An Audience With…
The Football Manager boss discusses Korea, careers, and keeping the band together
Sports Interactive studio boss Miles Jacobson on nearly ten years of Football Manager
Tired but happy, Miles Jacobson rubs his eyes as he looks back over a busy year for Sports Interactive, where he serves as studio director. Having partnered with sports performance analyst Prozone, which will license data from
Football Manager to pass on to real-world coaches, he oversaw the October release of Alternative Reality, a documentary examining the series’ popularity. And in November there was the small matter of launching Football Manager 15, the latest edition of one of gaming’s most enduring series. We’re here to discuss Jacobson’s 20-year anniversary at Sports Interactive, and where the company takes its acclaimed sims from here.
You’ve said that one of the most significant moments in your time at SI was when you split with Eidos and signed with Sega as publisher, and Championship Manager became Football Manager. How did you convince everyone that it was the right move?
Because we were all in it together, we’d been discussing it for a while, so we knew that it was a possibility. And, well, people don’t tend to leave SI. It sounds a bit wanky, but there is a family here – of the 35 of us that were here when we were bought by Sega, 32 are still here. From the original eight of us, seven are still here. So we’ve worked together a long time. I would hope that people don’t necessarily see it as a job. It’s more like being in a band, and we have to keep the band together. I’m the frontman who doesn’t write any of the songs, and the real talent is with the rest of the team. They like having their own private lives and not having to be on Twitter the whole time, so they leave all that other stuff to the lippy little shit who doesn’t write the songs, but who tells everyone else what to do.
But I’m a firm believer in talent. And we don’t work in the same way as most other studios. Everyone gets to work on every area of the game: the programmers design their own modules based on nuggets of ideas that might have come from here, internally, or from the forums, or from our footballer beta testers or our other beta testers. Those ideas can come from everywhere, and my job as director is to put a jigsaw puzzle together of the best things that are going to fit together for a particular year’s game. Then we let the programmers loose on doing their stuff. We also typically hire people who are fans of the game – again, if you’re working on something you love, it doesn’t really feel like a job. So that’s how we went about it: by making sure that everyone was happy in the first place. The way Ov and Paul [Collyer, SI co-founders, ‘Ov’ being short for Oliver] and I were running the studio, we did the kind of things that we would want in a company if we had been working for them. And if you find enough like-minded individuals, you’re going to stick together.
That presumably stood you in good stead for your next big challenge, which was convincing the Championship Manager audience to move with you.
Well, we owned our website, and therefore [had a direct line to] the community that had been built on sigames. com that we started building in either ’95 or ’96, which was quite a while before many others had forums. And we made sure that we had football forums as well as nonfootball forums from a very early stage; we spoke to the community directly. Now, of course, we can do it via Twitter, but at that time we were all on the forums talking to people on a daily basis. We didn’t just have a community manager doing it, but Ov, Paul and I – and all the rest of the team – were constantly talking to people. That was quite a forward-thinking approach for the time.
Whose idea was that?
It was no one’s idea, it was just what we did. No one turned around one day and said, “Right, we’re going to set up a forum and we’re going to talk to people.” You have to remember that when Ov and Paul [founded SI], they were schoolkids. The next few people who started working on the team were schoolfriends of theirs, and then I was introduced as someone who shared the same passions and was just helping out my mates with the expertise that I had. Then a couple of other people came in, who again were brought into the same mentality: that the most important people are the people who play our games. Because without them, we have to go and get proper jobs. And I had – if you can call working in the music industry a ‘proper job’ – a job on the side anyway. So there was no conscious effort. All of us were online anyway; all of us were on similar newsgroups and bulletin boards about football.
One of the guys, Sven, who was known as Boa, was hired because I used to make data updates for the game and I used the data editor that he’d written for the game. I didn’t know how to put those data updates online, and he taught me how to put them online. Ov and Paul said, “We’re looking for a programmer, do you know anyone?” And I said, “Yeah, there’s this bloke in Norway.” And a few weeks later, he was in the studio. So hiring people from
the community has been something that we did then, and still do. We’d taken on a PR as well a couple of years before, and at that point developers did not have PRs. My attitude was, well, people in the music industry have PRs, so why wouldn’t we have PRs as a game developer?
You felt like a band, so you wanted to act like a band.
Absolutely. The PR guy that we were working with at the time dubbed it ‘word of mouse’, in that the Internet was really catching on at that point and people were talking about how we’d split [from Eidos], so that was a large part of it. We were also helped by a lot of retailers. HMV in Oxford Street, for example – if you walked in there they had copies of Football Manager on the shelf, and they had put stickers on themselves, nothing to do with us, saying, “You know it’s Champo,” on every box. We also had a situation where – as part of our divorce settlement, if you like – we were able to put in small font on an A4 advert, “From the creators of the Championship Manager series.” And we just happened to do 64-sheet flyposters rather than A4 adverts. And when you do that, the text is quite large. Certainly we did much better in the first year as Football Manager than we were expecting to, or were expected to. And that accelerated afterwards to a point where I think we were outselling our bestselling previous title by either year two or year three. Nowadays, we’re [selling] three times what we were doing then, so it was definitely a good move for us.
There’s no one doing the same thing on the same scale, so who do you see as your competition now?
Firstly, we never cared about competition. And we’ve sometimes been accused of being complacent because there isn’t competition out there. Whereas there have actually been 12 brands in the genre that have come and gone in the time we’ve been doing it. ‘Complacent’ is also the biggest insult you could possibly give to us, because we work our arses off every year. The reason that we do is not because [competitors] might come along, it’s because we’re trying to make the best game we possibly can for ourselves to play. And the fact that there are millions of people who enjoy our work as well is great, because, like I say, it does mean we don’t have to go and get proper jobs.
Do you take inspiration from other football games, such as FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer?
We certainly look at and admire the work that the FIFA team do and that the Pro Evo team do. I admire the work in a lot of games – Civilization, Grand Theft Auto, Destiny, a lot of Molyneux’s work over the years as well. Certainly a hell of a lot of David Braben’s work, and the way that he takes simulations and transforms them into more fun worlds than we do. Something like Zoo Tycoon, as an example, is a hell of a lot of fun to play. I get a bigger kick out of an elephant eating a banana out of my hand in Zoo
Tycoon than I do from going to the zoo in real life, because they don’t slobber on you in the game. So we take lots of inspiration from lots of different games, even going back to Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix series, where he was completely uncompromising with the way he wanted the physics of the car, even if it meant it was really hard to play sometimes. He wanted that absolute accuracy. His son actually works with us now, so I’ve got to meet Geoff a few times. It was an “I’m not worthy” moment the first time that I met him.
What’s been quite gratifying for us is seeing FIFA adding in some stuff that we’ve had for a while, like shirts getting dirty, for example, little things like that. But there’s certainly a lot of respect between us and the
FIFA team. I don’t know the Pro Evo team, so I don’t know them to be respectful of them, but I think Dave Rutter has done a fantastic job with FIFA. I know a bunch of the other guys over there as well and I play their game and they play ours, so it’s nice having that respect level.
But it does go a lot wider than that, particularly with my taste in games and other people here having different tastes in games that we’re always going to learn from each other. I don’t play a lot of games where you shoot people, whereas others here do. I play a lot of casual games, a lot of puzzle games, and you can learn a lot about the compelling behaviour people have when they’re playing those games. And we’ve always liked the fact that our games are quite compelling. Learning about those different mechanics is important as well.
With the likes of Football Manager Handheld and
Classic, you’ve simplified the core game in a way that suggests you’ve taken inspiration from casual games. Are there any other ideas you’ve taken from those games into Football Manager?
I was always very much a purist when it came to Football
Manager, and was [against] anyone being able to – I’m not allowed to use the word ‘cheat’, so let’s say ‘accelerate their progress’. And then I started playing a few free-to-play titles and I found myself getting very frustrated by certain levels, and paying 69p to accelerate my progress, and I didn’t feel dirty doing it. So that was one of the things that we added for Classic and Handheld and with the in-game editor to Football Manager as well. What a hypocrite I was, sitting there saying that people shouldn’t be able to cheat at our games, and I was doing the same thing in other people’s games. So we now do allow people to accelerate their progress if they want to, because who am I to say what their experience should be?
Some fans certainly would want to come home after their team’s been soundly beaten on a Saturday and
give themselves a better chance of exacting revenge.
Exactly. So we try and let people do both. My favourite unlockable that we’ve ever done is in Classic this year. It’s ‘dodgy lasagne’, which gives food poisoning to some of the opposition. Because that’s something that happened in football, and it’s something that people will have fun using. User flow is another thing we’ve learned about from a lot of the mobile titles, and that gave birth in a way to Classic. It had been bubbling under as an idea for a while. It was mainly brought up by people in the studio who’ve had kids and didn’t have time to play the full game and were turning off modules in the code, but then ruining the experience for themselves because those modules were really important to the rest of the game.
Classic was all about working out a way to turn those modules off and not have a negative effect on the game.
But a lot of the free-to-play titles really make me think. Rather than necessarily being inspiration for the game as such, like taking particular features [from them], they do sharpen my brain up a little late at night, which is when I do most of my feature idea work. A quick burst on one of the early PopCap games does the trick, or at the moment [match-three-puzzler] Best Fiends – thankfully I’ve just done level 80, because if I hadn’t Football
Manager would probably have been put back this year. But we also look at things like the loops in games like Tiny
Tower. There are really interesting mechanics to learn from [that kind of game] – sometimes we find we overcomplicate things a bit. And if we see people doing it in a simpler manner, we will try to simplify things.
Your development process often involves scheduling content years in advance. How many ideas do you have to shelve or postpone because of fluctuations in the sport, or simply because of time constraints?
Well, this year is a perfect example. I put together my dream featureset and it then goes to the programmers to estimate how long everything’s going to be. This year, it was over twice the time that we had, so a lot of stuff got moved across. It’s difficult when you’re doing a jigsaw puzzle to literally take half that puzzle and put it somewhere else, because it’s not as simple as just cutting it down the middle, it’s about trying to balance all of that stuff out. But this will actually be the first year that we don’t have feature meetings, because we don’t need to. When we went through the Football Manager 15 [feature plan], and all the real-world stuff we had to add and made the cuts from there, I effectively split the game into two volumes. So we already have a full featureset for Football
Manager 16 [planned]. There are 30 or 40 things that have come up during the year – either things that have happened in real life this year that we want to make sure are in there, or things we know are going to happen next year that still need to be added to the schedule. But we’re not going to [follow] our normal practice of one month sitting in a room from 11am till 6pm going through ideas. We’re actually going to spend that extra month doing more development work, which is the first time we’ve ever been able to do that as a studio.
Obviously, there will be other things that come up during the year and those things get added and other things get cut. Around March or April time, I have to do a cull – I call it genocide – and it’s the process that I like the least, because I’ve got used to the idea of features being in. There are times when my toys absolutely go out of the pram, when someone says, “Sorry, we’re not going to have time to do this,” and I’ll say, “Why didn’t you do that as the first feature?” and then they turn around and say, “It’s because you said I had to do these other six first,” and I have to apologise. People are used to it now – the me-getting-angry phase is when we’re doing the feature cutting.
Surely the idea has been floated of Football Manager becoming a game as a service. Could you see that happening in the future, or do you think the type of game it is means it’s still better suited to an annual release schedule?
At the moment, we’ve got Football Manager on PC, Mac and Linux; we have Classic on PC, Mac and Linux and last year on Vita; we’ve got Handheld on iOS and Android; and we will have Football Manager Online coming next year
“I’LL SAY, ‘WHY DIDN’T YOU DO THAT AS THE FIRST FEATURE?’ THEY’LL SAY, ‘IT’S BECAUSE YOU SAID I HAD TO DO THESE OTHER SIX FIRST’”
in Korea. If we were doing games as a service, the only way that would work for me is if there was crossinteroperability between all the different platforms. And the Steam Store doesn’t talk to the App Store, which doesn’t talk to Google Play, and so on. So it isn’t [currently] possible because of business models. If that changes, then maybe. It’s something that I’d love to do, because if someone buys Football Manager, I’d love to give them a discount on Handheld, I’d love to give them a discount on the documentary that we just released. But we can’t because they’re sold in different stores by different people.
You’re launching Football Manager Online in the Asian market first – is that simply because you’re keen to broaden the game’s reach to other territories, or because you think that style of game is more suited to an Asian audience?
There are a few different reasons for it. From an ego perspective, as a western developer, I want to break the east. I want to entertain people over there in the same way as we do here. To be fair, we already do with Football
Manager, but no one pays for it, so we’d like to get paid for our work over there. Secondly, when we first started looking at free-to-play a number of years ago, when we first started work on this game, the market wasn’t really there for it in the west, but it was there in the east.
Maybe if we hadn’t spent four years making this bloody game then it wouldn’t seem so weird that we were releasing it in the east first. It’s a co-development between ourselves and a company that were called KTH, but now Sega have bought them and they’re now called Sega Korea. It is geared specifically towards a Korean audience, [rather than] an eastern audience. And the Koreans have certain ways that they play games. There’s no other country in the world I can think of where on prime-time TV on a Saturday night, one of the main shows is people playing StarCraft; eSports over there is absolutely massive. So trying to get that element across, trying to have something for the type of person who wants to watch as well as play, was very important.
We’re launching in Korea in January, and we’ll then be looking at China next summer and a few other Asian territories. We’ll then start looking at the west and see whether we think that the game can work over here. At the moment, I’m not convinced it can. But from my understanding of the Asian market – and I spend a lot of time in Korea, because I’m out there every six or seven weeks – it’s certainly the best online sports management game that will have been released out there. And there have been quite a few. You would be amazed how many online games are released in Korea that aren’t released anywhere else in the world. So there is a very unique market over there that we want to tap into, simply because we want to be able to entertain as many people around the world as possible.
So your ultimate aim is to have your own Saturday night prime-time TV show with two managers competing against one another?
[Laughs] I’m not sure whether that would work or not. Actually, they do it with FIFA Online over there, as well as with StarCraft, and the stars aren’t the teams that are playing, it is the managers. ESports is a fantastic thing that I do believe is going to be way bigger in the future than any of us imagine. It’s something we’ve learned from working on the documentary. Film and TV companies are a little bit scared of games, and don’t really understand them, or the culture around them. You talk to them about eSports and they compare it to chess. Yet a recent eSports event at Wembley arena sold out. You’ve got 12,000 people in a massive hall basically watching people on a big screen playing a game. That’s phenomenal. And they’ve realised this in Korea. They haven’t realised it here yet. But it will happen.
Let’s circle back to where we began: you’ve spent 20 years at Sports Interactive. Is the Prozone deal the ultimate validation of what you’ve achieved in those two decades?
We work with a lot of people in football, so it never ceases to amaze me some of the calls that we get. Like an agent phoning up basically wanting to know how much this club are paying a new guy they’ve just signed for £10m so he can go and ask the same for his client who’s out of contract at the end of the season. As for Prozone, when you’ve got a company that well known inside the game coming to you wanting to license your data to sell to football clubs, it’s kind of bonkers. But that shows how hard the team here have worked over the years to get into that position, and how seriously we take the football side of what we do. The life-imitating-art-imitating-life circle is certainly there, and is something that I think none of us ever imagined would happen, but all of us are incredibly proud that it has.
“WHEN YOU’VE GOT PROZONE WANTING TO LICENSE YOUR DATA TO SELL TO FOOTBALL CLUBS, IT’S KIND OF BONKERS”
Believability is crucial for Jacobson, even when that means capturing the sport’s sometimes frustrating unpredictability. It doesn’t always win the game fans. “Getting that across to people, when they’ve had 20 shots and the other team have had two shots, and yet they’ve lost 1-0, is difficult, but it is something that happens in real life”
Sega released a video detailing the myriad additions to Football Manager15, but even so Jacobson claims that “hundreds of features” were kept secret. “Because people spend so much time with the game, it’s good for them to find something new when they’re in their 130th hour”
A chat over beers with The Creative Assembly led the studio to offer Jacobson the use of its mocap facilities for the match engine. “Hopefully, this year players will have an animation experience worthy of the amount of time they spend watching the 3D [matches],” he says