Box Score is a weekly column that offers a look at sports games and
the athletic side of the industry from the perspective of veteran
reviewer and sports fan Richard Grisham.
This is the third of a
3-part series examining how FIFA for the Vita went from conception to
completion. To read Part 1, click here; Part 2 is here.
“This is where a little piece of you dies.”
So laments Matt Prior, producer of FIFA for Sony’s new Vita
handheld. The final months of a game’s development cycle are when the toughest,
most painful decisions are made. After a year and a half of planning,
designing, building, and testing, Prior and his team must look at each other
and kill one or more features they’d desperately hoped would make it into the
hands of the players.
“As a producer, you want to make the best possible product
you can,” explains Prior. “All producers are gamers; we’ve sat there and
criticized other products, but the reality is every team is working its
hardest. You have to make those sacrifices and decisions.”
Sometimes those decisions can be taken personally. Each
major aspect of a game has an individual producer associated with it; cuts to
that mode can make that person feel as if their work has been compromised or,
even worse, eliminated altogether. No one said the business of building videogames
was easy, after all. It’s a simple, cold
calculation. “You’re up against time and budget,” says Prior. “That’s the most brutal, from a producer’s
The last few weeks of a game’s development are frantic. When
things are going well, that’s when the daily builds start to reveal the essence
of what it will be. “You’re up against the time limit and it’s kind of a
critical phase. (That’s your) chance to put the polish on it; hopefully time
allows it,” says Prior. “It’s where you do the final bit of tuning. You say
‘oh, we must do this, because it makes it better.’ The game really comes into
its own that last little bit where it all gets polished.”
Then, of course, there are the bugs.
“No game in the history of gaming has ever gone out without
bugs,” continues Prior. “Bugs do get shipped; they have to if you want a game
on time. As a producer, your role is to make sure those bugs that are shipped
aren’t detrimental to the overall quality. You hope it doesn’t really affect
the consumer experience. At the end of the day, that’s the paramount thing. We
want to make the best possible game.”
While Prior and his team are making the tough calls on
last-minute adjustments and frantically prioritizing the issues to tackle, he’s
also taking his game and putting it in the hands of the general public and
press for the first time. It’s one thing to do this on a platform people are
comfortable with; quite another to do so on something so different and
innovative as the PlayStation Vita.
“You’d be amazed at how many thousands of ways people could
hold the device; it’s one of those things you never really think of when
designing it,” laughs Prior as he describes the initial ‘game-ops’ sessions
with people the team invites to the studio to play-test the title. “We love watching people pick it up and hold
it. Almost no one holds it the same way, so we have to kind of say ‘We’ve got
to adapt to this.’”
Almost immediately, Prior and his team discovered that
they’d need to provide several options for control. In particular, the presence
of a rear-touch pad on the Vita presented a challenge. While FIFA takes
advantage of the screen for passing and shooting, the team realized they’d need
to give users the ability to toggle its use on and off – at least until the
person got a handle on how to best play using the screen.
“Rear shooting is off if you desire,” explains Prior. “You
can’t design for everyone. There is no best practice in how to hold it even
though the device has got the grooves on the back. Clearly you’re meant to hold
it with your fingers bent, but very few people actually do that off the bat. We
sat and looked at people and how they held it and we said ‘we’ve got to be kind
As Sony has begun holding events promoting the Vita (at both
invite-only sessions and its Vita Social Clubs), FIFA has been one of the
showcase titles. As a title with wide appeal, terrific visuals, and unique
control offerings, it’s easy to see why Sony would choose to show off the power
of their new handheld with such a big, deep game.
Even so, the newness of the machine, coupled with its unique
rear touchscreen has many people talking. On his influential show Weekend
Confirmed from January 20, host Garnett Lee voiced a combination of optimism
and concern based upon his initial experience.
“I’m sort of torn,” said Lee, explaining his first go with
the game and, in particular, the rear touchscreen. “You can do what you
couldn’t do before in FIFA, which is shoot a low hard ball into a corner.
[However,] my fingers are so long that I have a hard time holding the thing and
not having them touch the back touch[screen], which defeats the purpose.”
As with any new hardware, it will take time for players to
get familiar with, and ultimately comfortable using, all the features the Vita
offers. FIFA has clearly been built with a tremendous amount of passion, which
reflects in the conversations I’ve had with Prior. Whether or not FIFA
ultimately succeeds when it’s released next month depends on many things, not least
of which is the reception the Vita gets from the North American market. One
thing is clear, above all: Matt Prior has poured his heart and soul into it
being something to be proud of.
Richard Grisham has been obesessed with sports and video games since
childhood, when he'd routinely create and track MicroLeague Baseball
seasons on paper. He currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and
four-year old son, who he'll soon be training to be an NFL placekicker.
As a freelance journalist and writer, his work has appeared in
GamesRadar, NGamer, and 1UP.