Games Maker

What does it take to be the creative director of one of the world’s most popular games? We spoke to Matt Prior of EA Sports’ FIFA series

Creative Review: Creative director of EA Sports’ FIFA games would sound like a dream job to many – can you tell us how long you have been doing this, how you got into it and how you define your current role?

Matt Prior: I have been with EA for about 13 years and started at the most grass roots of levels, as a QA [Quality Assurance] tester. I actually started on [car racing game] Need For Speed but my love of football soon got me onto FIFA QA and then into production and then up to the creative director role. That’s one of the great things about EA, it doesn’t really matter how you got here, as long as you can prove you are great at what you do and have a passion for it, which I think is as it should be within the creative industry. Essentially I started in the trenches and many other producers did likewise.

I ended up in Vancouver [where the FIFA team is based] purely by chance. Prior to joining EA I was actually an expedition leader running overland trips around the world. One of those trips was driving from London to Beijing and back and on the Syria to Pakistan portion of that trip I met my future wife who happened to be from Vancouver. After that trip I worked in Africa for a year, decided I had had enough of sleeping in a tent and ended up moving to Vancouver and getting married. In a local paper I saw an advert for QA testers so I applied and it all went from there. I actually had no idea at that time FIFA was even made in Canada. My friends often joke that it was fate as my three main passions are football, gaming and travel and they all contributed to me ending up where I am.

I am a lifelong gamer and the loft back at my parents’ house is a museum of gaming. From the early Binatone pong stuff through the ZX Spectrum, Megadrive, PlayStation etc: I had them all so an absolute passion for gaming was also in my DNA and is important to have as making games takes a lot of time and effort.

The role of a creative director is pretty complex and multi-faceted but it is essentially to drive the complete game design for the product and franchise. It’s to come up with the ideas that help keep FIFA at the top of its game. It takes a whole lot of very talented people to actually deliver them but essentially as a creative director you help lead and direct those features and the vision.

CR: How many people work on the game and what are their roles/skills?

MP: We have around 80 core team members and the roles are wide and varied. From the producers/designers who come up with the ideas to the software engineers who write the code to the artists, renderers and sound engineers who make things look and sound great, there is a vast array of roles within the team. There are also a number of central teams who support the making of the games so all told it’s in the hundreds in terms of people who help contribute to making FIFA.

Games have become so big and complex with the expansion of technology that the level and variety of expertise required has grown with it. Gone are the days when a few guys in their garage could knock out an entire console game between them.

CR: How does the process work for each new release – do you have a long-term plan of new features?

MP: We have a long-term vision but our industry is one of rapid change so we need to be agile enough to adapt. Gamers are playing longer and FIFA has become a 24/7 live service, which is a huge change. It’s also not just about a single console experience now. FIFA is available on a vast array of devices so planning for all of that necessitates a longer vision but an adaptable one at the same time. We certainly have defined visions for specific game modes and map out ideas around specific features and what year they will be introduced.

CR: What were the new features in FIFA 15 that you are most proud of?

MP: It’s not a FIFA 15 specific feature as it’s been around for a while but I would say the feature I am most proud of is Ultimate Team [where players can combine past and present stars] as I came up with the original concept for that many years ago. I know so many people who are completely addicted to that and have been for many years and as a games maker there is no bigger compliment than that.

CR: How do you create the realistic features of each player? Do you have a team who photograph each one?

MP: Absolutely. Authenticity is key for us and we have built up great partnerships with many of the teams and leagues. Wherever possible we send out our motion capture team who have this special rig which photographs the players from every conceivable angle. From that reference, our teams of artists create the heads.

With the advancement of technology we have to be more and more authentic. Gone are the days when it didn’t matter what the players looked like because they were small sprites running around on a standard definition TV. Now gamers can get as close as they like to the players so it’s important those players look as realistic as possible and it takes a lot of time and effort to achieve that.

CR: What about the stadiums – what is the process for creating the realistic grounds for each team?

MP: Again it’s another very important part of our game. A home team stadium is part of the DNA of a club. Creating the stadiums to the most authentic and minute detail starts off with reference. That can come in the form of blue print plans, architects’ drawings or more commonly we send a photographer to the stadium and they capture every conceivable structure, angle and detail. From that reference our modellers build it. It then goes through a number of review processes until we are all happy with it.

CR: How do you set the players’ skill levels so they are both fair and realistic and do you ever have players complaining that their stats aren’t as good as they‘d like?

MP: From an authenticity standpoint it is very important to us that the players feel authentic. When I am playing with Messi it should feel and look like Messi, so we have an army of data collection guys who gather all the various stats on the players from speed to agility to heading accuracy to reaction times etc. Over 30 individual attributes are collected so that when you play with a player in our game he actually feels like how that player plays in real life.

The data collection guys are based all over the world and are territory experts with impartial views. I am a Man City fan and back in the day, when we were rubbish I jokingly tried to boost our stats but our data collection guys would always prevent it, so I can vouch for the impartiality and fairness of our ratings.  We have even been told by a number of managers at various professional levels that if they are coming up against a team they may know very little about they will often reference our game to get an idea of who the danger men are – it’s that authentic.

Having ratings though does inevitably cause professional players to often question their stats as they pretty much all play our game and they always think their stats are too low but it’s always in good fun. They, like everyone else, appreciate the authenticity of the game at the end of the day.

CR: You’ve done a lot of work in terms of the emotional behaviour of the players but footballers don’t always behave very well. How do you balance a responsibility to encourage better behaviour with the desire to reflect the game as it is actually played?

MP: It is a balance and we do try to be 100% authentic but at the same time we do not want to promote certain sides of the game. We have a good relationship with FIFA and we do keep them in the loop during production so we get ahead of any potential issues before they occur.

CR: Do you think the primary interaction with the game will always be with a handheld controller or can you imagine a future where the game will predominantly be played using tech like haptic suits and Oculus Rift-type headsets?

MP: The industry is always changing and we will always be at the forefront of that change. We want to make games that are innovative and immersive and will embrace any technologies that allow us to achieve that. A lot of gaming today is about a 24/7 experience and mobile gaming has exploded but I think there will be a place for the more traditional controller/couch scenario for a while yet.

CR: Ultimately, what is the (forgive the pun) goal for the FIFA series? Is it primarily about realism? Or mass participation? Entertainment?

MP: It’s a balance of all those things. Our internal goal is to put gamers first and give the best possible entertainment experience and FIFA is one of the largest mass participation games on the planet.

At the same time we want to be realistic, as part of the entertainment value is the authenticity it brings. Very few of us will ever play football at the top level but you can live the dream through our game and I am happy to say millions and millions of people do so on a daily basis. Bringing entertainment on such a large scale to so many people is a pretty cool thing to do for a living.

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