As part of Develop’s look at London-based developers, we spoke to Miles Jacobson, the man behind the hugely successful Football Manager series, which has just received an MMO overhaul.
Develop: How has developing an MMO differed from working on a retail title? Does your history as a yearly-update studio help when planning for that sort of ongoing support model?
Miles Jacobson: From a support side of things it has helped. It differs massively, because when you’re making a boxed product you deliver a game, someone puts it into a box, it goes out to retail and it works. But with an MMO, you’re not just dealing with development; you’re dealing with server technology as well, and trying to keep various overheads down to save server space.
So it has been very different and we’ve been learning as we go along. We haven’t gone out and hired a bunch of experts. The original team on the game was two guys, we’re now up to five and we’re about to go up to six. So it is still a very small team, which is how we tend to do things at SI. But we’ve learnt as we’ve gone along, and it is how we’ve come up with this concept of ‘constant development’, where we’ll be adding new features to the game every 3-4 months. We’re not charging for expansion packs, as this will be a service to our customers.
Develop: Has developing the infrastructure been harder, or a bigger task, than you’d expected?
Jacobson: A lot of the infrastructure work was done at Sega. We’ve been involved but Sega have a dedicated team, and has released MMOs in the past, so Sega has been dealing with that side of things.
On the core dev side of things, we were using a platform from an early stage that one of the members of the team was used to because he wrote it, and we’ve licensed that technology from him. There have certainly been challenges, such as with the lag, and with the amount of people online at the same time before it falls over, but we’ve learnt a lot. We’ve learnt so much about MySQL as well, and we’ve had the ability to get in experts to help evaluate what we are doing.
It has been a lot more process driven over the last 18 months than we are on FM, and getting outsiders in to have a look at our work is something we’re usually against as a studio, but we’ve actually learnt from that.
Develop: Have you considered expanding the reach of Football Manager Live to iPhone/Android/other smart/normal phones? Or browsers so that people can sneakily play at work?
Jacobson: People can sneakily play at work anyway, because the client’s quite small. Right now we’re focusing on the PC and Mac versions of the game. However, we love new technology and we’d love to bring Football Manager Live out on as many platforms as possible.
Whether we would do a full client for the iPhone, or whether we have iPhone or Android use for certain areas such as transfers, maybe connectivity could work in that way instead of doing a full game. We’re pretty ambitious about what we want to with FM Live, but we also want to keep it under our hats in case we’re unable to do it.
Develop: How key is the Mac to Football Manager?
Jacobson: About half of our dev team works on Macs, which is why we do it on Mac as well. It is a dual-format release, so if you buy the game on PC the Mac version is there as well. And the reason we do that is because we know people play the game on multiple machines, and perhaps they have a Mac and a PC.
We are supportive of the Mac. It adds extra QA resource, and there’s a few differences on the graphics side of things. But the PC and Mac isn’t that different.
Develop: What did you choose to have a minimum three-month subscription?
Jacobson: The model on Football Manager Live will change throughout the lifecycle of the product. At the start we have a three month, or four month, or six month or twelve month subscription. But we will have different subscription models at different times, depending on what the consumer wants. So the three-month minimum is not fixed.
Develop: Did you consider a microtransaction model during development? Is there still scope for that, or other ancillary revenue generation methods such as advertising?
Jacobson: In game advertising is there already. Yes we did look at microtransaction, but we decided that the game should be subscription based. There is a possibility that in the long term, and I’m talking 10-15 years down the line, that the model could be wildly different than it is now. But as a developer we have been around a long time, and when we worked on the first Championship Manager we didn’t see games like FM Live as something that would be possible. So we see FM Live as a long-term product that will change over time depending on what the consumer wants to see. This includes the in-game features and the business model. And we’re incredibly flexible over this, as are Sega.
Develop: What do you feel is key to make a successful football title?
Jacobson: Having it made by football fans, listening to the people who play the games, getting the people who play the games to be a part of the development team, and keeping that team happy.
I don’t think it’s any different to making any other game. I imagine the Gran Turismo team is passionate about cars, and that FPS developers like to go around shooting people. I wish I knew what the secret was to our success, as we could probably make a lot more money from bottling that than we do from selling games. But we’re just a bunch of guys having fun making games that we love, and these games just so happen to entertain millions of people worldwide. Which is pretty damn cool.
Develop: What’s next for the Football Manager series?
Jacobson: We’re having our features meeting at the moment for Football Manager 2010. We’ve got two different databases we put these feature ideas onto, and the one I’ve been working on has something like 600 new ideas. Once we’ve worked out how we can make enough hours in the day to do everything we want to do, then we can talk about it.
There’s certain things we need to do with the game this year. Last year we had loads and loads of new features, and this year we might look at less features and more spit and polish. But I don’t make those decisions. These decisions are made by the entire team, and we’re sitting down next week to go through it. FM is very much a collaborative effort. We don’t have any designers at the studio at all, because we feel everyone should be involved in that part of the game. Myself, the producers, coders, even our office manager all get involved, and of course the guys on the forum. In fact, 400 features we’re looking at came from the forums. So we’re very lucky to have such an active community.
Develop: Do you see a time where you could introduce real-world bets in FM Live?
Jacobson: You can bet on matches now with the in-game money. But real bets? It’s an interesting one. We’d have to make the game 18 certificate though wouldn’t we? Maybe we could get away with 18-rated game worlds. Who knows what will happen in the future, but thanks for the idea. We’ll discuss it in our next feature meeting.