If there's one common theme among annual sports games like FIFA and NBA 2K, it's that every year they get bigger: more complex, with more features, and more bewildering to outsiders. But sometimes they lose stuff, and one fan favourite from the old days is long gone from FIFA. And no, I'm not talking about the shove button – as much as I'd love to see that return.
FIFA's indoor matches disappeared in 1999, resurfacing only once to date, in the 2011 iteration of the game for the Nintendo Wii. But the six-a-side, boxed-in, basketball court-sized mode has remained an absentee on all other releases across all platforms – something of a shame, given its popular 1997 introduction. But the story of how it came to be is perhaps even more interesting than the mode itself.
"NBA Jam was kind of taking the world by storm," explains former EA Canada producer Marc Aubanel, who led the FIFA team from 1993 to 2002. "It was outselling EA Sports games [by maybe] five to one, or ten to one."
The idea, then, was for EA to create the NBA Jam of football before anyone else did. But that didn't immediately translate into an indoor mode. First, the company chased the coin-op market.
Arcades were still a big deal in the mid-1990s. In the US alone, arcade revenues tallied several billion dollars a year. Good arcade-to-home ports sold consoles, and new systems like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were touted for their ability to handle near-perfect arcade conversions.
Eager to own the whole sports gaming market, top to bottom, EA began work on an arcade FIFA. The plan was to use 3DO hardware with a laserdisc. They already knew the 3DO's processor could do the job because Aubanel and his team had released a stellar fast, fun, and 3D FIFA for the 3DO console in late 1994. A 3DO-powered arcade FIFA could blow people away with speed and style, even if the official licence forbade NBA Jam-like balls on fire. But there were two problems.
First, the laserdisc jumped whenever it was shaken. "Imagine an arcade where you're pulling on the controller and shaking the machine," Aubanel explains. "The laser would skip. Audio would stop. Gameplay would pause." And after a few months the game would break.
Watch a complete (and very one-sided) indoor match on 'FIFA 98' for the PlayStation
The solution was to jump from a cheap laser that cost maybe $20 to one that was five or six hundred dollars, which tripled the overall manufacturing cost. But what really killed the game was business culture.
"For FIFA (at home), we just decide to ship FIFA," Aubanel explains. The console manufacturers have to approve it, but basically it's EA's decision when, why, where, and how to ship. "In the arcade, no one's going to buy your game unless you pass the coin drop test."
This is where you sneak a game into some random arcade, totally unannounced to its patrons, and then count the coins in the machine at the end of the night. "If you don't make X number of dollars, you will never sell a unit," Aubanel says. So basically you can't ship until you hit that mystical X value. It could take months, maybe even years. EA management didn't like that. FIFA arcade was canned.
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But the desire to take on NBA Jam remained. While the FIFA licence was important, simulations weren't "sexy" enough for the big bucks. Only EA couldn't go all the way to the other extreme. "We weren't going to be able to go to FIFA and say that we're gonna do arcade FIFA with giant heads and players who would light on fire, balls that would light on fire," says Aubanel. "I think FIFA would have had a heart attack if we came to them with that."
Indoor football was the happy compromise, and circumstances fell in their favour to make it an easier sell to world football's governing body. "The American soccer league, NASL, had shut down," Aubanel says. "There was no [professional] American soccer, and MLS was just set to begin." Most US-based pro players were competing in indoor leagues to stay fit. This was all the justification EA needed.
FIFA 97's six-a-side indoor mode proved a breath of fresh air. Matches became chaotic free-for-alls of end-to-end panic. With no offsides or throw-ins to worry about, you could focus your energy on putting the ball in the net – which was enough challenge in itself with the game's many bugs and awkward, unresponsive controls.
Indoor mode gameplay from 'FIFA 97' on the Mega Drive
The walls were the raison d'être for indoor mode, though. They added a whole extra layer of depth and strategy and unpredictability to proceedings, which the computer invariably used to its advantage better than most human players.
"We can imagine kicking a soccer ball in the top corner of the net," Aubanel explains, "but we have a hard time going, 'I'm gonna kick the ball into a wall, it's gonna bounce off the wall and hit the top corner of the net.' But for a computer, it's dead simple. Just a single angle to figure out, right? Like yep, boom."
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Indoor mode made an excruciatingly dumb AI seem smart. It was the great equaliser in multiplayer, too. It made FIFA accessible to people who don't know anything about football, and it levelled the playing field in head-to-head living room matches just enough to make things competitive. And it was just so much fun – especially in FIFA 98, which switched down to five-a-side and made basic moves like dribbling and passing less ungainly.
Even so, the FIFA development team never felt any pressure to keep indoor around. "We would do detailed customer feedback on features for the game," says Aubanel. "What worked, and what didn't work. And I don't think indoor mode ever came back as something people wanted to see a lot more. So I think we just let it die on the vine."
Not enough players spoke up, than, and the mode went away as other priorities took over – more clubs, more leagues, better fluidity and graphics, and preparations for the engine technology upgrade that would come with the next console generation: onwards to the PS2, and beyond.
EA tried to scratch its indoor itch with the FIFA Street series, which currently numbers four entries spread over a decade, but it wasn't the same. FIFA Street spent too much time trying to convince you it was edgy and hip, and nowhere near enough time on actually being a fun simulation of football in a confined space.
That's all the original indoor mode was ever about. Not cool cred, just fun in a walled, shrunken arena. It was football stripped back to its fluid, joyful, energetic core – where the only rule that matters is kicking a round ball into the goal. And one day, hopefully, it will return to the FIFA series proper.
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