With Sports Interactive's Football Manager Live about to re-launch following a complete gameworld reset, we caught up with producer Marc Duffy to find out what went wrong and what the London studio has planned to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.
Q: Firstly, how would you sum up your feelings on FM Live? It was something new for Sports Interactive, so has development and player response been as you expected?
Marc Duffy: You're right; it was certainly something new for us. We have always been excellent at delivering boxed product in the form of Football Manager each year and we've had to adapt pretty quickly to life making an MMO. Having worked here for eleven years the past 2 years have easily been some of the hardest but most fun.
On the development front, we set out from the start to try and deliver content every 3-4 months and this at times has proved to be challenging but we did manage it.
We've always been a developer that works closely with our community and never more so than with FML. This has meant that we've had to balance what the hardcore users that patrol our forums want against what is good for the game and what some of the more casual players desire.
Q: Can you give us a recap on what's been happening with FM Live? What were the problems you ran into that lead to the imminent gameworld reset?
MD: The process prior to announcing a reset was that we carried out an internal post mortem and looked at the things that had worked and the things that hadn't. We challenged ourselves to understand the mistakes we had made, why we made them and how we could improve things in the future. The overriding consensus once we'd gone through this was that we had to look at doing a full reset.
With hindsight being such a wonderful thing, we learnt that one of our fundamental mistakes was making so many large gameplay and financial changes so early in the life of the game. It almost made some of the initial gameworlds impossible places to do well in, especially for new managers. The rankings pages were filled up with managers who had been there from day 1, who had so much wealth, that there was never any chance of them being caught or ever getting into any kind of financial strife - there was simply no movement in power within a gameworld and that just wasn't how Oliver Collyer and the team had planned the game.
Resetting wasn't the only way to solve the issues, we also had to make several structural and gameplay changes and along with a FML focus group that we ran in London we were able to discuss our plans.
Structure wise we've added a new 'regen' type of gameworld and this is where the names of the players are not the real ones - all managers get the choice of gameworld type to join.
Gameplay wise we created a concept in the real player named gameworlds of returning stars. We've amended the way in which our skills system work as well as making life as a manager a lot tougher when you're at the top.
Q: Why wasn't it possible to allow players to retain their teams with some form of gameworld merger?
MD: It's something we looked at very closely and it's certainly not impossible, however, the biggest factor was that in FML players were unique. There is only ever one Wayne Rooney.
If we had a scenario where two teams that got merged into the same gameworld both had a particular player we'd get into big issues as much of our database design and architecture centres around this.
Q: Why should existing players continue, knowing that over a year of game time will be lost when the reset takes place?
MD: We did expect many of our subscribers to leave the game based on our announcements and we've been pleasantly pleased that it's not been as many leaving as we had predicted.
We knew how important the time invested in the game was to people. Many have been developing their club, building up their infrastructure, nurturing young talent and to have this taken away from them was going to be a pretty big deal - history tells you in MMO land this is not something you approach lightly.
In order to help smooth the reset process over we've ensured that anyone continuing after the reset will get to decide what type of gameworld they join. They will still be playing with people from their current gameworld as keeping communities together is important. Any skills they've accumulated will be converted into points and these points can be distributed within their new world. The usual things such as shortlists, tactics, filters and customised views are also being kept and transferred as is their team name and club information.
Q: Will existing players be given any incentives to continue?
MD: Since we announced the reset to subscribers late last they have been playing the game for free. As soon as the reset happens later this month our billing system will start again.
Q: How can you be sure the gameworlds won't become too thinly populated once again, resulting in a repeat of the current situation?
MD: One of the biggest learnings we've had from our time operating Football Manager Live is gameworld lifecycle management. This was something that cropped up when we were evaluating the game. We had a situation at launch where we opened gameworlds too quickly and the biggest post reset change will be us managing this process closely.
Q: Do you have any plans to change the subscription rates for the game?
MD: Yes. If you go back to our launch last January, pricing always appeared to be a barrier to entry. "That sounds like a great game but there's no way I'm paying £72.99 per year" was a common thread I saw online.
The first part of changing this perception was to drop the price to be £4.99 a month.
The second part was to review and simplify the pricing structure and the only option is to pay monthly (there are no 3 month, 6 month or yearly plans). You therefore have no tie ins apart from the month you're currently paying for.
Q: Eidos recently revealed it will be shutting Championship Manager Online after five years of activity. Would you like to see these players transition to FM Live?
MD: Yes, I think anyone who has an interest in football and who is looking for a challenging online management experience should give Football Manager Live a go.
Q: We've also got a question from one of the remaining active managers on the St John Gameworld - on which I play. Go Juicy Danglers! This question comes from Chris Tedds, manager of Brainwashed United.
My question is about what changes to the transfer market the restart will bring.
Throughout the couple of months I've been playing FML, I have acquired quite a few players, and a repeated problem I had was when a player became surplus to my requirements. I'd put them on the transfer market, put in ads in the chatrooms and transfer mail... all to no avail, because I didn't have the quality everyone else wanted. Even putting them on auction for a stupidly low price didn't work. There were too many players who were essentially worthless, and I was forced to simply release players far too frequently.
So my question is... Is this problem going to be dealt with, and if it is, how?
MD: That's a difficult question to answer and I wonder how much of Chris' problems have been caused by the fact that we announced a reset and as a result activity in his gameworld started to dwindle?
That aside, I'm fairly confident that the changes we've made in v1.5 should help. There has been a situation where many of the teams are of a reputation that is too similar so we've made the spread a lot larger and as a result it should mean there is always a market for his players.
Football Manager Live is out now on PC.