An Au­di­ence With…

The Foot­ball Man­ager boss dis­cusses Korea, ca­reers, and keep­ing the band to­gether

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY CHRIS SCHILLING

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

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