FIFA Road To World Cup 98
Image: EA / Time Extension

Back when we were putting together our 'Making of' for FIFA International Soccer, we asked several members of the FIFA team to name their favourite FIFA game, and almost unanimously, they answered with a single title: FIFA Road to World Cup 98.

Originally released back in 1997 across eight different platforms, FIFA Road to World Cup 98 introduced a ton of additional teams, modes, and players, and marked the start of an ambitious 12-month release strategy that saw EA bringing out Road To World Cup 98, followed by World Cup 98, and FIFA 99.

As you can probably imagine, releasing three games in one year proved to be incredibly challenging for the team and stretched it to its limits. However, it also led to some of the team's proudest moments from their time working on the series. So, recently, we spoke to members of the FIFA Road To World Cup 98 team to find out the inside story of the project, looking at why they consider it the "best FIFA game" yet, and the remarkable story of how they managed to land Blur's 'Song 2' for the soundtrack.

Before we get into all that, though, we first need to take a step back to look at the reception to the company's previous release: FIFA 97.

FIFA 97 Disappointment

FIFA 97 was the second game in the series to use the Virtual Stadium engine (after FIFA 96) and the first to feature the use of motion capture animation and polygonal 3D characters instead of 2D sprites. It was an important step forward for the series, but a pretty shaky one. The game may have sold well and received some strong reviews from outlets (including a rave review from the publication GamePro), but there was also a fair share of critics who thought it fell short of expectations.

The magazine Next Generation, for instance, scored the PlayStation version just one star out of five and criticized its "slow" pace, "choppy frame rate", "sloppy control", and "miserable ball physics", writing that it was "the most disappointing EA Sports game in years." And they weren't alone either. Computer and Video Games gave the N64 release (published under the name FIFA Soccer 64) another one-star review, calling it "a complete shambles" and highlighting the emergence of promising alternatives like Sega's Worldwide Soccer for the Sega Saturn and Konami's International Superstar Soccer.

Internally, at EA Canada, many members of the team were also disappointed with FIFA 97, not least the series's executive producer Bruce McMillan, and producer Marc Aubanel, who thought they could do better.

"I don’t think FIFA 97 was our best work," McMillan tells us over a video call. "I’d done 96 and I’d hired an executive producer because I had other responsibilities in the studio at the time and it just didn’t work out. Mark and I finished the title but we were not happy with it. I wasn’t upset at the team. I was upset at the organization that we did. We put the wrong leader in place at the time and the team took its foot off the gas. So the day after I sat down with Marc and I said, ‘We’re never going to do that ever again.’"

Making the N64 version of that game [FIFA 64] was just a death march. No one was super proud of it because we were barely alive when we finished the game and shipped it. And really, it was hard at the time to stand up to Super Mario 64.

Aubanel adds, "Making the N64 version of that game [FIFA 64] was just a death march. No one was super proud of it because we were barely alive when we finished the game and shipped it. And really, it was hard at the time to stand up to Super Mario 64. The first 3D version of Mario was so spectacular that when we first played it, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re dead."

Rather than let the team lick their wounds, McMillan galvanized the group and saw an opportunity for next year's FIFA game to be the biggest one yet. His idea was to release three games in quick succession to take advantage of the upcoming France 98 World Cup (which EA had just acquired the rights for).

The first of these games would be FIFA Road to World Cup 98, which would feature both domestic clubs and national teams, as well as a campaign focusing on the process of qualifying for the World Cup. The follow-up, meanwhile, World Cup 98 would contain only national teams and would be an officially licensed World Cup product letting players act out the final stages of the tournament themselves. And then the last, FIFA 99, would return to national teams and domestic clubs but place a greater emphasis on league football.

McMillan says, "People cared about clubs in FIFA 97 – that’s what they cared about. They weren't thinking of the World Cup yet or so on and so forth. But then, going into 98, you’re going to have a World Cup year, so you’re going to have a ton of qualifying stuff in 1997, so it’s about your nation. So I was pitching this to the EA in the United States and explaining that since 1966, England has not had a World Cup and it’s a quest. Every qualifying game is important. So that was the Road to World Cup 98. That was the vision.

"EA asked, ‘Can you build three titles that are going to be of high quality and be ready?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, I can’. And that’s when I went back to the team and said, ‘If Road to World Cup isn’t stellar, we’re going to have problems on World Cup ‘98 and FIFA ’99.’"

Fixing The Game

To make sure FIFA Road to World Cup 98 was a step above its predecessor, EA Canada introduced a ton of new content to the game. For the first time ever, the game featured all 172 FIFA-registered national teams and a total of 189 clubs (across 11 leagues). There was even an option included to customize teams and players further, enabling people to edit various details like the appearance of home & away kits, to keep the game up to date with the arrival of each new season.

Improvements were also made to the animation, based on the feedback from FIFA 97. Critics had complained that last year's version of the game had become too slow and sluggish, in part due to the motion-capture animations having to play in full before players could see their next move reflected on screen. So the producers approached the motion capture team and the lead programmers to work out how to address this for Road to World Cup 98.

"I remember having the conversation with the team and saying, ‘We have to do better.’" says McMillan. "We have to create tech that has smooth transitions between frames of animation. It’s okay to have these beautiful animations, but we have to retain our nice, twitchy gameplay. We have to solve that."

Brian Plank, one of the lead programmers on FIFA Road To World Cup 98, was among those tasked with fixing this problem. He tells us, "Motion capture is great for capturing how a human moves, and you can capture a bunch of that. But the question is how to parameterize that so that you can have a character who can run around, kick the ball, head the ball, and look realistic while still having control over everything. So there’s this fight between visual realism and control. I forget what the game was that was out in the arcade. But there was a soccer game that was popular in the arcade around the time. It had nice motion, but they really went with that idea that every time you move it was like an immediate flip. It was just a jump from one animation to another with no transition. My approach was I wanted it to have transitions but also not give up on control."

The result of all this tinkering was that FIFA Road to World Cup 98 was a noticeably faster version than FIFA 97, while still striking an appropriate balance between the arcade and a full-blown simulation. And this wasn't the only area of the game to receive a bit of an overhaul either, with the commentary and speech tools also receiving an extensive update for FIFA Road to World Cup 98 to revise the team and player names, introduce new languages, and also address some of the errors from last year's version.

John Motson
John Motson was the UK voice of FIFA all the way from FIFA 96 to FIFA 05 — Image: GordonFlood/Wikimedia Commons

The main person responsible for all of this was the sound designer/programmer Robert Bailey, who is credited on the final release as "additional programming". He created the set of cutting-edge tools, used to categorize and splice the commentary together, and was tasked every year with travelling the world recording the various commentators from across the different regions.

Speaking about this recording process, Bailey recalls, "I travelled alone to Europe to record the French & German commentary. It was recorded in Dusseldorf at a tiny studio that was hired by our EA branch office. It was actually not an audio studio at all, but rather, a video studio called Studio Froehling. It was the studio where the band Kraftwerk recorded their early videos, and the master tapes were still in the vault! They had a little tiny vocal booth, and the audio was actually recorded on a videotape machine. It was quite amusing to me, as when I explained how I wanted to record the player names (all 25,000 or so of them…) in 4 different variations, they kind of scoffed and said it could not be done.

"Each name was recorded twice by itself, in an unexcited and excited intonation. The same name was then recorded in two intonations with the prefix 'fon', which would be combined on the fly in the game with another phrase. So we would record 'Smith', 'SMITH!!!', 'Fon Smith', and 'FON SMITH!!'. I had to get the engineer to record a phrase like “great pass fon ….' And then record “fon Smith”, “fon Jones”, and so on. The skeptical engineer edited them together, and they worked perfectly. He then shook his head with something in German that must have been along the lines of 'I’ll be damned…'"

Song 2

In addition to all of the changes we've highlighted above, FIFA Road to World Cup 98 was also notably the first game in the series to lean heavily on licensed music as opposed to in-house compositions, featuring music from Blur, The Crystal Method, and Electric Skychurch. According to Aubanel, this came about (in part) thanks to an EA audio specialist named Chris Taylor, who had previously been the drummer of the Canadian rock band named The Payolas and championed the idea internally.

"Without Chris Taylor, I’m not really sure we would have done that," Aubanel states. "The Payolas actually had a hit song in the ‘80s and Bob Rock was their guitar player. Bob Rock is probably one of the most successful producers of all time. He produced The Black Album and probably all of the best metal rock bands of the ‘80s. So Chris was the creative champion and I sort of had prior experience in TV licensing music, so the business side was something I was somewhat familiar with. We hired this gentleman called Jonnie Forster, who was an A&R guy at one of the companies, and he was helping us get in touch with band managers."

Blur - Song 2
The music video for "Song 2", directed by Sophie Muller

According to those we spoke to who worked on the game, the idea of licensing music wasn't exactly popular to begin with, with the other members of the audio team, in particular, not exactly being a fan of using other people's music.

"We had one guy who was particularly passionate about doing the music licensing and he pursued that," says Bailey. "It was an interesting synergy. But the notion of licensing somebody else’s stuff rather than writing the stuff yourself was initially deemed to be kind of offensive; there was a bit of pushback from the people in the audio department about it. But ultimately, it came to be seen as, ‘Okay, that’s a valid marketing kind of a thing’. I get it now, but it doesn’t mean I was really happy about it at the time."

The audio team wasn't the only group to have reservations about this either, as EA's (then) CEO & president Larry Probst, had also put out an edict across the company, warning developers away from licensing music to avoid wasting high percentages of the game's budget on signed artists.

What had happened was Road Rash had come out on 3DO and licensed a whole bunch of songs and they gave away a royalty, whereas in the film & TV industry you paid a flat fee. They were basically giving them a piece of the profit, which is kind of crazy

As Aubanel recalls, "Larry Probst came to a meeting and said, ‘No more licensing music' and we were sort of sitting in this meeting like looking at each other. What had happened was Road Rash had come out on 3DO and licensed a whole bunch of songs and they gave away a royalty, whereas in the film & TV industry, you paid a flat fee. They were basically giving them a piece of the profit, which is kind of crazy because music at the end of the day is ancillary to the gameplay experience. You can have the greatest music in the world, but if the game sucks it ain’t going to sell anything. Unless you’re talking about Guitar Hero, it’s hard to see that as a primal element of a game.

"So we sort of panicked and we said, ‘Well, that’s screwed up’, and we didn’t tell Larry. Then, later on, we played the game at a review and Larry shouted, ‘Stop!’ and started yelling at us. He was like, ‘Why the fuck did you put music in the game?’ And we said, ‘Well, a salary is X many dollars a year and it basically cost us 9 months of one person’s salary to get eight top 10 songs in the game'. He kind of went, ‘Oh, I guess that’s alright then.’ But we were sweating at the time."

Out of all the tracks included on the soundtrack, the one that most people tend to associate with FIFA Road to World Cup 98 today is Song 2 by Blur, which plays over the opening of almost all of the console versions of the game. The exact price EA paid for Song 2 has since become something of a legend within EA, with several employees telling us that the company managed to acquire some of the rights for the song for the cost of just four World Cup tickets.

They were big football fans. Massive football fans. So it was not that difficult to get Song 2 at all. It was actually very very easy. They wanted to have a lot of eyeballs on their song and this is what they got with FIFA ‘98

"The guys, Damon and Alex specifically, wanted four tickets to the World Cup on the centreline and we had lots of tickets on the centreline," says McMillan. "They were big football fans. Massive football fans. So it was not that difficult to get Song 2 at all. It was actually very very easy. They wanted to have a lot of eyeballs on their song and this is what they got with FIFA ‘98. We shipped a lot of units. So when something goes out and sells 10s of millions of copies, that’s more than most albums do."

Sean Ratcliffe, a marketing person at EA UK adds, "We’d paid them for inclusion in the game, but we needed separate music publishing rights for TV spots. So we said, ‘We don’t actually have the budget to do that’ and their manager came back and said, ‘Hold on a minute, the guys in the band are massive football fans and you’ve got Road to World Cup and you’ve got the official license, right?’ We were like, ‘Yeah’. And they said they would waive the fee if we could get four World Cup final tickets."

International Success

FIFA Road to the World Cup 98 was launched in June 1997 on Windows PCs, with versions hitting the market for the SNES, Mega Drive, PS1, Sega Saturn, N64, and Game Boy in the following months.

With the obvious exception of the Game Boy and 16-bit editions, all of these ports shared the same library of assets, with the EA Canada team adopting a language-agnostic approach that allowed them to reuse the same development materials across several platforms. These materials would then be fed over to the different teams across the globe, with the studios being tasked with recreating the core experience as closely as possible on whatever the specific platform was.

According to McMillan, FIFA (at least at this point) was one of the few major franchises inside EA to take this kind of broad approach to porting, which, he believes, is partly why the series was able to shift so many units. Nevertheless, it ultimately led to some sacrifices having to be made to certain editions of the game to fit their respective hardware.

FIFA Road To World Cup 98
Image: Time Extension

"We basically filled the PS1 disc," says Peter Andrew, the lead programmer on the PlayStation FIFA Road to World Cup 98 at EA Seattle. "So the challenge was keeping the framerate high but keeping the fidelity of the animation. You know what LOD is, right? Well, you do the same thing with animation. You go, 'Well, I'm not going to animate all 23 bones. I'm going to leave off the hands.' So it was making sure that I was cutting things off at the right point.

"We also had this system where we would have banks of animation, so you would always have one celebration, some kind of swinging cross — I don't know exactly what it was — and once 2 or 3 animations in a bank were used, we purged it from memory and pulled in another one from the disc. At the same time as pulling in commentary from the disc and music from the disc, and so on. So streaming management there was a hot nightmare"

Yossarian King, the lead programmer on the N64 version of FIFA Road to World Cup 98, adds, "The constrained space of the N64 forced us to limit things. So one of the biggest examples was the commentary was pared back quite a lot for the Nintendo 64 versions. For the N64, we just had kind of a very light form of colour commentary. We didn’t have player names and it was quite stripped down from what we had in the other games. The upside of using cartridges, though, was it was much much faster than a CD. There wasn’t any streaming delay. You didn’t have to wait for the disc to spin around to get to where the data was. You didn’t have to move a head across the physical media and so all the cartridge was rapidly available."

FIFA 98 Disc
Image: Pete Andrew

When the FIFA Road to World Cup 98 was finally released, it not only sold incredibly well but earned positive reviews from critics — many of whom claimed it was a massive improvement over FIFA '97.

In issue 103 of Electronic Gaming Monthly, John Ricciardi praised the PlayStation version of the game and wrote: "RTWC 98 is a very, very good soccer game and one of the best available for the PlayStation, if not the best." N64 Magazine's Tim Weaver, meanwhile, called the N64 version "a real surprise", praising it for its "beautifully fluid" play and its astounding improvement over the "sewage-like mess that was FIFA 64".

FIFA was back on top yet again, but there was still a lot of work left to do. Almost immediately after, the team had to switch focus to the World Cup 98 game, which was set to release only a few months later. The entire process was exhausting for the core FIFA team, who were used to having a break in between projects to refresh, but in the end, the studio managed to achieve its goals and deliver three excellent football games across multiple platforms.

"We pushed everybody to the limits to make FIFA 98," says McMillan. "I’ve played every FIFA and I would argue that that’s the best FIFA that’s ever been made and still is. You hear about sports cars and how with Porsche, they consider the 993 model to be one of the best cars ever made. I think in the case of FIFA, FIFA Road to World Cup 98 was the best. And the reason I say that is because of the amount of people who played it and kept playing it and playing it and playing it."

Aubanel comments, "It is really hard to know how people are going to receive it. When you play something for 10 hours a day, you kind of get sick of it. You kind of hate everything by the time it releases, because you’ve just way oversaturated yourself with that experience. So it’s very hard to sort of see it objectively so we really do rely on people coming in to give us fresh eyes and their opinions "

Following the release of these three titles, McMillan ended up sticking with the FIFA series until FIFA 2001, while Aubanel continued to work on FIFA games up until FIFA World Cup 2002. Both have since had successful careers outside of FIFA, with McMillan, in particular, now presiding over a new company called Blink Media (comprised of FIFA veterans), which is the current developer of FEI Equestriad World Tour — a mobile title focusing on Equestrian sports.