Not being a power in the game of soccer, it's something of a curiosity that Canadians make the best soccer video games.
FIFA Soccer 13, which hits consoles and PCs on Tuesday, is the latest instalment in the acclaimed annual franchise from Electronic Arts Canada. The series has pulled in more than $5-billion (U.S.) since its inception in 1993, making it not only EA's biggest property, but the best-selling sports franchise of all time.
It's routinely a critical hit and a perennial sales chart-topper. Last year's FIFA 12, for one, scored 90 out of 100 on Metacritic and sold nearly four million units in its first week. This year's entry, developed by more than 200 programmers, engineers and artists at EA Canada's studio in Burnaby, B.C., will likely achieve the same success (see 13's current Metacritic score here).
Conversely, Canada's mens team – currently ranked 73rd – will likely never be a contender in the World Cup. So how do Canadians know so much about making hyper-realistic soccer games? You'd think they'd be better at hockey – EA developers are actually good at that too – but soccer?
The secret: they're not really Canadian.
"We've brought in people from all over the world to work on FIFA," says Kantcho Doskov, the game's Bulgaria-born producer.
"If I look at the makeup of our development team, there's people from everywhere. There really aren't that many Canadians or Americans. There's just as many as guys from China or Korea or Argentina. It wasn't done on purpose, that's just how it ended up."
FIFA Soccer 13 is thus an international production put together on Canadian soil. While the team members love their adopted homeland, working on the franchise usually requires them to have some expertise in it, which is a passion often developed elsewhere.
Mr. Doskov himself was raised in London as an Arsenal supporter. He's a freestyle soccer expert and was a finalist at the Canadian Freestyle Football Championships in 2008. As part of the core FIFA team for the past six years, he has also contributed moves to the series via motion capture. Other members of the team, meanwhile, play soccer on the field attached to the EA studio during breaks.
"Everyone's from somewhere else, but we're united by our passion for soccer and video games," Mr. Doskov says. "That's why we're able to make such a good game."
Despite the critical praise, sports franchises are sometimes derided for their annual nature. Some gamers feel they're cash grabs that offer only incremental improvements and updated rosters each year. While Redwood City, Calif.-based parent EA is naturally interested in maximizing revenue from its most lucrative series, the developers in Burnaby are also keen to keep perfecting what's come before.
Critics touted last year's FIFA 12 as a "remarkable achievement," and "excellence personified," but Mr. Doskov still thought the game felt "robotic." The passing and ball control were just too perfect.
This year's version features "first-touch control," a new system that eliminates that perfect precision. Poor passes are more difficult to control now, which introduces a higher level of uncertainty to the game.
FIFA 13 also features improved attacking intelligence, where computer-controlled players act more creatively in pulling defenders out of position and opening up passing opportunities. The overall effort is to make the game feel more organic.
"We're adding in all that human error, which adds to the unpredictability that you see in real football," he says.
With the annual schedule, there are inevitably ideas and features that developers don't have time to add and that must be saved for next year. Not making the cut this year – and a likely feature for FIFA 14 – is improved player movement. The team had heard feedback from gamers that the way players run is not perfectly realistic, so they had hoped to improve it. While they made some progress, they're still not happy with the result.
"We didn't really get to the level, that holy grail perfect level, that we wanted to get to because we ran out of time," Mr. Doskov says. "But it's something we'll definitely get to in the future. We've already started working on it."
With the annual iterations and continual improvements, there's also the question of whether it's possible to finally achieve a level of realism that developers – and gamers – can be satisfied with. With technology continually advancing, Mr. Doskov isn't sure that will ever happen.
"There's a long way to go before we reach a level of perfection. I'm not even sure we can, but we're always striving to get there."
As for soccer in Canada, the sport's popularity is rising – a record number of viewers tuned in this summer to see the women's team win the bronze medal at the Olympics. There's always the possibility that future FIFA games will be made predominantly by Canadian nationals. If they can be pried away from making hockey games, that is.