After years of playing Football Manager, logging into Football Manager Live proved a bit of a shock. While many of the skills picked up from hours trawling through Sports Interactive's hugely addictive database certainly have a place in FM Live, there's now a whole new world to get to grips with. This time every manager in the game is sat somewhere in the world, agonising over every decision and celebrating every goal just as you are. FM Live isn't the real thing, but if you thought the standard Football Manager was addictive, prepare to sacrifice your social life on a completely different level.
After setting up a subscription (the retail game comes with four months access and you can subscribe at a cost of £7.66 to £6.10 per month depending on how many months you commit to), choosing a team name (I'm the Juicy Danglers if anyone is wondering) and joining a game world (each has a maximum of 1000 users), it's time to wave goodbye to your loved ones, stock up on energy drinks, load up FM Live and get started. SI has done a good job of easing players into things with a helpful setup assistant guiding newcomers through the basics and ensuring it's not necessary to spend hours wading through stats before a ball is kicked. It's entirely possible to be playing another online manager within minutes of loading the game, putting you well on the way to legendary status as the next Alex Ferguson.
The first important decision players will need to make is choosing a starting skill. There are six areas to specialise in (coaching, physio, scouting, management, infrastructure, tactics and learning) and your starting skill will give you a head start in that skill tree. Think of skills as FM Live's version of hiring staff in the classic offline FM games, only now you as a manager must learn new skills which can take anything from minutes to a whole month. If you want to bring in talented youth players and transform them into superstars you'll want to concentrate on coaching and scouting, but fancy yourself as a blackboard wizard and you'll definitely want to go down the path of tactics. Personally I went down the coaching skill path, allowing me to bring on promising young players, but that did put me at a early disadvantage compared to those who went straight in with tactical skills. Who made the right choices won't be apparent for some time, but it certainly makes for a great mix of skill sets amongst the managers in each league.
Once you've decided your starting skill it's time to pick your initial squad. FM Live will automatically pick an 18-player squad for you, which can be ignored entirely if you wish, but most players will likely wish to tinker with the suggested squad rather than start from scratch - picking a team of relative unknowns is much harder than it sounds. All starting players have a transfer budget of £500,000 and a daily wages budget of £100,000. Once you're happy with the squad - more on the transfer system later - you finalise your selection and sign each player on a one season contract (a season lasts 28 days of real time). From here it's a case of joining a Football Association (each has specific times at which matches are expected to be played so you should be able to find one to suit your lifestyle) and you're set to go.
Once in a league (you'll be assigned to one by the organisers of the FA) your fixture list will be created, with each match having an associated date by which a particular game needs to be played. Fixtures can be played in any order, but fail to complete a match by its play date and AI rights will be awarded. Whichever team is awarded the AI rights then has 24 hours to play the match, with the opposition team under the control of AI. The disadvantage here is that an AI manager will only make required changes - such as when a player is injured or fatigued - and won't make any tactical changes. If this match isn't completed in a 24 period then an AI vs AI match will take place.
To encourage 'live' matches penalties are in place for completing too many games with AI. The percentage of AI matches allowed will vary depending on your FA, but exceed the set limit and the money due to you in a competition will be reduced on a sliding scale. In a competition with a 40 per cent AI limit and a 50 per cent penalty you will receive no penalty if your team keeps under the 40 per cent limit. Play all games using AI and you will receive a 50 per cent fine, while 70 per cent AI games will result in a 25 per cent fine. Managers are also allocated a set period of holiday over the course of a year, which when activated prevents AI matches from counting towards the total AI match percentage.
Matches in FM Live are much like the classic overhead view in FM (the new 3D match engine isn't present here), but initially managers don't have FM's wealth of tactical options available, giving the feeling that you're stood in the dugout shouting instructions but no one is listening. As with other aspects of FM Live, you'll need to increase your skills in this area to open up more tactical options. This of course won't stop you from taking all the glory if your team is performing well, even if you've done little more than pick a starting eleven. You're not completely useless as a novice manager, seeing as you're able to make real-time substitutions and formation changes, but your managerial prowess really won't be shown until you've learnt the necessary skills.
As mentioned earlier, a season in FM Live lasts 28 real world days, and consists of a week-long pre-season followed by three weeks of competitive games. Much like the English Football League, FM Live's FAs feature a league system, although the structure varies from FA to FA. Some will feature a single Premier League and a selection of first divisions, with teams in a first division always only one season/promotion away from a place in the top division. Some FAs, however, opt for a more traditional structure. With a fully tiered system of leagues, teams starting in the lowest league will require several promotions in order to make it into the top tier. Each FA also runs a variety of cup competitions.
In addition to the individual FA competitions FM Live features a "Super FA" in the shape of UUFA, a union of all the FAs which brings together the best teams to compete in inter-FA competitions. This is essentially FM Live's version of European football, where all the serious players in the world of FM Live want to be. And on top of this you've also got a world ranking to play for (win and you'll gain some points, lose and you'll drop some, draw and you might gain or lose points depending on the opposition's rank) and the chance to claim the title of Game World Champion - simply the last player to beat the champ, so one victory could earn you a place in the FM Live hall of fame.
All this brings us nicely onto finances. Your club's wealth is a very important part of FM Live: a poor club will have to rely on getting unproven or past-it players on the cheap and won't have the funds to expand their stadium's capacity and income streams, while a wealthy club will be able to go in for the world's best and get even richer through massive ticket sales and increased advertising revenue. Each club is awarded a daily income of up to £300,000, a figure determined by a team's reputation, itself largely determined by a team's performance in FA competitions. Additionally, incoming funds can be generated through media money from the FA, prize money from unofficial competitions and the sale of players.
The transfer system in FM Live is an area which shares very few similarities to the system in place in the offline FM games. It's fair to say that here it's much more akin to an eBay auction than a true representation of real life wheeling and dealing. There are essentially three ways to secure the contract of a new player. A Free Agent wage auction is initiated when an out of contract player is bid on. This then starts a 24 hour auction with the team offering the highest wage winning the auction. In addition the winning bidder must also pay an acquisition fee (a player's set value) to the game world and a signing on fee equal to 10x the player's daily wage.
A similar process occurs for contract end wage auctions. These occur when a player's contract expires and a 24 hour wage auction begins (assuming an auto-rebid is in place). If at the end of the auction the player's current club is not the winner, the winning club will pay the acquisition fee to the player's previous owner and a signing on fee to the player. To stop a member of your squad from entering a contact end wage auction a manager has five locks which should be used to protect five key players. This lock, or auto-extend as it's called in FM Live, ensures your star players cannot be poached. Additionally players aged 19 or under can have their contact auto-extended without taking one of the five locks.
The most eBay-like transfers occurs when a manager chooses to put a player up for auction, specifying the length of the auction, the starting bid and even an instant buy amount. The winner is the manager who places the highest bid. It is also possible to carry out transfers outside of the auction system. Simply find a player you want and make a private bid directly to the club. If accepted the player is then yours for the agreed fee, plus an agent's fee of 10 per cent of the agreed fee. This is really the only situation in which bartering for players can take place. If you have the money to pay a player's wage and any acquisition/signing on fee, he is yours - no negotiations take place.
On top of all this there's the social element that comes from playing against real people, which is what turns a great stat-based strategy game into one of the most addictive games a football fan could play. There are always chats ongoing under various topics, and banter between managers during a match will range from the polite gl (good luck) and gg (good game), to compliments on a particular player's performance, and maybe even some strong words after a particularly close encounter comes to a 94th minute climax. After one particularly dodgy looking loan deal that saw a high quality striker going to a novice team on loan for a whole season the management community was up in arms, with emails flying across the game's messaging system - something which suggests it'll be hard for cheats to operate unnoticed. It's still the very early stages, too. Once leagues start to take shape and you begin to get to know rival managers there's no reason why real rivalries won't develop and disgruntled managers feel the need to lay into a rival, accusing them of man-marking the ref and his assistants. It's here where FM Live has the most potential and the reason we're being asked to pay a subscription.
All that should give you a solid idea of what to expect from FM Live, but should you buy it and sink your money into a monthly sub? After all, you can play FM 2009 for as long as you wish and no sub is required. The answer is a resounding yes. Importantly, FM Live manages to retain all the addictive qualities of the offline FM titles - building a squad, training, transfer dealing - only now you're competing against 999 other mangers all determined to make their team the best. For all its similarities to FM titles that have come before it, the focus on skill learning gives FM Live a fresh feeling that means even the most hardened of FM players will need to consider how they manage. This also means there's a real reward for sinking hours into the game, and will help separate a casual manager from a guy who's been carefully constructing a managerial skill set for many a season.
According to my manager stats, I've spent approximately 35 per cent of my life (since my team was created) logged into FM Live. Either I've got nothing better in my life to be getting on with or FM Live is the greatest football management game ever created.