In what is likely to be the only piece of positive PR that the world football governing body will receive this week, publisher Electronic Arts has announced it will be introducing female footballers into its Fifa video game series, beginning with the forthcoming Fifa 16 edition.
The game features 12 international all-female teams, 11 of whom will appear at next month’s World Cup finals, including hosts Canada as well as England, Brazil, Germany and Spain.
For each squad, the regular first 11 – along with select reserves – have been facially scanned using the same techniques applied to the men’s game, so photorealistic versions of world player of the year Nadine Kessler, USA all-time leading scorer Abby Wambach, and England skipper Steph Houghton are all certain to feature.
Wambach also spent a day providing female-specific motion capture at developer EA Sports’ Vancouver HQ, along with USA team-mates Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.
Fifa 16 certainly won’t be the first football sim to include female players. In 2000, UK studio Silicon Dreams included women’s football in its Mia Hamm 64 Soccer and Uefa Dream Soccer titles, though both reviewed poorly at the time.
Series vice-president and general manager David Rutter claims that his team has been working to overcome the technical challenges of including women in its football sim for a considerable time.
“It’s been in the pipeline for a few years, and really it was just a case of making sure that the game was in a good enough state for it the work properly,” said Rutter. “We needed to have tools and technology in place that could differentiate between men and women. Plus, we had to factor in the time and effort required for travelling around the world to scan faces and heads, record motion capture, etc. It’s been on the to-do list for a while.”
Indeed, two years ago, Rutter told gaming website Kotaku that female teams were something the studio had considered. It’s natural to wonder, then, whether the process of implementing them was expedited by last June’s backlash against Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which saw publisher Ubisoft lambasted for its negative attitude to the prospect of a female protagonist. Rutter insists that’s not the case.
Rather, he claims, three years into this generation of consoles, the team finally has sufficient knowledge of PS4 and Xbox One’s development systems to retool critical elements of the match engine for female players.
“The big change we’ve had to make is rebuilding the animation rig, in order that the skeleton underneath each player works with different proportions,” said Rutter. “Our underlying animation system was universally based on height and build. Rather than manipulating the proportions between joint and bone, it was like stretching an elastic band.
“Now we’ve had to implement a new system that allows for the hips to be moved, the shoulders to be moved vertically, and the width of those bones and joints to be a factor too. It’s a pretty big change. The cool side effects are that we now have scalable skeletons, so we can also support different body types in the men’s side of the game.”
There have been more obvious visual challenges too. “A large number of female athletes have long hair, so we’ve had to focus on improving that element too,” said Rutter. “Again, that enables us to improve the look of male players with similar hairstyles.”
The underlying gameplay engine remains identical to the men’s game, although attributes and traits are scaled to other players of the same sex. “You will get 80-rated players in the women’s teams but they’re not the same as an 80-rated player in the men’s game,” explained Rutter. “Our Cologne team [which handles all player data] has been through a ton of women’s matches over the last year or so, gathering details, information and their opinion on the players, in order to create these ratings.”
For now, that means no plans this year to include male vs female matches (“As in real life, the sport itself doesn’t support that. If that changed, we definitely would”) or feature women footballers in the series’ most popular mode, Ultimate Team. The women’s teams – which also include USA, Mexico, Sweden, France, China, Australia and Italy – can be utilised in friendlies both on and offline, in addition to a bespoke offline tournament mode.
The studio did discuss making an all-female Ultimate Team, as well as including the female teams from clubs such as Manchester City, but felt it too much of a stretch in this inaugural season. “We have 12 international teams,” said Rutter. “That won’t give us a population large enough to make anything close to a good Ultimate Team mode. We could have gone down the road of creating domestic leagues as well, but we probably wouldn’t have been able to stretch our resources far enough this year to provide a believable and broad crop of players.”
While domestic female teams seem a natural ambition for the future, in the short term Rutter said he is looking forward to delivering his eight- and 11-year-old daughters to school in peace. “The younger one in particular is a very keen footballer, and I get a lot of stick on the playground about us not including women in the game. Finally being able to say we are will make for a refreshing change.
“For girls of that age, or indeed any age, it doesn’t make sense for there not to be any women in Fifa. In the past there has always been a general acceptance that they weren’t in there. But within my household and social circle it’s always been significantly disappointing that female gamers couldn’t play Fifa with footballers of their own sex.
“I’m really glad we’re doing it. We’ve got some cracking teams in there and there’ll be some amazing matches. It’s a big relief for everyone.”
Fifa 16 is out on multiple formats later this year.
The Guardian interviewed Rutter shortly after the death of long-time colleague Simon Humber, from ocular melanoma, aged 45. Humber was the Fifa series’ creative director. “When you make video games, you spend a great deal of time with people, and shipping an annual title makes a team very close,” says Rutter. “I worked with Simon daily for seven years, and feel like I – and the team – lost a family member. In terms of his legacy within Fifa, he was the daddy of Ultimate Team, and played a big role in career mode – many of the features coming this year were ones he was leading development on. We’ve planted a tree outside our office in his memory, and it was astonishing to read the reaction from so many in the Fifa community after he died.” Our condolences go out to Humber’s workmates, friends and family.
This article was written by Ben Wilson, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th May 2015 13.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010