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Football Manager 2013 interview: addiction returns

Friday, 7th September 2012 08:33 GMT By Dave Cook

Football Manager 2013 was officially announced yesterday. Dave Cook talks to Sports Interactive boss Miles Jacobson about this year’s 900 new changes, an all new Classic mode for casual players and much more.

“But we tend to work by planning about three years ahead. So at the moment, although I’m directing Football Manager 2013, we’re also pulling together the FM14, 15 and 16 feature sets at the same time.”

To the uninitiated, Football Manager 2013 looks like a terrifying database that has been exposed to some kind of horrible mutagen. Yes it’s intricate and potentially life-consuming, but it’s exactly what purists of the strategy and management genres desire.

But hardcore players only make up the majority of this ever-expanding player base, so it would be foolish for Sports Interactive to exclude them by making its game impenetrable.

That’s why this year, Jacobson and his team have created Classic mode, which a cross-section of Football Manger 2013′s full sim mode, but without losing any of the quality or depth.

VG247 spoke with Jacobson about this year’s new additions, and why trying to please everyone can be tough.

VG247: Football Manager is always a large undertaking for Sports Interactive, being a yearly release with so many features and mechanics. What were the key things you wanted to accomplish going into Football Manager 2013?

Miles Jacobson: We’ve been doing this for quite a long time now, and this is now the 20th game from people within our studio since starting all those years ago. We wanted to do something special, which is one of the reasons the new game modes are in there.

But we tend to work – in the annual iterative cycle we’re in – by planning about three years ahead. So at the moment, although I’m directing Football Manager 2013, we’re also pulling together the FM14, 15 and 16 feature sets at the same time.

So when we’re doing all that, what I try to do is try to make sure there’s something in there for everybody. We’ve got different sets of people who play the game in different ways.

There will be the ultra hardcore who will sit there and rack up a thousand hours playing the game a year, and they want every level of detail to be absolutely perfect. So we’ve made sure there are things for them, such as a new financial system.

The level of detail we’re going into with that – like having individual tax regimes in countries that will make a player decide whether or not they’re going to join a particular club over another one – that’s the level of anal detail we go in to for those people.

But then what we wanted to do this year was have things in there for people who’ve loved our games in the past but that have maybe drifted away a bit, and that’s where the Classic mode comes in.

Yeah. It’s a way to be able to play a season in two or three nights, like you could in our games many years ago, but still having a really rich, rewarding experience. That’s why we’ve done classic and then there’s lots of things for people inbetween as well.

What sort of things?

Things like Director of Football to make it easier to do transfers, or if someone just doesn’t want to look after their youth set up, they can leave that to the Director of Football and still look after their first team set up.

You can see all these different instances and ways that football clubs work around the world. Chelsea for example: they’ve got someone who brings in younger players, then the manager decides who’s going into the first team squad or who goes out on loan.

Whereas at a club like Liverpool when Brendan Rogers was in place, Kenny Dalglish would tell Damien Comolli which players he wanted signed, and Comolli would go off and get them. So you can do all of that inside the game as well.

The process that I basically go through is going through all the ideas that we have in there – and we’ve got thousands of them in our database – that we’ve sat through and verified as a team.

Off the basis of that, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got a jigsaw that fits all the different types of people who play our games, and make sure they’ve all got something new each year.

Would you say this catch-all approach to development is more relevant now than it ever has been, purely because of the way gaming has exploded over the last ten years?

Completely yeah, you know, ten years ago the process was very different because the only people we ever got feedback from were the real hardcore. Nowadays we’ve got our forums – which are very hardcore – we’ve got fan sites, but I mean we’ve got half a million likes on Facebook.

The people on Facebook probably don’t even know who Sports Interactive are, and they certainly haven’t heard of me, but they’re well aware of Football Manager and they play it all the time.

We want to get feedback from those people as well, to see what they want in the game. If we went down a particular route with the game, we’re actually going to lose the other audiences.

So we try and get as many things in there for as many different sets of people, whilst making most of it optional. To be honest it’s the same way something like Civilization works.

In Civ, if you want to have the ultimate micro-management of each farm in the game, you can do. But if you don’t want to do that, you can just do the main stuff and still have a rewarding experience from it. It’s our job to entertain people, to be able to entertain as many people as possible.

There are a lot of armchair pundits out there and football fans with very strong opinions. Do you feel like you’re locking yourself into a contract with those people to deliver a set standard of quality with each new release?

Yes and our database is absolutely imperative to each iteration of the game that we do, whether it be handheld versions, Classic Mode, or Football Manager Online, which is our Korean MMO that comes out later in the year.

The data side of things is absolutely imperative, but I mean in Football Manager Classic, we’re actually showing a little less data to people. That meant we could make the font size bigger, which is something people have complained about in our game that there was too much information on the screen.

It was too overwhelming, so we’ve cut that back a little bit for Classic so that people don’t feel overwhelmed when they first play the game.

Can we dabble a little more into classic? Like, say I’m a total newcomer to the Football Manger series, what should I expect when I first start playing?

The main mantra that we were using internally at the studio for Classic is that it was a tactics and transfers game. So what you do is, you start with any football team out of 51 countries from around the world.

You start off with their current squad, and it’s your job to buy and sell the players to make sure that you’re one: balancing the books, and two: improving your squad. Then you need to find the right tactic for all those players, play matches and try to outwit the opposition.

That is the reason for playing the game, to try and get your team to be the best team in the world.

As it’s slightly scaled back, are you eyeing the iOS market for Classic, perhaps as a lighter version of the full experience?

Well as we’ve already got Football Manger Handheld on iOS and Android, we’re doing pretty well. We’re regularly in the top grossing chart in Europe and done way better than we were ever expecting to.

That’s another step lighter than Classic, as we have a different match engine that gets used in Handheld. Unfortunately, there is not a mobile phone or tablet at the moment that can handle out main match engine.

That’s because the amount of the artificial intelligence in there – if you consider we’re simulating every one-eight of a second of football in our match engine – and because every blade of grass, our new physics engine, every gust of wind all has to get taken into account.

Those devices are not powerful enough – as yet – for Classic. So we’re going to stick with Handheld, and there will be new versions of Handheld before the end of the year for people who want to play the game on the move.

You mentioned there the updated match engine. What are the biggest changes to the engine this year?

Well this year there’s the brand new physics engine which is much better on ball resistance, wind, and rain. There’s a lot more curve and swerve in on the ball now. Obviously if you’re playing downhill that’s going to have an effect, or if you’re playing in adverse weather conditions.

We’ve got hundreds of new animations – we have those every year – so it sounds a bit boring talking about them but it does make a big difference. Because you know, we’re not up to the level of FIFA’s visuals yet. Whether we get there or now, who knows, because there’s a lot more going on in our game.

But certainly we strive to be the best, and there are new player models this year, so we’ve got better head tracking and better bone movement this year. Even down to the little touches, like little bottles of water down by the dugouts and behind the goals.

So we’ve got attention to detail, we’ve worked hard on that. We’ve also got a new camera angle in there called ‘Rail Cam’ which does what it says on the tin. But with every other camera angle we had a long chat with our lawyers a few months ago about how close we could zoom in to the action without breaking any of our licenses.

We’ll now allow people to zoom in, or out, or left, or right while using any of the camera modes in the game, so you can get closer to the action than ever before as well.

Considering everything you put into the management side, and now all of this into the match engine, it really is just a colossal undertaking isn’t it? It gets to the point where it starts to make my brain hurt trying to comprehend it.

Yeah it is pretty hardcore, and we’re quite well defined in the teams that we have here. Everything is broken down into smaller groups, so we don’t just have a rulebook team, gameplay team or a match engine team.

We’ve got an AI team, media team, and the communication flow between departments is really, really good, so that does mean everything does end up tying in together. I think we got closer to that than ever before this year, in the way that that the training – for example – ties in with the tactics.

The other thing that people have to bear in mind is that during our announcement, we talked about how there are 900-plus features this year. We’ve announced very few of those, and we’ve got at least 25-28 video blogs, which are all going to be two to five minutes long.

They’re going to start on Monday 10th of September, and there will be a new one every weekday for five or six weeks. They will reveal a lot more, but there are about 300-400 new features that we’re not going to reveal before launch.

We want people to find them on their own as they play. Lots of them are little touches that are really nice, because I think last year we actually revealed too much and there was nothing left for people to discover. So this year we’re going the other way and holding back on a lot of stuff.

It’s good that you’re keeping back these little surprises for the community. What were the key things fans asked you to improve or add this year?

We don’t really have one community, we have multiple communities, so we treat our forums differently to our Facebook, which are both treated differently to Twitter. That’s because some types of people are in one place, others are on all of them.

The kind of things people are looking out for particularly was the network game revamp. We were still kind of stuck in the 90s with our network game, where someone had to be the hose and then other people would type in the IP address of the host, and then they’d come into the game.

People have been asking for dedicated servers, and we decided to go down the route with Steam, because if Steam can handle Team Fortress 2, then it can certainly handle Football Manager.

But rather than going, ‘OK lets’s just put the network game on Steam, we sat down and thought ‘what else can we do?’ So we gave people the possibility of setting up their own custom competition through the network game – cups and leagues.

We also though, ‘What else could we do? Well, why don’t we let people export their custom team from their main saved game and use that in the network game?’ So if someone’s been playing the main single player game for 20 seasons, they can export the team from that and test them against others.

What about training? Because I know you guys are going big on that this year too.

Well certainly the match engine improvements and physics engine stuff came from community conversations, we’ve had huge talks with tactical experts – not just from our forums, but real life managers and coaches – who point out where we’re making mistakes in our game.

Training is something that is always controversial, hence the revamp on that. Our last two revamps with training were ridiculous based on the level of depth we were going in to.

Real managers don’t have that depth, so I spent some time at training sessions with clubs to see exactly how it goes on, and then we sent feedback to the coders working in that area to help us improve it. Training camps came directly from that process.

All these different communities steer different things in different ways, but I’d say – even though VG247′s community is full of hardcore gamers – when it comes to Football Manager, they’re maybe not hardcore football fans.

So when there have been conversations on there in the past, I’ve seen people say that the game felt too complicated, and even on The Guardian forums we’ve read people saying, ‘Oh, I used to love the game but now it’s got too complicated.’

Those are the people who really started pushing the idea in our heads for Football Manager Classic, and that then developed from there. When we were talking internally in the studio, and we even found that people working here who had kids just didn’t have time to play the game any more.

So we thought, ‘right, let’s give them a mode as well’, and we tried to give a mode to everyone. We’re never going to get it 100% right, and we’re always going to have some people complaining.

What areas do you think they will they still complain about?

The hardcore gamers are probably going to complain about the unlockables in Classic Mode, that you can pay for. But the unlockables aren’t for them, because they’re going to be playing the sim mode, not Classic Mode.

Whereas people who are playing Classic Mode will probably want to cheat a little bit to accelerate their progress further, so why shouldn’t there be unlockables there. I mean, I will totally admit that there are some levels I get stuck in when playing Angry Birds, so I bought the golden eagle [laughs]. So yeah I’ll spend some money to get around that.

It’s a way that people are used to playing games now, so why stop them from being able to do that if they want to? Just because a few hardcore people aren’t going to like it? There should be choice for everyone.

With so many people to please, will you consider running a beta for the game?

We’ve got a beta that goes on anyway – both with some hardcore and some less-hardcore people – who’ve been playing the game for a few weeks. I’m absolutely amazed that nothing has leaked, so if any of them are reading this: thank you, I love you all.

We’ve had a wide variety of people looking at it, and testers in the studio as well. So we’re getting good feedback, but the problem with open betas is that we get too overwhelmed with the same people saying the same thing.

What I would say though is ‘watch this space’, because there’s something that we’re tying to pull off at the moment preorder-wise which we havent got nailed yet – hence we haven’t announced it yet.

But we are doing our best to make something that will let a few more people see the game earlier than they would normally be able to. We’ll start talking about that -hopefully in a few weeks – then we can reveal all.

It’s something that – if we do pull it off – we hope that every games company will do the same thing. There’s no reason why they can’t

You mentioned at the start that you’re always looking forward. What do you see changing in the future of the franchise, and what would you like to see from new PC tech to help you improve the game?

Well at the moment I wouldn’t like to see Windows 8. I don’t think I’m doing anything controversial by saying that. Certainly we aim our games at six year old laptops so what comes through next for us will be in six years time.

What I’m more interested in at the moment is what’s going on in the tablet space, and what’s going on in the next generation of tablets. But also smart TV is something that impresses me as well.

I think we’re going to end up with a world of possibilities for new formats so that even more people can enjoy our games in years to come.

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