Interview with Justin Sheffield

Justin’s been in the video game industry for almost 13 years. A huge sports fan, he’s worked on hockey, basketball, snowboarding and a ton of football titles – including FIFA 03 to 07 and most recently FIFA Street 3. He works out of EA’s Burnaby, BC office and is a slow, no-nonsense defender on the pitch.


Justin Sheffield
In this interview, Justin – as a leade designer for FIFA Street 3, answers overall game discussion questions:

Why should a FIFA 08 gamer also buy FIFA Street 3?
Justin Sheffield: As a football fan myself, I see FIFA Street 3 as an opportunity for a quick and casual football experience. When I don’t have a lot of time to invest in a long match with pre-game strategies and setup, with managerial and season factors to weigh, I just want to sit down in front of an HD TV with a 5.1 setup, a cold beverage and a friend and have some fun playing football before (or after) we head out for the night, that’s where FIFA Street 3 fits the bill for me. It’s the evolution of arcade street football, you’ve never seen anything like it before, and it’s a blast to play!

Is the game based on the way futsal is played?
Justin Sheffield: It’s got some futsal elements in it, we based a lot of the keeper saves, for instance, on a futsal style, not so much covering or catching the ball, but keeping the ball in play and making a lot of point-blank saves. We tried to give the game the same kind of spacing as futsal too, not have the AI attack all the time, we gave players space to do some tricks and show off some moves.

Which 18 national teams will be in the game?
Justin Sheffield: Australia, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Turkey and USA

Which team is the highest rated in the game?
Justin Sheffield: It’s a 3-way tie between Brazil, France and Italy at 4.5 stars out of 5.

In what manner should a gamer play FIFA Street 3, is it better to play as a team or be a bit more selfish?
Justin Sheffield: Both! You need to get the most out of each Specialist (Playmaker, Trickster, Enforcer, Finisher) as individuals and in team play.

How easy is it to pull off a skill move?
Justin Sheffield: For ground tricks, it’s all about the right stick. Tap in a direction, see a move. Hold in a direction, see a bigger move. Try different combinations (L, R or R, R etc) to see a ton of different moves. Remember that you can pass or shoot out of any trick. For airplay, tap the Y button to flick the ball, hold the Y button to flick it even higher. Try it with the right stick in different directions to get a ton of flick moves. Try stalling the ball at different heights (head, knee, foot) with left trigger.

What’s the most amazing trick in the game?
Justin Sheffield: Some of the nutmegs in Gamebreaker activate amazing two-man moves, just try the right stick near an opponent when you have Gamebreaker active to see some martial arts athleticism.

Are there any refs in the game?
Justin Sheffield: No. No need, street rules!

Does the game run on the same gameplay engine as FIFA Street 2? Or is it build from scratch?
Justin Sheffield: It’s from the ground up. It uses a lot of FIFA 08 AI and some tailor-made code for our unique style of game.

Tell us something exciting about the online modes?
Justin Sheffield: There are a couple of really cool new modes in this year’s online play. The first is inspired by something we’ve all lived through on the schoolyard pitch. We call it Playground Picks, and it’s basically you and an online opponent acting as first and second captain, picking from a group of players and then playing a match. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it means that you’ll never be picked last! Second, our World Challenge mode is a new twist on the real FIFA world rankings. You can go online as your favorite national team against any online opponent, knowing that a win will boost your country’s ranking. Of course the twist is that there could be thousands of players playing as those same teams against each other, so it’s important to play (and win!) often to keep your flag at the top of the charts.

Tell us about Gamebreaker mode?
Justin Sheffield: Gamebreaker is a blast this time around, both to look at and to play. The first thing we did is get rid of the circle on the ground that you used to need to run into to activate the gamebreaker. Now once you’ve done enough tricks (always cashing in your gamebreaker potential with a shot on target) to get your gamebreaker ready, you can activate it with the push of a button, so you can use it strategically, either on offense or defense. Activating gamebreaker will basically make all of your players a specialist in everything, each player has all the abilities and moves of the Finisher, Trickster, Enforcer and Playmaker unlocked and available. The world around you reacts to the gamebreaker activation too, the soundtrack changes to a remix, up-tempo version of whatever song is playing at the time, and you can’t help but see the objects in the arena you’re in dance along to the beat. The new gameplay twist we’ve added to gamebreaker is actually inspired by real football. No more goal deductions, for us a goal is too sacred a thing, even in a high scoring match to ever put a mode in that will take away a goal scored. Instead, it’s more like momentum in a real football match. If one team is outclassing the other and scores, it’s not as if all that energy is over with, so the gamebreaker doesn’t end with goal, but it starts depleting faster and faster with each subsequent marker. Of course if the team without the gamebreaker scores, then that immediately gets everything back to even terms. In other words, it may look and feel out of this world, but it still has its roots in football, or sport, fundamentals.


FIFA Street 3
Audio: The game has a very distinct audio style. Tell us about it?
Justin Sheffield: We wanted the overall mix of the audio treatment to fit with the new visual style of the game. We wanted player speech to bring out the playfulness of the game. We wanted the ambience of each unique environment to be a differentiating and immersive experience. Our sound artists worked really hard at getting the flavour of all the different arenas to come through without even opening your eyes, and at the same time we had to make sure that the sound effects with respect to the ball, the HUD, etc, fit with the arcade look. I’m thrilled with the results.

What was the decision behind not having a commentator in the game?
Justin Sheffield: We wanted the spirit of friendly competition to come across, not the feeling that this is an organized, sponsored tournament or event. It’s a shift that I really like to have the experience be player-centric. These guys are the stars and they do all the talking, literally and figuratively.

How did you get the shouts and other audio that appears in the game?
Justin Sheffield: We recorded tens of thousands of lines during hours of football matches featuring English, French, German and Spanish players. We had microphones on each player as they had fun playing some football, then the challenge was weeding out all the profanity!

The soundtrack is really ‘different’; is it difficult to go for a particularly sound when you have to find music from such a wide range of source countries?
Justin Sheffield: Not at all, it makes it easier in a lot of ways, I think. It’s like sitting down to make a mixed tape (or CD these days), the more material you have to choose from, the better. With our contacts through our Worldwide music department, from big name artists to underground DJs in Brazil, we found a ton of artists that not only had great material, but had a great attitude, willing to work with our music designer to get the tracks interactive with our gameplay and environments.

What is the process of creating a soundtrack for videogames?
Justin Sheffield: We sit down, the producers and our music designer, to figure out a tone and style that’s going to fit with the game (and be cool in a year and a half), then with our Worldwide department and our own contacts, we start chasing down what’s coming out and finding artists that are cool with us working to integrate their music.

What makes good game music? How many songs do you listen to before you find the right songs for the game?
Justin Sheffield: We probably listened to hundreds of tracks before the final soundtrack is completed. It’s got to be the right tone for the game, for this game we didn’t want anything too rock-centric or hip-hop, it was electronic, but not ambient, mid tempo but not chill. Also, it’s got to be with the right kind of artists, who will work with our music designer and legal team to integrate their songs into our game. Lots of factors make it a challenge, but with the variety of songs and artists we’re talking with, it’s a lot of fun.

Art:
The first thing which strikes people when they play the game is the visual style. What is was the thinking behind this style? Justin Sheffield: We set out to make an arcade street football game. Five world-class players aside, doing over-the-top tricks, parkour moves and martial arts style athleticism, so they had to look the part. These guys are larger than life already, the things they can do on the pitch and on the street are unbelievable, we just turned that real life heroism up an extra notch. The players loved it, I have to add, when they got to see themselves in action in this new visual style, they totally understood that we were having fun with their almost out-of-this-world abilities in a way that still respected them, and the game.

How do you create the player heads? What was the process behind them?
Justin Sheffield: We start with finding visual reference, what’s his hair look like these days?, then we worked with a caricature artist to transform that reference to fit our visual style. After that we model the 3D head, then in the game it goes. Sounds simple, except that it takes a number of people throughout this process days for each head, and we’ve got close to 300 heads in the game!

When it came to showing the player heads to the actual players what were their thoughts?
Justin Sheffield: You know what, for the most part, they loved it! We had some teams come back wondering what the tone or context of the game was, but once they saw how seriously we took the game and their involvement in it, we didn’t have any problems at all.

Which is your favourite player head and which one did you spend the most time on?
Justin Sheffield: I think one of the best ones we’ve done is Ribery; we’ve captured his character perfectly; he looks so good. I’d say Thierry Henri was probably the guy we spent the most time on, but only because he was one of the first prototypes we worked on to get the look down. The game looked quite creepy for a while with 10 Henri’s running around playing with and against each other.

The arenas are pretty varied; how did you come up with the ideas of them?
Justin Sheffield: That was a lot of fun, it started with ‘where are some unbelievable places in the world where people actually play street football’, with a mix of ‘where would it be cool to play street football if we could play anywhere?’ We wanted to have a mix of locations from all over the world that were a mix of gritty and much more colourful & celebratory, without having to find exact locations, it was a nice exercise in creative license.

Do you worry about comparisons with the art style of Team Fortress 2?
Justin Sheffield: Of course not! Why worry about being compared to such an amazing looking game? There are dozens of sources that helped inspire us that I’d be proud to be compared with, and I hope that others are inspired by our unique final vision.

Does the cartoon superhero look make it more believable to perform outrageous skill moves?
Justin Sheffield: Absolutely. We didn’t want super-real looking players leaping off walls (or each other), but at the same time we didn’t want to have them be cartoons, almost all of their moves are based on real motion-captured data. These guys really are superheroes in real life when you get to see them in action up close, the footballers, the freestylers, the parkour guys and the gymnasts, all amazing athletes.

Players:
When you were looking at which players to include how did you select them? Justin Sheffield: We started with the FIFA and national team rules, all players in the game must have at least one cap and can’t have retired from international play. Then it was down to our football gurus to pick out dream lineups!

Do you ever speak to the players to find out what they think of the game?
Justin Sheffield: We do. Ronaldinho’s a big video game player, it was great having him do moves that he says are missing from our games, talk about ‘if you want to do something right, you have to do it yourself!’

For FS3 you used a different database to the usual FIFA one. What was the thinking behind doing this?
Justin Sheffield: It’s such a different game! Setting lineups in a five-a-side game with Specialists and different game types is a completely different beast. I love our arcade-style teams that we’ve selected.

The players can pull off some pretty special moves in the game. How did you come with the animations? I can’t imagine it was very practical to try to motion capture a lot of the moves.
Justin Sheffield: Actually, I’d say that more than 90% of the moves in our game were motion captured. There’s a serious advantage of overlooking one of North America’s motion capture studios. Couple that with all the talent that we’re in contact with, and we can do some very tactical shoots to get moves in the game.

Who did the mocaps? Any famous players?
Justin Sheffield: EA has a motion capture team, they work with our animators and producers to capture all our moves. We worked with local footballers and freestylers, parkour experts, martial artists and gymnasts, along with names like Ronaldinho, Ramos, Klose among others.

Will some of the skill moves in FIFA 08 be in FIFA Street 3?
Not the exact same, some of the Ronaldinho shoot made it into both games, but each team hand-tweaks their data to fit in with the different styles and timings of each product. In the end we have a lot more freedom and room for tricks and skill moves than they do with all the ‘real world’ moves they have to get right.

Which player did you spend the most time working on and why?
Justin Sheffield: I don’t think any one player had more work done, in terms of our specialists, obviously the Trickster is kind or our heart and soul, so there was a lot of work done on his kind of moves. The keepers, too, had a lot of time invested because they play such a different style of football than the simulation game, we wanted to keep the ball in play more, and have real saves, not canned ones, for all the point blank shots he takes in a game. That meant a lot of capture and a lot of AI work to make sure the keeper’s actually making saves, we’re not warping the ball or deciding before the ball gets whether the ball’s going to go in or not.

Who is the most gifted player in the game?
Justin Sheffield: It depends on your goal. It really comes down to which Specialists you need, what goal you’re trying to accomplish and who you’re up against. If you get good enough at timing your tackles and interceptions, you may be able to get away without an Enforcer in the lineup, that frees you up for more offensive play, but may leave you susceptible to counterattacks.

Are certain skill moves limited to the best players in the game or will we see the best players from New Zealand able to compete with Ronaldinho for trick moves?
Justin Sheffield: For the most part all players are on equal footing for the arsenal of tricks that they can attempt, the better players just have a better chance at competing them in the heat of battle.

Environments:
The game has a great range of environments. What was the thinking behind the range of arenas? Justin Sheffield: We wanted to brighten up the franchise, not so many ‘underground’ feeling arenas. This is a fun game, not an out-of-bounds skate park. That being said, we still play in some sketchy areas, because it’d be cool to play in a Shipyard or on the Oil Rig, who wouldn’t want to give that a try?

What are the plans for the environments after launch? Can we expect to see some new ones available as DLC?
Justin Sheffield: You bet. Three more environments are going to be ready post-launch as DLC.

How long does it take to build an environment? Did the artists get trips to the beach or Prague etc? And if so, which unlucky one got to go to the oil rigs?
Justin Sheffield: Ha! That’s a drawback to the internet, I guess, there’s so much access to reference photos from all around the world that no one gets to travel the world any more, to beaches or oil rigs! Each environment took probably a couple of months to build, though we got faster as things like the final gameplay cameras get locked down, the ball physics get finalized, things like that.

Given that the environments play a part in the gameplay do you have to make changes to balance the game or did they all work as you planned?
Justin Sheffield: It’s an iterative process because of all the interactive objects and gameplay tuning that goes on as we build each arena. We may have to raise or lower walls, add elements to liven up an area or move things around to make each one the most fun to play in. We wanted a mix of cool visual and gameplay elements both within and just outside of the standard camera views.

Which one took the most work and which was the hardest to get the look and feel right?
Justin Sheffield: I think Riverside was a tough one to get balanced right. We worked for a long time on the right feel between keeping the ball in and letting it go out of play. We didn’t want any invisible walls keeping balls in, but didn’t want to feel like everyone was always playing in a cage.

Which is your favourite one?
Justin Sheffield: I love Rooftop. Not only does it make me think of Blade Runner, but it’s so open and striking an area, while still having the ball stay in play almost all of the time.

Do we get weather effects in the game? Snow? Rain? Justin Sheffield: Not this time around. We focused on getting the base feel of the ball physics in good conditions feeling right. Besides, who really wants to play in those conditions if they don’t have to?
Tell us how you can use the environment while you play?
Justin Sheffield: One simple answer, wall moves. Whether it’s a wall pass or sprinting up a wall and volleying to a teammate while you’re in the air, it brings a whole new element of gameplay to standard football. Just yesterday I had the CPU lob a pass off the wall above my net to a teammate who finished with a flying bicycle kick. I had to tip my cap to the AI team on that one.

Can the ball get out of bounds and what happens when it does?
Justin Sheffield: Sure it can, sometimes it’ll come back, I see weird rebounds rolling back into play at the away end of Mediterranean quite often, other times it’ll just fade away and the opposing team’s keeper will get possession. No lost footballs in this game, unlike the pitch here at work.

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