A couple of times a year, the FIFA community is shaken by the revelation that the game uses adaptive difficulty. As was the case first time it was “revealed”, the latest re-discovery instantly set off speculations about adaptive difficulty possibly being the long sought-after momentum mechanism believed to be present in online multiplayer FUT.
The reality is however less dramatic. It has never been a secret that FIFA uses adaptive difficulty. What’s more, it isn’t the smoking gun in the momentum debate that some people hope to find.
In fact, adaptive difficulty has been “hiding” in plain sight right in front of our noses for several years. If you look in the right places, the game has dialogues referring directly to automatic adjustments of difficulty (see the picture above). So, how come that people seem surprised about this absolute non-discovery? The most likely explanation is most of the community mainly play online FUT, where they won’t see the dialogue above. And a likely reason why they won’t see it is that it isn’t used in online FUT.
The discovery of adaptive difficulty happened, when someone started looking into some of the ini files, which are accessible on the PC edition. And yes, the code does mention certain rules, which will up the difficulty when you are in the lead. But a closer look at the code will also reveal that adaptive difficulty is relevant to single player game modes, which online FUT isn’t.
In spite of these boring facts, people with a flavor for conspiracies speculate that adaptive difficulty perhaps is in multiplayer matches anyway. But as we will explain below, it makes perfect sense that it isn’t.
Adaptive difficulty at a glance
Adaptive difficulty is used in many games, including other EA titles like Need For Speed. It’s essentially an elegant way to solve the problem that a mismatch between the player’s skills and the difficulty level is likely to cause him to stop playing. If the game is too easy, he will get bored. If it’s to difficult, he will get frustrated.
With the introduction of adaptive difficulty, the game allows the user to set the initial difficulty. The game will then adjust the difficulty dynamically, meaning that if the user is winning by a large margin, the game will increase the difficulty and vice versa in order to keep the game interesting.
It has become an inherent part of the scripting and handicapping narrative that concepts like adaptive difficulty are believed to be put in for the sake of helping the weaker players. This is however a clear misunderstanding. From a game designer’s perspective, it’s equally important to make new and old customers stay. EA doesn’t care whether you are good or bad. They just want you to keep playing.
Why online and offline are two different things
All game designers care about difficulty, and EA is on that boat as well. So, why not do a bit of adaptive difficulty in multiplayer FUT? The short answer is that it wouldn’t work, and that there are better options available.
Online multiplayer and single player matches pose very different challenges when it comes to keeping the difficulty at the right level.
In a single player FIFA match, the AI is 100 % in control of one of the teams and hence also the primary factor determining the user’s perceived difficulty. If the match is too difficult or too easy, the game simply adjusts the overall capability level of the AI-controlled team accordingly. Furthermore, the game only needs to consider the needs of one user, namely the player. Under those circumstances, adaptive difficulty is a fine approach.
In a multiplayer match, it’s a different story. The main factor determining the difficulty seen from your perspective is the opponent’s skill level. If he is an idiot, it’s going to be a walk over for you but not for him. If he is a mean bastard with a PhD from FIFA university, you are going to get steam rolled, while he may feel slightly bored.
The AI has limited means at its disposal
With the two players making all the key decisions, the AI has very limited means at its disposal when it comes to changing the progression of the match. Ultimately, you can’t make an inferior player score more goals by positioning his team mates better or by improving his keeper’s decision-making. So, unless the game effectively removes control from the human players, the AI won’t be able to change the progression of a multiplayer match.
I’m aware that some people believe that the game – instead of helping the weaker player – will handicap the better player’s team by downgrading it’s stats. But guys – get a grip: Stats mean little in this game! There is a reason why some of the pro players are successful in weekend league despite playing with a full bronze team. Even if the game were to cut your stats in half, that still wouldn’t remove your ability to outperform the opponent in 9 out of 10 matches. For a thorough, fact based analysis of the exact importance of stats, check out this article.
Dodgy tricks don’t create more happy players
The challenge of keeping the difficulty right in a multiplayer scenario is not unique to FIFA. Unless you apply some blatantly dodgy tricks, there isn’t much you can do from the outside to change the progression of a game.
The problem with dodgy tricks is that they are bound to create the exact opposite result of the intended. As stated previously, the real purpose of concepts like adaptive difficulty is to minimize the attrition of players. You neither want people to leave due boredom because it was too easy or due to frustration, because it’s impossible. If there is one thing that dodgy tricks are likely to produce, it’s former FIFA players. Few things are as frustrating as feeling out of control when you thought you would be in control.
So, when you have a multiplayer game, where the two players control everything, you need a different strategy than adaptive difficulty. It. Won’t. Work.
ELO matchmaking instead of adaptive difficulty
People defending the presence of a momentum system have rhetorically been questioning whether EA really would implement two separate difficulty management approaches for single player and multi player matches. The fact is: They have!
A number games including FIFA use ELO matchmaking. Just to name a few other examples, it’s confirmed that EA’s Battlefield series as well as board games like Wordfeud and Chess Time use ELO matchmaking.
ELO matchmaking is also a difficulty management concept like adaptive difficulty. Unlike adaptive difficulty, it doesn’t allow the player to choose a difficulty level, which then is maintained during the match through subtle adjustments of the difficulty according to the progression of the match. It also doesn’t keep matches tight (they certainly aren’t).
But when you look at the gaming experience across multiple matches, ELO matchmaking is sufficient to ensure that the vast majority of the player population will have a decent chance of winning a decent share of their matches.