This morning Beautiful Game Studios, the people behind the Championship Manager franchise, announced a partnership with leading Chinese online game publisher Shanda Games. The specifics of the deal remain a little vague, but it's an exciting move for the Wimbledon-based studio which has gone through some dramatic changes over the past 18 months. I sat down with BGS general manager Roy Meredith and brand manager Tim Hodges to discuss the partnership, Championship Manager 2011 on iPhone and a more agile future.
Q: Tell me a bit more about your partnership with Shanda Games.
Roy Meredith: They are huge. At one stage I was told they are one of the biggest company's in China. They've got their fingers in lots of interactive and online stuff.
We've been talking to them for about 18 months about stuff we can do with them. We're not divulging what it is, but it's obviously got to fit within what we do and what they do - they are huge in the MMO space. They are huge in lighter games as well and our expertise is in football.
Q: Is is possible whatever comes from the partnership will make its way to Europe?
RM: Initially they are going to be more concerned with the Chinese market because that is where their stronghold is. We'll see how it goes and see if we can bring it the other way as well. Obviously there are games built predominantly with Far East culture. Horse racing games. I can't believe how big they are. And cartoony... kinda weird games.
It's the same with China, there's some strange, from my aspect, it's not strange full stop because it's culturally fantastic. What I've got to do is see what we build is right for them, because it is genuinely a partnership with them, see how it works then see where we can go with it. It's very early days. There is a certain ambiguity about the press release because it is early days with them. We've signed an agreement, it's taken us a fair old while to have discussions with them, to look at the Chinese market, to get the right people. And they are brilliant. What's really staggering is, from my perspective, is how knowledgeable everybody at Shanda is about football. Not just Premier League stuff, but last season there was a tackle by Shawcross at Stoke who broke Aaron Ramsey's leg. They were going into all the psychology of it. They weren't just saying 'did he do it deliberately?' which is what people would have discussed in pubs over here. They were talking about the psychology of teams when they approach and play Arsenal.
I thought this is the weirdest thing in the world. I'm talking to these two Chinese guys that I thought maybe wouldn't know so much about football. It's fantastic. They really know their football, so I'm really really excited to be working with them because it's a partnership, not just a licensing deal where we turn around to them with an idea and they go with it. They are offering as much to us as we are to them, which is great, absolutely great.
It's important for us. We went through that change at the end of last year with our studio here. We were completely focussed on one direction which was PC and trying to do the odd mobile game and trying the odd iPhone game. The people were completely focussed on the PC game. We know how fast our market changes - that's one of the disadvantages of working in computer games I guess, over night things change. So we had to have some deep thoughts and a lot of conversations about where we wanted to go because the market for boxed PC is declining. The market for PC is changing full stop, whether it's boxed, direct delivery, and also it wasn't enabling us to focus on other areas. We have a very strong brand, we've got a great game in a great genre - everybody who loves football loves football management games. We kind of needed to refresh a lot of what we were doing, so we took the decision to put the PC game on hold.
Q: So you've just got the iPhone game this year?
RM: That's all we've announced. We've got more announcements to come certainly. So far all we've announced is the iPhone game, CM11 is coming...
Q: It'll just appear on the store.
RM: It's extraordinary. Coming from an industry where you have Sony and Xbox, who say right, 'we're releasing this game on the 24th January'. With Apple it's kind of like, 'whenever, you send it to us and we'll let you know when your game's out'. But actually they don't and you watch the App Store for a while, the day you take your eye of it, someone with go 'game's released! Oh shit, let's get going'. It's really quite amusing. Apple submissions don't take long, so we'll submit at the end of September, and it could come out two days later, it could be two weeks later. It just depends on how many people are submitting.
Potentially there are some other releases or announcements to talk about. So we've got PC on hold for the moment. iPhone is a key format for us and online as well with Shanda.
Q: So PC is on hold. Are you continuing to support the current game?
RM: No, absolutely not. I don't want to talk about plans for the PC game, but I think it would be fair to say that when we go back to it, it will be different to what we've experienced before. Both in terms of content and delivery.
Q: You were quite radical before with your pay what you want promotion for CM10.
RM: Yeah, and with Season Live as well, we took a kind of bold step in that direction. Some of it worked, some of it was a bit over adventurous to try all at once. We wanted to change the way the game was being played with the number of different start points. I'd like to think that we'll carry on doing that sort of thing because it is important. The games industry is changing massively; people want it to be more personal, an experience that you want. An extreme degree of that is Spore or The Sims, where everybody's game is different. I don't think we need to go that far, but allowing people to take what they can from it and play the way they want within a core experience.
I guess that's kind of what we are trying to do with the iPhone game as well, because we're going more towards leaderboards and achievements. It's really difficult to make the core experience with Championship Manager, whether it's PC or iPhone, to make it multiplayer in the true essence of multiplayer without changing what you're doing. If you want the Premiership, you want the Championship, you want La Liga, that's really difficult to make multiplayer. We can make it more competitive against your friends in a certain way. You can do it. FM Live have done it very nicely, but you don't play in the Premier League.
Q: It's all Fantasy stuff. Everybody wanted the big name players.
RM: Of course, everybody wants Rooney. There are challenges to go down multiplayer route. They've chosen the fantasy route. The league structures in there are quite complex, but they work for what they are doing.
I guess as an overall business, and there is more to come, what we are trying to do is become more network centric. Achievements, OpenFeint in the iPhone games, the Shanda Announcement which will be something online, which implies it's going to be multiplayer-ish. By doing that we're trying to adhere to some Square Enix values, Globalisation, Network Centric and IPs.
Q: Last year when I spoke to you the Square Enix Eidos thing had only just happened. Is it all working out?
RM: I tell you what, it's really interesting. You've got quite a culture in Japan, quite a culture over here that are different. You were looking at it at the beginning wondering how it was going to work out. I think it is working very very well, and it's working because it had to. You've got Square Enix who is hugely successful obviously, but don't have necessarily as much Western penetration and they want to be very IP orientated. If there's something Eidos was good at it is that they had a lot of IP. You can see how the two companies marry together.
Q: Is this Partnership with Shanda something that could only have happened with Square Enix?
RM: That's a really good question. The conversation started before Square Enix, and Eidos has a studio over in Shanghai - a small studio that looks at outsourcing and we've got a very close relationship with the head of that studio. That helped us immeasurably in getting this deal. It was about 18 months, two years ago that we started talking so that was before the takeover, probably before speculation of the takeover, but the takeover has helped. Square Enix has people who work in China as well so they helped. I think it might have taken longer before, so Square Enix has certainly helped and have put a lot of faith in it as well.
For us it is really exciting because we've changed so much of what we're doing. As a studio we're so much more flexible and agile. Now we can start looking at a lot of different things that we want to do. Some of these you are going to see fruition of in the short to mid term, some in the longer term.
Q: So you're in a position to try out a few different things.
RM: Exactly. I always remember a guy called DG at EA. He always described EA as being this oil tanker and if you wanted to change something you had to look so far ahead in order to change directions. And I think that's true when you've only got one focus as a business. For us the change was pretty radical. We can experiment a whole lot more now. We can try stuff out, it might succeed, or it might not, but at least we can go ahead and try. I think we are in a much healthier place than we were 18 months ago because of the fact we have that flexibility and agility and we can look at other things.
Q: So looking at other things then. One of the problems with the console market has been not only the environment you are playing in but also the controls. Now you've got a pointing device. Is that something you've been thinking could work?
RM: No we haven't. I'd love to have a strategy game that's based on a Minority Report type experience.
Q: But it just doesn't work like that yet.
RM: I can imagine it isn't at all. With touch screens and the MS touch screen coffee table, and Kinect we are close, but not close enough yet to get that... doesn't everybody just want to play like the Minority Report thing. That would be fantastic, it would be awesome, but we're nowhere near that, as an industry or a studio. I'd love to look at it. But you're right, because before playing football management games or strategy games on a console was lousy. You couldn't really... the navigation was rubbish.
The iPhone game kind of leads into it in a way, because of the touch screen stuff that we've got. Before we had a situation where we ported it over from Java, we knew it wasn't a superb quality game, but it did test the market.
Q: So it did well enough?
RM: Oh yeah it did. It did very well, did CM09. CM10 was a half port, half made for iPhone, but this [CM11] we've started all over again. The difference in this is just being able to drag and drop. You can do player runs by dragging your finger over the player.
The other nice thing is you can easily drag players around to make the formation you want to.
Q: Is this using the full Retina display?
Tim Hodges: Standard iPhone for the moment. You need to make two versions to get the high def stuff working. We're going to focus on the version that works for everyone first.
Q: What about the iPad:
RM: I'm sure there will be yeah.
TH: It runs on iPad. The great thing is we can be flexible, put this version out there and see what that experience is like and work on building on that as well.
RM: We can also look at adapting to the changing market now that we are more agile and able to focus on a lot more things and using external resources where we can. If we want to do an iPad version then we'll do it in a short period of time. If the Galaxy Tab starts getting traction out there we can look at an Android port.
TH: You'd want it to be a different experience on the iPad to make use of the bigger real estate offered by the screen.
RM: The whole point about this game though was that the PC game is very deep. FM is very deep for people and the amount of time we get told there is no good management experience that allows people to dip into it for 5 minutes at the coffee machine, 20 minutes on the train in the morning, 5 minutes when I've put the kids to bed. People have grown up with CM and we have this weird demographic which is 17-25 then they drop out completely and people come back into it in their 30s, but drop out again after a few years because they don't have the time to play it. One of the things that iPhone gives you is that dip in dip out... Iain Dowie would have called it din in dip outability. I want to get that dip in dip outability where you feel you are advancing through the game, but it's only taking you 10-15 minutes wherever you are: on a train, making coffee, in the bath, on the bog, wherever you want to play. If we can get people accessing it five times a day then I think we've got a really, really good product.
Q: What about a game which links in with the PC version?
RM: I don't see any reason why not.
Q: You could take your game out with you.
RM: That would be fantastic, but I don't think we're really there to do it yet. I want to make it work standalone in a number of areas first and then if we can start linking them together that would be fantastic. I mean linking this [iPhone game] online would be fantastic. Those are the sort of ideas that we're throwing around at the moment.
I love the way the industry is changing and allowing us to do these sort of things as well, really really cool.
It's really important in games like this that we develop for the format, we don't just develop for the genre. You've got that dragging, you've got that wherever possible we use the features of the iPhone. What you don't want is struggling to figure out how it works; it's just got to be intuitive.
Q: So something for the Championship Manager fan, but also the general football fan who has an iPhone because it's all so intuitive.
RM: Yeah, absolutely right. There's also the lapsed champ man fans who have iPhone or iPod touches.