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Konami on Fox Engine, preparing Pro Evolution Soccer for next-gen

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Kojima Productions developed the Fox Engine and is using it as the technology behind two next-generation Metal Gear Solid titles: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and its prequel, Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes. Yet the Fox Engine is making its debut in a game that has nothing to do with cybernetically enhanced super-soldiers, paramilitary corporations or the future of warfare.

Instead, the first game to feature the Fox Engine is a sports title: Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, which launches today on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. According to Konami, the Fox Engine contributes a great deal to this year's game, but it will be even more valuable going forward.

During an interview after a hands-on session with a near-final version of Pro Evolution Soccer 2014 earlier this month, Konami's Timothy Blair told Polygon that the Fox Engine is primarily responsible for significant upgrades in physics and artificial intelligence. Players' animations are more fluid; the interactions between players, and between them and the ball, are more lifelike; and the ball itself is now fully separated from players in 360 degrees of direction.

"The Fox Engine gives us a lot more power to put these varied collisions in the game," said Blair, senior brand manager for the Pro Evolution Soccer franchise. "It goes far beyond what we've called in the industry for the last couple of years 'collision detection' — it goes a lot farther than that."

It may seem strange that the Fox Engine isn't debuting in a Metal Gear Solid title, or even a game developed by Kojima Productions. But according to Blair, the decision to integrate the technology into the Pro Evolution Soccer series is logical in a couple of ways.

"For us, it makes sense as a business, as a company, to be using assets that we're producing in other franchises," said Blair. The engine had a learning curve for the developers, he added. But now that they have a year of experience with it, they're much better prepared to bring Konami's soccer franchise to next-generation consoles, presumably in 2014.

"It definitely puts us in a much better position for future versions of PES — not only on PS3, but even for PS4 and Xbox One," said Blair. "That's part of the reason why we're not — it sounds counterintuitive, but — we're not doing [next-gen] this year, because we [...] don't want to simply just port whatever game we have on the PS3 over to PS4."

"We want to make a splash when we actually come out on PS4 and Xbox One"

Blair noted that the previous generational switch hurt a lot of sports games because publishers did just that: They took a game's PlayStation 2/Xbox version and released a port of it on PS3 and Xbox 360 during the first year of each high-definition console's life. In particular, the PES franchise was the market leader in the PS2/Xbox days, but it was surpassed critically and commercially during the current console generation by its competition, Electronic Arts' FIFA series. Konami believes the upcoming next-gen changeover will give PES an opportunity to regain the top position.

"We figured, 'You know what? We want to make a splash when we actually come out on PS4 and Xbox One,' and the way to do that is to get it right," Blair explained. "And I don't think — with an annual release like this — it's that easy, because you're focusing on putting out your current-gen [version] at the same time as your next-gen [version]."

EA is launching FIFA 14 on both current-generation and next-generation consoles this fall. But FIFA is one of the most lucrative brands in EA's entire portfolio, and it stands to reason that as one of the world's top two third-party publishers, the company would be willing and able to put all the necessary resources behind FIFA to bring the series to next-gen consoles at launch. And of course, EA would tell you that its Ignite engine means the company's next-gen sports games are all completely new, and unique to the upcoming consoles.

While Blair didn't directly reference EA or FIFA, he told Polygon that he believes in Konami's plan because it will result in a better game for PES fans — one that's built from the ground up for next-generation consoles.

South America is "pumping out the world's best players right now"

Another part of Konami's strategy is to focus on South America, where PES still outperforms FIFA as the top soccer game. For Pro Evolution Soccer 2014, the company licensed the top leagues and clubs from Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and secured the exclusive license for the Copa Libertadores, the region's premier annual soccer tournament. In addition, Konami's game features local commentators in each of the three aforementioned countries. (EA also licensed the Argentinian, Brazilian and Chilean leagues for the first time this year in FIFA 14.)

Blair pointed out that it makes business sense for Konami to dedicate resources to South America because countries like Brazil and Argentina are "strategic markets of growth for the console business." But more importantly, those nations are "pumping out the world's best players right now" — consider FC Barcelona, which features Argentina's Leo Messi, Brazil's Neymar and Chile's Alexis Sanchez.

"We have a lot of fans there," said Blair, "but we just figured they're not served — like, we're the only company that's really been serving those communities.

"For the past 15 years, it's been all about European soccer," Blair continued. "And sure, they have worldwide brands, but people down [in South America] love their home teams. So we're actually trying to serve our customers, and be as loyal to them as they are to us."