For some gamers, the release of the latest Football Manager title is more eagerly awaited than any other, as it heralds their next chance to lead their team to glory.
Just after formally announcing the release date for Football Manager 08 and showing off some of the game's new features at an event in London, Sports Interactive's managing director, Miles Jacobson, took some time to talk to GameSpot UK about changes made for this year's game and the plans for Football Manager Live.
GameSpot UK: Is everything ready for the game's October 19 release?
Miles Jacobson: It is. It was touch-and-go, and I have to thank Sega's operations department for managing to cut delivery times to many, many countries around the world so that the game can come out at the same time. We've made it, and now can't wait for people to have the chance to play it.
GS UK: Now that it's done, which of the new features are you most pleased with?
MJ: My favourite feature is being able to move my transfer and wage budgets around. I absolutely love it, but that's not something it took someone very long to code. It wasn't even discussed in the features meeting...it was very much an afterthought of "wouldn't it be cool if we could do this!" and someone had it done a few hours later.
I think the match flow side of things is huge for the normal player of the game. The confidence side of things and the way you can negotiate with your board, whether you're going to be pushing for the league title or just trying to keep them up is also a big thing. There's something for everyone, except for training; we've not done much with the training halls this year.
Coach reports are also important, but commercially the Advisor is probably the most important new feature as it does give us a way of getting a lot of new consumers involved. People who have been scared of the game now hopefully won't be!
GS UK: How much does player feedback affect the development process?
MJ: When I'm talking to players, scouts, and chief executives, I tend to be talking to them as fans of the game. So their feedback is obviously important because they work inside the football world, but so is the feedback we get from our community--our message boards, the e-mails we get, the testers we have testing the game.
If it wasn't for people giving us feedback our games wouldn't be nearly as good as they are, and it's absolutely imperative that we listen to it and we continue to listen to what people want to see in the games. We make these games for ourselves--it just so happens that there are lots of people out there who also enjoy them, and therefore they're part of the team as much as we are.
GS UK: In your presentation, you mentioned usability testing as part of the development process. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
MJ: To be honest, the usability testing was something Sega wanted to do and I wasn't up for. I was wrong. It was absolutely invaluable doing it. We got different groups of people together: One day we'd have people who have been playing the game for years, one day we'd have people who hadn't played it at all, one day we'd have people who had played it and had stopped playing it...but we got about 30 hours of video of people playing the game.
It was very strange: There was one video that I was watching where I was just shouting at the screen, "This guy's an idiot!" and then I just realised he wasn't, he just hadn't played the game before and was getting a little bit lost. And that was the point where the little lightbulb went up and went, "We're not doing enough to help new people. We're just making the game for people who have played it before." It was quite eye-opening.
Hopefully things such as the Advisor and the new skin will really help people be able to get into the game, and become customers in the long term. We want to be selling as many games as possible; we don't make any bones about that because we want to be entertaining as many people as possible.
GS UK: How would you summarise the changes you've made as a result of that testing?
MJ: We've made the interface much cleaner, and more "modern." Web 2.0 is a buzzword that gets bandied about a lot at the moment; certainly it's quite a Web 2.0 interface in the way that it went. We haven't taken out any functionality at all, we've just made it easier to find the functionality.
For example, adding icons where before we just had text menus... People don't like looking down big lists of text. So by putting in icons it makes it pretty easy for people to spot the stuff. There's less mouse movement than there was previously, too. I think that "cleaner" is the word that sums it up in one way. We just wanted to make something that people didn't feel was going to be a chore.
GS UK: How is the beta for Football Manager Live?
MJ: It's been going really, really well. We've just shut down the first beta world. Beta world one was interesting, because quite a few people were cheating, and the people who were cheating weren't necessarily reporting the cheats to us so we were trailing them and seeing exactly what they were doing to cheat, which meant that the financial model inside the game went a bit awry.
So we announced at the end of last week that the gameworld was dead, and that we were restarting the gameworld with the financial model that we want. We are about to start a second gameworld as well, and we're splitting the first world into a world of 500 rather than 1,000, so we have two gameworlds of 500 and one of 1,000, so we can see what happens when we have 500 people in a gameworld. The whole reason for starting beta-testing so early was to get all of this stuff ironed out to get to this stage around now. It's been fascinating. It's been going really, really well. We're still on target at the moment.
GS UK: For Q1 next year, correct?
MJ: Yeah. We said before that we're trying to get it out before March, and that means the day before April as far as I'm concerned. We're looking to launch toward the end of March and there's no reason at the moment why we can't do that. Obviously these things can change at any point but that's definitely our target.
We're feature-complete for what we want to be in there for day one, but as we've tagged it for constant development it's not as if you'll buy Football Manager Live 08, then 09... We'll be regularly updating stuff. We're not going to be doing expansion packs--as and when we want to add new features they'll get added in.
GS UK: Is there a plan for the payment model for the subscription service?
MJ: There isn't at the moment. Part of the reason for adding the second game world is to look to see if that mirrors the first game world's usage. It's very difficult with an MMO to set a price until we know how much it's going to cost us to run. We want to ensure it's really good value for money. I doubt very much that it's going to be the same price that many other MMOs have launched at. I'm personally not interested in a £14.99 price; I want it to be much cheaper than that.
To be honest I doubt we'll have a pricing model until January. We'll have another couple of months with this gameworld, probably add another couple of gameworlds toward the end of November, and then probably make the call just before Christmas to announce in January.
There are various models we're examining at the moment, some of which work, some of which don't. Obviously we can't release something that's going to lose money, but we don't want to be ripping anyone off. Thankfully with Sega they are fully supportive of that and believe very much the same thing. We've gone into this together and we all want to see the same thing: to have a brilliant casual MMO that has millions of people enjoying it all over the world.
GS UK: Now that the team here has put FM08 to bed, what are they up to?
MJ: For me, I become a media whore. I've not had any rest since we went gold, so we'll be media-whoring for a bit then we'll collapse. Some of the team will be looking at whether we want to do a patch or not, some people are looking at the things coming up from the forums to make a decision.
I expect we'll probably do one, it's just a question of whether we do it day one or slightly afterward. Some of the team are doing research work for FM09, some are working on the Xbox 360 version of FM08, which won't be out this year. We don't have a date for it yet because we want to make sure the interface is spot-on for it this time, which it wasn't last year.
The plan is to reconvene at the end of October for our postmortem meeting, looking at what went wrong and trying to fix it. Then we'll have a features meeting at the start of November, and we'll probably be working on the next game from the second week of November. It's no rest; it's both the beauty and the beast of the annual cycle. There are studios out there who end up with a lot of dead time at the end of projects where they don't even know what their next project is and might be sitting around twiddling their thumbs for a couple of months. For us it's no rest for the wicked.
Some of the coders are having some time off, which they thoroughly deserve as everyone's worked their arses off to get this game out, and some are sitting downstairs playing the game.
GS UK: The last time you spoke to us you mentioned a potential PlayStation 3 project. Can you tell us some more about it?
MJ: I don't think I did... I'm being waved at by PR people! If I did mention a PS3 project I must have been drunk. FM08 will not be out on PS3, I can guarantee that. Part of our features meeting [for FM09] will be looking at that, as we'd be stupid not to look at it. There are no firm plans as yet.