Maybe it had something to do with the proliferation of Lana Del Rey ads hawking cheap Scandinavian casualwear around every U-Bahn station, but all last week I had Video Games on my mind. At the end of September EA Sports released the newest version of their football simulation franchise, FIFA 13. Since the moment of its release, there had been a certain degree of inevitability as to when I would buy it. I generally stay away from buying video games, as they have a tendency to suck me in and take over my life, but I have bought the past two iterations, FIFA 11 and FIFA 12 so it is fair to say I am hooked into EA’s franchise cycle. After arguing with myself for a week about the decision to buy, and checking around various places in town to purchase it (seriously, if you buy games in this town, shop around: prices vary by as much as €20), I finally got around to it last Friday. I’m always annoyed with myself once I hand over the money to pay for the new FIFA, after all, what’s new? Surely a football game is a football game, and technology can’t have progressed so far in just a year to create a completely new gaming experience. Yet I hand over the money anyway, yearly, just like millions of others all over the world. Games in the FIFA franchise regularly outgross the biggest summer Hollywood blockbusters, even the good ones. EA Sports must be doing something right.
FIFA’s 11, 12 and 13 are very similar gaming experiences. They allow the user to take on the guise of a real football team, with the actual real-life players, each with their own unique attributes and appearance. The real-life aspect of FIFA is most important, as it’s the main reason it has eventually run out the winner in a battle between it and rivalling football video games franchises. The EA FIFA franchise owns the rights to everything: every team, every player, every league, every stadium that matters, FIFA owns the exclusive right to it. This leaves the other competing franchises looking cheap and lacking realism, as they often have to resort to giving real-life teams different names with different players. Realism is what FIFA aims at, to make it seem as if the game you are playing could be a real football game broadcast on television, complete with crowd reactions, instant replays and intelligent TV commentary describing the action. This is consistent with all of the FIFA titles, on an annual basis; they strive to make the game as close as possible to a real life broadcast. So every year the graphics are enhanced, the players play and react more realistically, and the commentators learn a few more clichés. Every four or five years there is a major change in gameplay, but apart from this the titles are almost interchangeable.
There are different game modes of course; many choose to play against the computer, while most that have an internet connection play online against similarly ranked opponents from all over the world. I only play online, against strangers and also against friends who have the game (as well as the same games console). I have been buying football games for nearly twenty years, but only since online play came into my life have I bought one every single year. Online play implies a network, and a network always entails network effects.
A network effect occurs when the enjoyment you receive from a product does not depend solely on how you use this product yourself, but depends on how this product is used by the network as a whole. To understand network effects, you only have to think of how you joined Facebook for the first time: was it because you wanted to, or was it because all your friends were there, and the email notifications of tags and invites kept piling up, forcing you to accept this new social behemoth? Facebook itself doesn’t do much: your network does. Network effects are also the main reason we all have mobile phones, as everyone we know has one and now being reachable while on-the-move is a necessity. Network effects are also the reason why everyone reading this can understand me, despite the fact that a large percentage of you don’t have English as a native language. English isn’t the best language out there, it just has the largest and most influential network, always provoking and bullying non-members of this network into joining it.
The FIFA network effects are quite subtle. Depending on when you buy the new game, you have up to a year to enjoy the most up-to-date football video gaming experience on the market. You can meet online and play against (literally) millions of others, mastering the game in the process. Then the next FIFA appears, with incrementally advanced gameplay and a few more peripheral game modes. However, the main thing about FIFA as mentioned previously, was always the realism. You start to look at your old FIFA game, and compare it to a broadcast experience. In the space of just one year, teams at the top level of European football change dramatically in terms of personnel, and suddenly you start to see your game as being out-of-date. Players have moved from team to team, new younger players have emerged; new teams are in the big leagues. This is just an aesthetic aspect however; the gameplay should be the same, despite the discrepancies between the team you play as and that time in real life.
This is true, the gameplay is exactly the same. The thing that has changed is the ease of finding an opponent in the online mode. Whereas in the previous year, a match would be made within seconds, suddenly it becomes more difficult to find a player of a similar level to you. The matching process could take a minute, and you often will end up completely mismatched against someone vastly out of your league. This problem only increases with time. A lonely, sparse network is not a network at all, it is just a sad PlayStation user firing a shot in the dark, hoping someone sees it and joins in. The rest of the network has gradually moved on to the new FIFA, more realistic than ever, with enhanced gameplay and up-to-date squads. The decision therefore presents itself: stop playing, or buy the new one.
You still want to use this heroin, but suddenly it isn’t as good as it used to be. It was more fun with your (often anonymous) friends. In actual real life, you hear them talking about how good the new heroin is, and start to resent your old, mouldy, caking heroin. So the choice comes down to quitting heroin (which by now you are suffering from several withdrawal symptoms from) or purchasing the new heroin for another fix. After a few iterations, you will realise that this happens yearly, once the new version is released. Therefore in order to get the most possible enjoyment from any FIFA game, you need to buy it as close to its release date as possible. I only buy one video game a year, so I don’t resent EA Sports too much for what I truly appreciate, from a marketing perspective, as one of the world’s greatest product cycles.
Retrospective edit, 07/02/2015
I ended up keeping FIFA 13 for two years, as I only buy one game a year, and the year of FIFA 14 also released GTAV, so there was no question which one would win there. I often went back to FIFA 13, and was always shocked at how persistently the network deteriorated. Finding an opponent was extremely difficult, and the in-game economy of FIFA Ultimate Team had suffered from ridiculous inflation. I bought FIFA 15, and saw no real improvement in gameplay, merely in the network.