Not content with eating into your leisure time with annual updates of the heinously addictive Football Manager, the online counterpart to developer Sports Interactive's management game has finally gone live. After a lengthy beta, the servers are gradually filling up with virtual managers attempting to pit their wits against each other for about £6 ($8.50) a month. However, it should be stated that this is not simply Football Manager online. Although there is inevitably some crossover with its parent game, FML is a very different beast, comprising elements of fantasy football, online auctions, and social networking in a markedly different package that manages to be just as compelling as its offline forebear.
Content-wise, FML may be a world away from smiting goblins, but you still begin the game by creating a character in the form of your club. No longer do you have the choice of picking from a real-world team, but instead have to begin from scratch, including an inevitably zany name for your outfit. Say goodbye to Barcelona, Barnet, Chelsea, or Chester, and prepare to do battle with the likes of Romford Rejects, Jay-Z FC, Hobo United, or Kings of the Hill.
It's an approach that may well irk the purists, but it's a necessary one; a world with a thousand Manchester Uniteds would be an unbearable place. Yet though the clubs are fictional, the players are real, given that Sports Interactive has wisely elected to employ its staggering global database of more than 330,000 footballers. Honed during more than a decade of development, it's not only the definitive work in gaming terms but also arguably in football terms. As such, you're given the opportunity to choose individual players, or you can simply autoselect a balanced squad. Given the vast database, you inevitably end up with a bunch of players that you've never heard of, unless you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of world football. Whereas in Football Manager you might initially favour players based on their real-life reputations, here you actually have to do some work and manage your choices more scientifically.
You get ample opportunity to do this by playing friendlies, with a week of preparation available before the season proper begins. In addition to one-off games, user-created tournaments are rife, often with entry fees and prizes. It's a model vaguely comparable to online poker, so you might enter a 32-team cup competition, with weighted in-game prize money being paid out to the quarterfinalists and beyond. As for the official competitions, you have to join a football association (effectively a guild), because if you don't you're largely missing out on the game. A variety of associations are available, depending on how frequently and at which times you wish to play, be it early evenings, weekday afternoons, or for the committed, all day every day. One stumbling block of previous online commercial football-management games has been the quandary of getting opponents online at the same time, and though the association system goes some way towards easing this, each fixture has an expiry date after which the AI will take over, with various forfeits in place to punish your nonattendance. The money that you win in these tournaments can be spent on upgrades to your stadium, letting you make more money in the long run (assuming that your team's performances pull in the crowds), as well as on players as the seasons go on.
As for the matches themselves, the 3D engine recently unveiled in Football Manager 2009 is not used; the matches play out via the old-school overhead 2D view. If you've never played a Football Manager game, imagine watching a match from a position about half a mile above the pitch, with the action played out by 22 dots chasing an even smaller dot (the ball), and text commentary keeping you up to date with the crucial interchanges. Other than a generic alert sound that lets you know when you receive messages there's no audio in Football Manager Live, which is disappointing given that previous games in the series have featured atmospheric crowd chants, referee whistles, and the like. Although some may consider it a backward step, watching a game of football played out by numbered dots with accompanying text is still a weirdly compelling experience, with individual players displaying their various skills, and the action being clearly relayed enough that you still feel connected to your virtual charges. Despite the rudimentary interface, there are still some nail-biting moments as the respective goals are threatened.
There are three different speeds you can view the games at, so each manager votes for one before kickoff and the lowest choice is selected. Once you send your charges over that white line, you can't do much but hope that your painstaking preparation will see your team through, something that can be scuppered immediately by unforeseen injuries or dismissals. As for substitutions and tactical tweaks, a vast array of formations is available, or of course you can design your own to implement at that crucial moment. It is also possible to control how far up the pitch your team plays at any given moment, how aggressive its play style is, or, if you have selected the appropriate coaching skills, options such as zonal marking and using playmakers. To avoid inconveniencing your opponent, changes can be made on the fly without disrupting the game, or you can request a two-minute time-out--but you have only a limited number per match, so they must be used wisely. And throughout each match, a chat box is available to taunt or commend your opponent, although conversation rarely stretches beyond the bounds of "gg" (good game) or "wp" (well played).
Elsewhere, probably the most contentious issue thus far is that of the in-game manager skills, essentially a crude way of levelling up. Depending on which area you wish to specialize in, you simply drag the relevant skill into a box and wait for it to level up, be it minutes or days. It's mildly frustrating because, for instance, you're not able to assign a target man to your team until you have the correct qualification, which can be earned only through the nebulous currency of time. As part of your initial setup, you can choose a set of skills that can be levelled faster than others. An example would be the club doctor speciality, which makes physio-related skills easier to obtain. On the subject of time, transfers operate very much like eBay auctions, complete with a version of the Buy It Now feature, which may tempt impatient managers who don't wish to wait 24 hours to find out if their bids have been successful.
It's still early, but in its current state Football Manager Live is little more than a competent interface attached to a series of imponderable algorithms that somehow add up into a very compelling title. What will make it a success is the community; without other people, there is no game here. Early signs are promising, with some fairly robust, egalitarian systems in place, despite some early rumours of cheating. Practically everyone is civil, and moderators are quick to intervene if the chat gets heated.
For long-time players of Football Manager, having to work out what to do next is one of the larger culture shocks. Despite FM's addictive reputation, a large part of the gameplay experience consists of simply pressing the "continue" button and advancing the virtual calendar. With FML taking place in real time, there is no such luxury. Nevertheless, it soon has you under its spell, and any game that has you bellowing at your monitor in disgust when your overpaid striker balloons the ball over the bar from 10 yards comes with a degree of emotional attachment.