Miles Jacobson is, in his own words, “a bit tired, actually.” It turns out the Sports Interactive boss was up until the small hours the previous night organising screenshots for the announcement of Football Manager 14 , this year's iteration of arguably gaming's most famous simulation. With a promised 1000 improvements and a wealth of new features that offer much more scope for user-generated content, it sounds like a pretty substantial overhaul. So we rang him up to find out more, and ended up discussing pots, PR training and parallel universes.
PC Gamer: What's the reaction been like to today's announcement?
Miles Jacobson: I'm very excited to see how it's all going down. People seem to be liking it so far, which is always a good thing.
PC Gamer: Are you noticing a strong response to anything in particular?
Miles Jacobson: What's been interesting for me is firstly seeing the amount of specialist press pick up on it, which is more than normal. People have been commenting on Linux functionality and cloud saves, while the gameplay side of things seems to be going down very well on Twitter, with the live contract negotiations and the ability to be able to do things inside of news items, which has changed the way that you play the game. You notice a lot more features because you don't have to go into other screens all the time – it's all there in front of you. The tactics stuff has been causing the most debate at the moment on the forums. We haven't announced much about the overhaul yet, because we're doing a video blog over the next few weeks to explain it properly. But there doesn't seem to be anything going down badly at the moment, which probably means that there'll be a nuclear explosion tonight or something.
PC Gamer: The calm before the storm?
Miles Jacobson: Ha ha! I actually tweeted that earlier. Normally when we announce, there's something negative, but for now there doesn't seem to be. Fingers crossed!
PC Gamer: Can you tell us a little bit about the new Steam Workshop tools? Was that down to user feedback asking for more customisable content?
Miles Jacobson: Obviously, we've been online for a long time as a studio and we've always encouraged our community to be making content for the game. I used to do a data update when I was a beta tester back in the day using an unofficial editor. So I think it's important to allow people the freedom to add content should they want to. With the data editor being as powerful as it is now, we have a huge community of players making individual leagues, and challenges for the first time last year, and we've had so many suggestions for new challenges. So we said “why don't we just let them make challenges themselves?” And the new tools just make it easier for people to find stuff, and the content creators can get it to as many people as possible. Adding Steam Workshop just seemed like a simple way of doing that – they'll still able to download things away from that should they wish to go down that route, but it just means people who don't necessarily go to fansites or affiliate sites will now be able to access all of this content directly.
PC Gamer: Presumably you have limitations to the challenges players can create – is it possible to invent really outlandish scenarios?
Miles Jacobson: Well, the only limit is that they're basically one-season or half-season challenges. The system in place means if you want to set up a challenge for a particular league where a team didn't win any games for the entire first half of the season - or even if they won all the games – you could do that in the challenge editor. If you want to make sure the team just has youth team players, you can do that, too. So it's pretty powerful. It's the same tools that we were using last year – we've just incorporated it into the data editor. I'm interested to see what people do with it. As with everything we do, it's an annual iteration, so we're sure there will be suggestions from the content creators for new things they want to be able to add, and over time we'll give them the tools to do that.
PC Gamer: The blurb promises more than 1000 enhancements, but do you ever reach the stage where you start development of a new version – and I know it all starts before the previous year's game is finished – but do you ever think “what can we improve this time?”
Miles Jacobson: Well, we've still got around 4000 features in our features database for things that we want to do longer term, and that we haven't had time to schedule into a game yet. On top of that we have maybe between 800-1200 ideas each year - either things we like from the forums, or [ideas] coming from me or other people in the studio, the QA team, so there's never a shortage of things we want to add. And the only thing that stops us is time, particularly the time to properly test them, which is why we tend to limit the amount of stuff we do each year. The tactics overhaul came about because I'm really lucky in that I get invited to go to training at quite a few clubs so I get to see real-life managers and coaches, a lot of whom play the game. And I'll talk to them about what they think is unrealistic, what's too 'computer game' and not 'football' enough. One of those elements where they were giving us feedback was that the classic tactics, as we used to call them, weren't realistic enough. It wasn't the right way of doing things, there weren't enough roles inside the game, so we've added loads of new player roles.
Every time we talk to someone in football, those conversations will help sway things, and it's the same with the live transfer negotiations this year. Particularly towards the end of a transfer window, it's no longer a case of faxing an offer to another club and waiting for them to get back. Often the chief exec will get on the phone to the other club's chief exec or director of football and they will negotiate the deal on the phone. Basically, as long as the world of football keeps changing – and it seems to do so fairly regularly – there'll always be stuff to add to the game. The day that we make a perfect game is the day we give up and get proper jobs!
PC Gamer: You clearly have plenty of real-world football contacts. When it comes to new systems, how much weight do you place on professional considerations and how does that compare with what fans demand?
Miles Jacobson: I guess I'd put it like this: we have different pots where different things go. So in one, we have the community features and the things we believe our real hardcore users are going to like. We also have a pot for things to attract new users, or keeping hold of users that don't have as much time to play the game. There's obviously one for the realism side, and the fourth pot unfortunately is legal reasons, the things we are told we need to change because lawyers and licensees are telling us we have to. And there's always a good spread across these four pots, because there are different kinds of people who play the game their own way. It's not like we're making one story path or two or three story paths, it has tens of thousands of story paths that are created by the user, not by us. We make sure there are new things that everyone will notice and even though some people might not see half the new features because they're just skimming across the top, as long as they're enjoying themselves and the new [elements] they're seeing, that's what's important.
PC Gamer: That naturally feeds into what you were talking about with regard to being able to react to more news items, doesn't it? So you can immerse people who weren't necessarily consciously skimming over new features in different areas of the game.
Miles Jacobson: Sure. I mean, there are features that people in our QA team who've been playing the game for many years have turned around and said “that's new!” and you're sitting there going [clacks tongue] “no, that's been in the game for five years.” So, yes, there are a lot of things that are more noticeable now because of that feature, and to be frank where we are now with the amount of things you can do within news items is just a starting point. This time we've converted around 60 separate screens into news items, but as long as people who play and buy the game each year like what we're doing with it then we'll look at converting others.
PC Gamer: On the other hand, Classic mode does allow you to skim a little bit. How have you fine-tuned it for this year?
Miles Jacobson: We've had a very good year in that we sold around 20 per cent more games this year than with FM12 – and seeing as that was our record-breaker before that, a large chunk of that has to go down to Classic mode. What was important this year was not to do what we do with regular FM and that's put in more features, more features, more features. So we looked at streamlining bits of it while adding things that are appropriate – stuff like the transfer deadline day which went down really well last year in FM is also very appropriate for Classic mode, so that's gone in there. Also, people who were using the Quick Match feature quite a lot, where the assistant manager basically does everything for you, because they didn't have time, were complaining that they didn't have enough control so we used the match plans from Football Manager Live, where they would still be able to get the assistant manager to make substitutes on 60 minutes or be able to change tactics if they were losing at certain points during the game. Beyond that, the interface for [Classic mode] looks great – I'm really happy with the work that's been done there.
PC Gamer: As FM follows the real game so closely, and with the Premier League season about to kick off, which new arrivals do you expect to make the biggest impact? Who's done the best business?
Miles Jacobson: From a personal perspective, I think Matej Vydra is definitely going to get goals for West Brom. I saw a lot of him at Watford last season, and he's a very good player. Liverpool have done quite well with their signings - I think they're going to give them a boost. Arsenal's [dealings] are certainly going to make a huge difference to their season because they haven't signed anyone! They've mostly sold players once again, a bit like Man United. And Man City have bought so many forwards, I've no idea who they're going to play each week or what formation they're going to use.
What's been more interesting for me this summer - and we've had to reflect this in the game - is the number of British players who've moved abroad. A player from Norwich has moved to the Indian Premier League, and there's a bunch of players who've moved to Spain. And it's all down to the new squad rules that mean you can only have 25 senior players inside a squad. So the teams that had larger squads previously have players with no clubs to go to. With more foreign players coming into the game, that means more British players going overseas. Historically, it's very rare for British players to play outside British leagues, but that's something that's going to be happening more and more. That's why Liverpool have been able to pick up a clutch of Spanish players, because the clubs there need to sell players to comply with FFP and pay off tax bills, so that means there are players who wouldn't normally move to the Premier League coming over here. It's an ever-changing world, and that's a good thing for us. Keeps us busy!
PC Gamer: For FM14, you've promised more complex interactions between staff, players and rival managers. What will that entail?
Miles Jacobson: We felt from the last couple of versions that interactions were a little bit flat. It doesn't feel like [you're having] a conversation, it feels like lots of separate conversations, so the media team have worked on a system that internally we call the narratives system. The game has always remembered previous conversations but wouldn't refer back to them before. It's journalists as well as players and managers, too – you'll build relationships with certain journalists, because they all have individual characters, and they might react differently depending on how you behave with them. The first part of this was the tone system we added in, but this year we've taken a massive leap forward and it does feel like you're having conversations with people, because it remembers what you said. I had a player inside the game turn around to me the other day and say “didn't we talk about this a month ago?” And that's not a game element; it's a real life element. Because when people are playing FM we want them to be in that parallel universe. We want the believability to be there, that this is a world that lives inside their head, so every time you have something that doesn't seem [real] it kinds of takes them away from that parallel universe, so we're hoping the narratives system will help keep them there. Again, that's something that's going to build over a number of years inside the game - it's a long-term project that we're working on, and you'll see the first fruits of it this year.
PC Gamer: Improved interactions with the media obviously reflect the fact that it's a huge part of the modern game, with players being PR trained and so on.
Miles Jacobson: Well, they don't say anything, do they? That's one of the issues, you get very few characters these days, so we've had to use a bit of poetic licence with that to get them talking a little bit more. As for relationships with other managers, if you speak to other managers inside the game about Sir Alex Ferguson, it's not Fergie Time they bring up so much as the bottles of red wine he likes to drink. Another example of that kind of thing was an interview I saw last season with a couple of Watford players going through every member of the squad and talking about them. There was one player they came to, and rather than talking about their personality, they just said “yeah, good player” and moved on. And it was obvious that maybe there was an issue between a couple of the players so they didn't want to say anything, and I think having that sort of character within the game is very important, because it's important that people don't see it as a game. And I keep calling it a game, and I call the people who play it users, but they're not. They're managers. They are managers and they're in a parallel universe of football management.