Roy Meredith, the general manager of Championship Manager developer Beautiful Game Studios, is a man on a mission. He's also not afraid to offer a thought or two on the competition. When we meet him, two floors underneath publisher Eidos' offices in Wimbledon, south London, he's quick to admit the failings of his game. That's predictable - any fan of the genre knows the Champ Man series has been on the wane for a good few years now. But, more surprisingly, and more aggressively, it's not long before he fixes Sports Interactive's more popular, higher review scoring bitter rival, Football Manager, squarely in his sights.
"I'd love us both to be selling millions of units because then that empowers and encourages them to improve their game," he says. "I've played their game and I want them to. I'm frustrated with FM09 and, personally from a consumer base experience, I don't believe it's as good as it could have been. I want them to be better. I want them to be innovative."
Aggressive words indeed. And it's this aggressiveness that proves to define his explanation of how he's dragging that once proud British brand back to its former glory. Football Manager becomes a regular point of reference, a regular point of differentiation.
"One thing that FM is absolutely brilliant at," Meredith says, "or has been traditionally brilliant at, and I think that they need to maybe look at themselves a bit on a couple of areas they've got in the game, is knowing exactly where you are within the game. Within FM I think it's just intuitive, you know where you are. I think they've lost it a bit and I'm not going to tell you where so that you don't put it in the piece and we don't create it for them. But with us it was very much different. You play a couple of screens, go in and feel you're a bit lost as to where you were and what your journey was. That's been very very important to us because that makes it accessible to people."
Championship Manager's navigation is a feature that's been given more attention than most during Meredith's 18 month and counting tenure with the developer. It's about improving the information flow, making it clearer, putting fun in between the matches, something that's certainly been lacking in previous iterations. We're shown pictures of the game's old interface so that the improvements made for this month-old build can be seen clearly. There's now a "dynamic swoosh" effect running as a background. It's simple, but its intended effect is important - it's designed to make things more attractive, of course, but, because the backgrounds are different depending on where you are in the game, they will subconsciously help you get about.
In the squad screen information buttons that lie next to player names will automatically cycle, letting you know if a contract is about to expire, if a player is wanted, needs rest, or, and this takes priority, is injured, instead of only one piece of information. A dynamic data window runs in the bottom left hand corner of the screen, in true Sky Sports News fashion, which cycles through information relevant to your game. In the build we're looking at the top scorers in the Ryman's League (Champ Man will go as low as the seventh tier of English football - the Ryman Isthmian Football League) are on show, but in the final game you'll get more relevant information in the box, like the Premier League's top scorers or big transfers. It's meant to display information that causes you to make a decision, something Meredith talks about at length. Everything, he says, that gives you information must lead you to make a decision or enhance your experience. Otherwise there's no point.
Traditionally in these games a bar runs across the bottom of the screen and, when you run your cursor across it, a menu pops up. In CM 09 things will be different. Navigation has been divided up primarily into two buttons: CM Home and CM World. CM Home leads you to everything that relates to your game. CM World leads to everything that relates to the world that's outside your gaming experience. Again, the idea is to make navigation easier.
But it's not all about navigation. Authenticity, as you'd expect, is part of the CM recovery process. In-game message variety has been substantially increased via a new Mail and Messaging tool that builds entire articles with strings of sentences written by three real world journalists. Right now there are 500,000 different messages. Meredith wants a million before the game is launched. The game's Back Page feature reads like the back page of a real newspaper, and deals are in place for these artificially constructed articles to appear as if from the Daily Mail and ITV. We see one headline: "Bad news for Roy Keane as Andy Reid is out". You'll be able to subscribe to particular feeds, Premier League, Serie A, that sort of thing. It's quite remarkable, in truth, and, as journalists ourselves, quite unnerving.
For all the work Meredith's done redrawing the game's navigation and adding variation, fans will want to know what's happened to the tactics and formations screens, since most of your time will be spent here. Squad selection is much the same but with small improvements. There are more pre-set formations, based on feedback from real ex-footballers like Brian McClair, Mervyn Day, and lower league striker Mark Nwokeji, from Dagenham and Redbridge. There will be a with ball and without ball formation system, allowing you to switch from, say, an attacking 4-3-3 to a defensive 4-5-1 when you lose the ball. You can now set four runs or feeds per player, as well as drag icons onto opposition players providing for specific instructions, like taking on a man hard (for Messi, maybe) or winding him up (useful for Rooney, perhaps). Again, it's about adding variation.
Drill training lets you give a temporary boost to player attributes, something Meredith doesn't believe fans reckon is even possible in these types of games. You'll be able to see the players practice via the new in-game match engine (more on that later), as well. Penalties, free kicks, corners, all that sort of stuff you'll be able to set, and watch, your team practice in your club's training ground. Practice matches can be set up, say between your first team and the reserves, allowing you to get to know a club you're not familiar with or see triallists, or youth players, in action before committing to a contract.
The schedule designer, which essentially is your assistant manager, can be tweaked to give you a more hands-on approach to training. Via a chart you'll be able to see how players will improve under your crafted training regime. The idea is to find a schedule that minimises chance of injury and maximises attribute improvement. Stop the training though, and your players will quickly revert back to their original stats.
Meredeith moves on to Champ Man's database of players, and it's here that Football Manager is once again raised. "One of the key points about our database is that every single player within our database is a playable player," he explains. "There are no unplayable players within our database. This is kind of a knock towards FM, but I don't want it coming out as a knock towards FM. Play FM, go to Besiktas and you'll find at least half of the players are greyed out and you can't sign them. They're there, they're part of their database, but they haven't got stats for them. Every single player in our game has 50 stats, 50 attributes, you can sign anybody in our game for your team. If you go and look, let's say Algeria, the Algerian league, whether the Algerian league is playable or not, every single player you'd have within that would be sign-able. Bulgaria is a great example. every single player that's in Bulgaria is going into our game." Again, aggressive words.
Wrapping up our first look at Champ Man is a pre-recorded demonstration of the new match engine, which affords Meredith a chance to make his final comparison with Football Manager. It is the only match engine, we're told, that's built for a football management game. "There are inherent issues with buying graphical match engines that are made for playable games against what we're building," he says. "And one of those is, goalkeeper code, because you don't control the goalkeeper in a playable match engine, it doesn't do quite what you want it to do within a management engine. So there's reasons we took that decision. We did look at buying match engines and putting them onto what we'd already built. No, we want to be totally responsible for what we want to do."
Champ Man 09's match engine has been fully motion captured, with 500 animations per player (goalkeepers have about 350). Crowds and stadia are based on the real capacity of the club you've assumed control of. Weather effects are in full force - fog, rain, snow, shadow from high sun - it's all in there. Tactical overlays will let you make changes on the fly without having to take an eye off the action. It's not FIFA 09-quality graphics, of course, but it does look adequate for what we'd want from a football management sim.
And there ends Meredith's demonstration of Champ Man 09. It certainly looks like the series will be much improved, and the focus on improved navigation and variation is of course welcome. Will it be enough to dethrone Football Manager? There's no way of knowing just yet. But, in a last gasp effort to convert disbelievers, Meredith promises four features that "have never been in a football management game before". Aggressive words indeed.
Championship Manager 09 is due out for PC in April.