Aaron McHardy is the only member of the “FIFA 13” production team to make the head-spinning transition from playing professional football internationally to designing the way his former opponents run and react in the video game.
That’s right, McHardy, who was originally pegged by EA Sports as motion-capture talent for the “FIFA Street” series, has worked his way up from the Jamaica roster to the bottom of the “FIFA” chain, first getting his fingers cramped in quality assurance as a tester before climbing all the way to lead gameplay designer of the most popular sports video game in the world.
“From a young age, I always played video games, and I always played ‘FIFA,’ and you always dream of little features you could add, but I never thought that one day I’d become a ‘FIFA’ gameplay producer,” says McHardy. “I always tell people, when I hung up the boots and I was done playing, I knew that part of my life was over, and I was a little upset about retiring, but then I fell into this job, and it was great for me because it enabled me to stay in touch with the game at a high level. I’m still analyzing the game every single day, just like I did as a pro player, only now I’m doing it in video game form.
“So if playing professional football was the No. 1 best job in the world for me, this is definitely No. 2.”
And seeing that McHardy is the brains behind everything from 360-degree dribbling and custom tactics, to leading the development of the game’s revolutionary Impact Engine, I figured there was nobody better to give ESPN the rundown on what the development team has cooking for “FIFA 13.”
Here are the five things you need to know before the game kicks its way into stores later this year:
1. “Action is the real measure of intelligence.” -- Napoleon Hill
One of my biggest gripes about playing “FIFA” throughout the years is that there are too many players on the pitch who just seem to be taking up space, with no thoughts about what to do until the ball starts rolling their direction (and even then, they might not know what to do). In “FIFA 13,” this has all changed, as all-new positioning code has been written that will not only improve how players analyze space, they will work to create better attacking opportunities, even calculating plays, two moves ahead.
“We’ve completely changed the way our positioning analysis works,” explains McHardy. “What this allows is for our players to now run with more conviction. They’re not as indecisive as they used to be. In ‘FIFA 12,’ they might start running and change their minds maybe three or four times during your run, which really kills off the effectiveness of your run. Players were taking themselves out of the game because they couldn’t decide what to do. Now, you have players analyzing the entire length of the run, and it’s a much more stable system because now when a player decides to go for a run, he sticks with it, and that’s just one small piece of what we’re doing in a new system we’re calling Attacking Intelligence.
“The other piece of that puzzle is giving every player out on the pitch different run types. So now, they are trying to get open for you. They’re curving their runs in order to stay onside, and we have a bunch of new locomotion animation that we added so that you can now see this happening all over the pitch. For players to be able to curve their runs behind the defender that’s blocking the path to where they want to go, that’s something we couldn’t do in ‘FIFA 12.’ What they would do last year, they would just run to a different spot, even if it wasn’t the best spot for them to go to, but that’s all we could do when players were forced to run in straight lines. Now they can decide they want to run behind a player, and they can run around their defender, better exploiting the space available.”
Add to that the ability to open up passing channels, giving players on your team the intelligence to recognize when the defense is playing tight, and pushing them to actually run away from their defenders in order to create space for the pass, and now we’re talking.
“This is something players in the real world do all the time, creating that avenue for the pass,” says McHardy. “Now your teammates will create that space so you can get the ball to your striker. It’s all about working harder, working smarter, in order to give you better opportunities with the ball.”
2. The rules of soccer are very simple. Basically, it’s this: If it moves, kick it. If it doesn’t move, kick it until it does.” -- Phil Woosnam
From precision dribbling to skill moves, there were four different dribbling mechanics gamers could utilize in “FIFA 12.” In “FIFA 13,” EA Sports tries to bring everything together in a feature it’s calling Complete Dribbling.
“We looked at our core mechanics, and we want you to be able to control the ball like in real life, where a player like Lionel Messi takes his defender 1v1,” says McHardy. “How we’ve done this is, we now enable you to move in any direction while facing any direction. What I mean by that is, from ‘FIFA 09’ to ‘FIFA 10,’ we added the ability to turn 360 degrees. In ‘FIFA 09,’ you could actually only turn in eight different directions, which was very limiting. So we freed you up in ‘FIFA 10’ and it was very liberating. So in ‘FIFA 13,’ we’ve done that again, allowing you to turn in any direction while facing any direction, and that’s quite the technological change. But what this does is, it puts you in a situation like Lionel Messi in the real world where you’re facing up defenders in these 1v1 battles, but now you can easily go left or right, making quick decisions while simply using your left stick. Simply by changing the orientation and the facing angle of the player who is moving, we can put you in a much better position in these 1v1 battles, enabling you to better beat people off the dribble.
“By adding this, it’s also enabled us to really enhance the ball shielding while dribbling. We can lock the facing angle away from somebody, which gives you maximum protection with the ball. You can now shield the ball a lot longer, and that really helps those big strikers holding the ball and waiting for those midfielders to run off of you.”
Precision dribbling has also been completely blown up as McHardy and crew stole the Street Ball Control mechanic from “FIFA Street,” where a simple button hold held your player in place, while the left stick moved the ball around the player. “This idea of a one-to-one relationship between how the ball moves and how the left stick moves felt really good in ‘FIFA Street,’ so we took that knowledge and applied it to what we had with precision dribbling,” adds McHardy. “Now you have that one-to-one control in those slow-speed situations, and it allows you to change directions and to change your mind quickly, just like real players do. Sometimes, it’s those little start and stops in your game that are just enough to throw the defender off balance, and we’ve added that type of behavior into the game.”
3. “The difference between right and wrong is often not more than five meters.” -- Johan Cruyff
Play “FIFA 12,” and the ability for 40- and 50-rated players to control ridiculous passes 40 yards through the air, over the shoulder, with a defender draped all over them and still come down cleanly with the ball only to deliver another perfect pass probably left you shaking your head.
“We had to fundamentally change first-touch control,” says McHardy. “There was no downside last year to controlling the ball. There were no errors. Even the best players mis-control the ball every now and then, so we wanted to add that into the game. We wanted to really work on the balance that we had between attacking and defending. Understanding the context of a particular situation -- is the ball bouncing, how fast is it moving, how good of a player you are, is the ball dropping in from a mile in the sky -- all of these things factor into the given scenario when a player is trying to control the ball this year.
“This is game-changing. If you go back and play ‘FIFA 12’ after you play ‘FIFA 13,’ you’re going to wonder how you ever played the old game with this feature missing. I really feel like something is lacking in the controls of the game, because they really robbed me of the ability to win back possession as a defender. In ‘FIFA 13,’ this takes the game to the next level, and in no ways is this random. It’s all about the context of the situation giving you a much more realistic outcome, which in turn, adds so much more richness and depth to the way that battle for possession happens.”
4. “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” -- Bill Shankly
“FIFA 12” introduced the franchise’s innovative Player Impact Engine. “FIFA 13” is about refining that engine.
“It took us two years to build that engine, and while it was received highly by fans, there were a couple of things that weren’t quite right,” admits McHardy. “We had arms breaking and sometimes players would get catapulted through the air if they were in a tackle situation. So we went back to square one and we looked at our player models and our physics models, and we looked at all of the strengths we had in our joints, and some of them were a bit too unrealistically high, which created some of these crazier moments. So we adjusted these numbers and reassigned the strength to all of these joints that are way more human and way more accurate in terms of what a human can do. And this has actually solved a lot of our problems of catapults and broken limbs. So at the base level, we’ve already gone in and polished out all the bugs out of last year’s system.
“The second thing we did is we took that system, and we’ve built new features on top of it, and all of these new features center around the battle for possession. We’re giving defenders more ability and more opportunity to win back the ball. We’ve done things to work on our push-pull system we had last year, where you can give a player a tug or a shot while you’re fighting for the ball, and we’ve added stumbling dribble touches, and now if you hit somebody while they’re shooting, we’ll play a completely different animation and there will be more error on their shots. Same thing if you’re pushing them while they’re dribbling. You can now cause them to take poor touches, or touches they didn’t even want to take in the first place.”
More tools in defending to harass dribblers and changing possession? About time.
“You can push-pull all over the pitch now,” McHardy says. “Not just on the ball. We’ve also added a whole new tackle type and a whole new way to use your body. So now if you push the tackle button when the ball is by you but the player isn’t, now our defenders have the intelligence to step in front of the dribbler and use their body to shield them out, giving you one more way to win back possession in the game.”
5. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” -- Roy Keane
With the implementation of tactical free kicks and advancements on both sides of the ball, gamers will finally be able to position up to three players over the ball, add/subtract players from the wall, and even send a runner from the wall.
“We looked at our free kick system, and it’s basically been the same for the past four years, so we wanted to refresh it,” says McHardy. “We were really limited in the options of what you could do from a set piece, so what we’ve done is add a new kicker, and now that we give you up to three players over the ball, it really opens up a lot of options. You can fake a shot and run over the ball like you see in the real world a lot, and using the run overs and the combination of different players, we’ve created, in essence, a whole slew of new ways that you can take your chance from a dead-ball situation. There are all these opportunities, from passing it to a fourth kicker waiting at the top of the block to getting a player to run over the ball and run down the line and play down the line in order to get the cross in, that it just creates so many more opportunities. It’s no longer about just getting the ball up and over the wall and down anymore.
“In doing that, we also had to work on the defensive side of the ball. We like to do everything in balance, so we fixed our wall technology so defenders can jump, then re-form the wall on the fly, and that’s something we couldn’t do in previous years. You can even cheat a bit and creep the wall forward a few steps, but depending on the referee, they might call you on it and give you a yellow card. It’s all about risk and reward, but then again, isn’t that what ‘FIFA’ is all about?”