Football Manager 2008 is set to invade bedrooms, work computers and social lives across the UK when it is released on PC in two weeks. To mark the end of our spare time, Pro-G sat down with the game's creator, Miles Jacobson, MD of Sports Interactive, to talk Facebook, consoles and hot tips for the transfer market.
Pro-G: This year's game seems like you've tried to make the interface more accessible. Would that be fair?
Miles Jacobson: It's a case of trying to make the game more fun for people to play, both for the existing users and for getting new people in as well. Whilst it's great being a cult game and we sell a lot of games for being a cult game, we want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy it. If the barrier to that was the interface previously then that's something that we have to change. But it's important that, yes, some of the team has spent some time on the interface but we've still got so many new features inside the game as well, for advanced and for new users. Things like the coach reports mean you can take on any team that you want to in the world. I actually had some good fun mucking about in the Peruvian league which is the maddest league in the world, and taking over a team in there and just not having a clue. Just having a coach there going right, these are your good players, these are your bad players, this is where you need to sort it out - tying that in with all the scout reports as well, they come back and say he's better than this player or not as good as this player - can make a big difference to the way people are going to play the game.
Pro-G: So will people be able to navigate the menus better?
MJ: Yeah. We've bunched things together better. There's loads more options in there of course. We've got the transfer wage and budget splitting up thingy, which is its official title, we've trademarked transfer and wage budget splitter thingy. It's easier to navigate, there's less mouse movement as well which is important. But we've also kept things in place that people are used to. There's a lot of duplication in things like the continue button or we've got the quick link icons now which save people having to go down and look through the menus. The game's certainly faster for me to play because I know where everything is easier now. Things are just easier to find inside there.
Pro-G: What kind of reaction have you had to the interface overhaul?
MJ: We've had the normal people complaining going there's nothing wrong with the old skin but they are the same people who would have complained if we hadn't changed the skin. We've just changed it more radically than we normally would have done. But looking at the applications that we all spend a lot of time looking at, we're massive music fans here, so we spend a lot of time looking at iTunes. We're big users of Facebook here, so we spent a lot of time looking at that.
Pro-G: So Facebook isn't banned in the office then?
MJ: No, no, definitely not. If anything we think those guys are incredibly clever at what they've done. People tend to use Facebook in the evenings rather than during the day, but because I'm on the friends list of everyone here, if they were all spending all day adding photos to it I'd know about it pretty damn quick so it would be pretty stupid to do that. But we've just noticed that over the last couple of years a lot of people have been driven towards the cleaner elements of skins and it was about time that we did the same. It is definitely whiter.
Pro-G: What kind of reaction has the whiter skin had?
MJ: We've had a few people saying that it hurts their eyes, and the majority of people saying they really like it. We will be releasing a tool to make it easier for people to skin the game round about release, or they can just turn their monitor settings down slightly and then they'll be all right. I presume the people who are saying it does hurt their eyes don't use Facebook and iTunes. Certainly for me I find it easier on the eye than the old skin because I'm squinting less to be able to read the text. When you've got a dark skin and light text then it can actually be more of a strain than the other way round. But we're never going to please everybody all of the time so we try and please as many people as possible.
Pro-G: Can you clear up the release dates for the various versions of the game?
MJ: It's coming out on PC and Mac on October 19. Football Manager Handheld, which is a different game is coming out at some point in November. 360 we've said that we're working on one but we haven't got a release date for it and it's not going to be before Christmas.
Pro-G: Why is that?
MJ: Because the interface and the control method on the last 360 game wasn't good enough. Thankfully we're with a publisher who would rather we got it right than churn it out again. One of the good things about being a part of SEGA is that if we turn round to them and say we need a bit more time then as long as it fits in properly fiscally for them then they're happy to let us do that. We're determined to make the console experience as enjoyable to play as the PC experience which I don't think we had last year.
Pro-G: So what are the challenges with porting the game to console?
MJ: Basically we don't have a mouse on the 360. We would have on the Wii. If the Wii had the specs of the 360 that would be brilliant. You'd just use the Wii controller to do it and press the button. So without the mouse it is a challenge for a game like ours that does rely on people using mice. It took a long time for the FPS side of things to get it right on consoles and some people would say they still haven't, but games like Gears of War, I can't imagine playing with a keyboard or a mouse, I've only played it on a 360. But the challenges that come in from that are a slightly new way of thinking. So we've got a couple of guys who've moved across to the console team who were in previous teams to try and get a fresher outlook on it. When we've got it right, that's when we'll release it. When we're happy with it that's when we'll release it. I think that's the right thing to do. I wouldn't want to release something that's half-arsed really.
Pro-G: So what was the problem with the game on 360 last year?
MJ: We came up with a system last year with the triggers to go through the menus and some people liked it and some people didn't. I don't think there's anyone in the studio here who thought it was intuitive enough but it was the best that we could do at that time. Because we released the last 360 game at the time that we did, it would have only meant seven or eight months of development to get this one right and that wasn't going to be long enough so we're taking a bit longer. We apologise if that disappoints any of our 360 fans but I would hope that they would rather get something that's better slightly later, than get something that's not better earlier.
Pro-G: You mentioned that if the Wii had the specs of the 360 that would be perfect...
MJ: Just because of the control method.
Pro-G: But Football Manager isn't a game that you would normally associate with requiring killer hardware...
MJ: It doesn't need a huge graphics card but it does need very good processors and very good RAM and preferably a hard drive to be able to do stuff with. And also resolution is important as well. The 360 game plays much better in 720 than it does in standard definition because you can get much more on the screen. I would love to be doing something on the Wii but I don't actually know whether the core Football Manager game would be the right game to make for the Wii anyway. The Wii audience is quite different to the standard game audience. Certainly from the people who come round to mine and want to play on the Wii rather than playing on the 360 or the PS3, they're more the non-gamers. Nintendo have been brilliant at expanding the market for years and years and years and I've got a hell of a lot of respect for them for doing that but whether the standard game would work or not I don't know. Maybe we'll do something on the Wii in the future, maybe we'll do something a little bit different on the Wii, who knows. But I like my one. It's fun.
Pro-G: What about Football Manager on PS3?
MJ: We're not going to see Football Manager 2008 on the PS3. We don't know yet if we're going to do it in the future. We've looked at the machine. We would never do a game in the first year of a console because we're not known as a console developer. We'll look at it in the long term but who knows.
Pro-G: Were there any other reasons associated with the decision not to do this FM game on PS3?
MJ: We would have had to take on a load more staff to do it and we're incredibly choosy about the people who join the team at SI. We're not a studio who has people who join and then leave a year later. We are a proper team where people stay for a long time. We've got lots of five-year, lots of 10-year people downstairs as part of the team. We believe in organic growth not just throwing a load of people at it. I'm sure we could have done it and I'm sure it would have been possible for us to do it but we've got to do what's right for us and what's right for the gamers in the long term rather than shoving 100 people at it and gone "whey let's do it!" That was why this year. We haven't had the features meetings for next year's game yet, those are happening in November. That's the point that it will get brought up and we'll see whether anyone here is interested in doing it or interested in heading up a team to do it, or if anyone's got any mates who want to come over here and work on the console side of things. It's a possibility for the future. I'm not ruling it out, but we haven't made a decision yet.
Pro-G: But it can certainly happen on the PS3? There's nothing about the machine that means it can't appear on the console?
MJ: I don't see why it can't happen. Certainly from a technical standpoint it's a powerful machine. The only problem I have with mine is the Blu-ray controllers and my wireless router don't get on very well. Apart from that I'm certainly enjoying mine at the moment.
Check elsewhere on the site for part two of our interview where Miles talks about why Football Manager 2008 is more than a simple update.