Sports Interactiveâ??s studio director talks console ports, tax breaks and the perfect FM game
[Go here for Part One]
Sports Interactive has, more or less, released a new football management game every year since 1992.
It seems strange, then, that the London-based studio is essentially sticking to the same rules it set out since the first Championship Manager; the main FM games come on disc, and are played on personal computers.
Sports Interactive has in recent times ventured beyond; releasing a couple of games on the Xbox 360, an online-based standalone game (FM Live), and versions of the game for PSP.
But questions remain on how the developer is adapting to the aggressively evolving game industry. Develop sits down with studio head Miles Jacobson to get some answers.
You spoke earlier of your ambition to make a ‘perfect’ Football Manager game, which FM game so far has felt like your biggest leap towards that ideal? - You’re not allowed to say FM10.
Honestly, I don’t think we’ve done it with the FM series as yet. There was one game, that, for the time, was the best thing we could have possibly done, and then there was some technology leaps that came very quickly after that. I don’t want to focus too much on our previous brand [Championship Manager], but that game was made back in the early part of the nineties.
You’ve said I’m not allowed to say this year’s game...
No. It’s against the rules.
Okay, but, FM10 is the closest we’ve got to a perfect football game. That’s what we strive for.
Tell us a bit more about your console strategy.
Well, at the moment it’s non-existent.
Well we released a couple of games on the 360, we weren’t happy with the control methodology, we weren’t happy with the way the game transitioned onto console.
It was, however, brilliant for us to create those games. To get everything working that well on disc meant we had to transform so many of our development practices. But if we were to do a console game properly we would need to do it the way Fireaxis did with Civilization Revolution; as in build a console game rather than adapting a PC game.
We haven’t worked out a way to do that with FM yet, and we haven’t spent much time thinking about it.
You mentioned one of the hurdles being the console controller layout, yet soon all three consoles will have mouse-like interfaces with their motion-control offerings. Could this bridge the gap for you?
Well, it wouldn’t work on the Wii, for various reasons. With the 360 and PS3, if we were going to release the game through the motion controllers, Natal and Sony’s thing would need to see a very high penetration rate of those peripherals.
But also, we have to make the game for standard definition TVs where the text suddenly has to be big, so essentially we’d have to redesign the game if we wanted to do it properly.
Let’s wait to see how those things go. Let’s wait to see how high the penetration rate is for HDTVs and motion controllers.
The thing is, FM games tend not to be the type of game people want to completely concentrate on all the time. People usually play it while watching a film or listening to music or whatever. The console is a different experience; it takes over the living room.
For the first time last year, Football Manager was released on Valve’s Steam platform. What difference has it made?
Well I’d never even thought about putting the game up on Steam, to be honest with you, but the Valve guys came over to show us more about the platform and it’s amazing to be honest with you. We get fantastic feedback from Steam users and can implement patches seamlessly.
This year, the Steam edition of the game is going to come with an exclusive download bonus [a free Outrun bundle].
That bonus can be sought either through downloading the game from Steam, or buying a disc at retail – which comes with a Steam installation option.
But this isn’t about digital distribution versus retail. It’s just that Steam gives us free bandwidth to use, and these types of partnerships allows many great opportunities for developers.
We’re using that bandwidth to give a bonus gift, but there’s a different gift for people if they pre-order a physical copy from certain retailers.
I’m not looking to drive people away from standard retail, because I’d be mad to do so. Steam is a retailer, much like Play.com and HMV and GAME and the rest.
We’re also going to add something to the Steam version that non-Steam games can't have. I can’t talk about that right now.
Where do you stand on the state of the UK in regards to its subsidy policies?
Achieving that milestone is massively important. If we had tax breaks, we would utilize that spare revenue to try and get back some of those hugely talented people who’ve moved out of the UK to work on Football games in Canada.
Professionally, my interests are focused on sports games, and the talent that we’ve lost from the UK in that field has been huge. Utterly huge. We’re very specialist in what we do, and a lot of specialist football game designers have moved to EA Canada.
That’s understandable, isn’t it?
Yeah. Christ, FIFA’s a big deal, and EA want UK staff, but the UK’s not attractive enough a place to set up a studio in.
Do you think tax breaks will come for the UK industry?
[long pause] At some point, yes.
Regardless of what’s going on right now, I think that within the next two decades the games industry will actually be recognized in a culturally similar way as film and music.
What I hope will happen in that time is that the games industry will learn how to PR itself better than they are right now, where the industry can be treated respectfully on a mass-market scale.
The film industry is treated in different ways and it’s purely from a PR perspective. If we want to be taken seriously, we’ve got to start PR-ing ourselves properly.
It frustrates me that game companies are excluded from the mainstream press, even though gaming is remarkably popular. Could the Houser brothers get onto Friday Night with Jonathan Ross? No, probably not.
Would you agree that tax subsidies are more important than ever right now? I know the market’s had a good few years of growth but, -
Well historically you have blockbuster AAA titles, budget-priced single A titles, and somewhere in the middle AA titles. I’d say that it’s the AA titles that are really suffering right now. If the latest Batman title – which is getting universal acclaim and is selling well – was as poor as some of the older Batman games, it would have completely bombed.
Nevertheless, the market is still collectively holding firm, but development costs are rising at an alarmingly faster rate.
Yeah they are, completely. Our sales rise steadily each year, but our staff has grown quicker than that every year, though we are slowing down our staff growth.
Dev costs rising faster than the market – where is this heading?
At the moment I don’t think the Xbox 360 or PS3 are completely mass-market devices. The Xbox platform has sold better than before, but the PS3 has not at all reached the levels that the PS2 did.
The Wii has obviously done phenomenally well, but publishers outside of Nintendo are having a hard time working with its user-base. Unless we can reach a saturation point of this-gen consoles that’s higher than last gen consoles, the result of this will be clear.