The latest Football Manager title, Football Manager 2011, is scheduled for a Christmas release. I interviewed Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive's Studio Director, to discover some of the new features that his team have implemented over the last year. A lot has changed. For detailed info on what's better, what's gone, and what's new, read on.
PC Gamer: What's changed between this and FM2010?
Miles Jacobson: We've got more new features than ever before this year. Feature roulette - which is a thing we play on the podcast where someone picks a number and they could get a good feature, they could get a crap feature or they could get a blank one - is normally between one and 150. This year it's between one and 500. There have been six major new features that we've announced, some of which have been revamps.
We've revamped the way that we handle the news and the world news inside the game. We added news subscriptions last year and we've expanded upon that, but we've also added in a new module that looks at your club and how you're playing, then works out what your highest league position or lowest league position would be, and whether you'll qualify for any cups, as well as other news. From the offset it sounds quite a simple thing, but it's actually very complicated and adds a whole extra level of immersion.
We've improved the match engine. We always improve the match engine code, but we've changed the look of it as well, so there are new player models, there are even new hairstyles, new crowds, new stadiums. Backgrounds to the stadiums as well so the stadiums no longer just float in space, better weather effects, so there's some shiny stuff in there as well.
Then we've got a whole new way of doing contract negotiations because they're now done “live”: rather then offering a contract to a player and him coming back to you in two days, the renegotiation process is done on the fly. So you make your offer as though you're sitting at a table with the player. On top of that, we've expanded the way that agents are used in the game, so each player has an agent and those agents have different personalities. Some of those agents will come to you and go “I'm not going to tell you what the player wants, just put your best offer first”; some of them will come to you and say “this is what the player wants and there's no negotiation”. There's different elements now, negotiating with different players. Plus, agent fees, which hurt your transfer balance quite badly if you're working with the wrong kinds of agents.
Now, that a particular area of the game, we decided to go down this route after speaking to a bunch of Chief Execs and a bunch of agents in the game, and they also provided us with information for loads of extra contract clauses. Things like players getting a bonus for being in the team of the year, or if you've got a young player, you might sign him as an 18 year old as a hot prospect, but there could be an automatic trigger that after they've played twenty first-team matches they get bumped to a first team wage. It adds a lot more flexibility into that system.
PC Gamer: That's a side of the game most of us don't really see.
Miles Jacobson: And seeing a few player contracts as well that are redacted, but yes, talking to the agents about the clauses were invaluable, because they gave us clauses that I think no football fan is going to know exists: and they're now in the game.
PC Gamer: What specific changes have you brought in for long-term fans?
Dynamic league representation is one for the hardcore users. This is for people who play really long career games inside the game because at the moment, if you start in the Turkish league, you could win the European Cup with Galatasaray and the reputation of the league wouldn't go up. Your club reputation would, but it would get to the point where players wouldn't join your club even if you're winning the Champions League because the Turkish league reputation was lower than the standard they wanted to play in. If you look back at football in the last 30 or 40 years you've had some leagues where they've dropped down: there was a Hungarian team that used to dominate in Europe. Now you're seeing places like Russia, Ukraine, leagues in the middle east and the MLS in America where the reputation is going up so that they now can attract the best players. Because FM previously was static, it would recognise which leagues were improving year on year by research, so at the start of the game the world picture would be the same, but we weren't showing the world picture changing over time and that's what we're able to do now with dynamic league representation.
PC Gamer: Can you describe any other mechanical changes?
The training side of things is completely revamped - it was well due an overhaul. We've made it easier to use, we've added more options for people. You can now train a striker in finishing, for example – or a midfielder in finishing - but we've also added in match preparation, which is a new thing for the genre. A couple of days before a match your assistant will come up to you and go “how do you want to prepare the guys for the next game, gaffer?”, and it's all part of the scouting report you get. You can then ask for your coaches to look at up to three specific formations you might play during the match: they will then train those players in so they have better knowledge going into the match. You're also able to ask them to concentrate on things like attacking play, defensive play, set pieces or even going as far as team blend. So if you are Man City and you buy 20 new players it will help those players gel, but might take away from other training areas.
We've improved the player interaction which is now done on a conversational level: they'll talk to you there and then. So if they say no to a request, you can suggest something else. It's very useful if a player is unhappy and you're trying to make them happy again, you're able to make them various promises that they might or not believe you. I was playing the game over the weekend and I had a fight with a player who'd recently joined me. I signed another striker. He said “you've got too many strikers in the club”, I told him that he was still my first choice, and he replied “I don't believe you”. Then we had a bit of a ruck and two days later he asked for a transfer even though he'd only just moved. I ended up calming him down because I kept my promise and played him in the first team, and eventually he backed down. Because all the players have different personalities they'll react in different way to what you do.
PC Gamer: With regards to that, to players believing you if you make a promise. Is that based on you've done in the past, say you've made a promise and then reneged on it?
Miles Jacobson: That definitely gets taken into account. The personality between you and the player, I mean everything you do inside Football Manager can have a short term and a long term effect, it is remembered, you do build up your profile and your stats over time and that will affect whether players will join you or not. For example, if you choose your favourite team as being Tottenham, it's less likely that players whose favourite clubs are Arsenal are going to join you.
PC Gamer: Unless they're Sol Campbell.
Miles Jacobson: Well, Arsenal weren't his favourite team, Tottenham wasn't his favourite team, well I don't know if Sol Campbell even likes football, you'd have to ask him.
PC Gamer: Are there any features that you've dialled back this year, anything that you felt didn't work quite as well?
Miles Jacobson: We haven't pulled anything from previous games, we've improved a lot. There are certain things that haven't been announced yet that have been improved based on feedback that we're getting from the customers. We always look at everything that the customers are saying before our feature meetings, and look at areas that we need to improve. It's on a priority basis: what's essential, what a couple of people don't like, but overall most people actually like the things we have in our game.
PC Gamer: Are there any features you were thinking of doing but decided against?
Miles Jacobson: Yes. In front of me here I have a feature database of over a thousand things that are approved to be in a Football Manager game at some point that when we were scheduling FM '11 couldn't be done. Some of those are scheduled for FM '12, some of those are scheduled for FM '13, some of them are scheduled with a little thing that just says “FM”, which means they're smaller things that any of the programming team can do if they want a break from doing a main feature.
Part of having a year to polish the game was actually to get more organised as a studio and get used to the fact that there's now 60 plus of us rather than 20 of us: that's the reason why we've got so many new features this year. It's amazing what fixing a bunch of bugs actually does. Not only does it mean that people can start working on new features earlier, but it also means they've got less bugs to fix at the end. There were a thousand things at the feature meeting last year that didn't make it into the game and since then there have been another 250 to 300 additions that have come from the forums and our own ideas of things that we want to see. We'll have feature meetings to discuss those at the end of the year and then schedule them appropriately. There are already things that are scheduled for FM '12 that I know I'm going to end up moving to a future game because there are ideas that make more sense at this stage waiting to be scheduled.
When we have our feature meetings we sit down as a team, and if anyone wants to have a say on a feature they get a vote, and then we look at the percentages to work out the priorities. There was one feature in this year's feature meeting that got 167% because people are allowed to play a joker once a day which doubles their score, but that wasn't something that that was going to be appropriate for this year's game. That's now been scheduled and that will either be in FM '12 or FM '13. We 're taking a very long term approach now.
PC Gamer: You say that you take a lot from the forums. What percentage of features would you say are taken from suggestions on the forums?
Miles Jacobson: I would have been able to tell you this previously but I can't this year because what we've deliberately done is wiped any reference to who added in a feature request, so everything is treated equally. I don't care if it comes from me, whether it comes from our office manager, whether it comes from one of our QA guys, whether it comes from a tester or whether its come from a conversation overheard in the pub, if it's a great idea it's a great idea.
Obviously the design side of things afterwards take a lot of ideas and turn them into a cohesive module and that's obviously a very important thing to do, but we don't have any designers at SI. Everyone gets involved with that process, which is brilliant in some ways and not great in others. I constantly get told by games designer friends of mine that we desperately need a games designer, sometimes when they're out of work and sometimes when they're not. I fully understand the value that they bring to the table but we have our own little way of working and we like it.
PC Gamer: How much play testing does it take to get a new version of FM out?
Miles Jacobson: We have nine lead QA guys now at SI, all of whom are assigned a particular part of a game. They're actually part of the direct team, so they go to all of the team meetings for those areas. We've also got out beta test team who work on the match engine for the whole year and will be starting beta testing properly with everything now that we're announced next week, so there's around 100 odd people on there, then we've got another 20 to 30 testers here, and when preview code goes out we love it when journalistss give us reports of things that they find. Plus everyone here plays the game as well, and Sega's QA team play it as well, so tens of thousands of hours of testing go into each.
PC Gamer: Do you deliberately go back to formations that have done well in a past release and dismantle them?
Miles Jacobson: Yes. We do that in patches. If they are formations that shouldn't work in real life - the famous one was the Diablo formation - then we won't go in and break it, what we actually do is go in and fix what the problem is, fix why those do well, whether that be an improvement in defensive play or goalkeepers doing something silly when they're under certain amounts of pressure. We've yet to see any people talking about a cheap tactic in FM '10, so the aim is for FM '11 that there won't be one of those either.
PC Gamer: Is there anything you've changed with scouting?
Miles Jacobson: We've got loads more fields on the database, so there's more that the scouts are looking into, but we're in a fortunate position with our scouting network in that if it ain't broken, don't fix it.
We've got head researchers in either 51 or 52 countries and regions now. We have about 1,200 scouts around the world looking at individual teams. I think the only change that we've got in that area is that we've got another person working with the team as an assistant who's based full time here because it was getting too much. I've been told a bunch times in the last few months that we have the best scouting network in football. When people inside the game are telling us that we've got the best scouting network, there's no point in changing, apart from improving by making sure there's more data fields and making sure that everyone's happy.
PC Gamer: I remember reading that Javier Saviola was your proudest scouting moment, has that changed?
Miles Jacobson: Leo Messi. Leo Messi was in our database as a 13 year old. He wasn't allowed to appear in the game because of child protection law until he was 16, but he was in our database as a 13 year old as becoming a world superstar. It's moved on from Saviola. There have been loads I've been happy with over the years. A bizarre one I've was really happy with were Neil Lennon and Danny Murphy when they were playing in Crewe's youth team. That was because at the time I had just started doing the research for the game, and just seeing those players coming through. It was the first time that there had been a football game that had predicted that these people were going to become successful in the future.
Before SI came along and we were doing our games, most of the management games would reset at the end of the season, or the player stats would change. The Collyer's overall vision for the game was that it should be a complete football world that continued. That first game that I worked on was the first one with real data, so seeing those guys break through – I know those guys didn't become world superstars but both of them did very well - to pick those out as Crewe reserve players at a time when our whole scouting networks was 25 people globally was kind of cool
It's particularly impressive being able to tell your mates about them as well, and having other people who play FM going “oh yeah I bought him as an 18 year old, did you know he could also play on the right wing?” Hearing those conversations in pubs around the World Cup was very cool. When we see minus 9 or minus 10 players in the DB - minus 10 means they are going to be absolutely world class - I might turn around and ask the head researcher to actually send some footage to have a look. You're seeing these guys - fourteen, fifteen - marvelling at their skills knowing that no-one outside their country has heard of them,and most journalists in their country haven't heard of them. Seeing them play and being confident enough to have them in the game as that kind of player is very special.
But we do get it wrong sometimes, and there are some times when we're too trusting, and there have been a few cases in the past when players that have been set that high don't even exist: To Madeira is the most famous of those. And then there have also been players that have looked like they were going to be world superstars like Tonton Zola Moukoko - and then something has gone wrong in their life that has meant that they haven't made it.
PC Gamer: In game terms, is there any way of making them so they aren't world class or are there some players out there in FM 2011 that'll be a lock, they'll always be amazing whoever they play for?
Miles Jacobson: There's some that will because their mental stats are amazing. The ones where there are uncertainties about their mental capabilities, they may work out or they may not. Also, if you manage a player badly then again they might not make it.
PC Gamer: So are there any changes to player stats at all?
Miles Jacobson: There's something that I can actually talk about even though it wasn't in the press release it was in one of the screen shots. We've changed the way player positions are described to you. Whereas previously you would previously have AMRC, for example, you would expect that an AMRC is an attacking midfielder that can play on the right or the centre. But it may be that that person is actually a central midfielder who can also play as a right winger but can't play in the hole behind the strikers. We've therefore changed the way those descriptions are a little bit so you might see players with multiple positions rather than one position. Beyond that, stats wise, nothing that is visible to the human.
PC Gamer: Have any players ever complained about their rankings?
Miles Jacobson: Oh, loads! Loads and loads and loads of players! The most direct one of those which was actually quite funny as well, because it wasn't a major complaint, but Danny Webber came into our office once when he was at Watford.
I'm a big Watford fan, and he came in and he was looking at his stats and comparing them with another player from the Man United youth team that he grew up, saying: “I'm better than him at this! We used to be room mates and we used to practice this and I'm better than him in this stat, but, to be fair, he's better than me in this stat.” He was actually moving stats up and down and being quite honest about it. Sometimes you do just get an email from a player's agent saying “my player thinks he's much better in this” and I'll reply: “look, all of our stats are independently researched and if he does think he's better than finishing he should score more goals and his local research will put him up.” We don't pander to it, unless they want to put them up and down at the same time.
We've had cases where other people inside football have complained about their stats who are not actually players, so we can't display chairman stats any more, and haven't for many many years because someone complained about their business acumen.
I also went to a few training sessions last year at clubs. When you're there with a bunch of the players they all do have a joke and a giggle, normally about someone else's stats rather than their own because a lot of players play the game. I actually did say directly to a player whose mates were ribbing him about one of his stats – his response was “I should be better than that” - so I pointed out that one of the tackles he made on Saturday was horrific and that I wasn't changing it, and that if he calmed down by the end of the season maybe I would. The rest of the players fell about laughing.
PC Gamer: What did you gain from developing in a World Cup year? Could you release a World Cup themed save or mode?
Miles Jacobson: We actually have something here where literally we press a button and it can churn out a tournament, but we can't do it because of all the legal and licensing situations.
What we did learn from the World Cup is to be very careful with our ball physics! I was doing a daily blog on players to look out for in the different games as well as hosting parties, so certainly fun on a lot of levels. But we're not planning to add in training camps where players have to go to bed at 9:00 and aren't allowed to do anything.
PC Gamer: Hardcore discipline.
Miles Jacobson: I think the England squad were allowed to do a lot more than the press let on: I know they had certain consoles with them, and I know they had certain computers with them, and I know that some of the players were playing certain games...
PC Gamer: Are there any plans to release a classics pack or similar, with old players?
Miles Jacobson: There's three issues here. The first one is doing the research for all of those players, what age do you do get them? Do you do Hristo Stoichkov at 30, do you stop player ageing? What happens when those players retire? That's point one. Point two: it was brought up many years ago, it was tried, and then dropped, so it couldn't have been any good. Third: unless we can get the licensing rights for all of those players, and unless the members of all the different footballing unions we have agreements with accept the licensing agreements, it's just impossible to do.
PC Gamer: Obviously it won't be soon with a thousand features on the table, but will there be a point when you think FM is as good as you want it to be and you start releasing seasonal updates instead of a game?
Miles Jacobson: If FM is as good as I want it to be, I will leave, I'll go and work in Burger King, and I'll let someone else take up the mantle, because if I and the team ran out of ideas then we need to pass it on to someone else. We are our harshest critics and we've been accused of being complacent in the past: probably the biggest insult anyone can give to us, because we are far from that. We want to raise the bar each year, and in the same way that world records will continue to get beaten, we want to continue to beat our own quality records and what we're trying to do with the game.
We're very passionate about making that ultimate football management game, but football keeps changing, so that forces us to keep changing stuff as well.
PC Gamer: Will it be released on Steam this time?
Miles Jacobson: Yes. It will be Steam, day one, PC and Mac, and other digital platforms as well. It will be on as many platforms as we can possibly make the game available via for PC and Mac. We love working in particular with Steam. They really are a pleasure to work with as a partner, with the speed of turnaround they have on things. Even on the Mac side, they flew over to tell us about Steam coming to the Mac because they wanted to tell us face to face.
It's little things like that, and the way that they listen to the developers and games and develop the platform to work with that, so we will have achievements exclusive through Steam, and there will be more of those. But the boxed copy ain't going anywhere either. It's about giving out customers choice to be able to get it from wherever they want to.