If you missed part 1 of Tobys dissection of the passing model, you can read it here. If you didn’t then you can get on with reading part 2.
Problems with Passing: Part 2
In the first part I went through various issues with the passing controls in FIFA, now I want to put aside the divide between the various control settings to discuss the error model. This translates the various contexts (who is the player, how far is the pass, angle of the pass, lie of the ball etc.) into error (which will either be a case of the ball being misplaced or under/overweighted).
It is what builds a risk v reward situation with passing. With any difficult pass, there is a possibility it will not work. To make it more likely to work you have to set yourself correctly, and use the right man for the job. At the moment, this part of FIFA isn’t working correctly. This allows me to use clearances as perfect balls to my striker, or simply pressing chipped throughball to put my striker into a one on one (not every time, but far too often), or using one-two after one-two to go straight up the pitch. It’s also why players like Fabregas and Xavi, while good for their general level of ability, are not the world-beaters in FIFA that they are in real life, simply because their passing ability is not special in FIFA, or, at least, it’s not special in the right way.
The causes of error
FIFA is struggling to properly represent the difficulty of passes, and how this scales between players. The passes you marvel at in real life tend to be the brilliantly timed balls piercing a defence, or floating just right so that it lands perfectly in the path of an onrushing player, or the wonderful speed and snap of the passing that Barcelona are famous for. The difference between the best players and the worst players is not simply how well they pass; it’s how well they cope with tougher situations. Yet, all too often the places I notice the difference between my passers most are on simple, straight passes. Yet these same players who struggle with a straight pass can float over a chipped throughball with the best of them, or do a spinning 180-degree pass accurately, or crack a clearance onto my striker’s forehead.
Pro Passing, which was one of the biggest new features in FIFA 11, didn’t live up to most of the claims, but if it did one thing, it did take the sting out of ping-pong passing. There are still issues here and there, but it definitely did impress the importance of ‘taking a touch’, and that’s fine. What it didn’t do so well, was impress the difficulty of accurately hitting a long pass, or an awkwardly angled pass. In fact, assuming you do take that touch, you can more or less get away with anything you want. A lot more error needs to be devoted to passes like those, and it is these difficult passes: first time passes, awkwardly angled passes (plus back-heels etc), long balls, and balls into a players path that should allow you to best differentiate between different players.
A failure to implement such things has a profound effect on the game. To take one example, not properly simulating the difficulty of passing behind your back with a 180-degree pass, leads to the flow of the match being damaged. It removes the need to build your play up – and it removes the need for a midfield.
The illustrations below show an example of this, where a fairly common situation in the midfield in real football ends up with the ball being kept in the middle, whereas in FIFA, it gets pushed quickly, and easily, into the final third. In illustration 1, a pass is made to a closely marked man – he has support behind his back but doesn’t know where and he’s being pressed as he receives the pass. He has to play back towards the man who passed it to him, perhaps looking for support to his left or right. In FIFA though, there is no difficulty in making the pass in illustration 2. It’s a pass you wouldn’t ever try normally: you wouldn’t know where your man was or how closely marked he was. In FIFA, you can do it every time.
This is why formations like 6-1-3 work: stack the defence, and use just as much as you need up front. In real life midfield is needed for the transition from defence to attack, to cushion the defence from an attack, and to bolster the attack, in FIFA it is not needed for the first nor adequate for the second and third. For this reason, you may as well use dedicated defenders and attackers, and that is precisely the behaviour that is so often seen in the online modes.
The irony is that EA have already developed the perfect technology to simulate the difficulty of 180-spin passing. FIFA 12 incorporates Vision AI, a system which maps out what each player can see (and can remember because he has recently seen). This affects all sorts of things in FIFA 12 apparently, but it doesn’t affect the vision of the player being controlled by a human. So while it will affect the passing of a CPU opponent, or the way the AI moves and plays, it will not affect your passing, or passing online at all.
I can understand why EA did this: they think it is unintuitive to be able to ‘see’ something yourself (because we view the game from a faraway camera) but to have to remember that your player cannot. However, if it was used for human-controlled efforts, I think it would do a really good job. If a player tries to pass to a player (or, for manual’s sake, region) that he cannot see, then that pass could have its error increased drastically. It may not be immediately intuitive as a ‘game’, but as a football simulation it’s no more ‘weird’ than the effect of spin on the ball, people will get used to it so long as it’s properly explained, and not frustratingly implemented.
Add that to a string of alterations to the type of passes error is added to, considering the length, angle, and type of path a lot more, and we’d be half way to a much better passing system.
It is equally important to be able to represent that error in a way which makes sense to the context, and which has the correct effect on the game. At the moment, FIFA represents almost all of its error as the pass being underhit. This makes the passing in FIFA often feel slow and lethargic – it’s very rare for a pass to go significantly to one side or other of the intended trajectory, and it’s almost impossible to overhit a pass.
This is not only flat out unrealistic, the fact that error is always represented in this way means that it doesn’t do much in terms of discouraging many types of passing. While a pass being underhit and slow to get to its destination may allow it to be intercepted when it otherwise wouldn’t have been (unfortunately FIFA doesn’t do a good job of getting defenders to intercept), it may well mean that the pass, while suboptimal, still gets to its destination. To take an example, the same pass is performed in illustrations 3, and 4, where a first-time pass is intended to go through a gap. In 3, the pass is ‘slow’, and it slips between the defenders. In 4, it’s slightly off target, and it may become possible for it to be cut off.
EA seems to be trying to use underhit passes as a substitute for misdirected passes and overhit passes, but you simply can’t. It’s more than that though, because the sluggishness in passing becomes unrealistically restrictive in a lot of cases: it is really hard to hit a long grounded pass at a reasonable pace, especially with weaker players, which is completely unrealistic: there isn’t a footballer in the world who would struggle to get enough distance on a pass due to lacking of strength.
The reasons why the passing is the way it is are twofold. First is a technical issue: EA’s trapping mechanics (i.e., the way they simulate the first touch) is not especially strong, and, if receiving a ball which you’d think was too fast, they tend to actually trap it as well as they would with a perfectly weighted pass. This leads to EA being unable to make passes overhit (at least, with grounded passes) because an overhit pass would tend to be more effective than a normal pass. You would hope that with FIFA 13 EA will improve the first touch mechanics so that overhit passes can become part of the error system, because this is a very important thing to miss.
The lack of directional error is unfortunately down to EA’s fear that too much error would be highly unpopular among the wider community of fans. Whether or not that is over cautious I’m not sure, but I don’t think that having directional error is so much worse than having every other pass being underpowered. If anything, the more intuitive it is in football terms the less frustrating it will be. This is not about making passing overly difficult – you shouldn’t be struggling to string together passes but you ought to be considering where and when to make passes, as opposed to being able to make almost any pass, at any time, without any real sense of risk.
You simply cannot understate the importance of having a great passing system. It is critical to the way the match flows, the ability to play creative football, providing a realistic and unexploited environment for play, and for differentiating between players. Right now, the passing system leaves a lot to be desired. While what was attempted with “Pro Passing” for FIFA 10 sounded initially like it could make the difference, it may take another effort as large if the passing system is to go from one of the least solid areas of FIFA to an asset for the game.