!
Online Fair Play needs to be enforced
In the end, great online features do not matter if we cannot enforce Fair Play. FIFA 09 saw an increase in cheating, which, to be honest, caught us somewhat by surprise. We were so happy about our offering, that we forgot for a second how petty people can be sometimes. And how willing they are to defeat a system to gain anything out of it. Aided by some community members, we were able to track down most cheat mechanisms. We fixed some (custom teams in FIWC), addressed others by punishing offenders (repeat wins against same opponents), while some others had to wait until FIFA 10 to be addressed (original teams in Clubs).
This is our pledge for FIFA 10:
- No more custom teams in ranked games. Their presence in FIFA 09 Online was a bug, and we are implementing foolproof checkpoint-based loading and unloading of squads in online matches. This also applies to original teams in Clubs.
- Diminishing returns for playing repeatedly against the same team. The more you play someone within a close period of time, the less ranked points you get. Ultimately, it is not even worth the effort. And to those who tried to hide their tracks by playing other modes in the middle of winning streaks… This won’t work anymore. Nice try though.
- No more game exploits. Halfway goals are gone, goalkeeper 6-sec exploit is gone. CR7 is still there however, so use our brand new Training Mode to learn how to better defend against him…
- Faster identification and punishment of cheaters. Never say never… if someone finds a way to consistently cheat our game, our improving stat tracking will flag inconsistencies in their logs, and we will find and punish them. We are actually setting up a Live Team, whose responsibility will be to track down suspected cheaters.
- As a minor but nice new safeguard, we now disconnect players who idle for too long in 10-vs-10. No more AFK’s getting control of the ball as the last defender!
- What about disconnects? For this one, we cannot do any better detection than the one our current system is providing. Peer-to-peer means that connections can be lost for network reasons, freak outages, anything really. Understanding how you connect to the internet and setting up the connection in consequence is key, but we still cannot guarantee 100% connection results. We will strive though to keep explaining how to properly setup internet, as it is definitely not as easy as plug-and-play! And, oh, downloading risqué videos is a major cause of network disruption, so don’t do it!
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FIFA 10- online producer blog Christophe Labrune
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