BRIGHTON, UK--With the World Cup over, fans of football (or "soccer," for our American readers) are beginning to look to the new domestic football season for their next fix of action. And following straight on from that, there's the usual rush to find out how the new Football Manager game will change this year.
In a spare moment away from the bustle of the Develop Conference, Sports Interactive studio head Miles Jacobson took some time to talk with GameSpot about what the past year has meant for the UK developer, how the company's acquisition by Sega affected it, and what lies ahead.
GameSpot: We're here in Brighton to talk about the state of the games industry--from some of the headlines, it seems like a difficult time, or do you disagree?
Miles Jacobson: I think it's different for each publisher--some are having a great time, others are finding it harder. But maybe that's because they haven't been concentrating on content, and that's hitting them now...There aren't many games coming out for the current-generation consoles at the moment, and perhaps that has hit figures, but I certainly find the industry quite healthy compared to a few years ago.
GS: Is it healthy for Sports Interactive?
MJ: It's very healthy for Sports Interactive. Football Manager is selling more and more each year, and we're entertaining lots of people with that. Obviously we're owned by Sega now, which I wouldn't have predicted a year ago, but it was the right deal with the right people at the right time. We're also working on a couple of other projects at the moment, as well, which will be announced when we're ready, but we're fortunate we have a parent company which leaves us alone to make great games.
GS: So they're not going to enforce deadlines on you?
MJ: We enforce deadlines on ourselves; we don't need Sega to do it for us. They give us optimum release times, and we work out if that's possible or not. If it isn't, we'd say so, and they're OK with that. We've managed to hit deadlines the last few years, and to be honest, I'm really lucky, as there's a great bunch of people at both Sega and SI who are totally committed to making it work.
GS: Sega has acquired a number of studios recently. Is there a risk with the expansion that focus on SI is lost?
MJ: Sega has grown in numbers as it's been picking studios up and signing new games. There are probably more brand managers there now than there were total staff when we first started working with them [in 2004]. It's actually pretty cool to be part of the revolution--I've been a Sega fanboy for many years, and for us to be mentioned in the same breath as the resurgence of the brand makes me very proud.
GS: There are over 100 new features for Football Manager 2007--it's a game series you've been working on now for 14 years--so how do you come up with new content each time?
MJ: There are two different processes really. First, we trawl our message boards, and those of our affiliates too, listen to what our customers want. We also, as a company, make notes on the previous game we've made; those notes make it into a series of meetings and the results are sent to the coders. They'll decide what goes in and what doesn't, and the final list will be sent to everybody for a final discussion, so the whole thing is fairly democratic.
GS: What would happen if the community was demanding a feature that you didn't think was in keeping with the spirit of the game?
MJ: I'd post on the forum, stating that it wasn't right for the game, usually because a request is based on something that a football manager in real life just wouldn't take responsibility for. If it is right, then it might go in--feeder clubs, for instance, were requested and is in the game this year because it's become part of the game in real life.
GS: Something you've done with Football Manager in the last couple of years is look at key modules of the game and reevaluate them. Training and media interaction are two you've tuned before--are you happy with them now, or will they be developed further?
MJ: Training we're pretty happy with. It's scouting that's the one [change] we've focused on this year, and it's been completely redesigned. It's rather special, actually. It's got lots of minigames you can play, collecting as much knowledge you can from around the world, which then makes scouting missions quicker because you have a greater knowledge of the different countries you're sending scouts to.
Media improves every year, training has been improved a bit, but we're not revealing quite how until September. But there's always something each year that will niggle someone in the team, or one of the customers, and we'll look at it and maybe agree, so it's always an ongoing process.
GS: The world of football is a pretty complex place, so how do you go about modelling something as difficult as that?
MJ: Well, we have head researchers in 50 different countries, and certainly on a financial level we have to model each of those countries quite separately. But the fact that football is changing all the time is a great thing for us, because it means the game doesn't stagnate. With other sports, there might not be any changes other than data changes every season. The hardest thing for us, though, is just being kept informed of everything, which is why we have a network of 1,500 scouts across the world. It certainly keeps us busy.
GS: You've been developing the current game code for a few years now. Do you have any plans to rewrite it at some point, or will you continue to tweak the existing one?
MJ: I don't [think] we need to do a complete rewrite. There will always be areas that change, but with hindsight, the rewrite for Championship Manager 4 was maybe a mistake. With the match engine in particular, when people see Football Manager 2007, it really has taken a leap. The look of the game is a bit different this year, but a rewrite would be mad--like a band rewriting one of their classic songs.
GS: GameSpot recently ran a feature that let the community decide their favourite football games of all time. Football Manager 2006 came third, behind Pro Evolution Soccer 5 and FIFA 06. What was your reaction to that?
MJ: Well, I was still pretty annoyed that we didn't come top...but seriously, finishing behind Pro Evo doesn't hurt at all, it's a very special game. And FIFA is a seriously mass-market title that's played by millions of people, so that's fine, as well. I think to be number one in the management genre, which we were, is very special and, of course, we're very proud. But then, we strive to be the best game in the world, not just the best management game in the world, so we're going to have to improve.
GS: Thanks for your time.