All eyes are on Sports Interactive as the competition heats up
And so it begins again. The Sports Interactive team arrive at their desks, like they have done every morning for the last year, with the same project staring back at them. It’s hard not to think of that as some form of punishment but, as I'm told, only nine people have left the studio in seventeen years.
The studio’s labour reminds me, in fact, of what Football Manager fans do with their spare time. During evenings, weekends and arranged sick-days, hundreds of thousands of people slump at their desks, stare at the same screen, and subject themselves to the infuriating, maddening bliss of managing a football team.
We all know of the many studios around the world that strive for realism, but just try to find a single outfit that understands the rules of the real world better than Sports Interactive.
Utterly true to life, in Football Manager nothing will go exactly how you planned. True to life, FM can be a stressful grind punctuated by unforgettable high points that make it all seem worth it.
True to life, Football Manager is something you don’t want to let go of. The average play time for the 2009 addition is 240 hours, per player. That’s the kind of dedication that will test relationships, relax hygiene standards and even cost people their jobs.
And it occurred to me, as I walked through Sports Interactive’s London studio surrounded by people who visibly love the sport, that I was situated in the only place in the world where FM addiction is not a hindrance, but a necessity.
“There are some people who talk on our forums and say we’ve become complacent, because we haven’t had a challenger in the genre for a long time,” says Miles [Jacobson, long-time studio director].
“The complete opposite is true,” he says, leaning forwards in his office chair, as if he’s about to get something off his chest.
“Actually, we haven’t been completely happy with any of our games.”
Considering the situation, it’s an understandable frame of mind for Miles to put himself in. The Sports Interactive team is, like always, at war with franchise stagnation.
A new football management game has been released virtually every year since September 1992. As the game industry, at every corner, continues that shamefully lucrative practice of stomping a brilliant concept beyond recognition, Miles’ team must deliver a game that justifies existing just twelve months after its predecessor. If they fail, like Championship Manager had, they’ll lose their fans.
Which is why every morning the Sports Interactive team arrive at their desks, stare at their screens, and try to make something special.
THE BEAUTIFUL GAME
“Our ultimate goal, and I’m serious about this,” says Miles, “is to make a game that can’t be any better. To make a template for the game that is so good, so flawless, that all we’d have to do is update player stats and people would still love it every year.”
Miles admits that, considering the progressive nature of game design, perfection is likely unattainable for anyone striving for it, even for the likes of Pajitnov, Miyamoto and the Housers.
And although SI's ultimate ambition seems unfeasible, in light of FM’s subject matter, it couldn’t be more appropriate. The foundations of modern football date back to 1863 when the FA established the key principles of how the beautiful game is played and won. A century and a half later, and that template still remains intact, still visible behind the colossal business that football has become.
Like SI's utopian vision for FM, all the modern game needs today is its annual updates. Player transfers, new away strips, two additional referees, but nothing that will change the face of the game.
I ask Miles if he’s ever contemplated doing something completely innovative that would change the entire concept of Football Manager.
“I think, if you have a look at the genre as a whole, and look at the features we’ve added through the years, I think we have made big innovative moves. What we don’t want to do is implement things that take things away from the football aspect of the game.
“There are certainly things that EA have done with FIFA Manager that have taken them down a different route than us, but are they in essence innovative? I’m going to sound like an arrogant prick, but we have made many, many innovations to this genre.”
Miles and myself have a different opinion of what innovation is. My idea was of something disruptive, something that doesn’t have to be universally acclaimed, something looked back on as a major turning point. I was thinking of MP3 players (which, combined with the internet, still threatens the music business) and Nintendo’s Wii (which, many of us were saying five years ago, could have killed Nintendo’s hardware business).
Miles, being the game designer, defined innovative as something which is both original and appreciated. Under this meaning, Football Manager 10 clearly has its fair share of innovations.
Booting up FM10, Miles talks through the game’s wholly revised interface. In most games this is hardly something to raise your eyebrows at, yet with a series that’s played on nothing but a list of menus, it’s a massive step for the SI team.
“The reason why we’ve done this is so nothing’s hidden anymore,” says Miles, who likens the old interface to an Excel document, and the new one to Facebook; clearly one of the most recognisable interfaces on the web.
“The fact that really useful things were hidden away in the older games became more obvious to us when we put the new build through beta tests. A lot of the feedback we got was people saying ‘oh my god you can do this now, that’s great!’, and quite often our response was ‘no, that’s not a new feature, we first put that in FM07.’”
FM09 added so many new features that Miles needed to make a whole YouTube video that explained each one. This year, it’s hoped that the game will be able to do the talking for itself.
A single-row calendar rolls above the game’s clear and sharp menu screen; each date dotted with the likes of match-day reminders, transfer deadlines, and news items. “Pretty much everything will go up there,” says Miles, “and you can also click on them and arrange friendlies, or choose to go on holiday.”
Meanwhile, the game’s homepage is reminiscent of another internet giant; the BBC. The homepage will show numerous feeds that can be customized and placed around the home space.
During a transfer season, the bottom three panels can be customized to bombard players with transfer news, wages and budgets, income, outgoings, and scout reports. During the thick of the season, they can focus on training, fitness, squad and schedules.
“Our aim is to keep everybody happy,” says Miles. “When you’ve got a game with the kind of depth as Football Manager, with so many different types of player playing it, we’ve got to give the user a lot of choice.”
Following on from my previous question, Miles explains that this is where the SI team is truly innovating.
“People haven’t been expecting the new interface we’ve done,” he says, “or the new league editor which is a big deal for us, or the new backroom advice feature, or the tactics creator, or the fact that everything – teams, players, everything – is now a subscribable RSS feed.
“When it comes to the really crazy, disruptive things that you’re talking about, of course we have our ideas. We did once consider that, about twenty seasons in, aliens would land on the earth.
"Managers would be jumping on each other to sign up these aliens, because they could run faster than everyone and they could smash balls in with ease.
“Now that’s clearly the type of thing no-one would ever expect, it’s clearly disruptive, but would it ever work? No.”
When it comes to divisive features, Miles doesn’t quite have to turn to a list of ideas that never made it in the series.
Football Manager 2009 had for the first time, and after years of expectation, implemented a 3D match engine. Yet when finally released, it was the subject of much criticism for its clunky animations, visual bugs and bleak portrayal of the beautiful game.
“Our animation team has grown since then,” says Miles, “and they’ve been hard at work making drastic improvements.”
Moments into observing a new 3D match on FM10, SI’s hard work is made abundantly clear. The engine has undergone a complete overhaul, with updated textures, significantly improved collision detection, and a host of small additions that collectively push the standard.
Miles’ team free the camera and zoom in on the action, confident in what it will display: the game’s characters have a broader range of animations, to the point that a handball offense can be spotted without the need for commentary.
What’s crucial here is how the SI team are beginning to visually capture the spirit of football. Drama unfolds on the screen as rain tumbles onto the pitch, the crowd animated in the background as a player sprints forward to latch on to a thirty-yard killer-ball.
Meanwhile, stadium attendance rates are now represented visually. All under-pressure managers will know their days are numbered when the home crowd begins to avoid going to matches, confident that you’d only let them down anyway. In FM10, this now becomes a painful visual cue as empty seats scatter across your stadium. It’s the FM equivalent to a flashing red energy bar.
And yet, one can’t help but think that this significant advance in match presentation is a double-edged sword for Sports Interactive.
Much of the beauty in Champ Man and FM was the way it tapped into the players’ imaginations. The early editions were built on commentary text and crowd noises, and the more FM moves away from player imagination – the more it tries to visualize – the more it is unflattered by the real thing. FM is, essentially, moving towards the uncanny valley of a 110x70 yard football pitch.
“We are very much aware of this,” says Miles. “We see that there’s a massive challenge in being compared by what you see on live TV, but we see it as a great challenge.
“At this stage, we actually want to make sure we are still leaving things to the player’s imagination, because that is one of the things that has made our games popular. People play our games and still think of the Premier League, or La Liga, and not our game engine. That’s important right now.
“You’re not going to see the faces of players, you’re not going to see the kind of boots they’re wearing. Those details you’re not going to see, but the effect rain or snow has on a pitch, however, is very important. For us, we’ve approached this very carefully.”
Earlier on Miles spoke of criticisms of complacency, due to not having a key challenger in the genre for a long time. Surely that’s changed, with Beautiful Game Studios' two-years-in-the-making and agressively-marketed release, Championship Manager 10?
“Firstly, I don’t think this is a closed genre, much in the same way I don’t think Civilization IV is in a closed genre. It’s just… we’ve been doing this for sixteen years now. And the team at EA have been working on FIFA Manager for about a decade. So it would be difficult for other studios to enter the race at the same standard, because we’ve been building upon it for such a long time.
“The genre is more open than it’s thought to be. We do, from time to time, help each other out, and there isn’t that much competition between the different companies making the different games. There are bits of each of the football management games that are pretty good.
“Of course, it’s quite difficult for us when one of the competition [Championship Manager] is using a brand that we helped become successful.
“I’ve not actually played [Championship Manager 2010], so maybe they’ve done something decent, but to tell the truth I haven’t really liked [Beautiful Game Studios’] previous games.
“Without wanting to sound like an arrogant wanker, I think we’ve got the best team in the business for making football management games. We probably couldn’t make an FPS because we’re quite specialized in what we do. But for someone to take us on they would have to get a team together that’s as good as the one we have here, and that to me sounds like a pretty tall order.”
So is there a bitter rivalry between the teams behind Football Manager and Championship Manager?
“...Not really, no. There was when we had a football match against each other. But not when it comes to games. A lot of people working on Champ Man are people I used to work with myself.”
There’s an air of excitement in the office as Autumn draws near. The 60-man team of FM fanatics have painstakingly pieced together a game that is clearly SI’s most important project to date. It’s tantalisingly close to being finished.
When the team’s work is done, there must surely be a moment for Miles to catch his breath and take a moment to reflect on the studio’s direction. There must be, for him, that window of choice before the team begins to work on next year’s game, FM11.
As I get ready to leave the studio I ask him about this moment of reflection, wondering if, just maybe, he ever thinks about designing games outside the football management genre. He smiles at the question, as if he’s been asked it many times before.
“If you were to go and ask [Stereophonics front man] Kelly Jones to make a techno record, he’s going to say to you ‘well, sorry, no, that’s not what I do.’
“And a lot of people from the dev community come up to me and ask, y’know, ‘aren’t you guys bored of always making football management games?’.
“And I always reply no, not at all. It’s what we do.”