“I'm pretty happy with the way it is at the moment,” says Sports Interactive boss Miles Jacobson of the latest edition of the world's most popular footy management sim. After yesterday's video announcement , we rang Miles for a chinwag about challenges, cheats and camera angles – and why this year's edition promises to be the most accessible Football Manager in years.
This year's big new addition is the streamlined Classic Mode. What prompted you to introduce it?
It's been in planning for a few years. There aren't many features that we come up with immediately and put it into next year['s game] because we tend to work in three-year cycles - so at the moment even though I'm directing FM13 I'm still involved with designing 14, 15 and 16. But something we've seen happening more and more over the last few years, particularly in comments sections on more mainstream games sites and in newspapers for example, is that people are saying “we don't have the time to play it any more”. After we finished FM11 I actually brought it up in the post-mortem afterwards: I asked how many people had played the game and most of the younger guys in the studio put their hands up. But some of the old-school guys…we've got 16 people here now who've been at the studio for more than ten years, and I think only three of the 16 put their hand up at that point. So I just asked the others, “Why haven't you played it? You clearly still enjoy the game or you wouldn't still be working here.” And they were all saying, “Yeah, but I've got kids and I have to spend some time with them,” or “My partner wants to spend some time with me,” or “I've got to go and see the family, so I just don't have the time to put into it any more.” And that was basically the point where the bank broke.
We were already doing FM Handheld at that point, and I said to them, “Why don't you play Handheld instead?” and got “Well, it's not deep enough for me, I want to be able to do this [sim] stuff, I just don't have the time to do it.” So that's when a few of the very senior people within the studio including myself and Oliver Collyer sat down and started plotting. And then I put it into production this year. Actually, we were going to look at doing it as a completely separate game, but I just thought: why not have it as part of the PC package and reward the people who've played our game for years by giving them extra modes? Or let new players have Classic mode as the first port of call, and if they find that they like it maybe they'll move up to Sim mode. Or maybe they'll try out the Challenge mode or Network games. It's all about trying to provide a game that entertains as many people as possible, really. And the only way to do it while keeping the simulation completely sacrosanct was to have a new game mode in there.
Are there any further options within Classic mode that players can turn on or off to further adjust the game?
We've tried to design it in a simple way. There are ways to turn other things off inside the game which basically involve [premium] DLC, as it would in a lot of other games. If you want to accelerate your progress and get rid of work permits, for example, you can do that, though none of that stuff's available for the main mode because, as I said earlier, that's remaining sacrosanct. So it's basically the ideal game for people with kids and without a lot of time on their hands. You can play a season in a couple of evenings, say between eight to ten hours, so in two or three evenings you get through a season, whereas in the main game it's going to take you a week to two weeks. Hopefully we've got the balance right, but I'm sure if we haven't people will tell us we haven't. And that's when we'll work on things for FM Classic 14!
Obviously since the last game you've worked on smartphone versions of the game. Have any of the refinements you made been informed by your work on the iOS and Android versions?
Very much so. For each game we release we have various things that we're trying for the first time and if they work we'll roll them out to the other games. The perfect example of that with Handheld was the Challenge mode which went down better than we ever imagined it would. And then when we released more challenges as extra purchasable content, they went down way better than we were expecting as well, so it's helped steer us into adding that stuff on PC and Mac versions of the game. If people want that kind of thing in there, then great - we'll give it to them.
Tell us a little more about these unlockable modifiers – are they essentially cheats of a form?
We don't call them cheats, we call them accelerators - we're allowing people to accelerate their gameplay if they want to. Because cheats is a bad word, apparently. Whereas I grew up cheating on games and POKE-ing Spectrum games - which is actually how I learned a bit about code back in the day. It was even better when games were written in BASIC and you could just find the cash line and change it. But yeah, we thought we'd experiment with it and see if people like it or not. Because no one has to use them, they're not things that necessarily enhance the game. They just speed the game up for people.
Is that the thinking behind having some of them as premium content?
Yeah, completely. We don't want to denigrate the game. Certainly, in the simulation mode you can't use any of these things anyway, it's only there for the classic game. They are completely optional, and besides, we need to experiment with DLC for the future because of the way that the games market is going. We also have FM Online which is a massively multiplayer online game coming out in Korea later in the year that's free to play with microtransactions. What we enforced as a rule when it came to the extra content was that none of it would be stuff that people need. It's just stuff that people want. So we're not forcing anyone to use it at all, if people want to it's completely optional. I think that's quite a big difference between us and the way that a lot of other people are working it – other times you can't get to a certain level in the game unless you do spend some money.
It's a particularly common concept in smartphone games on the moment – you have to spend to access later levels, or you can only get a high score if buy extras that give you more power...
…and that's something that we want to avoid. That's why we decided to go down the route of allowing these things to be cheats. Seven out of the 12 or 13 unlockables are achievable in game by reaching certain targets, so if you win certain competitions that will [open] the unlockable for you anyway. So you can think of them as extra features, if you like - you get some as rewards and then six of them are essentially cheats.
So there's a Man City mode where you can top up your transfer money…
Well, it's a Man City mode for much smaller teams. If you want to take over a lower league team in Belgium and buy Leo Messi for them, you can, but again there are people out there who just want the best team as is humanly possible. I mean, we've seen with things like FIFA Ultimate Team that people are really into this kind of thing. So why should we stop them having the possibility of doing it if they want to? We're well aware that there will be people out there who don't like this stuff - there are people inside this studio who don't really like this stuff - but at the end of the day you've got to make the option for people who do want it, because who are we to turn around and tell people exactly how they should play this mode of the game?
You've modified the media interactions to allow for a range of moods. If you've been heavily beaten at home, can you send your assistant out there to talk on your behalf?
Yeah, you can do that in the Sim mode. In Classic mode you might get a question after the game but you'd only get one – there are no press conferences in Classic mode. And now that you've got the tone system as well inside Sim mode, what would actually be more fun is if you'd been battered at home after a game, to go out there and be really angry with the press. Before, all of the answers were given in one tone so you couldn't really get your personality across. Whereas now you've got the tone system in there, and you can really go to town on your team or you can defend them as well, depending on the personality you want to have inside the game.
Is it increasingly hard to create a balanced sim of what has become an unbalanced sport in recent years, what with all the so-called 'financial doping' that's been happening lately?
I think we're more balanced than the real football world. This year the financial market inside the game has changed because the recession's really bitten now. There are also other changes that have happened in the football world that maybe work better as a computer simulation than in the real world, such as 25-man squads. Having 25-man squad means that teams inside the game don't tend to do a QPR and go out and buy too many players for their squad, so in that sense we've always been slightly more balanced than the real world. But then we do also have the sugar daddies in there and you do get stupid sponsorship deals every now and again. I mean, I've lost count of how many sponsorship deals Manchester United have now; it's well into double figures. We have to be mindful of the fact that it happens in real life and so it happens in the game as well.
I suppose there are different targets according to how much money you have in the game anyway…
Yes, of course. The pressure on you as Man City's manager is way higher than the pressure if you take over Weymouth.
You've introduced new tax regimes and Financial Fair Play edicts - at what point does that get too much? Do you ever think perhaps you might have to scale back a little from the real thing, or is the intent always to create a totally comprehensive simulation?
It can't get too much because when we believe it gets too much for the person playing the game we will put systems in place to make it easier for them to understand it all. So this year the tax regimes is a big deal, Financial Fair Play is stricter, and you've got various other financial restraints from around the world that have been added into the game. All of which is why we now have a projection within the game so that people can actually see how everything they do is going to affect their budget – not just for the rest of the season, but for two years in the future as well. So when things become complicated, we find easier ways for it to be explained to people. You don't need an accounts degree to play the game, although if you did have an accounts degree then you would probably have a better understanding of some of it as a result. We try to explain it simply enough so that even I can understand it – and I don't have an accounts degree!
How have you changed the network game?
Well, we essentially threw away the old network game and brought it into the 21st century. We were still stuck in 1995, with people having to type in their IP address and be the host with other servers going into them. Now we're doing it all through Steam. Effectively, we've got dedicated servers, though they're not just dedicated to us – they're also used for Team Fortress 2 and various other games as well. And because of that we kept in the other mode in case people still want to use that. But this time we've also added in a bunch of new online modes, so you can set up your own custom leagues or custom cups, and you can even take your team from your saved game and use that in network games so you're not just restricted to the starter teams in the database.
Tell us a little about the more 'televisual' match engine. I gather you've been studying different camera angles during games on TV?
We have four different TV feeds coming into the office, so we watch a lot of those camera angles, particularly for replays. We try to do a lot of that stuff because of certain legal restraints there's only a certain level of the pitch that we're able to show, and we have to have a certain number of players on screen at any one time.
So are these legal requirements?
Yeah. Various licences work in various different ways. And when you're working in a world where you're covering 51 countries' leagues you've got to be quite careful about the legal and licensing side of things. So there's a certain level of zoom that we can go to, which is fixed. As well as there being a new camera angle called the rail cam, for all the other cameras you can zoom in as far as we're legally allowed to go. In other words, the cameras are a lot more configurable for the user so that they're able to get the view that they want to have. That's obviously a nice thing to have, along with hundreds of extra animations, better-looking pitches… we've just added water bottles to the pitches next to the dugouts in the last few days. There's a whole new physics engine in there, which isn't a licensed engine, it's something that we've written from scratch specifically for the ball movement. We've got improved collision detection as well, and there's also the AI – it wasn't so much ripped up and started again, but we ripped a few pages out and redid them. And that's been ongoing for the last two years with Paul Collyer and his team. Last year there were some new animations but we stayed away from changing the AI because we were already working on it for this year.
It's been a couple of years in the making and I'm pretty happy with the way it is at the moment. We've still got a way to go, and still got some things to fix with it which is one of the reasons we don't have a release date yet apart from before Christmas. But we're getting there, and we're confident of it being the best match engine yet.
So when can we expect the release date to be announced?
Basically, it will be announced once we've decided what it is. Thankfully, Sega are pretty good with us on things like that because it doesn't take long to manufacture a PC game - although it's interesting to see another publisher announce that [their game] would be coming out in a couple of weeks today [Konami's PES 2013] which they managed to keep incredibly quiet. We've got a target release date, but we won't announce the date until we know we're going to hit that date. Otherwise, sod's law is that we announce and something goes wrong, and then I have to announce two hours later that we're going back a week or something. It's just not worth it.