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Football Manager 2009

One hour of Football Manager

Last fall I sat down for an hour with Miles Jacobson, studio manager at Sports Interactive. To talk about Football Manager 2009, the industry and much more. The result was one of my longest articles ever, originally published in our e-mag last fall, and now you can read it here on the site.

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On September 3rd 2008 Sports Interactive announced the first details and new features in Football Manager 2009. A teaser with Ché Guevara posing as a manager went online a week prior to build anticipation for the unvieling of a video on youtube simultaneously with a press conference in London. What was the revolution all about, and what level of attention from gamers would an announcement of features from the "yearly updated spreadsheets game" get? That answer to that question was a massive amount of attention. After two weeks almost 400,000 viewers had seen the second part of the video on Youtube that focused on the new features. Pretty good for a game that many falsely presume remains the same with every iteration. We had an hour long sitdown with Sport Interactive's studio manager Miles Jacobson a couple of weeks after the announcement.

- What surprised me is the number of people who have watched it. I thought if we hit 100,000 I was going to be happy.

The original reactions when the video went live on Youtube were far from positive. The feature video had been divided in two parts, and the first part really didn't say anything about the new features as it was more of a piece on Football Manager in general, its history and the impact it has had over the years. People who had been waiting to hear news on Football Manager 2009 let their frustration be known in the comments on Youtube. About 10-15 minutes later the second part, with Miles Jacobson going over some of the improvements went online.

- The initial plan was for both parts of the video to come up at exactly the same time, and for both parts to go live at 6.15 which was when we were going to start the press conference in London. However, at 5.30 the video still wasn't finished. The first time I saw the video was at the press conference at 6.20. That was the first time I saw the final cut. It was at about 6.10 the videos got to the office, and we uploaded them and encoded them as quickly as possible to get them live.

Football Manager 2009
Paul Collyer (Everton fan) and Miles Jacobson (Watford) celebrate the fact that Everton use their socuting network to find new talent these days.

The video was edited by an external production company, and they filmed Miles going on about the new features for 3-4 hours before cutting it down to something a bit more suitable for the intended audience. It was a bold move by Sports Interactive to reveal Football Manager 2009 in this way, and they have gone a fair distance since their humble beginnings.

The story of Sports Interactive is that of two brothers, Paul and Oliver Collyer, who simply wanted to make a better football management game than what was available at the time for themselves (1991). They created the original Championship Manager, found a publisher, and a few years later they started Sports Interactive. The two man operation was no longer enough. The business grew, and the game became a monster hit in Great Britain, a huge community grew around it, and the Internet became a source for data updates, editors, incredibly detailed tactical walkthroughs. Today Sports Interactive has grown much bigger, and several of the best known contributors in the early days of the CM community work at the studio these days. Current studio manager Miles Jacobson, avid Watford fan left a mark on the community with a fan site and soon got involved in a bit of testing on the side. His professional career in the 90's was in the music industry, and he was a music consultant on the first three Gran Turismo games in Europe. In 2001 he became the managing director of Sports Interactive, making another one of his hobbies into a career, and since Sega purchased the studio his title is that of studio manager.

Football Manager 2009 will be the first game from Sports Interactive to feature a match engine in full 3D. But don't worry it's still the same match engine, evolved but still extremely accurate even more so than before thanks to tons of testing in the Football Manager Live beta. The difference now is that you can watch the games in full 3D on top of the 2D view and the text commentaries, but its the same match engine controlling everything. But for those of us who still haven't adapted to using the 2D match engine to view the games and rely on the text commentary there are other new features that will have much more impact. One such thing is that the match evaluation each player gets now includes a decimal, it may seem trivial but will have tremendous impact on most of the decision you make as a manager.

- Something like that I can't talk about to the mainstream press. They would look at me as though I'm mad. For me that is one of the most significant changes. And it took about five minutes to code.

What the decimals means is that you will now be able to se the difference between a player who gets 6.5 and one who scores 7.4, before they would both be rewarded with the same seven. But this isn't something that has always been there hidden in the background.

- It was first tried out in Football Manager Live. It came out in one of the feature meetings in FM Live. I can't even remember whose idea it was, I think it might have been mine. But I'm not really sure, because when we have these feature meeting it tends to be a massive splurge of people throwing things into a pot, and then a load of things come out. Can we just try this out for the next build and see what it's like. And someone went in and coded it, and we tried it out, and everyone was "oh, that's cool". And then I turned around to Kev one day and said "we've been experimenting with this in FML - can we put it in FM and see what the testers think. The testers were like "that's really cool!" I'm sitting there now playing multiple season games, and it makes an absolutely massive difference to the player's average ratings, and a huge to things like the best eleven.

Football Manager 2009Football Manager 2009Football Manager 2009Football Manager 2009

In Football Manager 2009 it will be much easier to know who is really pulling their weight when things are going well and you are winning. When typically most players were getting sevens before, and you would be none the wiser about who was performing best out of maybe 7 or 8 players with a seven.

- Another way of knowing who is pulling their weight is by having the distance the players run during the match.

Miles drops the bomb casually. Am I hearing that right. Will the distance players run be in the game?

- We haven't announced that one yet, but I'm going to have to pretty damn soon. We saw it on TV and said that should be in the game, and now it is.

Other new features or old features that have been expanded for Football Manager 2009 are the media relations, board confidence, and assistant manager feedback. There will now be press conferences before and after games, and as a manager you will build a relationship with journalists who will remember what you've said and it may come back to haunt you. The board confidence was an area that got quite a lot of criticism in FM 2008, and it has been reworked and expanded. The assistant manager will now be able to give you feedback during matches on things like team blend, tactical changes related to how the opposition is playing as well as individual player motivation.

The first time I met Miles Jacobson was in London at the announcement of the first Football Manager game Sports Interactive were making with Sega. Since then we have regularly bumped into each at Football Manager specific events as well as places such as X05, Games Convention and E3. But Miles Jacobson has stayed away from the most recent Games Conventions and the last two E3's as have Sports Interactive and Football Manager.

- It is very simple. We don't have the license in Germany (for the Bundesliga), EA does, and E3 has become a more US focused event and we don't really do that well over there, Jacobson concludes.

If those two territories are problematic for Sports Interactive, Scandinavia sure isn't. Apart from their home turf, Great Britain, the Nordic countries is the second best-selling region for Football Manager. But perhaps it's not a bad idea for Sports Interactive to stay away from the bigger games events, as their product is often brushed aside by most gaming journalists, and rarely given the attention a million seller deserves. While Football Manager has sold a million of its last two iterations, the ratio of pirated copies to legal ones is about 5:1 (Miles' estimation), and perhaps that is one of the reasons why Sports Interactive want to reach a more mainstream audience with their marketing this year.

- We want to be able to entertain more people. And I'm not going to apologise for that fact, and that we are looking to do things in a more mainstream way. The game itself is Football Manager as you know and love it, the game won't change, but the marketing is going to be more mainstream this year and the way we're going to do PR is more mainstream.

Football Manager 2009Football Manager 2009

Sports Interactive have made attempts to broaden their portfolio of games. They picked up the freeware title Eastside Hockey Manager along with its creator Risto Remes from Finland, and tried to make a full on version, somewhat akin to earlier versions of Championship Manager, into a commercial success. Sports Interactive released three versions of NHL Eastside Hockey Manager (July 2004), NHL Eastside Hockey Manager 2005 (May 2005), and finally NHL Eastside Hockey Manager 2007 (September 2006) released as a digital download. Miles Jacobson later revealed that the sales were slow, and that the massive amount of illegal downloads meant that he saw no future for the series. I ask Miles how he feels about it and if they might bring it back now that digital downloads has grown to something much bigger than when they tried it with Eastside Hockey Manager.

- This is just like the press conferences in the game, because you're remembering things I've said earlier. But yeah, maybe we did, we try out a lot of things a little too early. There are some very good online distribution tools now.

Would you consider bringing Eastside Hockey Manager back?

- Not at the moment. Partly because Riz (Risto Remes, the creator of Eastside Hockey Manager) is now an absolutely vital part of the Football Manager team. And partly because our sales in North America and Canada on our other titles are still nowhere near strong enough. I'm not saying never on Eastside, but the licensing costs on Eastside were larger than the game development budget. So there is a hell of a lot of risk going back from a purely business perspective.

Miles pauses for a moment, hesitating whether to go on...

- I probably shouldn't say this as I'll get into trouble again. I don't understand why people thought it was right on the last game to download it and not pay for it.

A problem many developers on the PC platform face.

- On a small title like that it can kill the title, and that's exactly what happened. And people don't acknowledge that. People go around and say the game had not been cracked yet. Yes, it had, just cause you hadn't found it doesn't mean tens of thousands of people had not. It was very frustrating.

But Football Manager is of course also affected in some way by piracy.

- If it happens on a bigger title (Football Manager) it doesn't kill it. It's still wrong o whatever title it happens on. The more sales we are able to get on Football Manager, the more we are able to put into the game, and the cheaper it will end up being. But I'm also not stupid enough to think we're going to get people to stop pirating games overnight. Because some short ass from Watford says please don't pirate our games. Some people out there think it's their divine right to do it - I disagree with them. It's a moral issue for me, if I like something I buy it. Then some would argue that I earn a decent amount of money therefore I can afford to. But when I didn't earn a lot of money, if I wanted something I bought even if that meant I had to save up for it and if I wasn't able to afford I had to go without.

Sports Interactive also tried to break into baseball management, but Out of the Park never took off under their leadership and the developer is once again independent. And in some ways it would seem that Sports Interactive are focusing on what they have always been best at - football management games.

With that said another way that Sports Interactive have branched out in, is on consoles and handhelds. Football Manager Handheld 2009 is set to launch this fall, and for the first it will include the 2D match engine, as well as the option to play three leagues in parallel. However, Sports Interactive are taking a break from the console side of things and there will be no Football Manager 2009 on Xbox 360 or on Playstation 3 for that matter. Personally I enjoyed Football Manager 2008 on Xbox 360 much more than previous versions, but Miles Jacobson clearly was not happy with it.

- The online stuff on the 360 is brilliant. Which couldn't be done without something as easy to use as Xbox Live. But for playing a long term game we haven't nailed the control system. You've got games like Civ Revolution that have really nailed being able to move to consoles. I have huge amounts of respect for those guys.

Firaxis took a different approach with Civilization Revolution, than what Sports Interactive have done with Football Manager on consoles where they PC game game has basically been ported on to the console and the controls have been an afterthought. Civ Rev was designed from the ground up as a console experience, and the controls were specifically designed with that in mind.

- And maybe that is what we need to do. To be brutally frank on this it's a conversation that me and Sega have a lot, it's a conversation we have a lot internally. This year we have decided to concentrate on PC and Mac and we're leaving the consoles alone. Once this game is out there will be a few of the guys in the office who are really interested in doing console versions, including me, who will sit down and have a brain storming session. And we'll see whether we think we can do it justice, and we'll see how long we think it's going to take. We might not see FM 2010 on consoles, we might not see FM 2011 on consoles. Who knows? What we do know is that we were not happy with the results, and we worked our asses off. We did the best that we could do and it wasn't enough for our own high standards.

But how would you go about doing a "Football Manager Revolution", sort of how Firaxis remade Civilization. When I first talked to Sports Interactive about consoles, they were dismissive, and said that the Championship Manager (yes, this was way back) experience couldn't be compromised it was all or nothing basically, but with products such as Football Manager Handheld clearly that is not the case anymore. Miles has a few ideas...

- I can't tell you what the decision is going to be on the console side of things, because we haven't sat down and worked it out. But you are right, that is one of the options - to go in a completely different direction with the console game. One would be to try and nail the control system and get it out. One would be to just strip out some options. And one would be to not do it at all. One might be to look at Football Manager Live on consoles instead of Football Manager. One might be to look at Football Manager Handheld for Live Arcade and PSN. The possibilities are there. There are so many things I've plucked out of the air here and now - Imagine what it will be like in the brain storming session.

Trying to do my part of the process I suggest something a bit like Football Manager Handheld on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN focusing on the multiplayer aspect.

- Mhhmm, that would be cool. Thanks, I might nick that.

Miles makes a note of my suggestion. Perhaps it will be another community contribution to help Sports Interactive improve their games - there has been many of those over the years. We will have to wait and see if they can find a formula for Football Manager on consoles they believe in. Sports Interactive have also been investing a lot of time and effort into Football Manager Live. An massively multiplayer and fantasy football take on their hugely popular franchise that is set to launch in October. And with the main series being so successful Sports Interactive can afford to try new ideas out, though it would seem football is what they are focusing on.

- This is our fifth Football Manager now. Football Manager 2005, that was our first release under this new name, and it could have been a disaster. For years in, we are pretty confident that we are number one in the market now, because the sales show us that and the reaction shows us that. And the fact that people are more critical, they're saying the game is better than last year's, but... and then we get a lower review score from some of the specialist mags. While some of the other games get improved scores... well, they're still not very good, but at least they're trying. What we want to do this year is to make sure that our scores are going back up, and people are saying it's a better game, and it's a bigger leap.

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