EA Sports' FIFA is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, and much of its success is well-deserved: nothing else quite captures the finesse and exuberance of the world's most popular sport. But the game has consistently adopted some dark patterns in its online competitive component that make my relationship with it love-hate. These patterns act as a case study in how picking the wrong target to optimize for can ruin the experience for your users.
Dynamic Difficulty, the Skinner's Box of FIFA
EA has vehemently denied the presence of a "script" to maximize for engagement in FIFA Ultimate Team or Seasons. Yet their developers have published a paper on just that subject, techniques to maximize in-game engagement. Specific techniques mentioned are modifying in-game attributes such as player speed, accuracy, etc, essentially forming an algorithmically determined concept of game momentum. EA has a huge desire to keep you playing: in-game purchases from Ultimate Team made up 28% of their entire revenue last year, so for them the time you're syncing into the game really is money.
BF Skinner's experiments on conditioning in the 60's determined that being unpredictably rewarded results in the highest level of behavior for the conditioned response. So EA's goal here is to unpredictably reward wins to maximize the desired outcome of gamers continuing to play and therefore continuing to spend. Many FIFA players will attest to the idea of "momentum" where your wins are chunked together followed by a series of losses. Of course player skill has a large impact on outcome, but to some extent there is a feeling that certain players simply move faster or are more accurate during these winning streaks. With the sheer number of variables that can be pulled or slightly manipulated during a game, the games' manipulation would be very subtle.
Lagging rewards the lagger
Most online matches in FIFA are one-on-one. Instead of a server determining game speed as in FPS and most other competitive online games, EA FIFA will slow down the game speed to the level of the player with the slowest Internet speed. In an online game like FPS, lag is a severe handicap: from the perspective of the lagger, you won't even see the player that kills you until you're already respawning. But in FIFA, the game speed itself will slow down or speed up based on the least reliable connection. As a result, the experience even for a player with fast connection is a slow-motion game, at times randomly speeding up or having input lag due to the slower connection.
Which player does this benefit? The one with the most experience playing games at that speed! If you're used to playing the game at full speed you will be thrown off by extremely varying spikes of slow and fast gameplay. If you have gotten used to this kind of play due to a poor connection, you've trained in a completely different game essentially, one that you force onto the other player with less experience in it.
There's a more insidious side to this: there have been whispers in the FIFA community of gamers who specifically throttle their FIFA connections to play this way and gain an advantage. I haven't found proof of this, but from my experience this would be an effective way to gain a slight upper hand in every online match.
Pacing rewards annoying opponents
This is more frequent at lower levels of play, but you'll see a specific type of player in FIFA pretty often: the kind who abuses pace and simply runs down the side with their fastest player on every possession. There are pretty effective ways to shut this kind of player down but it results in repetitive defense that is simply boring. The worst part is when you miss a tackle and Messi or Salah gets through after the twelth attempt by your opponent to pace through your defense. After a defeat like this you get the feeling that the game is much less about actual player skill than it should be.
I love the feeling of getting a difficult win in FIFA online, and I've sunk more hours into the game than I care to admit here. But there are certainly frustrating issues with the game, some of which I've outlined here and some that are more generic to the big AAA online games like loot boxes. I like FIFA, but some of these issues are ones that have a clear motive by EA to optimize for things which are great for their bottom line but terrible for the average user.