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Miles Jacobson on Football Manager's real world influence, huge scouting network and farting players

Football Manager 2018 is out now, bringing with it a number of features which reflect the real world game better than ever. Its new Dynamics system—which demands budding managers control their players' behaviour in the dressing room as well as on the pitch—is probably the pick of the bunch, and adds a new degree of story generation to the enduring soccer management simulator.  

I visited developer Sports Interactive in London a few weeks prior to this year's release, and quizzed studio director Miles Jacobson about 2018's new settings and mechanics, and the direction in which the series is headed.

MILES JACOBSON

Miles Jacobson OBE is the director of Sports Interactive—the studio responsible for the long-standing Football Manager soccer management sim series. Jacobson has worked at SI in varying capacities since the mid-'90s, when the series was known as the Collyer brothers' original Championship Manager. 

Photo credit: The Observer

PC Gamer: Would you say this is the most ambitious Football Manager in recent years?

Miles Jacobson: If you'd asked me that in February and March when we did the feature [meetings] I would have said no. But what tends to happen towards the end of the cycle, when we're in the bug fixing phase, is myself and QA team and various other eyeballs that we have looking at it, will be going: yeah, this feature is really good but it's a bit hidden away, whereas this isn't really working—the tweaking process this year has worked really, really well and I'm very, very happy with how that's gone. There have been a lot of voices and a lot of me filtering those voices down. It's lovely to hear someone else ask the question: is this the most ambitious game, because you've seen the game and you've seen the videos, and maybe that's why you're thinking about it in that way. 

I think every year is a step up. I think this year the step up is maybe a bit more visible than they have been in the past. The weird thing is, one of our biggest features this year is something that's completely under the hood and is a nightmare for us to be able to talk about in any of the videos… but, hey, you're PC Gamer, so I can go a bit more in depth with this stuff. 

Please do.

We've got a new bit of tech in the game called a 'League Performance Tracker', which we do mention in one of the videos. Essentially, the game before would take the media prediction at the start of the year, and what you've said to the board, and that's what you'd get judged on in the game: by everyone—the supporters, the players, everyone. We're now actually tracking that whilst you don't turn round to the board at regular intervals and say: I want to change my plans—you can do that in the transfer window—the media and the supporters are starting to take a lot more notice. 

If you go on a good run, and then start losing you might still be mid-table, which is where you're meant to be, but you were top six a few weeks before and they now want you to be top six again. By tracking the league performance throughout the season and by reconfiguring a lot of the behind the scenes thoughts about how you should be doing, that actually changes the game a lot more dynamically. The thought process can change multiple times throughout the season for every NPC in the world. If you think how many tens if not hundreds of thousands of NPCs we actually have in the game at any one point, it makes it a much more interesting challenge. But it's something that happens in football. 

If you look at when Leicester won the league last year, that's a great example. The same thing happens every now and then, there will always be a club that overperforms—be it Bournemouth, or Burnley, or Watford at the moment, my beloved, and people start looking at them in a different way. Trying to get that into the game is really complicated, it's a really hard thing to do because if could imbalance the whole game world. But we have clever programmers, it's thanks to work that the gameplay team did on that and how they tied it in with the dynamics system as well. While each of the models are independent FM, they all have to tie in together. If they don't, it's like having a puzzle where you've got a piece missing. 

Was the Leicester scenario what inspired the new Dynamics system—why have you chosen now to bring it in and why have you not done so before? 

It wasn't just Leicester. They're an example of positive that then went negative that then went positive again. But there are other clubs that you can look at as well who have maybe got rid of a successful manager, and have brought in a big name manager and have then gone a massive losing run. And then they've brought in another big name manager who kept them up but then got them on another losing run with loads of extra players brought in. Those types of scenarios show how important team spirit is. The morale system has always featured in the game, and players have always performed better or worse in the match engine depending on their morale—but being able to display that to the player properly, and all the other elements that we've brought into dynamics as well, it's just a lot clearer for the person playing the game. It's a lot more of an intelligent system because it's all tied in together.

It's something we wanted to do for a while. I think one of the pushes this year, though, was some of the stuff that was on the forums last year. We do look at our new features forums quite a lot but we had what read to me a bit like a dissertation on our forums last year. It's absolutely fascinating reading it all and it made me think a bit more about it and effectively get what were 60, 70, 80 feature requests all fitting into one particular system, to tie it all in. 

On top of that, over the last two or three years, we've become even more ingrained in football than we've ever been. The access we have is frankly ridiculous. There are clubs that I can phone up the day before and ask if I can go to training and the tactics meeting the next day and they go: Yeah, sure. I'm regularly going to training sessions at clubs around the world and you get to see a lot of team dynamics and squad dynamics from that. If you travel to a game with players, for example, you get to see who's at the back of the bus or the plane watching foreign films or reading a book. You get to see… You get to smell which players are farting and which players are laughing about it, and which players are trying to blame everyone else around them even though everyone knows it was them. You get to see which players are playing cards, you get to see which of the players are playing FM.

Whereas Leicester is a good example of player power—it's not just about player power, it's about how all the players deal with each other as well. Particularly in a world where you get some many nationalities and personalities in a squad. Nothing in the game ever comes about because of one thing—or it's very rare that something should come about because of one thing—it's a combination of lots of things together that make you think about how you can fit lots of things together. With Dynamics, and the Medical Centre, it's a really key thing to stop frustration.

You get to smell which players are farting and which players are laughing about it, and which players are trying to blame everyone else around them even though everyone knows it was them. You get to see which players are playing cards, you get to see which of the players are playing FM.

The Dynamics system has scope to become a story-generator long term, then?

Yeah, I mean the game has always been about creating your own stories. As a director of games, it would be very easy for me to put a linear story in there, and have a story path that you need to follow. That's not what Oliver and Paul [Collyer] came up with originally when I first got involved with the game 23 years ago—the beauty of FM was that it was a dynamic, living, breathing world. It was a world that the computer didn't care that you were managing a team or whether the AI were managing a team—both of you have the exact same options and both of you make the same sort of decisions at the same time. 

I play lots of games with linear stories, but I like to explore. And with FM you can create whatever story you want to. We've had people blogging stories for years, and Dynamics definitely helps tell a story, but you've still got to put those pieces of the story together. We're not going to be simply describing in text: 'Well, in the days of lore, these players got on together, but nowadays they all have nice cars and they're all fighting for each other's place to get their match bonuses'. We're not going to be putting in stuff like that, but you have to have a bit of imagination to play FM. You have to a bit of an imagination to be into football, to go and watch football. You're constantly creating your own story arcs there as well with your favourite players, the ones that you don't like, the teams that you have irrational hatred for—for no reason whatsoever. You hate them! 

But basically, yeah, I agree with you entirely that it does help the story process and that's a really important thing. Our games have become more of a hobby for people with the play time. Average playtime of over 200 hours is pretty bonkers for a single player game. Making it even more compelling for people? That's pretty cool. We could've worked on this whole module and I could have scrapped it. If too many things that were happening in there that were just unbelievable then it wouldn't have gone ahead. Everything that you do has an effect—everything you do affects the Dynamics system, it's not the other way round. The Dynamics system doesn't dictate to you, there's no cheating going on, but if you do something wrong you're going to know about. I think that's a good thing. 

In your time, you've at varying points been up against the likes of LMA Manager, Premier Manager, your old game Championship Manager, Sierra's Ultimate Soccer Manager—why has Football Manager endured when others haven't?

[Laughs] This is the question that lets me be completely arrogant. We've built a brilliant team here at the studio—a lot of us have been here for ten years plus, some of us have been here for 20 years plus. We have the best research network in the world, not just in games but in football as well. No one comes close to what we've done on the research side of things. We started out with a unique selling point which was recreating the future universe. We built upon that. We were doing crowdsourcing before the word crowdsourcing had been invented. We were doing data in football before anyone was thinking of Opta and analytics. We also make the game for ourselves, and it just happens that there are a lot of football fans out there who enjoy that as well. We provide value for money to our consumers and they in turn stick with us. 

There are people out there who say we need competition because we get complacent. Show me another annual iteration that adds more features than we do. Show me another annual iteration that advances the genre that they work in as much as we do, or who work as closely with their real life subjects as we do. We don't need to competition to carry on making the games better because we never looked at the competition anyway. 

It's very easy when you're number one in the genre to just look at everyone else and [steal] all of their best bits, but we'd rather keep raising the bar so that no one can ever catch us. If people want to have a go at catching us: bring it on. 

No one asks FPS developers: do you need other people making FPSs to keep you competitive? I do find that constant comparison and line of questioning a strange thing. The people who are making those accusations, saying we've become complacent or lazy, for me them making that point is quite lazy. They should look at exactly what we're adding in the game. 

It's actually something that hits us a little bit in reviews—we've noticed over the last few years that people judge us, PES and FIFA very differently to a game like Civ that has a new version that comes out every four years with loads of expansions packs in between. And then they go: Wow, it's such a big leap from Civ 4 to Civ 5, Civ 5 to Civ 6. If you actually do the same on FIFA or PES or us or NBA or any of the other annually iterative titles, and go back and look at what they were like four years ago—you're actually going to see pretty huge changes in the same way that you do in games like Civilization. 

Speaking to those players who choose to stick with past games, or struggle to move onto the newest ones—I want to talk about carrying over saves years-on-year. You don't do it, obviously, but can it be done?

Both technologically and legally, this answer to that is no. When we do our licensing deals, they are for a specific season and there comes a point where you have to stop selling the game as well. We only have the license for that club data, for example, for that particular season. Even if we worked out some magical technological way to do it—which there isn't one—the data changes each year. As you have more features, you're adding more data or tweaking the way it works. Those databases can't transfer back because the game will be going: sorry, what's this number? What does this mean? Even if we found a technical way to do it, from a legal perspective… nope. 

What's the most stand out feature that you've put into the game and thought: yeah, why didn't we have that before—this year or otherwise. 

This year it's the Medical Centre. The reason for that is because it's frustration for the person playing the game, right? People play the game, no one likes getting injuries, the same as you don't like getting shot in FPS games. But injuries happen in real life, and it's the one area of the game that we actually tone down compare to real life because injuries are so hated. So quite why we haven't put in a way before to explain to people why players are getting injured in training and what we can do to fix it, it's something that we should've done a few years ago. Doing so would have also made us learn a lot more about injuries and their mechanics which has been very interesting learning about. It's meant that we've learned more about sports scientists, for example, as well. There are lots of features we haven't done yet that I wish we'd done already that are down for future games. 

Are you able to reveal any?

Na. Don't be silly. 

But every year, every single year that we've been doing this, there's been something that's been suggested by someone—and it doesn't matter who it is—someone will suggest something and we go just go: doh! Why haven't we done that?

That happens all the time and the game is never finished. I'll be sitting there at Christmas playing FM 18, I will be working on FM 19 at that point, I will still keep a notepad by my side while I'm playing FM 18, making notes of things that I don't like or could've been better. It's a never ending process. Which is both wonderful and a little scary. 

One of the most fascinating things about FM is its ability to predict the future of the real game—up and coming wonderkids, for example. As a creator how does this feel?

As I touched on earlier, we have the biggest and best research network in football, not just in games. Football clubs use our data—they don't use it enough or else they'd be getting a lot of the young players when they're 16/17 if they're allowed to. 

I take it that's a gradual thing—videogames ten, 15, 20 years ago weren't taken nearly as seriously as they are today. 

Absolutely. Ten years ago, people would laugh at us in the UK. When André Villas-Boas revealed he was using our data it was seen as a joke. I remember doing an interview with [BBC] World Service's Alan Green and it was just after we'd just done a deal with Everton to use our data. He said: 'But you're just a bunch of football fans, you've got football fans doing the data, how can they know as much about the people actually playing the game?' I simply replied: 'It's funny you should say that, Alan, because I grew up listening to you on the radio, and I feel like I learned a lot about football from you. What level did you play at?' He said touche, and we moved onto the next question. 

The credibility is there now in some quarters, it's not everywhere, but we don't miss many. This [transfer] window was brilliant for that. Seeing Dembele moving, Mbappe, Neymar, it's great. The work that Keith Flannery did on balance and transfers is not easy. None of us know whether or not the Neymar deal will ever be beaten but deals like the Dembele one at £80 or £90 million are the norm now. And you are going to find clubs buying two or three big signings a season rather than four or five smaller signings a season which is reflected in the game. 

A club like Watford is still going to be going out there and buying four or five players at £10, £12, £15 million, but Man City will be going out there and buying 'the missing link' that they've needed in their squad and they'll pay whatever they hell they need to to get that player. We do need to balance that each year and we do need to look at what's going on in the real world each year. 

It's going to be really interesting seeing players playing as Monaco this year. There is some nice money there. 

Where does Football Manager stop—does it stop?

I hope not. I don't see any reason why it should. If you look at the great brands of the 20th century, the great companies, the great entertainment brands. You've got something like Coca-Cola who, okay they aren't an entertainment brand, but who would've thought when it started out it'd still be going from strength to strength so many years later. You've got bands like the Rolling Stones still making records and still touring with pretty much the original group. You have Star Wars that's just been reinvented as a new franchise with new actors and some of the old ones. The same applies to all the Marvel stuff and the DC stuff.

In our case you can't really reinvent. It's about football, we make football management games, but if we can continue to innovate and people's attention spans don't drop as quickly as might be expected. I don't see why there's a reason why we can't carry on—it doesn't depend on me, it doesn't depend on the people at the studio, it doesn't depend on the Collyers. As I said before, both Oliver and Paul have drifted off and come back over the years—we would hopefully have done a good enough job with everyone else who is just as important to the team, if not more important than we are, that it can carry on whether I'm hit by a bus tomorrow or not. 

We don't have an end in sight and I don't want to have an end in sight. For me, it will end when either I stop enjoying it, or I don't think I'm doing a good job anymore. At that point I'll pass the mantle onto someone else. FM as a brand, though, there's no reason why it can't continue till well after I'm gone and I really hope it does because it's been an honour to be involved. Long may that continue as well.