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FIFA 17 interview – Talking AI changes, Frostbite and The Journey with EA Sports

EA Sports’ FIFA franchise returns for yet another year with this year’s entry, FIFA 17. It may just be the biggest entry yet, with a physical play overhaul, driven by the Frostbite Engine, changing the way players interact and clash on the pitch.

But how does it change how the game is play? How does the new Active Intelligence System work, and in what ways does the new engine challenge the AI?

There’s also The Journey, FIFA 17’s new story-based mode, made possible with Frostbite.

We sat down with producer Nick Channon at Gamescom to talk about this year’s game and the team’s focus on creating the most ambitious FIFA game yet.

FENIX Bazaar: First of all I wanted to talk about the physical play overhaul. What was the drive to make that change?

Nick Channon: We’ve actually been working on that technology for a couple of years. It was just time to bring it in. It took a while to bring it in. It’s actually a really complex system, especially dribble touches and knowing where the player is so you can shield in the right manner. So a lot of it was ready.

FENIX Bazaar: How does it work, and in what ways does it change how the game is played?

Nick Channon: Well continuing on from my past point, we thought it also complimented the new attacking active intelligence as well, it’s nice to have players running off you, and you can hold up the ball now. Holding up the play actually becomes a thing now, which is great. There was that, we wanted to clean up the interactions between the players as well, and make it more reliable in a few situations, not just shielding — we re-worked all of the shield dribbling — but also the way players interact in those physical interactions. So it was an area we wanted to focus on and obviously clean up with new functionality.



FENIX Bazaar: How does it change how a player may approach an aerial battle? In my own experience, it seems like there are more options there to control the ball and create an advantage over an opponent.

Nick Channon: Quite a bit. Previously, when a ball was in there air from a goal kick, you could only head the ball. Whereas now if there’s a player in front of you, and you hold that left trigger, that will bring the ball down in control, so that’s actually a really big change.

FENIX Bazaar: The introduction of Frostbite and using that engine has been a big deal for you guys this year. In what ways does it improve the FIFA experience?

Nick Channon: Fundamentally we wouldn’t have been able to have The Journey without it. We didn’t have the toolset to do a narrative story, to create that as well as make it. So with Frostbite, it’s been used to make stories for quite a long time, so it’s allowed us to do that.

FENIX Bazaar: Can you elaborate on that a little bit? Was there much collaboration with other EA studios on how to best utilise the engine?

Nick Channon: Yeah, well, having the ability…being on the same engine as Battlefield, Mass Effect, it means that when we’re having conversations with those teams. It’s not just about ideas, it’s about, “Okay so, you’re doing this? How are you doing it?” And you can actually use not only a conversation, but also, you know, “Okay, we can try that”. We spoke with the DICE guys about how they bring atmosphere to their levels, and those are things we can bring to the game. With a FPS, there’s not a lot of commonality between philosophies. Now it’s not only about seeing and talking about their philosophies, but understand how they’re doing it within Frostbite.

FENIX Bazaar: In what ways has introducing Frostbite challenged the FIFA team?

Nick Channon: It’s difficult, because any time you go to a new tech — a new console, a new engine — it’s always a challenge bringing your game to it. The challenge is getting to understand in detail. When you’ve worked on something for quite a while, you know it intimately. But there’s a lot of new things to learn now. Having said that, where the opportunity comes in, there’s a lot of new stuff we can look, and it’s a great foundation for it. When you challenge yourself in that way you get really great results.

FENIX Bazaar: You say that The Journey wouldn’t have been possible without Frostbite…

Nick Channon: We could have done it, but we would have needed to spend all the time getting the tools to make it capable, and then make it. We couldn’t do that, we couldn’t make it before. Now we can.

FENIX Bazaar: Well, it’s an interesting time to do this. I like the story-based mode in NBA 2K17, I hate to bring it up, but we’ve seen similar modes added to NBA Live, NHL, a lot of other sports games are doing this rags to riches-style story. What is it about The Journey that the FIFA team really honed in on, and what things did they not want to kind of get tricked into doing?

Nick Channon: Well what we wanted to do, when we were talking about the idea, we wanted to make sure that it was very much about, what happened on the pitch was reflective in the story as well. It wasn’t just a story and gameplay and then parallel like that, so we wanted to make sure it was intertwined like that. So everyone will experience the same core story, but how we do it will be different depending on how you play. So if you’re on a poor run of form, you’ll see things. It really is reflective of how you’re playing, you have to make the team and stay in the team or you get dropped. That was really important for us, not just an on-rails story and then gameplay parallel.

FENIX Bazaar: Okay so talking a bit more about the gameplay, and how things have changed or improved: the Active Intelligence System is something the FIFA team has spoken about quite a bit. How does it work, and how does it improve the FIFA 17 experience?

Nick Channon: The key difference is that previously, player intelligence was based on where the ball was, and where the person with the ball was, and they would make runs based on that. Now the AI will make runs based on space, and now just based on where the ball is. So if a player is running one way, the players would run in that direction. Whereas now, they’ll look at where the defenders are and respond, “Actually, if I can get into this space here, it’s really dangerous space based on where the space is.” So they’re looking at where the space is, and they’re running into it.



FENIX Bazaar: What does this mean for how players and AI-controlled players play off of each other?

Nick Channon: It means that now players can actually run off each other, so players will make runs in one way, and another will run into the space that was just vacated. That’s the big key change to it, they’re not just looking at the ball, they’re looking at space.

FENIX Bazaar: Finally, in what ways have you adjusted the CPU AI?

Nick Channon: Well obviously we felt that we needed to adapt the AI to make sure it can cover the space. So we want to make sure that, when you look at last year’s game I thought it was very balanced, there were times where you could get a bit bogged down. So we wanted to open the game up a bit with the active intelligence system, but also make sure it’s not too open because we don’t want huge goal fests. We want it to be realistic enough. So it’s about taking attacking AI, and ensuring the defensive AI actually works well with it.

FENIX Bazaar: Great. Thanks for the chat, and good luck with the launch!

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