FUT 14 Handicap & Scripting - FIFA 14 Ultimate Team

Most FUT-player have experienced the frustration of conceiving an undeserved defeat. No one likes losing, and especially not when it’s caused by external factors. Sometimes, it feels like the AI is doing it’s best to ruin your play, the referee acts like he is watching another game and the controller works as if it is broken. A lot of players have similar experiences, and this have nurtured the widespread perception that something known as ‘scripting’ or ‘handicapping’ exists within FIFA. 

Only yesterday, I lost a game on penalties. Within the last 5 minutes of the game, I was awarded a free kick on the edge of the box instead of a penalty, even though the replay clearly showed that my player was pulled down inside the box. 4 minutes later – in the absolutely dying seconds – the opponent gets a corner, even though I could swear that none of my players touched the ball. Of course, he scored.

Annoying as these kinds of losses may seem, I find it very unlikely that they are the product of scripting or handicapping. I will broaden this view in the following sections…

What is scripting and handicapping all about?

 

For a start, let’s take a look at what the proponents of scripting and handicapping are claiming. There are different stories around related to this subject:

According to these accounts, EA is behind this scheme, and apparently they use scripting and handicapping to increase our incentive to buy packs. This works, because  the game becomes more exciting via the introduction of a certain bias in edgy situations. In addition, some proponents argue that a few cheap wins will make people come back and get addicted to the game, whereas others claim that losing in certain situations will give people an incentive to improve their teams and thus buy extra packs. 

It’s important to state that although the people behind these claims share the common belief that something is wrong with the game, their stories are quite different and also somewhat contradictory. They do however agree about two things:

  • FUT matches are subject to scripted events, and results are to a large extent a product of scripting
  • EA has an incentive to fix matches because it will increase their profit somehow.

Are we really experiencing scripted results?

 

Let’s start with the accounts of people experiencing far too many goals being scored in the dying minutes, strange defeats / wins in decisive matches and unexplainable losing / winning streaks.

If we look at real life football, it’s perfectly normal that teams get into a winning or losing streak. Take Man United and Cardiff  as two examples of teams who have suffered a serious decline in form over the past season. To get a full picture of the depth of this decline, please take a look at the following graph showing the total number of points per previous 10 matches calculated per match for the last two seasons:

Points per 10 matches, two last seasons final

If we translate these data into FUT seasons, it is clear that there is a significant chance of being relegated if you cut your point average by 30 % as has been the case with Man U this season. Cardiff are even worse off. And yet, you haven’t heard anyone from Cardiff or Man U claim that their results this season are the consequence of a conspiracy.

Next, people claim that they are hit by last minute goals far more often than they ought to. In order to evaluate that claim, it has to be considered that the 45th and 90th minute includes stoppage time. It’s quite common to have 4 minutes of added time in the 2nd half, meaning that the 90th minute lasts 5 minutes in total. This alone will lead to a natural increase in the number of goals scored in the 90th minute. Furthermore, football statistics confirm that last minute goals are more likely in real life as well. For example, 23 % or Premier League goals were scored in the last 10 minutes (that is the last 14 % of the game if we include the average stoppage time). Other scholars have documented that the likelihood of scoring increases minute by minute towards the end of the match under certain conditions. This happens due to fatigue, tactical changes or perhaps plain and simple players getting nervous. If you start believing that your opponent is going to catch up with you, his chances of doing so increases significantly.

Given that these phenomena happen to real life footballers for completely natural reasons, it appears reasonable to assume that they could happen to FUT players as well.  After all, we are humans. And this is a key point.

So, to me it appears as if the handicapping or scripting proponents are claiming that EA has spent money creating an experience which most likely would have been part of the gameplay for completely natural reasons. Why would EA want to do that?

Making money out of happy losers

 

Does EA have an economic incentive to fix matches? Perhaps. Could we assume that EA thinks and therefore invests like most other profit driven companies? Probably.

In that case, they will be unlikely to spend money unless there is a high probability that it will be profitable. If the possible profit is low, the likelihood of succeeding is low, the required investment is likely to exceed the expected gain or other ways of investing the money look more profitable, then it simply won’t happen.

In real life, no investments are made without a convincing business plan. A business plan is a formal statement of a set of business goals, the reasons they are believed attainable, and the plan for reaching those goals. 

Just as an experiment of thought, what would EA’s business plan for the whole scripting and handicapping scheme look like?

First, the plan would need to present a convincing argument to support that it is possible to incite people to buy more packs, not less, by scripting or fixing games. That is: If Peter wins his next game, it becomes more likely that he will buy another pack than if he loses. Obviously, Peter then has to be matched with an opponent who doesn’t get the reverse incentive by losing against Peter, as football has the unfortunate trait of producing the exact same amount of winners and losers. 

Now, how do people normally react when they experience unfair losses? Is it most likely that they react with happiness and joy and go on buying more packs – or – that they throw the controller into the wall, shut off their console, promise that they will never play FIFA again and go to bed? Based on the numerous threads about scripting and handicapping around the internet, it appears to be the latter rather than the first. Why would EA run a risk of making people angry? Do they have some kind of magic formula for turning customer anger into money? Probably not.

Moving on to the concept of handicapping, people claim that their teams are being ‘leveled’ when playing against lower ranking teams. The obvious question is whether EA really does have a commercial incentive to level teams. Based on pure common sense, it appears more likely that EA would have an interest in exaggerating the importance of expensive and rare players, as this would create a stronger incentive to buy more packs. Besides, it seems somewhat unclear why EA would need to level up teams with different stats when they simply could ensure that people are matched with opponents with similar ratings. After all, the matchmaking system is already there.

Second, the business plan would have to convince the management that EA possesses the required skills and data to make the entire concept work. We have to assume that this will involve developing an algorithm which can depict whether a win or a loss is required to push a specific person closer towards his next pack purchase in a given situation. At a first glance, this concept may resemble what companies like Google and Facebook do when they match specific ads with specific users based on meta data.

One could argue that if Google is able to match granddad with a cigar ad, then EA is also able to match specific players with specific gaming experiences like winning / losing, conceding / scoring last minute goals, thereby pushing the players towards buying more packs.

However this is far from simple. One has to understand that Google has significantly more knowledge about it’s user than EA will ever have. EA doesn’t have a clue who you are, what your mood is right now or what your shopping personality is like. When looking at the actual data EA may posses about you, it doesn’t appear very likely that EA is able to calculate which match result is most likely to push you towards your next pack purchase with a reasonable degree of precision. Besides, whereas Google runs a small risk by showing you irrelevant ads, it appears as if EA would run a significant risk by matching players with the wrong fixed results. After all, the difference between winning and losing is somewhat sharper than the difference between a cigar and a dental treatment.

Is it likely that EA is unaware of these issues? Probably not.

Third, think about the alternative means available to EA in it’s endeavor to get us to buy more packs with real money. If EA has basic knowledge about macro economics, EA would adjust the balance between supply and demand. In this case, demand is made up of FUT coins and real money, whereas supply is controlled by the card weights, as this will decide the number of players in circulation. I would be surprised if EA didn’t tickle the card weights once in a while. Besides, it is clear that EA has many other options available. I’m pretty sure they made money during that 5-year celebration for example. 

When considering the much cheaper, simpler and more effective options, why would EA throw money into something complicated like scripting or handicapping? It simply makes no sense.

Concluding remarks

 

You may have heard about the principle known as Occam’s razor. It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but the fewer assumptions, the better.

One hypothesis says that EA is working just like any other company, and that FUT players are subject to the exact same human traits as real footballers.

The other hypothesis says that EA has spent an unknown amount of money developing something, even though nothing indicates that it will work, and despite the fact that EA already has cheaper means of obtaining the same goal.

Feel free to share your thoughts.