Having notched another million plus season with Football Manager 2018 (with an average play time on Steam at 285 hours and with 46% of players still playing the game as late as last month, 11 months after release), it's time to prepare for Football Manager 2019. Sports Interactive has been around in some form for more than a quarter century (the first Championship Manager came out in 1992), and in fact, by now they've spent a majority of their history working on Football Manager (the first game since the split with Eidos and CM came out in 2004). Much is different, but some things are the same, player attributes are measured on a scale from 1 to 20 and we tend to favour a direct approach. Football as a whole is more bonkers than usual, transfer fees going through the roof, refs being replaced by technology, Usain Bolt, The Chinese League, Ronaldo heading to Juventus, Neymar wanting to go back to Barcelona, Germany losing to South Korea in the World Cup... We caught up with Sports Interactive's Director of Football Manager, Miles Jacobson, to learn more about how this year's product is shaping up.
New Features and Importance of Work Permits
As is expected from each iteration of Football Manager, Sports Interactive has looked at every facet of the game, tweaking some parts, replacing others altogether, adding in new ones. We made the mistake of asking Miles what new features he was most excited about in Football Manager 2019.
"We wouldn't put a feature in the game if it didn't excite us. I get asked this a lot: what's your favourite feature? And my normal question back is, how many brothers and sisters have you got, Sir?"
"There's so many new features in the game both big and small to the point where we've had to work out different ways to announce things this year. So some of the features that we've announced through GIFs and videos. Some of them we've announced through tweets. But there aren't many areas of the game that are untouched. The new training and tactics modules are the big headline things and those are the things that everyone is going to see along with the new look to the game. The new purple look, which is a very big thing for some people and not a big thing for others."
"But that's the thing with FM, because it's such a massive game - and I don't mean massive game in terms of 'woah, we sell lots!' - I mean a massive game as in it's just this huge organic universe that people play in their own way. There are so many different ways to play that we try and make sure there's something there for everyone each year. Even though there are some headline, massive things that everyone will use, the attention to details stuff is just as important to me."
"From a usability perspective, I absolutely love the new work permit stuff which I tweeted about. It wasn't mainstream enough for the FM account to tweet about it, so I tweeted about that stuff. But getting work permits is something that's incredibly complicated depending on which league you're playing and the fact that this can help you with that. That you can have conversations with players about work permits so they don't just get upset if you sign them and they don't have one, they know what's going to happen with their career, because you've said 'I'm gonna loan you out until you get one'."
"It's little things like that that I think makes a huge difference to the game, because they are adding more believability into the world. And the suspension of disbelief is so important in Football Manager for you to be able to escape and for us to be able to get the play times we get from people each year. It's so important for everything to be believable, so when you've got a moment that's a bit of a 'what the hell'-moment, that takes you out of that world, I'm pretty damned determined to get rid of all of those moments from the game."
With Brexit becoming a reality soon enough, work permits are something that's going to be a major part of the game for any aspiring Premier League managers.
"It's pretty easy for countries in the EU to have players moving around because of freedom of movement, but thanks to some people in the UK who decided they didn't want to be in the EU anymore, we're going to start seeing those problems in the UK from next summer as well. There won't be freedom of movement for footballers anymore. So the work permit rules will change and we've simulated that in-game once again with hundreds of different scenarios including the one that we think is the best for the British game, that's in there, but we don't know whether that will be adopted.
"But it is different in every country and you can learn a lot about it inside the game as well and learn how complicated it is. But to have a deal falling apart because of it can be incredibly frustrating, particularly if it's a player for the future. It just shows the level of detail we go into when I'm sitting there geeking out about the fact that that stuff is really cool."
Was it a goal? Offside? Penalty? In VAR we trust.
Something new that's become a fixture in football over the last couple of years, particularly with the World Cup this summer is VAR and goal-line technology. It's a new feature in Football Manager 2019 and something that's sure to spark some controversy, right?
"We've got some great t-shirts coming out that say 'VAR - what is it good for?' just like that 'War what is it good for?' song a few years ago. Although I actually think it's good for some things when used properly. It was good in the World Cup, it's actually used really well in the Bundesliga as well. But it's a quite interesting one for people to get their heads around because some people didn't realise that the referees in Football Manager make mistakes. And they make mistakes in similar proportions to the way they do in real-life. So people are going 'why are you adding VAR - the game is VAR - everything happens perfectly', and it's like 'no, it doesn't, we simulate referees being a bit rubbish and human as well'. And VAR doesn't get it right 100% of the time."
"The reason we added it is we've got the Bundesliga license now and we want to represent the Bundesliga as accurately as possible. So when we first sat down and did it, it was kind of thought of a little bit jokingly inside the studio. And then we looked into it more and decided to do it properly, like really take it seriously. And my first experience of it in a game was actually quite nailbiting because it was 88 minutes into the match and is it or is it not a penalty. And it ended up being a penalty and I won 1-0 and I was punching the air. I don't know how many other game developers actually punch the air when things go well for them in the game that they spent all their life making.
"Maybe when Mark Rein plays Fortnite with one of his kids and he kills one of his kids and makes them cry maybe he also jumps for joy at that point."
We'll have to ask him about that...
"Please do. I might actually send him a DM later and ask him the same thing. But I do still get that excited when I'm playing the game. It's always quite difficult for my girlfriend on a Sunday when I'm sitting and she will be watching TV or playing games on her phone when I'm sitting there. Cause Sunday is my day of really concentrating on FM and just playing it all day. She always knows that things are going well when I'm punching the air. Cause if I'm getting excited by the game, that means everyone else is going to get excited by the game too."
Are you punching the desk when things go badly?
"Well, I'm actually sitting here with an icepack on my ankle. Genuinely sitting here with an icepack on my ankle because I kicked a chair in my office last night because I found an issue that held up the beta release. Literally, was about to say 'yes, let's go with the beta' and then an issue happened that I'd seen before and we hadn't been able to recreate and thankfully one of the coders could work out what it was from me showing it to him, but I was very angry, came into my room, kicked the chair and I'm not sure whether I've broken my foot or I've done my ankle ligaments in. But I'm in excruciating agony and I do not have time to go to the hospital at the moment."
Where's the company physio when you need him?
"We don't have one here. If I was at Watford's training ground at the moment then they'd be looking at it for me. If I haven't made it to the hospital by Saturday I will go and see Watford's physio on Saturday at the Wolves away game and he can have a look at it then, but yeah, it hurts... a lot."
Football is Bonkers - From Virtus Entella to Usain Bolt
"I'm more than aware of it", says Miles when we ask him how familiar he is with the weird limbo that Italian minnows Virtus Entella find themselves in at the moment. At the end of last season they were relegated from Serie B to Serie C, but as is unfortunately the case in Italy in recent years, the final standings are not final until various point deductions or forced relegations based on unsound financials are taken care of. The decision was made to start Serie B with 19 teams, teams such as Virtus Entella and others were dismissed, but then Cesena received a points penalty that worked retroactively on the previous season and they once again had a case. They'd already played a game in Serie C. Now they're games in Serie C and it looked like they'd play in Serie B, but the decision was overruled and is now in the hands of a court. Who postponed their decision until October 23. By then the other teams in Serie C will have played 9 games already. Virtus Entella finds themselves in one of the weirdest situations imaginable.
"It's caused us no end of problems. What we want is for them to make a decision so that we can actually do it properly in-game. The same way that we want a decision on Brexit so that we can do that properly in-game."
"We've just put them into a league for the beta. They're just in a league. For release, we will have the correct outcome... We're also waiting to find out whether Adalberto Peñaranda gets his Spanish work permit or not so that he gets his passport to be able to play. There's a few other bits and bobs going on at the moment that we just wish they'd make a decision on so that we can do it properly. Because otherwise we just have to guess. Adalberto Peñaranda has his Spanish nationality in-game, so if you do support Watford you can play him which is more than we can do in real-life. Brexit has loads of different variables in-game and we're just allowing [Virtua Entella] to play and can move them in divisions depending on what the result is in time for release. These things are meant to be sorted during the summer, so thank you football for making my life difficult."
We're sure you don't even want to think about simulating what's happened in real-life within the game...
"Well no, 'cause it's crazy that it has happened. Why can't someone just make a decision. It really isn't that difficult in life. All of us make decisions every single day even if it's just what we're having for dinner. We are all capable of making decisions. Why does it take six weeks for a decision to be made. Put them in B, put them in C. From the players perspective. It's for the players who play for the club that I feel sorry for because they're getting paid at the moment at Serie C levels rather than Serie B levels. They have different clauses in their contracts for payments depending on the league."
"Some of those players would have moved clubs in the summer. They want to stay with the club, but they want to stay with the club in Serie B. So it's a crazy situation."
The next stop in the bonkers world of football is Australia where Usain Bolt is currently enjoying a trial spell at Central Coast Mariners. The fastest man on planet Earth could potentially create some rating dilemmas for Sports Interactive if he's included in the game.
"We can't have Usain in the game unless he has signed a professional deal with a club because until that point he won't be a member of FIFPro, which is the global football union that we get player rights from."
"It is [an interesting dilemma in terms of ratings] and a lot of people have been talking about that 'are you going to give him pace of 21?' We actually watched some of the games that he played and on the ball, he ain't that quick."
He is the fastest man in the world from 50 metres and up... not the first ten metres, perhaps the most useful distance in football.
"If you look at the way he used to run as a hundred metre runner he was rarely first after 10 or 15 yards."
He's got the sprint stamina (the ability to maintain top speed for as long as possible), which is used in very long sprints in football, but that's very rare to see...
"Absolutely. And his dribbling was pretty good."
He's a big fellow too, so he's got a physical presence.
"He's got a lot of strength... Yes, we have done his ratings. No, he didn't have 21 out of 20 for anything. And no, he's not currently going to be in the game, because he doesn't play football, he's not a professional footballer."
Dealing with the Press
One thing we've never really enjoyed in Football Manager titles, mainly because they become repetitive rather quickly, are the press conferences. It's an area that could be made more fun with the addition of VAR, but how are Sports Interactive treating this area in Football Manager 2019?
"Look there are more questions in the press conferences in the game. We add questions every year when we add new features. There are more variations, there are more answers. It's quite interesting though with a journalist saying they're something they don't enjoy with the game because most people who make games don't enjoy interviews."
I think most managers don't enjoy interviews as well...
"You make them fun for me, when I'm doing stuff with you, we've known each other for a long time. You know you're always going to get long answers from me. So you do your research and you ask me good questions. Probably 7 out of 10 of the interviews that I do I can tell you what questions they're going to be asking me before they do them. And it's exactly the same for managers in football. You know what questions you're going to be asked before. Now unlike me, most football managers are media trained, so they will just give the same answers every time as well. And in-game we have the variation there, we have the variation with the different tones that you can use. And we have a lot more contextual questions this year. And there are more contextual team talks as well. And those are the kinds of things, again, I spoke earlier about suspension of disbelief, those kind of things are really, really important in the game 'cause if you're coming towards the end of the season and you know that you need to win your last game of the season and someone else loses you get that European spot. For you to not be asked about that in the press conference or for you not to see that in the team talk can be a belief killer."
"So, we've worked pretty damn hard on those areas this year to have a lot more of the contextual team talks and contextual press questions towards the end. And social media as well."
Moving to the Olympic Park, the pursuit of perfection, and crunch-induced dinosaurs
When asked about the new Sports Interactive offices Jacobson hobbled off to pull up the blinds behind him to show us their inspiring surroundings. It was, however, hard to make out via an overexposed Skype feed...
"What you would be able to see if it wasn't overexposed is: one, a bulding site, where they're building a bunch of flats. Two, the Copperbox, which is where all the boxing was for the Olympics. And three, The Olympic Stadium, which is where West Ham now play. And just to my right, I can see the Velodrome, which is the cycling area from the Olympics. And if I turn around and look out the corner I can see the Aquatic Centre. So we've moved into the Olympic Park and it's absolutely incredible. Iconic sports arenas all around us. Loads of other great businesses based in the same building as us from BT Sport, through Ford, through two universities, through 50 start-ups, we've been incredibly lucky to find this building and move here."
It's not just the surroundings that have changed, internally Sports Interactive has undergone major changes as well.
"We're all on one floor as well now, rather than the three floors we were on before, which means communication is a lot better. And I've used this opportunity to really revamp how we work as a studio as well. So we brought in a chief operating officer, who is running the company day-to-day, which frees up a bit more of my time. Marc Duffy was promoted, he's been with us for nearly 20 years, he is now our development director so a lot of the production work that I used to do has been passed on to Marc. So I'm able to concentrate more on directing the games and try to make them as accurate as possible."
"It's been brilliant for me and everyone in the studio now has more responsibility as well for the work that they're doing. So the QA team are now mixed in with the dev team, so the lead transfer QA sits in the transfer dev team, the lead training QA where the guys who designed the new training module, and we brought people in from the real football world to help with that. So I just had to sign off on that at the end and made a few tweaks, whereas they were doing most of it. So, it's a new way of working, and I think it works really well and it shows in FM19 how well it has worked.
"I couldn't be happier at the moment with the way that the game has turned out. It's easily the best game that we've ever made but it also shows that the progress that we've made... we've always released great games. But as I sent out on Twitter the other week, great is not good enough, we should all be striving for the kind of quality that Rockstar have in their games. That is there in Uncharted. We don't all have the budgets of those studios, right, but we should all be striving for that level of quality. So even though I'm proud of every game that we've released and that we've released a lot of great games in our time and we've sold a lot of games, I want perfection and that's not going to be an easy thing to get to."
"Some people may think that FM19 is perfect, I still see some little bits there, but I have got another twelve months, so... until the next one."
Perfection, striving for Rockstar's level of quality, is something that recently spurred a big debate on the subject of crunch in games development.
"We don't have a policy on crunch, cause we don't mandate ever. I would be lying if I said that I haven't been doing 100 hour weeks, cause I have. But that's me. A couple of our producers, two or three of our producers, have been in the last few weeks as well. And everyone in the studio is on call, but none of our programmers have been doing hours like that, they might have done it like one day, but we don't have death march crunches. We never have. We don't have enforced crunch, we never tell anyone they have to work late. We never tell anyone they have to be in at the weekends. We do provide food for people who do stay later, whether it be extra work or finishing their actual work. But it's one of those weird things if people, there are a lot of jobs in the games industry, so if people don't want to do it, you don't have to do it. And I've seen from time to time people going, 'yeah, but they have to do it 'cause they can't move their families from San Diego to somewhere else'. And I just sit there and go, loads of people have to move countries for their jobs or move places for their jobs, so it just doesn't wash with me. But I would never, never make someone work those hours. But I'm not Sam, I'm not Dan, don't have their budgets, don't have to worry about horse testicles..."
Here's hoping that doesn't make it into football...
"But their games... As someone who plays their games, you can't knock the quality of what they do. They are utterly, utterly, utterly incredible games, so yeah, maybe I could help them out with production practices so that they don't have to work such long hours. But the quality there speaks for itself. I'm not one to tell other people how to do things and I don't think anyone from the outside should tell anyone else how to do things. It's an internal matter if people are unhappy with their working practices at any company they work at. Then that's an internal matter for them to sort out."
One aspect of this, that's surely the same at both Sports Interactive and Rockstar is passion, and that passion can be exploited by management, people willing to put their life on hold as they're passionate about the game they're making (at the risk of burning themselves out, neglecting friends and family, etc)...
"I've walked through the studio one night this week, telling people to go home. Because what ends up happening, if people work too long, they end up kicking chairs and breaking their foot as I did yesterday. Or I think I've broken my foot, hasn't been x-rayed yet. They end up making more mistakes, particularly with programmers, they end up making more mistakes. We've been there. We were there for CM4. CM4 me and Marc Vaughan had a competition to see who could work the longest. When I started hallucinating that there were dinosaurs in the room, that's the point when I fell asleep and found out that he'd fallen asleep five hours earlier and no one had told me 'cause they thought it was funny. Those days are long gone. That was a long, long time ago and we won't ever go back to those days again. But I work every hour God sends 'cause I'm a bit of a freak like that, it's just the way it is."
As is normal procedure Football Manager 2019 will launch in the first week of November (the 2nd to be precise) and the pre-order beta is currently underway.