That Pro Evolution Soccer 2015 won Best Sports Game at GamesCom would have been significant enough. That it beat rival FIFA 2015 to the gong spoke volumes about the effort Konami has gone to this year to ensure a repeat of last season’s disastrous campaign isn’t repeated. PES European Brand Manager Adam Bhatti is remarkably honest about last year’s failings and the publisher’s determination to make up for past mistakes.
“We learned with PES14, that it was only half done. That was the feedback we got from all the fans. The majority of fans were extremely unhappy with last year, and we heard them. It's not just case of don't worry, we'll fix it. 14 was not even a side-step; it was moving backwards. This year it’s about getting PES back onto solid ground, back on the right path, so we can move forward with the Fox engine on these new consoles.”
Bhatti, a former community manager, was promoted to his new position as a react to the vociferous feedback from the PES community. He says this year PES will go “back to its roots”, with the assistance of a new UK studio. The bulk of the development work will still be done in Japan, but this time there’s a strong European influence. Senior creative producer Naoya Hatsumi says that the idea of having an overseas production studio has been under discussion for quite a long time. “There were periods where as a company, [Konami] required us to take English lessons for us to actively interact with overseas studios. The concept was there, but it was realistically considered after Metal Gear studios opened [in Europe] which made us start to think what different aspects an overseas studio could bring to the game.”
“In order to do that we needed to understand European football culture and how the European fans view football,” he continues. “We thought that by creating the UK production studio we would be able to convey the way they see football.” In future, Hatsumi says, Konami would like to expand further into the UK and Europe, creating more overseas development environments. “It doesn't necessarily have to be in Europe, we can still do a lot of [work] in our domestic studio, but there are limitations if [we only do] that, so we would always like to have the option to have part of the development done in European studios.”
The series remains popular in Asia and South America, despite a significant dip in sales across Europe and North America. Konami has sought feedback from all territories, preparing surveys at key events for people to offer feedback on gameplay balance, and to give their impressions about early demo versions of the new game. “We collected surveys and converted them into figures and analysed them to show us the direction the users need and what they'd like to see in the gameplay,” says Hatsumi. “We've listened to that and tried to change our gameplay since E3.”
“We are listening to players from all different backgrounds and different football cultures, asking them what they think the game needs.”
It’s not just the reaction from the press Konami is interested in; he’s particularly keen to listen to the core PES community, and to consider the opinions of those who’ve previously enjoyed the series but perhaps haven’t played it for a few years. “It’s all levels of users,” says Hatsumi. “We are listening to [the opinions of] PES Championship players, who come from all different backgrounds and different football cultures, what they think the game needs.”
Indeed, Konami is introducing a new feature in PES 2015 which will directly involve the community. Players will be encouraged to give feedback about the performances of real-life players and teams, particularly for minor teams that the development team might not be as acutely aware of as the top sides. The game will benefit from weekly updates, with Konami tweaking existing parameters within the game to match the feedback from fans.
Finding the right balance can, however, prove tricky. “In the game you'll see a free-kick line,” says Bhatti. “Every single pro player [who played the demo version] told me off like I was a kid in school. It was the most horrible thing they'd ever seen, it was for noobs, ‘we don’t like it in our game’. You have to think of the options. We do want to cater for [casual players].” But at the same time, Konami wants to retain that all-important authenticity. “You know Juventus are going to be a counter-attacking team, and you play against them and it's horrible, with five at the back! But it's realistic. As long as you're having fun moment to moment, that's [the essence of] PES.”
So what went wrong last year? Bhatti suggests that the introduction of the Fox engine, while important for the future of the series, led to a less responsive game; players would press a button, and need to wait too long for the animations to play out. “It was not ideal,” adds Hatsumi. “We had to pick and choose what features from the Fox engine we wanted to use in our product, test what we'd created to be enhanced by the Fox engine, [and we] needed direction in how to do those testings. All this planning [meant] it was not properly established for PES 2014.”
With an extra year to work with the Fox engine, and higher-specification hardware to work with, this time it’s been much easier. As Julien Merceron, Konami’s global technology director, explains, “since I joined last October, we’ve been working to identify the interesting features in Fox engine that would help the team achieve their goals. This collaborative approach has led to [a much] better outcome.”
PES Brand Manager Jon Murphy, meanwhile, insists that this year’s game is aiming to capture what fans still say are the “glory days” of the series – or Pro Evolution Soccer 5 and 6, to be exact. It’s important, he says, to capture the feel of those games and the fond memories they evoke, rather than the reality. “Video games have moved on since 5 and 6,” he says. “Some games have improved on that formula - animations, transitions, shadows or whatever else - but at that time we had easily the best playing product by a long way. That's what people mean - the most satisfying, in-depth game, the closest to real football. That feeling that you had a level of control you didn't have in other games. That's what we're looking back to, not necessarily the tech of the time, or approach to building the game, but that feeling - and we still believe in that feeling.”
“When we consider what it was that made PES special,” adds Hatsumi, “it’s about that fun of playing and scoring against another team, to ideally make it like a ten-minute highlights [package]. I think that recreating [the sport] 100% is impossible at this point, but we prioritised the emotional engagements the player would have through gameplay – like the feeling of satisfaction and achievement of scoring a goal.”
The pitch is where the heart of PES should be, says Murphy, and he’s convinced that is where Konami can win the battle against its biggest rival. “Being the best football game was always about being the best-playing football game, not necessarily all the stuff that’s going on off the pitch - crowds, agents, whatever’s going on with FIFA bunging money at Qatar! That's not PES.”
“We want our fans to feel comfortable saying PES plays better.”
After several seasons in the doldrums, it finally feels as if Konami’s venerable series is ready to recapture its former glories. “We are working so hard!” Bhatti enthuses. “We have to make sure there are no excuses this time. There will be no 'we're still working on this'. When you guys see the finished game, you'll feel like it's a finished product, as polished as PES used to be. We don’t want our fans to feel they have to defend us [on forums] and fight for us. We want our fans to feel comfortable saying PES plays better.” The results of the Gamescom jury would suggest Konami and the PES community will, this year, get their wish.