EA’s FIFA series is a cultural icon. Sales numbers, YouTubers, and memes all attest to its ubiquity. With celebrity comes pressure, as each year EA is deluged with requests to implement new features, change player ratings, and add new leagues. With such pressure on EA, reacting to the most vocal parts of the community and improving the most high-profile parts of the game becomes a priority. EA debuted The Journey to much noise in 2017, but that was the first substantial single-player development since the addition of the Global Transfer Network to Career Mode in 2014. Four FIFAs later, the manager and player Career Modes have become staid, offering no complexity or depth beyond the same gameplay delivered every year.
FIFA’s online modes, dominated by the behemoth that is FIFA Ultimate Team (FUT), now consume much of the oxygen in the room. FIFA streamers concentrate their efforts on FUT, with pack openings, Team of the Week, and squad builders providing an endless queue of quick content. EA’s reliance on streamers for free promotion, beyond the cost of review copies and support, has generated a cycle: streamers need easy content, so turn to FUT; FIFA needs promotion, so leverages streamers, who in turn focus on FUT. This cycle is particularly convenient for EA, with FUT including microtransactions, meaning that the ability to monetise its content is no longer limited to full-game purchase. EA is increasingly dependent on microtransactions across all of its sporting series, and the Ultimate Team sub-franchise is its primary means of gaining revenue. For the financial year 2017, EA earned $1.682 billion from digital transactions, exclusive of full game downloads: microtransactions, DLC, and other live services. Up $223 million from 2016, EA is making money hand-over-fist for relatively little effort.
Ten years ago, FIFA’s online modes were a fraction of the size they are now. Console advances, improved availability and quality of internet access, and genuine game design innovation created an environment that EA exploited to offer a suite of multiplayer, online-only experiences that are indisputably popular. EA and FIFA are hardly alone: the expansion of multiplayer modes is an industry-wide phenomenon. Development requires resources, and so relative stasis in some areas of the game might be expected as other areas are prioritised.
Until The Journey arrived in 2017, updates for single-player experiences for FIFA were almost frozen. Manager and player Career Modes have seen UI overhauls on an irregular basis, and some features have been tweaked. For FIFA 18, the sole notable addition to Career Mode is the inclusion of transfer negotiation cutscenes, with awkward movement, repetitive faces, no audio, and an AI that makes bizarre decisions. The cutscenes are a flashy new addition, and they make for good press for EA, but beyond offering an opportunity to take advantage of the relatively new Frostbite engine’s capabilities in manager mode, little else is new.
From EA’s perspective, it ships a huge game each year, with enough fresh iteration for a diverse player base to justify the cost. The online and single-player modes offer, across them both, innumerable hours of gameplay. However, that gameplay does not diminish the paucity of EA’s Career Mode. Konami’s PES is the obvious competitor, and a Football Manager with playable on-field action is the dream of many, but FIFA has utterly failed to develop Career Mode. No longer a sales point and strength, Career Mode has, rather, become a straggling, neglected orphan of a game mode.
The communities, forums, and subreddits are clear: fans would love more features. Better statistics and being able to recruit players from an analytical perspective; a removal of the 15-season cap that slowly kills the joy of playing once six or seven seasons in; new mechanics such as press conferences actually mattering, whether they result in fans calling for the manager to be sacked, or a rival manager setting his team up to play more aggressively in next week’s game; reserve teams; social media interaction (a la The Journey): the list continues. Alternatively, old mechanics could return, whether sponsorships, upgradeable stadiums, or hiring coaching staff. However, even considering potential new additions seems somewhat fantastical, given how badly parts of Career Mode are now ageing. Commentary, the youth system, player (and manager) contracts, player interaction, and the UI all need overhauling.
Despite the Career Mode’s repeated and ongoing issues, the song and dance over Frostbite was legitimate. The Journey has real potential as a single-player experience, far beyond the immediate future. By doling out Alex Hunter’s career season-by-season, EA has given itself the time and space to deliver a TV-quality show, where personal developments matter alongside sporting prowess. As long as the writing and acting remains at a level above the first season, and the plot avoids taking too much inspiration from Coronation Street or Keeping Up With The Kardashians, then Hunter could remain a popular fixture until the 2030s, without addressing a potential move into management. Hunter is dealing with—and has dealt with—family issues, and potential future plot points offered by the first two seasons are myriad: the death of his grandfather, switching agents, reconciliation between his parents, his sister’s career, as well as any budding romance, marriage, and children. Now that EA has shown more interest in engaging with RPG-style mechanics, FIFA has the opportunity to be more than just a simulation. From a sporting angle, Hunter has his national team debut, World Cups, European Championships, and an eventual return to England all ahead of him. The possibilities are not quite endless, but EA has more than enough potential material to keep the story engaging for decades, just as long as the company gets it right.
The Journey is an exciting new mode that deserves the attention and resources it needs to be executed properly, realised to its full potential. That said, while The Journey is part of FIFA’s value proposition, and may increase the number of people buying the game each year, it does not have FUT’s ability to generate income through microtransactions. Whether The Journey gets the resources it deserves remains to be seen. FIFA’s Career Mode sees sparse updates: enough to keep its head above water, but little else. If The Journey goes the same way, then vast potential will be wasted. One approach to microtransactions is to say: “I do not spend money on them, but they subsidise development on other areas of the game I care about, so who cares?”. The issue with that approach is no evidence is forthcoming that microtransactions actually do subsidise development on other areas. That might be the case with a game such as Middle Earth: Shadow Of War, built by a smaller studio, but with FIFA, each year since the debut of Ultimate Team has shown further focus on FUT, with apparently minimal reallocation of resources. Given the size of EA, the possibility exists that the so-called whales of Ultimate Team, whether on FIFA, Madden, or NHL, are subsidising new games; outside of EA, no-one knows. Regardless, given that similar complaints surround the Franchise and Career Modes for Madden and NHL, a pattern is clear. The Journey may have potential, but then so does Career Mode: do not be surprised if The Journey fails to deliver upon itself.
Fans have the potential to put pressure on two parts of the system. One is to contact EA directly. The second is to put pressure on streamers and YouTubers, and leverage their influence with EA as a megaphone. Streamers may be concerned for their livelihood, but beyond denying attendance for promotional events prior to launch and free copies of the game, EA can do very little to harm them. Lastly, the gaming press has shown an astonishing lack of ability. The biggest games on the planet are routinely turned out with minimal updates, and the gaming press collectively shrugs its shoulders. Interviews with developers at conferences are often excruciatingly poor, with little accountability or pressure being put on publishers or developers to address fans’ concerns, beyond the most toady of preselected Twitter questions.
FIFA is a titan of a game series, offering more than most games, building upon its prior successes year-on-year, with a variety of gameplay options that appeal to every type of player. EA’s development of The Journey shows real innovation, and the core gameplay is always excellent. That said, the emphasis on FUT, for its utility to both streamers and EA, fails to mask the withered heart at the centre of FIFA. EA has taken advantage of technological developments to its credit, yet in doing so has utterly neglected its once core product. FIFA will always stand strong against competitors as long as it has the licenses and brand loyalty, but EA is offering Konami and PES every opportunity to steal a march on itself by failing to update FIFA’s main single-player offering. Now truly a backwater, with occasional high-profile but insubstantial additions, FIFA’s Career Mode is overripe for rehaul. Whether EA will respond to fan demand is yet to be decided, but given its track record, a satisfactory response seems unlikely.