Football Manager Live is, quite simply, Football Manager... live. It's like the MMO version of the most popular football management sim around. It's also really, really good, as you'll know if you've read our review. And, finally, it's out this Friday in shops, having been in development for a whopping five years. To celebrate this momentous occasion, we sat down with Miles Jacobson, studio director at Sports Interactive, to get some more detail on the game that marks the end of our social lives.
VideoGamer.com: How does Football Manager Live differ from Football Manager?
Miles Jacobson: The most obvious difference is that with FM you manage a team that is a real team, whereas with FM Live you set up your own team but still with real players. In FM you can do everything you want to straight away. In FM Live you have to learn skills to be able to change certain tactical sides of things and to be able to buy certain players or be able to build stadiums and things like that. It's also a much more social experience because you're playing against humans, rather than playing against computer teams. There are 1000 teams in each game world. Between 80 and 100 teams in each football association inside that game world, and you have structured competitions but can also play matches at any time day or night against anyone else who's online.
We've tried to make the game fun for everyone basically. So someone who's playing for an hour a day, for a couple of days a week, will still get hopefully as much enjoyment out of the game as someone who's playing 12 hours a day, seven days a week. The other important distinction is the Football Manager universe never stops. With Football Manager when you save the game, you can go away, come back a couple of weeks later and it's at the same point. With FM Live the world carries on around you. So we've set up a good alert system for people to still be able to get emails when they're offline if they're interested in certain players. So it is a pretty different kind of game.
VideoGamer.com: FM Live has been in development for quite a while hasn't it?
MJ: About five years.
VideoGamer.com: What's taken so long?
MJ: We believe in developing games in small teams. The original FM Live team was two people. We've recently expanded to five! In a couple of months we're going to expand to six! So yeah it's a very small development team, a very tight-knit team. We've been in beta for much longer than we were expecting. We were expecting to be in beta for a year. We ended up with 18 months. That's helped shape the game in a really good way. Thankfully SEGA have a lot of faith in what we do, who were our publishers and are now our owners, they're our daddy. I don't know whether they're our mummy or our daddy?
VideoGamer.com: I don't know. They didn't give birth to you, so they're not your mummy...
MJ: No. Maybe they're our adopted parents!
VideoGamer.com: Official guardian?
MJ: Official guardian. There you go. And when we turned around to them and said we're not sure the game's ready yet, can we have more time? They said yeah.
VideoGamer.com: That seems incredible to me, given the current financial climate.
MJ: I'm sure if we didn't have Football Manager selling as well as it does then we might have had bigger problems. But we could all recognise that the game wasn't ready for launch in that time. And you know not just on the gameplay side of things but there were some issues with other areas as well. We wanted to make sure we got it right when we launched so we had the time to do that. I don't apologise for the time that we've taken to make the game because we want to get it right. I'm not a believer that putting 150 people on a game to get it done quickly is a good thing, because in the economies of the lack of communication that go on, people just not knowing what's going on on a project, is worse. Sports Interactive as a studio are shortly going to be taking on their fiftieth full time team member, and if you think we work on Football Manager on the PC and Mac, Football Manager Handheld, Football Manager Live and have an R&D team as well, and that includes all of our full-time researchers, accounts and admin people, we're still a very small development team but it's something that's worked well for us over the years and hopefully will continue to do so.
VideoGamer.com: I was down at Eidos last week and interviewed the general manager of Beautiful Game Studios. He's trying to bring Championship Manager to where it was maybe five or six years ago...
MJ: When we used to make it.
VideoGamer.com: Indeed! And he was saying some interesting things. Do you see Championship Manager as a threat? How do you view that product?
MJ: I don't see anything as a threat, in inverted commas. We are out there trying to make the best games that we can possibly make and it doesn't really matter to us what other people are doing, because we're going to carry on with our strategies, carry on with our ideas and keep going. If someone comes up with a better game and it sells more than us and we don't make money out of it any more, we lose our jobs and we don't get to have the fun that we have entertaining people any more, so it's kind of in our best interests to carry on doing the best we can possibly do.
I get a little bit frustrated by the way that, how can I put this, that there are some people out there that seem to be constantly gunning for us rather than concentrating on their own games. And not just in our genre, there's a few in other places as well. We're just a small development team based in north London who've been doing this for a while, who absolutely love what we do and have been incredibly lucky to have been able to entertain as many people as we do across the world, and that's what we're going to continue to do.
VideoGamer.com: Football Manager 09 has been out for a while now and you've probably had time to reflect on it. How do you feel about it? Did it meet your expectations?
MJ: Our expectations are pretty high, and I don't think we're ever going to make a game that meets our expectations because if we did we'd all have to give up. We are striving to make the perfect game. The media reception as a whole was incredibly strong. We were getting 8 or 9/10 reviews. We had a couple of bad reviews, some of which had some incredibly good constructive criticism in them, which we've taken on board for next year. User wise, our forums are split between angry people and very happy people, which has been the case since 1997 I think. The people that come up to me at football seem to like it. So from a personal perspective, which is the only one that I can really talk from, I'm in 2017 at the moment in the game and loving every single minute of it. So I'm happy with it. It's certainly not perfect, but what game is?
VideoGamer.com: What's your opinion on the reaction to the DRM situation with FM09?
MJ: Well, we didn't get too much negative PR for having DRM in the game, before the game was released. On the day of release we had a couple of issues. One of them was that the font that was used in the manual wasn't as clear as it could have been. The font for the code that you type in. That led to us working through the night on the Thursday night to try and come up with a solution that worked. While we were trying to roll out that solution we got hit by a denial of service attack. We then got hit by a denial of service attack on our phone lines as well. We then defeated the one denial of service attack, and then got hit by another much more clever denial of service attack. That meant that there were people out there, for three or four hours, who couldn't authenticate their game. That was completely and utterly unacceptable. We worked incredibly hard to get it back up and running for everyone, and succeeded in that. There were a few support calls but very few now on that issue. So was it good enough? No. Did it stop the game being available online, pirated, days before release as all our other games have been? Yes. But that's a tiny, tiny, tiny victory compared to the issues that people had. We did get everyone up and running on the game pretty damn quickly and people who raised customer service tickets were dealt with pretty quickly as well. I think in the 20 years that I've been working, the day of release this year, because of the issues we had with DRM, was by far and away the hardest and most disappointing day of my career.
VideoGamer.com: Is DRM the way to go in order to combat piracy? Is it an effective strategy?
MJ: Well Football Manager 2009 there isn't an actual legitimate cracked version of the game. There is a version that people are playing but we know that not everything has been removed from those versions. I don't know whether there is a proper cure for piracy without a change in society to be honest. There needs to be some kind of protection in your product otherwise retail aren't going to stock your product, so we do have to take some measures. We will investigate all avenues open to us once again for next year to see what the best solution is. What we believed we had this year was something that was going to be better for the consumer compared to the system where you had to keep the disc in the drive, which you don't have to do with our system, and be completely unobtrusive. Apart from the people who bought the game on day one, 98 per cent of people since authenticated first time without any problems whatsoever. And that's not a bad ratio even compared to the ratios you have for people whose drives couldn't register the CDs. You have disc drives out there who have issues with SecuROM and the like. So, I wish I knew what the answer was and what the solution was. I also wish that people were more honest and we didn't have to do it. Because anyone who says that they use a pirated version of the game as a demo when we already release a demo that has half a season worth of play in it... you know having eight, nine, ten hours worth of gameplay for free in a demo should mean that you shouldn't really need to pirate it to try it out. So yeah, I don't think it will ever be fixed and it is a shame because I think the price of games would go down if the issue was fixed and we'd be able to have more people working on titles.
VideoGamer.com: The general manager of Beautiful Game Studios has said Championship Manager has a 90 per cent piracy rate, which seems high.
MJ: No it sounds about right to me. To put it into perspective, there was a key code that was leaked on a Russian piracy site, as being a key code that they claimed would work with any version of the game. It doesn't work at all. It's been attempted by 338,000 unique people. So, that's just one key code. That's not including people who are playing cracked versions. So 90 per cent could actually be quite low. But I don't know what the figures are because we've got no way of tracking it. We don't believe there is a way to track fully exactly how many downloads you have. What we do know is there are countries out there where there are 30,000 members signed up and active on a local language forum and we sell 2,000 copies in that country to date. So, that 90 per cent level could be a low figure. I could pick a figure out of my arse but it wouldn't really do anyone any good. But piracy is incredibly bad!
VideoGamer.com: I wanted to put something to you that the general manager of Beautiful Game Studios said to me.
MJ: Roy's been saying a lot of stuff!
VideoGamer.com: Yeah. He said, and I quote: "One thing that FM is absolutely brilliant at, 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." He said: ""I'd love us both to be selling millions of units because then that empowers and encourages them to improve their game. 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."
MJ: See it's quite funny because he said in another interview that he did last week that he hadn't been able to play Football Manager 2009. It's very simple, OK. If someone wants to come and give us constructive criticism about our games, come to our forums. We're there. We listen. But I don't really see why someone doing an interview to promote their game needs to talk about someone else's. I don't need to talk about anyone else's games.
VideoGamer.com: He mentioned a differentiating factor was the database of players. He said every player in Championship Manager can be signed and played, whereas in Football Manager there are a certain amount of greyed out players that are in the game but you can't do anything with. Do players see those greyed out characters and think of it as a negative or does it make no difference?
MJ: The greyed out players are there so that you're putting a youth team out and you can offer them contracts if you want to, so they become real players. They're there in your squad. Again I don't really see the point he's trying to make there. Our database is the largest, most accurate football database in the world. As far as I know it's the only video game database that's being used by a premier league club as part of their scouting network, in Everton. I have absolutely no problems with our data or our research at all. I'm incredibly proud of the work that our team have done.
VideoGamer.com: What's your number one tip for newcomers to Football Manager Live?
MJ: Don't get frustrated if you do badly at first because someone's got to lose. It's very much a game that's a marathon, not a sprint. So take your time, be patient and it will work well for you in the end.
Football Manager Live is available to download for PC now, and is due out in stores on Friday 23 January.