FIFA and ProEvo are more realistic than ever, but there’s still a place for simple playable games
For many football fans, football video games have become an indispensable part of their supporting rituals. In the ever decreasing gaps between there being actual football to watch in the stands or on the telly, fans will park themselves in front of a video game in an effort to recreate the rush they get from seeing someone connecting their foot with a ball.
But what is it that fans are really seeking to recreate? Over the past 30 years, the answer has appeared to be a narrowly defined sense of authenticity based on achieving a form of footballing “realism”.
Mainstream football video game history has broadly followed a straightforward developmental narrative: simple arcade-style knockabout games were displaced in the market by “realistic” games.
Replicating the fullness of the football experience through authentic licensing, detailed controls and the trimmings of a pseudo-televisual playing experience, popular heavyweight football franchises like FIFA and ProEvo battle to offer the deepest and most complete football experience to players.
To many, this is welcome. But to anyone exasperated with the state of the modern game in general, how it has evolved from the people’s game into a highly polished product, hyperrealistic football games can be seen as another symptom of the distance between the modern game and the game itself.
However, it appears that game developers are reacting to this situation in the way that many football fans have and a wave of independent developers have released games (or will do so in the coming months) that hark back to the football games of days gone by.
Offering players the gaming equivalent of a trip to AFC Wimbledon or Dulwich Hamlet, the creators of games such as Sociable Soccer, Kick Off: Revival and Super Arcade Football hope to find a space in the market by celebrating the simplicity of football, not the complexity of the industry around it.
But why the resurgence in this game genre? What has prompted the sudden interest in old school football games? And why have so many developers taken the same route at the same time? I sat down with five of them to find out more.
Simple to play football video games were the foundation stones of the football video game genre. Names such as Kick Off, released in 1989, and Sensible Soccer, originally released in 1992 and referred to affectionately as Sensi, played a significant part in establishing the commercial potential of the genre.
But they also helped to shape the collective idea of what a playing football video game should feel like. These games, generally played from a top-down perspective with lightly animated sprites sprinting around the pitch, tended towards the fast and frenetic – where players used one button and one input to ping the ball around the pitch before firing shots into the net.
Like many, I remember how influential these games were. The sheer thrill of taking part in an end-to-end football match, where the football frantically careered from player to player and matches swung back and forth in a matter of seconds, shaped my expectations of what football games should feel like.
But while it would be reasonable to assume this design was solely the result of a creative decision, the main reason for the genre’s style were the serious technological and business limitations that forced developers to favour lightning quick gameplay.
In particular, three main factors shaped games developed in the period. There was the low power of gaming consoles and PCs, which limited the graphical, audio and input capabilities available to developers. Then, there was the immaturity of the games industry, which prevented big businesses steamrolling the sector. Finally, the relative independence of game development studios gave the developers the autonomy to make decisions but forced them to develop games leanly to ensure they reached the market.
One of the best examples of these three factors coming together can be found in Gary Penn’s biography of Sensible Software, the company which shaped the creation of Sensible Soccer’s legendary player sprites.
To ensure the game flowed as fluidly as possible, the majority of the team’s development time was spent removing features to ensure the game didn’t slow down. Favouring a “crude and fast” experience, the team made technical sacrifices to keep the game rattling on at a pace. This included restricting the animation of players to a paltry three frames of movement to guarantee a consistently fluid experience.
As a result, the likes of Sensible Soccer and Kick Off offered stripped down match experiences that felt delightfully chaotic and punchy to players across the world. Yet despite pioneering a frenetic and breathlessly exciting brand of video game football, both series were on the scrapheap of the football video game market within a decade of release.
By the turn of the millennium, Electronic Art’s (EA) FIFA, and to a lesser extent International Superstar Soccer from Konami, wiped out the market for games such as Sensible Soccer because the market tilted against independents.
As the 1990s rolled on, increasingly powerful PCs and games consoles made 3D modelling possible. As it was difficult and expensive to make decent 3D models, this technological shift favoured bigger studios with resources and the ability to market their advantage over 2D rivals. It also led to a literal shift in perspective to a side-on televisual camera angle, giving games like FIFA that had moved to 3D a unique way of looking at and playing football video games.
Meanwhile, controllers evolved beyond having a couple of buttons and a single input option. The introduction of four button pads allowed developers to bring in controls for crossing, through-balls and shooting, as well as offering players a greater selection of defensive options such as a soft tackle or a hard tackle. This made the simpler brand of football games feel shallower.
Finally, the emergence of a global gaming market in a pre-broadband age favoured publishers or developers capable of physically distributing games to stores across the world. While the gaming market was increasing in size, the main benefits of this growth went to the companies capable of taking advantage of it.
But this increased complexity led to increased costs and, ultimately, to increased risk. For Jon Hare, the creator of the Sensible Soccer series, the emergence of these dynamics put paid to the market conditions that had allowed his game to dominate the market. “Coming from the home computer era as the start of my career, there was a lot of freedom to do your own stuff. You could make your own things up,” he said, cradling a cup of weak coffee made in his Helsinki office. “Then the console era came in and it was very license-heavy, very sequel-heavy, because the industry was reeling at the bigger development costs compared to five years previously and the decisions got very conservative.”
As a result, failure became exceptionally costly to companies and particularly to independent studios. A poorly executed 3D version of Sensible Soccer released in 1998 against FIFA 1998, which featured real-world stadiums, team licenses and even had Blur’s “Song 2” on the official soundtrack. It was trounced in the market, firmly establishing the rise of games favouring increasingly deep and realistic experiences.
And yet nearly 20 years on, more than half a dozen arcade football games have emerged with the hope of successfully breaking into the market.
In the first decade of the new millennium, opportunities for independent developers to flourish were few and far between. The trends seen at the end of the 1990s for ever more powerful gaming devices, the insatiable consumer demand for bigger and better looking games and the closed nature of the ecosystem, where getting a development kit for a console was a tedious process that relied on showing potential to reach a market, shut independents out of the scene.
In the world of football video games, this was seen in microcosm in the rivalry between FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer (the next evolution of the International Superstar Soccer series). Although development costs and marketing costs soared for each series, the two still dominate the scene as much in 2016 as they did in 2006.
As the big blockbuster games have increased their scope, costs and ambitions to allow them to engage in a titanic battle for market dominance, independent developers have become increasingly well equipped to fill the gaps that big publishers have left.
This has happened for two main reasons. First, the emergence of mobile games and the re-emergence of PC gaming changed market dynamics to give independent developers a chance to survive. The arrival of the mobile app stores from 2009 onwards and the emergence of Steam by Half Life developer Valve, which is a globally available games distribution platform, allowed developers properly to tap into global gaming demand.
Instead of forcing developers to create a boxed product, working out how to ship it to stores and potentially risking financial ruin if it didn’t sell, digital store fronts let developers give them roughly 30% of their future profits in return for global distribution for their digital games. Allowing developers to upload their games to a store, sell it in as many territories as they wished to support and paying them directly, digital distribution gave independent businesses a chance to find a market.
Equally importantly from a market perspective, and the second reason for the resurgence of indie, was the democratisation of game development with the release of easy to use tools. The emergence of cheap or free-to-use game engines such as Unity, which arrived in 2005, resurrected the possibility of home programming but with a modern toolset. Evolving to allow developers to create in 3D, port to other platforms with ease and even buy in assets on the cheap, development engines allowed independents to create professional products without the overheads of a full studio.
Finally, the ability to distribute and develop easily mattered because it allowed indies to tap into market demand for something different.
After the pioneering success of Braid, a time warping independent developed platform game that achieved critical and commercial success in late 2008, platform holders, such as Sony and Microsoft, and publishers saw the potential of independent development. Combining lower financial risk with higher creative value, independent games offered something different (and at a lower cost) than their blockbuster counterparts.
These three factors sparked the indie scene back into life. Over the course of five years, critically successful indie games showed that there was room for creative niches in the broader gaming market.
This included games like Papers Please, a relentlessly grim simulation of life as a passport control guard at the border of a fictional Eastern European republic. It stretched to Her Story, a Bafta award-winning murder mystery where players must piece together clues by watching videos of police interviews. It even went as far as the creation of Hatoful Boyfriend, a pigeon dating game created in Brighton but styled in the manner of an eccentric Japanese anime.
Amidst this eclectic creative mix, the independent revival also led to something that would directly assist the revival of top down football games: the re-emergence of beloved genres thought dead by the industry.
The point-and-click adventure genre, pioneered by Lucasarts returned with a vengeance when TellTale Games released an episodic series of adventures based on The Walking Dead comics.
Meanwhile, other developers repurposed classic games to suit modern market habits. For example, Hipster Whale’s Crossy Road repurposed the mechanics of Frogger for smartphones by encouraging players to tap and swipe their way across the road.
Dan Marshall, a Bafta award-winning game developer and creator of top-down football game send up Behold the Kickmen, told me how fondness for classic games in the new age of indie was driving a return to these sorts of titles: “People [in the last few years] suddenly started taking great delight in things that harkened back to their childhood, back to the late 80s and 90s, from retro platformers to point-and-click revivals. And there was a golden age of football games, which was obviously Sensi and Kick Off, and there’s an element of this zeitgesity thing of a few other people who have gone, ‘Actually I remember those, they were great, weren’t they? Let’s make one of those.’”
It was precisely this feeling of nostalgia that drove the developers of Super Arcade Football to create their game. Arnaud De Bock, one of the co-creators behind the top-down football game, also wanted to make something that reflected the simpler feeling of those games he played in the past.
“I was playing a lot of these games on the Mega Drive, and this kind of feeling I wanted to put inside it [the game],” he told me at EGX Rezzed in London earlier this year – his thoughts echoed by another of the game’s co-creators Ali Motisi who was, in his words, “a big Amiga guy” who played Sensible Soccer and Kick Off extensively.
It’s hard, then, not to conclude that nostalgia is driving the re-emergence of the genre. And it’s even harder not to feel like we’re all in some re-run of the 1990s when both Hare and Dino Dini, the creator of the Kick Off series, are in the process of rebooting their series.
Yet that analysis misses a key point. Behind the nostalgia is another equally important reason for the attempted revival: a sense of disillusionment with the complexity and packaging of modern football video games.
Football games have, for the past decade, delighted in ever deepening realism, complexity and a supposed feeling of authenticity. This is particularly true when we look at Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA.
Throughout two decades of development, each game reached greater heights as they competed with one another. Pro Evolution Soccer deepened its control options, encouraging players to master whipped, drilled and floated crosses by memorising fighting-game style button combos. FIFA, meanwhile, led the way by building a footballing brand, emblazoning the likes of Ryan Giggs, Ronaldinho and Edgar Davids on its boxes, while also focusing on delivering increasingly lifelike player models to build on its licensed strengths.
And these games, along with the hyper-detailed management sim Football Manager, have increasingly shaped the footballing culture around them. As Rory Smith recently reported in the New York Times, Premier League players such as Alex Iwobi and Zlatan Ibrahimović use FIFA as tools to examine potential opponents and to experiment with approaches on the virtual pitch before hitting the real field.
On the surface, the likes of FIFA look and feel as if they’re accurate representations of the game. They provide strong visual representations of what football looks like, they play in a way that closely mimics the experience of top-level football.
But as many of the creators I spoke to suggested, what Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA are offering isn’t really a realistic interpretation of playing football: it’s a realistic interpretation of watching football on the TV. If you play a game of FIFA today, you won’t simply see teams of players scrapping it out on the pitch. You’ll be met by contextual dialogue from a commentary team that adapts to your team, you’ll see graphics outlining a starting eleven flash up the start of the match and the whole experience is packaged to make you feel as if you’re watching Super Sunday on Sky.
Rather than being about football, these games have become about the performance of football: mimicking the aesthetic trappings of the modern game but turning the football itself into a performance art. Instead of playing a game of football, modern games increasingly ask players to take on the role of an artistic director conducting a team. There are consequences of opting for ever-deepening realism including the fact that opting for authenticity reduces the overall pace of the game.
Tim Constant, the creator of mobile free-to-play football game Tiki Taka Football, pointed out a good example of this. “If you turn left in Sensible Soccer with a pad or a joystick or whatever, you immediately turn left,” he said. “If you turn left with FIFA, it turns left but you do go through a slight animation. It’s hardly noticeable now but it’s still there. So the controls have just slightly slowed down a bit to improve the overall vision of the game. It’s amazing what FIFA looks like now, but it’s just taken away the immediacy of those games.”
So amid their efforts authentically to recreate football, modern video games have ended up representing the business end of the wedge. While the likes of FIFA are clearly excellent games, the simple frenetic fun of kicking about a football is lost in the trappings of modernity. By rejecting the complexity of modern games in favour of simplicity and immediacy, the wave of top-down developers are looking to take the football video game back to the grassroots. And out of all the developers I spoke to, Marshall makes the best case for explaining how stripping back complexity can lead to a richer experience in the long run.
As someone who actively dislikes football, Marshall’s Behold the Kickmen is probably the most detached look at what makes a football sim work. Although Marshall has wrapped the game in anti-football jokes, including making the pitch circular and dividing matches into four quarters, he was quick to explain that developing a basic working football video game was actually pretty simple.
“Yeah, it was really easy,” he said. “Honestly, it’s genuinely astoundingly easy making football stuff, like getting the guys up and running and kicking balls to each other. Even all the AI stuff, Michael Cook [a collaborator on the project] took care of most of it and I’ve sort of wound up just sitting there tweaking it until they do the right thing.”
However, transforming that basic starting point into a game that is compelling and fun to play requires the addition of some complexity to succeed. Although Marshall freely admits that the idea behind Behold the Kickmen was a joke, he has nevertheless spent months working to offer a fun and deep experience despite opting for a relatively simple game type.
“I’m making a stupid game, but it’s my reputation - it’s my job. I’m basically sort of sitting here trying to work out what makes the game fun. That’s proving to be more elusive than I anticipated.”
In short, top-down football games aren’t about removing complexity for the sake of removing it. They’re about removing the complexity of authenticity introduced by the blockbuster football games to replace it with a different kind of complexity constructed on mastery of a simple control set under pressure.
Dino Dini agrees. When we chatted about his Kick Off reboot Kick Off: Revival, he compared the experience of playing chess to what he wanted to achieve with his football game: “Let’s take chess as an example, okay? So the actual moves that are possible with chess are not that great. It’s possible to memorise the rules of chess. But the depth is huge. You could say there’s a huge complexity, but it’s a complexity that’s really huge depth.”
And the simplest way that most developers have attempted to bake in complexity into their games is to return to a familiar tactic of the 1990s: accelerate the pace of the match. Rather than providing dozens of inputs to let players lob, pass, chip, press, shift team shape and more, the challenge of using simple controls at pace creates psychological fatigue for the player. This, according to Hare, is where these games generate their authenticity.
“When you’re running on a pitch [in real life] you’re getting fatigued, you’re exerting energy,” Hare expanded. “You can accelerate that decision-making timing to be the same with your fingers on a controller by reducing those time gaps of decisions. When you’re playing Sociable Soccer, I’ve noticed I will do six passes and a shot within one second. If you don’t live with [that in] the game you can’t cope with it at all. So you’ve got to get drawn right into feeling that physicality.”
So though they might seem simple on the surface, the new generation of top-down football video games are seeking to offer a deep experience to players. But the way they offer that depth is in a manner more similar to five-a-side than a top-flight football match. As a result, these games offer a different – but arguably more relatable – type of complexity.
This means that top-down football games offer a meaningful alternative to the performance model of the biggest games. By rejecting the complexity of realism for the complexity of decision-making, they consciously return football video games back to the basics of the genre.
But to fit into the market and to achieve that goal, the new wave of top-down football games have also had to do something else to underline their credentials as grassroots offerings: price their games at a lower level. By being forced to keep down development costs and scope by dint of their business position, independent game developers working on football arcade titles have chosen to reduce prices to avoid going toe to toe with their illustrious rivals.
In comparison with the £50 retail price of FIFA at launch, Kick Off: Revival retailed at £15 on launch and Super Arcade Football is available in Early Access on Steam for a shade over £5. And although Sociable Soccer and Behold the Kickmen are yet to have a release date or price, it is likely they will retail at a similar price on PC and console.
Within this tangible decision is the implication that these developers are rejecting the approach of the titans. From pricing to in game decisions through to the business of making the games themselves, developers creating top-down football games are attempting to bring the genre back to its grassroots to reclaim something that has been lost.
“As I like to say, it’s in the name. Foot. Ball. That’s all you need to know,” explains Dini. And for him, as with all of the creators, the hope is to embrace the spirit of the classic football games of the 1990s, create a deep in game experience and sell it on to fans.
However, there remains one big question: whether the market really wants or needs this many games. Some of the developers are bullish on this point. “There’s room for a TV-serious FIFA kind of game alongside a Sociable Soccer, a kind of more fun lighthearted game,” says Hare. “There’s no reason why the two can’t coexist.”
But Constant is concerned about the viability of so many games entering the market at once. “I am slightly concerned [about the number of games],” he said. “They’re all coming out and I’m concerned whether there is a market for all these games. I’ve got my niche on touchscreen… I don’t know if they’re doing anything different. They’re just recreating what FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer left behind.”
There are also concerns about whether these games actually will hit the market and how good they will be when they do. Behold the Kickmen and Super Arcade Football both lack a solid release date, while Sociable Soccer release slipped back from late 2016 to the first quarter of 2017.
Meanwhile, Dini’s rebooted Kick Off: Revival reviewed badly at launch, with Vice Gaming calling it the worst football game ever made. This has forced Dini to patch the game significantly after its release in an effort to meet the concerns of reviewers.
There remains one final problem: the onward roll of the football gaming juggernauts. FIFA, in particular, continues to grow apace, with sales of FIFA 2017 smashing launch records and its card-based FIFA: Ultimate Team mode becoming an enormously profitable spin off on both mobile and console.
There’s even the challenge of new games that totally defy expectations of the genre. Psyonix’s Rocket League is a bonkers twist on football, with players catapulting turbo-boosted cars through the air to try to score goals. But it has received wide praise for its own brand of frantic play, which could eat further into the market for top-down revivals.
But even if these games are doomed to become niche products, that can be enough to serve a community. Although the gleaming lights of FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer will always attract players, a well-made top-down football game that captures the spirit of knockabout football again could appeal to players jaded by the complexity of the most football games.
And from a romantic perspective, I hope one of these games succeeds. In a footballing landscape where it feels as though players, clubs and the game as a whole has detached itself from its roots, it can be hard to love football as a product.
But if one of these video games can break through and succeed, it might help remind us all of why we love football for the game it should be.