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Xaor's Corner: Aggravation Online

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FIFA is infamous for being frustrating to play online, but who’s to blame?

See all previous articles here.

It was back in 2004 that I first played FIFA online, having gone through the laborious process of connecting up a fat PlayStation 2. Things were simpler back then with far fewer features and there was only a single head 2 head game mode, but that was enough for me. I was hooked and addicted to the joys and frustrations of competing with an opponent which offered far greater variety and challenge than the FIFA’s AI could then and can now.

Ever since, it’s always been what FIFA can offer online which interests me most. I’m not nearly so addicted as I was then, but I still think online modes are where the greatest potential is at.

As my tastes have matured to the point where winning isn’t nearly enough, FIFA online represents one of the most frustrating experiences gaming has to offer. Frustration isn’t always a bad thing in games – frustration at your own failures is what drives you to get better – but in FIFA it tends to be frustration at the game’s failings or your opponent’s tactics.

Just occasionally, you get to see the rough gem which lies under all the problems. When there is respect between competitors, and when winning isn’t the only priority, you get to enjoy FIFA 12 as it should be. As opposed to the repetitive, unrealistic, exploitative tactics you’re used to, you get to see creativity and intelligent play. Against such play, frustration melts away, and you no longer feel like you are fighting against the game to enjoy it.

Other than when playing online friendlies though, this experience is very rare, or practically nonexistent when it comes to playing Clubs. It’s not that surprising that playing FIFA with friends is more enjoyable than playing it against random people – this is true of any game – but the gap between the experiences is uniquely large.

This is obviously a pretty large problem for FIFA and its community, because it results in the online experience being far less enjoyable than it really ought to be, to the point where many simply don’t bother playing online due to it because they know the experience they will get will be more bad than good.

So, who’s fault is it? It’s pretty common to see people stating that you should “Blame the player, not the game”, or the precise opposite, “Blame the game, not the player”, and I’ve even seen some individuals stating both!

Blame the Player

Though there can be no denying that players are causing the problem, it is very tricky to imagine how you could ever solve the problem from that angle.

It’s hard to imagine because it’s very difficult to persuade people that they ought to play differently, particularly when the way you would have them play would make it less likely they would win. Some would debate whether their style of play was genuinely unfair, arguing that it was realistic, or falling back to the pathetic cliche and stating that “it’s in the game, you could use it too”. Annoying though it is, they have some point – you can’t really begrudge people who play to win within the intended bounds of the game, imbalanced as they are.

However, I don’t buy another common argument – “I paid for this game, I can do what I want on it”. Playing online, albeit behind a wall of anonymity and long distance, is like being in any public sphere. There is much to be said for competitive spirit or a bit of banter, but when banter becomes trash talking becomes vicious insults, and when playing hard turns to cheating turns to hacking things have gone far, far too far.

That isn’t to say that change through players and the community is impossible. One thing that we can do as more conscientious gamers, is to try and prevent ourselves from playing their way. It’s all too easy to resolve that if you can’t beat them, you must join them, or to give up altogether. There is a continual pressure on gamers online to stop playing respectfully or stop playing altogether, and you see this play out over the course of every year.

In the first few days, the average player you find online tends to be a much fairer opponent than the one you’ll find a few weeks later, who in turn tends to be a fairer opponent than the one you’ll find a few months further on. They are less likely to be playing with one of the best teams, less likely to know exploits and less likely to use them even if they do. As time goes on, as the frustrations set in and the new-game-sheen wears thin, those who play respectfully start to play less, stop playing altogether, or start changing their play style so that they can cope with their opponents. It’s a vicious cycle which degrades the experience of FIFA online with a devastating predictability.

If we in this community refuse to bend to it, by persisting with the team we love rather than playing as Real Madrid, and by playing honestly, then we can at the very least not contribute to the problem. If a ‘Fair Play’ message could be taken on and pushed by influential members of the community (like popular FIFA YouTubers), then you might just see some noticeable difference.

To say that changing the players is an uphill battle would be an enormous understatement, and whatever change could be affected like this would be heavily limited. It might be possible to persuade a relatively small number to improve the way they play, but the vast majority will never change the way they play even if you could reach them. It is in many ways fair to blame the players, but it is totally impractical and completely unhelpful to approach the problem from a “Blame the players, not the game” perspective.

Blame the Game

So, is it fair to blame the game?

Any developer of an online game should be thinking about how to prevent its gamers from ruining the experience they have built. With a game as complicated and as vast as FIFA is, it’s certainly not a simple task, but I don’t think that can excuse the degree to which FIFA is defenceless against its player. The range of issues is immensely broad, from hacking to green-afroed prats in Clubs, but they all serve to lessen the joys of FIFA online. Though players are electing to do these things, it is EA who has made a game which allows, and often rewards them doing so.

Hacking

Fortunately hacking is pretty rare in FIFA. The only relatively widespread hack that you see is people boosting their VP ratings to skip getting accomplishments or, worse still, to make their VP impossibly good/strong/tall/fast, and so on. EA have been reasonably good at reacting to this abuse and banning those who do it, but I still hold out hope that FIFA 13 will have VP data stored online to prevent this kind of hacking properly.

Quitting

In the last few years the frequency of people exploiting the ability to quit in the first five minutes without punishment has become endemic. I don’t have any precise statistic, but if I score in the first 5 minutes I fully expect my opponent to quit out. It’s got to the point where if someone doesn’t quit I’m totally overjoyed with surprise that I’m not playing a scumbag. The current system is designed so that you can quit out if problems with lag arise, or there is a kit clash, but right now it’s more frequent that people use the 5 minute window to quit out when they go behind than to quit out if they have a genuinely justifiable reason. If anything, it would be better to have no such system right now.

Obviously EA could do much better. A fairly simple solution would be to prevent quitting after you concede. This would improve the situation tenfold, though if you conceded straight from kick off in a laggy game you might be slightly worse off. A more complex solution could try to actively detect lag so that players would have an opportunity to quit freely in high lag situations. What should be blatant obvious to anyone who plays online much, especially Clubs, is that this has to change. Almost everyone knows about this exploit, and it’s a straightup way to cheat a win from your opponent. It strikes me as pretty shocking that it’s stayed this way for so long.

Tactics

Dodgy tactics are rife in FIFA online – high pressure, repetitive one-twos, stupid formations, balls-over-the-top, sweetspot shots, backpost corners, etc, etc. These problems are no doubt the hardest to solve, because they are deep rooted in the flaws of FIFA’s gameplay. Together these flaws and the ability to consistently exploit them make FIFA a game where the players who are best at FIFA play a game which has practically no resemblance to real football. That lack of balance is the root cause of the most major frustrations in FIFA.

I’ve talked about most of these problems before in one article or another, in most detail here, so I don’t think much more needs to be said here.

Assistance

I rattle on about assists more than pretty much any feature of FIFA, and this topic gives me another perfect chance. In the assistance settings EA have implemented a system which allows users to choose to take no responsibility over their game, which doubles as the most unrealistic way to play the game, and which facilitates the easy exploitation of FIFA’s gameplay flaws. Playing, as I recently did, on Clubs with an exclusively manual bunch provided the latest and greatest example of how broken this system is.

We were conscious going into each game that we would likely not win due to our choice of controls, a cost acceptable because playing on manual is that much more enjoyable than playing on assisted. Even with the expectation to have to play far better than our opponents to even draw, I was flabberghasted to be reminded just how unfair such a fixture really is. It wouldn’t be a grand exaggeration to say that our opponents gameplan was to press A+LB (one-two pass) a few times, followed by Y+LB (lobbed through ball) once, followed by B+RB (finesse shot) over and over again to score.

It was startling to me, as I haven’t played Clubs much this year, just how easy it is to pull off such a tactic. Pretty much every time the opposition would shoot it would fly automatically into the net, proving more clearly than ever that the finesse-sweet-spotting is alive and well. Of course, it is not just the assistance which causes the problem, rather the way that the assistance fits in around other flawed game mechanics. Any half decent ball over the top in Clubs will be pulled off because the attacker will be so much stronger and faster than the defender that he will almost always get the ball – the ability to pretty much guarantee that the pass will work out means that you have a near guarantee of a good chance every time you time a ball over the top well.

I know of no clearer example of a game developer allowing their gameplay to be wrecked than what you see with FIFA’s assists. I do not believe that everyone should play on manual, nor that assisted should be removed, but EA must put features in place so that I don’t have to have my game ruined by assistance; (see here for what I would do in more detail). I do not blame gamers for using assists (especially as most do not even know there is any other way), but I do blame EA for allowing this to happen in their game. Not only is there a much better game in FIFA than how it plays on assisted, but this failing near enough ruins any competitive aspect of online gameplay for those who know just how much better FIFA is once you take the stabilisers off.

Human Goalkeepers

Human GKs have been damaging Clubs for a couple of years now, and for a short period with FIFA 12, they were also allowed to ruin H2H Seasons gameplay too. Though I’m very pleased EA did decide to remove the ability to swap to the goalkeeper in H2H Seasons after a while, EA haven’t gone nearly far enough. I do wonder on some level why EA agree that it’s unfair in head to head play, but don’t recognise that it must be unfair in Clubs too. In fact, in Clubs where the keepers’ rating (and other attributes like height) can make them far, far better than any of the real keepers in the game, it’s actually worse than it was in H2H Seasons.

A human keeper who knows how to exploit the controls (particularly on assisted) can pretty much prevent any shot from outside of about 10 yards. Outside of headers and pass-across-goal chances, they can save pretty much anything and it isn’t even very difficult. I think it says quite a lot about FIFA’s community that so many people would play in the most boring position on the pitch just so they can vastly boost their team’s chance of success.

It’s really as simple as this – Clubs is absolutely ruined from a competitive angle like this. EA has made a clear admission that they realise the feature is broken. Not dealing with this for FIFA 13 would be practically unforgivable.

Over-used & abused Teams

A dull fact of life on head 2 head Seasons is that you will have to play the same handful of teams over and over again. Though you’d expect that better teams will be considerably more popular, both because better teams tend to have more support, because playing with the best players is often the most fun, and because playing with the best teams helps you to win. Right now, there are so many reasons to use the best teams, and only discouragement from using lesser teams, for example the team you support. For gamers what it means is that they get very little variety of teams to play, and for supporters of particular teams, it means they are almost always playing with the weaker team.

Teams who make up the top of a star bracket are advantaged under the current system as they will only ever be matched against teams who are weaker than them, and the reverse is true of teams in the bottom of any particular bracket. Changing the system to one where matchmaking is based around a 100-scale numerical rating for each team would solve that part of the problem.

To really knock this issue on the head though, EA need to look into introducing some incentives/disincentives to try and encourage people to play with a greater variety of teams. People should not feel disadvantaged if they play with the team they love, but right now that is the case.

 

Trolls & Clowns

A telltale sign that you’re about to play a Club of annoying idiots is when, at the kick off you see that their virtual pros are freaks-of-nature. Minute speedfreaks or gigantic gangly Crouch-alikes with ridiculous hairstyles and colours and faces which wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie. Though I wish people didn’t make their players like this, I’m more confused at why EA allows them. I play FIFA hoping to experience the sport I love, and nothing kills me immersion more than having to watch a cobalt-afroed moron doing backflip celebration while his mates do handstand walks. It makes an absolute mockery of FIFA as an authentic recreation of the sport, and these factors blight Clubs as a mode.

Personally, I would be happy if the extreme celebrations were cut out, and if EA toned down the player customisability a tad so that the options are a little more believable. Hair dye is fine, but at least make it look like hair dye rather than just turning each strand of hair a stark blue, green, or white. Rugby head protectors for outfield protectors though? One pink glove and one green one? It’s hard to know what ‘cool’ customisation will be added next. How about allowing any colour for skin tones? Clearly a stupid idea, but you can be certain that you’d come up against bright purple players every other game.

Unfortunately, I don’t think EA are likely to take a more serious line with visual customisation, so I will instead ask that they provide options so that I can opt out of having to see my opponents VP and their stupid celebrations. In my opinion, Clubs has the potential to be the greatest mode in any sports game – it’s incredibly painful to see the circus it has become.

Conclusion

It’s pretty clear to me that it is wrong to say “Blame the player, not the game” or “Blame the game, not the player”. The player and the game are both to blame. However while the playerbase is mostly unchangeable, the game could be improved in a lot of ways to prevent it from being ruined by its players. Some of these ways are simple changes which would mean a lot, some are more complex, but in both cases they are things worth devoting serious attention to.

EA could make a lot of major changes to gameplay this year, and I hope they will, but from an online perspective it is probably more important that they attend to the problems I’ve elaborated on above. Playing FIFA 12 online shows you the worst of FIFA, and the worst of its community. It is up to EA to change that.

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