FIFA 13 Preview: The Physics of Unpredictability
With time-running out in the last game of the season, Manchester City seemed sunk. Needing a win to snatch the Premier League title from hated rivals Manchester United, the club were down 2-1 with stoppage time approaching. Then, in the 90th minute, Bosnian striker Edin Dzeko rose to head home the tying goal for the Blues. Three minutes later, City’s Argentinian star Sergio Aguero collected a pass, took one touch, and fired in a goal, giving his team their first league championship in 44 years.
City’s Etihad stadium exploded in celebration. Watching on TV, fans and pundits could hardly believe their eyes. It had been years since the title had been decided in such spectacular, dramatic fashion.
Soccer’s best moments are unpredictable. Few comparable sports events can rival the sudden shock and surprise of a last-minute goal, or the devastation and exultation it provokes in rival sets of fans.
FIFA executive producer David Rutter, interviewed at EA’s Canadian headquarters about his new title, FIFA 13, shares this view: “We’ve been talking about unpredictability – this variety on the pitch of everything that happens.” As Rutter pointed out, so does Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho. When asked to predict the outcome of Sunday’s Champion’s League final, he declined: “One of the great things about football is that it is unpredictable.” Rutter took this as a sign that FIFA was on the right track: “For him to actually say that — what more could we say?”
The beginning of FIFA’s obsession with unpredictability dates back “5 or 6 years,” according to Rutter. Before that, EA’s FIFA series relied on canned animations and random number generators that triggered scripted, preconceived outcomes. Ripping that system out by the roots, Rutter and his team created “a new gameplay engine that supports this concept of not having anything scripted…whatever happens on the pitch is because of your actions…it was based around everything from the spin of the ball, to where it hit you on the foot, to how your leg was, to the posture of the player.”
To make the new engine work, the FIFA team took advantage of the rapid improvement of real-time physics modeling, which enabled them to realistically simulate things like the motion of the ball, the effect of a foot hitting a ball, and the effect of player posture, speed, momentum, strength, and skill on the action of that foot. In FIFA 12, the new Player Impact Engine used physics to render collisions and physical interactions between players on the fly.
And yet, no matter how many aspects of their game they managed to make unpredictable, there was always more to do. “whenever you think you’ve got them all, there’s always something else — ‘Oh, we’re not doing that properly,’” Rutter ruefully admitted. Each yearly iteration of the game demands a new crop of improvements.
In FIFA 13, the brand-new 1st Touch Control system offers a perfect example of physics-based unpredictability. In previous FIFA titles, players were too good at controlling the ball — it seemed to stick right to their foot as soon as it arrived. It was, in hindsight, a glaring oversight — the quality of a player’s first touch is one of his defining characteristics — the designers worked to redesign first touches from scratch.
The result is a system in which defensive pressure, pass trajectory, ball height, ball spin, player skill, and even bad weather can affect the quality of a first touch. “Any time you bring in physics, it gives you that ability to have a variety of outcomes,” FIFA line producer Nick Channon explained in an interview. The more variety, the more unpredictability.
Senior gameplay producer Aaron McHardy, a former youth international for Jamaica, is the FIFA team’s detail guru. Though his soccer career is now over, his on-field expertise forms the basis for the series’ ever-increasing realism, and he took charge of the gameplay presentation at EA’s FIFA 13 unveiling.
Starting with footage of real-world players (Ronaldinho) in action, McHardy then switched to the FIFA “test bed environment,” a fascinating developer tool in which pixelated red and blue players demonstrate the game’s systems in abstract action. As test bed players received passes, they sprouted lines of code that represented physics calculations, and McHardy showed how different conditions could produce a wide variety of first touches — skilled midfielders kept balls close to their feet; lumbering defenders often needed to take extra strides to chase down balls that got away. All players struggled to control passes from difficult distances or trajectories.