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Xaor's Corner: Rebuilding the Virtual Pro

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Before FIFA 08, FIFA had always been an affair where you control an entire team. This all changed with the addition of Be a Pro, a mode which centered the users focus down to just one player – Whether it was their created player, or a real pro. When this generation comes to an end, it will be one of the most meaningful things we are left with. This feature has grown since 2007 to include Virtual Pros, Be a Pro Seasons, Be a Goalkeeper, Pro Ranked Matches, Online Team Play, and Clubs.

I remember thinking, back in 2007, that such a change presented a vast range of inspiring opportunities, particularly online. Though some of this potential has been realised, 5 years later I find that the modes fall far short of what I imagined – and due to this they are rather niche modes which feel more like spinoffs to the main event, than fully fledged modes in their own right. I’ve commented on this, particularly focused around Clubs, before, here and here. With this piece, I’m going to talk about a potential solution – redesigning the ‘Virtual Pro’.

The Problem

The Virtual Pro system itself is one of the worst parts of FIFA. I’ve written about this plenty already (here), so I’ll only summarise here. The accomplishment based progression mechanic is easily exploitable, and it is very difficult to level effectively online – these two factors together lead to a lot of boosting. The extreme physical archetypes of the short-and-quick and tall-and-strong are unbalanced. The gap between a high-levelled VP and a low-levelled VP is overpowering. The gap between the randomly-generated players and the VPs is even more overpowering. The system means that VP’s tend to converge towards a small number of homogenised types. Finally, fairly simple hacks allow you to make your VP into a superhuman.

What I think is wanted from this system is a good balanced variety of Virtual Pros who can accurately represent their users. The current system does not achieve this, or even close, and it has a lot of other problems to boot. So, is it worth trying to fix what we already have? For example, could things not be fixed through alterations to the accomplishments, the physical stats, and the position/role based stats? Well, yes. Things could definitely be improved within the current system, but there are some inherent problems right now which makes me conclude that starting afresh is the right route.

The biggest issue of all is that it’s very hard to have a Virtual Pro which will work across the board for all game modes. The needs in CM vary greatly from the needs in Clubs, where balance and variety is key, and it’s also difficult to come up with a fair progression system, which is why right now it’s so enticing to ‘boost’ your VP offline, even if you don’t want to play offline with him. Regardless of what else is done, a separation between the offline and online VP should be created. If the online VP was to be stored online, this would serve to stem the hacking which has been a major problem over the last couple of years.

With Virtual Pros right now, we have a setup similar to a traditional RPG/MMORPG, where the stats/experience you’ve worked for are by far the most important factor. This is fine, but it does tend to make the actual ‘action’ side of the game fairly dry and repetitive. Though you can definitely work RPG elements into normal gameplay as many FPS games now do, if you make the RPG element too influential you lose the core gameplay.

Manual?

The solution is clear – lower the amount of assistance and try and aim to make a game where what plays out on the pitch reflects user ability, and user personality. With manual controls, you see how this can play out. You no longer have to assign an arbitrary value for ‘passing’, or ‘vision’ to a player: users have ‘vision’, users have ‘reactions’ . Some people are far more capable of dribbling well, some people are far more competent with skills – we all have our own strengths, our own weaknesses and our own propensities to do some things more than others.

I’ve made quite a few negative remarks about manual in recent articles, and I stand by my view that it is not the right way to simulate a football match between 22 representations of real players. For the purpose of making a game based around one player – you – playing football, I think it’s the right way to go.

Naturally, there is this huge stumbling block: regardless of how much feedback (and evidence) attests that FIFA suffers due to assists, EA have not made a single serious move to change any element of the borked system they implemented in FIFA 07. Even so, I’ll persist: the idea I’m putting forth may sound like a really hardcore one – one which couldn’t possibly fly with the casual gamer – but should aiming a pass really be any more hardcore than having to aim in Call of Duty?

You would be very hard pressed to find any competitive game on the planet which requires less of its players. Clubs, as I commented upon here, is the epitome of a skillless encounter, which is ridiculous considering it’s probably the mode which draws the most dedicated audience.

So, for me, the route to the ideal VP mode is to move towards a system which gives you more freedom to fail, and to succeed than any other part of FIFA – where the ‘personality’ of your player is as much as possible down to either you, or the choices you have made.

In my mind, it would be best if there is a separation between the concept of a typical player in FIFA, and a Virtual Pro. Ideally we shouldn’t be constrained by having to use the same attributes – some attributes would no longer be needed, and others would need to have different effects.

For example, I would envisage getting rid of short passing as an attribute for the Virtual Pro. The intended result would to be create a situation where passing was user dictated, but, still within a realistic bounds in that the relative difficulty of one pass to another should be well represented (ie, it shouldn’t be easy to do blind passes), and importantly that it is accessible enough so that very quickly one could learn to play a simple passing game.

I don’t believe that exists within FIFA right now. Manual passing for a highly-statted passer is closest, but the lack of pass inaccuracy for very difficult passes, and, manual passing is far more difficult that it needs to be thanks to a variety of glitches and needlessly awkward controls.

I’m not sure whether solving those usability issues and bugs would leave manual in a state where it was realistically usable by all, but I am adamant it would be feasible to get the controls to a position where it would still be manual, and also be accessible. As an example, a small aiming aid could be provided with a small arrow extending from the ball when you are charging a pass, shot or cross showing you where you are aiming – this could be provided as an option, or for a certain number of games.

It is this sort of change that I think would make Virtual Pro based modes the best they can be. A different, more personal experience than normal FIFA. Making similar changes to other mechanics (e.g. tackling & dribbling) might represent quite a departure from the normal way that these work in FIFA. Ideally, not only changes to the Virtual Pro stats/attributes would be necessary, but gameplay changes too. Gigantic improvements could be made moving to a more manual system with heavy attribute restriction – but if there was some freedom for mechanics to differ between team based modes and Virtual Pro based modes, then EA could go a lot further.

Attributes, Customisation, Progression

Customisation and progression would not have to be thrown out the window – physical attributes and traits would still have to be earnt and chosen. Even so, I think it best if the accomplishments have no part in it. They’re fine as a set of challenges to tick off, but it’s awful The accomplishment system is fine as a feature which has no ramifications on gameplay, much akin to the challenges in Call of Duty, but tying these often pretty stupid tick box challenges into attributes, and therefore success has been a disaster in more ways than one.

Should there even be a progression system? If there was an ‘online’ Virtual Pro, then it wouldn’t be a necessity, so certainly removing the progression would improve the balance of things. Having said that, I’d still probably include one. Progression systems, especially since Call of Duty 4, have become extremely popular and do genuinely add to the longevity and variety you find online. FIFA’s accomplishments show just how important it is to design a progression system carefully. It may seem like a nice extra, but if badly done, it can have a castrophic effect on the rest of the game.

It’s important that you are never at that much of a disadvantage. You shouldn’t feel like you cannot possibly win against a higher levelled opposition. It’s also important that you progress by means which aren’t detrimental to your team, and also that there are no easy ways to cheat the system. Certainly, you shouldn’t be rewarded for selfish or stupid acts – no bonus for rouletting your opponent three times in a match.

To me, a fairly simple experience system works best. At the end of each match you would be rewarded dependent on your own performance, and perhaps rewarded extra had you won – and this experience would contribute to your Virtual Pro’s level.

I’m not really a fan of the extremely-showy experience system that more recent Call of Duty games (and you can add to that a long list of other shooters) where you’re constantly told how great you are for performing a long shot with medals, ribbons and massive text all over your screen. This is a football simulator, so ideally you should be able to forget about experience entirely during the game. Marius Hjerpseth’s impressive Warfare series are exactly what this should not become.

Each level would provide with it points which could then be spent on the remaining attributes, skill moves (basic moves would be available to all players), and various traits/abilities like skilled dribbling (things like ‘early crossing’ should again, be available to all).

Anyone who has played much of FIFA Street will notice that it had a system not disimilar to what I am proposing. It’s not a complementary comparison given that FIFA Street’s progression system is, much like the accomplishment system, quite horribly flawed.

It’s critical that there are limitations. In FIFA Street, it took a few hours to have a whole team of flawless players. In FIFA, though a level cap isn’t strictly necessary, progression should slow exponentially – only the most persistent should be able to get their player to the level of a Messi/Ronaldo over the course of the year.

Some system would also have to be in place to prevent players being superhuman in other ways, as so often occurs in Clubs. FIFA’s current ‘solution’ is to have a sliding scale between the small and maneuvreable, to the tall and strong. As anyone who plays Clubs knows, this hasn’t really worked, though I do think it would work significantly better if the randomly-generated players in Clubs were better, but it’s also disliked because it effectively prevents the real world variety that people want to emulate – there are plenty of tall and fast players, for example.

I don’t think you can avoid having a link between the chosen physical attributes of height and weight (these can’t really be treated like other attributes – it wouldn’t make sense to spend points on ‘height’) and the physical attributes like strength and speed. If you choose a small player, he should be naturally quicker, and, if you choose a tall player he will naturally be stronger, if more cumbersome – but you should be able to overcome this by investing in those physical stats

So, a strong, fast, and tall player wouldn’t be disallowed – but it will be a significantly more expensive build than one that is just fast, or just strong, which will mean anyone wanting that build will have to spend a lot longer getting it – and forfeit in the meantime a lot of other things. Balance is key – improving stats like sprint speed and strength should be expensive, and increasingly so.

Conclusion

The current system does not work. Having a single Virtual Pro across multiple modes inevitably leads to a weakened experience across the board. Worst affected is Virtual Pro Clubs, a mode I’d happily argue is totally undermined by this one deeply flawed system.

I have seen many people come out with their ideas for what to do about this system, and it has always been patently obvious that there are many wildly different solutions to this problem. So broken is the status quo that gigantic improvements could definitely be made without needing a total rebuild. I’ve thought about those ideas a lot  – there are some very innovative possibilities out there – and these have inspired the ideas I’m outlining here.

When writing this I tried to answer a question: How would you design FIFA if it was to be based around VP-centric modes – how would FIFA work had it been a single-pro experience all along? I figured that we would see an approach more focused on the individual actions of passing, dribbling, shooting etc. than one focused around the whole attack. That is what I’ve tried to describe here.

This gives me a large part of the plan, but not all. I waivered quite a bit on what should be done about customisation and progression. I definitely felt that the accomplishment based system was a poor idea, but, amongst suggestions I had read I rather liked the idea of an RPG-style skill-tree, or a more natural-to-football concept of performance & practice in areas leading to development. In the end though, I opted for a simple design – easier to balance, and one that maximises the variety/customisation that you’re likely to see.

This is what I want to see, but I am very open to other things. What I am convinced of is that change – major change – is necessary. This is one of those rare places where factors outside of gameplay are more important than the gameplay itself.

Do you agree with the sentiment that this system needs to be redesigned, and would you see a move towards a manual style of play as a good thing? If the plan I’ve outlined was implemented in a future FIFA, would it encourage you to play Clubs more or less – and feel free to add any other comments below.

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