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Xaor's Corner: Dribbling

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My experiences on Clubs over the last couple of weeks have had me so annoyed at times that I considered using this fortnight’s post to once again rant about its many many foibles. Though undoubtedly cathartic, I’ve said much of what I want to say on that subject already, and I can’t imagine another rant would be particularly constructive. So instead I’m focusing on movement, or, more particularly movement with the ball, and some ideas I have about how EA can continue to give us more ‘freedom’ in movement: something they have been doing (mostly with great success) this whole generation.

If you were to compare last generation’s FIFA games to this generation’s, I would reckon the most striking differences would be those made to the way we control player movement. In FIFA 05, there were just two speeds of movement (sprint, and run), and movement was restricted to just 8 directions.

Since then, our options have simply exploded. Pace control was introduced in FIFA 06, in FIFA 08 we got the once revolutionary skills system, FIFA 10 brought with it 360 degree dribbling and Skilled Dribbling, while FIFA 11 brought Analogue Sprint, and FIFA 12 gave us Precision Dribbling. With FIFA 13, another change, Complete Dribbling, frees the concepts of facing angle and dribbling direction, as well as improving further Precision Dribbling.

EA has had a unique focus on this area – where passing, personality, and defending have each received their one major moment in the sun, dribbling has been visited again and again. Without a doubt, the biggest problem in this area is that of ‘momentum’, not the scripting conspiracy theory, but the lacking representation of how momentum affects, or doesn’t affect movement. I’ve gone over my feelings about this in some detail a couple of times before, here with respect to defending, and more generally here – I won’t reiterate this point too much.

Another area of dribbling which is complained about quite a bit is footedness. Every player in FIFA, when dribbling, is entirely two footed. They dribble with both feet equally, they have no preference to use one foot or the other. It’s the kind of thing that you forget after a while, but, it is incredibly unnatural. There are incredibly few players who are two footed in the sense that FIFA’s are – not only one that is equally gifted with each foot but one who has no preference to dribble with one over the other. Most players are quite one footed – some are extremely so.

This is the kind of thing which ought to have existed in the Next Gen FIFA engine from the beginning, but I can totally understand why they would not work to implement it mid-generation: very high cost, and frankly fairly low noticeability. Of course, one might say similar things about the impact engine (as it’s noticeability stems from its notorious flaws), but that’s by the by!

Those points aside, I want to focus on two major factors which I think, together, remove freedom which we should have over our dribbling in FIFA, and at the same time reduce realism in terms of what we can do, what we cannot do, and how much personality is emergent from the dribbling mechanics in the game.

Analogue Sprint

I was inspired, back in 2009, by the announcement that FIFA 10 would feature 360 degree dribbling, of the idea of analogue movement speed in FIFA. Being able to choose direction totally is good, but adding the ability to negotiate one’s speed with the same precision would be a level beyond.

So I was very happy to hear that this level of control would be at least partially implemented in FIFA 11 with the analogue sprint feature. Unfortunately, the reality of the feature come release fell far short of how I had imagined it. Though I do have analogue sprint turned on when playing FIFA 12, I may as well not. I don’t find it very useful, and very rarely do anything other than slam the trigger all the way down.

There are a few reasons why I find analogue sprint to be mostly ineffective. First, the gap between jogging speed and sprinting speed (particularly for slower players) is fairly minor so there isn’t a huge amount of modulation to paly with. Second, as soon as you edge above jogging speed, you are hit with a number of major penalties: you start losing short term stamina at a high rate, your touch gets much larger, and you are locked to the 22.5 degree per-touch turning rate. For these reasons, I feel while analogue speed is a very good idea, FIFA’s weak implementation of it lets it down.

The sprint modifier in FIFA exists in a way which simply hasn’t kept with the times. Before analogue direction and speed it was unavoidable, but it is now a major constraint to the realism and freedom of FIFA’s movement.

Perfect Dribbling

I think it makes a great deal of sense if improving this, and bringing truly analogue speed of movement to FIFA is made alongside another frankly revolutionary change, which is to bring dribbling error to FIFA. We’ve seen error being brought into many areas of FIFA this generation, first to shooting, then to passing, and with FIFA 13 we will get it for the first touch. In each of these areas, the action’s deviation from the intention is based upon the context. As any regular reader will know, I’m not a great fan of the implementation of this error for passing, but I do think the basic idea is correct. Randomised error based on context is most certainly the best way to represent the differences between players, and the differences between less and more difficult actions.

This concept does not apply to dribbling right now, and FIFA is much the worse for it. Dribbling touches are extremely predictable, and it is very easy to do things which are potentially pretty hazardous without remote danger. Instead of having a gradual concept of difficulty for dribbling, it tends to be a case of you can, or can’t. This works fine a lot of the time, but in others it can prevent things which are patently possible, or allow things which are patently not. For example, you cannot make a 23 degree turn at a speed slightly higher than jogging speed. On the other hand, you can continually make consecutive 180 degree turns without any risk – something I see exploited quite a bit online.

Improvements

Truly realistic and free movement would require a number of changes, which I’ll outline below. The three changes are things which could, theoretically, be implemented to the current system. However, I think it might be wiser if they were part of a new approach for the next generation. I know nothing of what is to come – but I think it’s reasonable to assume that we will get a serious overhaul at the beginning of the next generation in the same way we had a serious overhaul at the beginning of this one. At some point, one way or another, I foresee a serious back-to-basics change being necessary for the movement system.

At the very core of the a new movement system, it is clearly necessary in my mind to begin with a solid base: proper footplanting, a respect to momentum, and a better application of footedness are paramount. It’s not a simple thing to wish for, nor is it something which has really been done by any other game. Getting proper footplanting into an engine which also, by necessity, has to deal with the very irregular leg movements of dribbling, especially once you factor that the player has to choose which foot to use based on all sorts of contexts and their personality too. Hopefully, these will be achievable goals on the next generation consoles.

So, back to the goal of free movement:

Analogue speed should be applied across the board

Analogue speed should not just exist between jogging and sprinting paces, but throughout the entire range of speeds. The easiest way to achieve this would be to move to a system where the left trigger, Pace Control, would slow you down more or less dependent on how much it is depressed. That’s not the only way I could see it be done though.

Ideally, I’d love to see a system where you can vary your speed precisely from a walking pace to a flat out sprint. Such a system wouldn’t need to have a sort of middle ‘jogging’ pace, but instead would feature an intuitive and fluid ability to alter your speed up and down, touch to touch. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how feasible this would be – could just one trigger be used for pace? Probably not due to a lack of fidelity. Can we assume people have triggers? Can we assume people are willing to move to an analogue system? Maybe not. So, perhaps the simple analogue sprint & analogue pace control would have to do.

I’d imagine a few other tweaks. First, that ‘full’ pace control would go to a walking pace. Second, that a full sprint would be flat out, removing the need to have the extra right stick knock on to get to top speed – the knock on could then be positioned more specifically for knocking past players and into space. The jogging pace should perhaps be reduced a bit too, or, maybe more dependent on the player. One of the defining things about a player like Messi is how much faster he can move with the ball under control than the average player, so a Messi could have a faster jogging pace than other players, and the jogging pace could be postioned as the speed at which the player could do most things while keeping the ball under fairly clear control.

Every touch should have error applied to it

Every time the ball is kicked, a calculation should be made dependent on the context which will dictate how far the ball goes, and whether it goes precisely where it was intended to. This should be tuned so most normal actions will receive no significant error, but so that trying more tricky things like consecutive quick, sharp turns, or hefty turns when moving very fast have a level of unpredictability to them.

Sometimes things will turn out badly, sometimes they’ll go exactly how you expected, and sometimes they will happen even better than you expected. The possibility is what makes football such an exciting sport to watch.

Removing limitations in favour of realistic outcomes

The 22.5 degree limit on turning beyond jogging speed should be removed – you should be able to choose the angle of turn as you wish. Trying to make too much of a turn at too fast a speed will have its penalties, like error on the direction and length of the touch. That will not be enough to govern it though – realistic motion physics will be critical too. If you make a 90 degree turn at full speed, your player will obviously not be able to follow the ball directly, but instead curve his run to meet the ball later, or slow so that a sharper turn can be made.

This is where a more agile player, perhaps one with a lower center of gravity, will be truly advantaged, as they’ll be able to make tighter turns at faster speeds.

Conclusion

Together, these changes would provide a freer, more intuitive, more realistic dribbling mechanic. The arbitrary limitations would be removed for once and for all. Things would become a lot less predictable – dribblers would hopefully become more dangerous, but, also be more prone to making mistakes, and this should improve the balance between Attack and Defence too. As opposed to the current system which has perfect dribbling going up against the perfect mirroring of contain, we’d instead have a system of the attacker being able to make the first move, but having to keep things under control. It is probably necessary to have imperfect dribbling before defenders can have their unrealistic reactions shed.

To unleash the potential of analogue sprint, the arbitrary limits must go. To remove those limits, a different scheme of limitation must be imposed. To get the most out of dribbling error, we must have the freedom to take risks. To me, these things seem like the obvious next steps, and hopefully, given EA’s current flair for improving freedom and implementation of predictable-unpredictability (or is it the other way around?), we will see such improvements in the near future.

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