Interview: Matt Woodley of Domark, on Championship Manager and Football Manager.

For the “Making Ofs” I do for PC Gamer, I always interview too many people. After Miles Jacobsen proved not as forthcoming as I’d hoped, for legal reasons, he recommended I talk to Matt Woodley, who has always worked with the series. And I did.

To The Tune Of: Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds – Three Lions – Original Version

For the “Making Ofs” I do for PC Gamer, I always interview too many people. After Miles Jacobsen proved not as forthcoming as I’d hoped, for legal reasons, he recommended I talk to Matt Woodley, who has always worked with the series. And I did.

The original box.

I’m trying to do a Making of on Football Manager – but everyone has NDA issues apart from you. What’s your history?
Woodley: My background with them goes back to the very first game. Back to the Domark Championship Manager.  I then went to Sega when we were starting to do our own stuff again and really trying to build things up and I got them to start looking at western development because I knew those guys, and I wanted us to get into PC products because we hadn’t really done it before. It was the perfect fit to buy them as a starting point and we got Creative Assembly not long after. Part of the getting away from Eidos was the fact that they couldn’t talk about it. That’s why I’m not involved in that sort of stuff.

For me there are two interesting points. Obviously, Miles can’t talk about anything before working for Sega which you might be able to. Then there’s Domark, and the problem with that is that nobody else apart from you can talk about it.
Woodley: I can tell you a little bit about the early days and what we did with it and how we spoke to the boys and everything. Literally it started as… we were in the office one day and a disc got sent in to us. It was on ST. I’ve got it somewhere at home, it’s called European Champions. They sent it through to us…

Why did you choose to change the name?
Woodley: We just wanted to have something which was a little bit more specific to management. When we went through the whole rebranding thing when I was at Sega, when we’re going from Championship Manager to Football Manager, Miles had gone out and spoken to Kevin Toms and got the Football Manager name. If I could’ve done, personally, I would’ve kept the Championship Manager name because it’s actually a better brand. You often hear people on Radio 5 talking about it and this shows how good a game is they’re playing Football Manager but they still refer to it as Champ Man. These are people who are not game savvy, it’s because Football Manager is too generic a name, almost. Championship Manager is a nice strong brand. When we were naming it we just wanted something that sounded a bit more like a management name. We had some other arcade stuff that we were looking at at the same time, so we wanted something that really stood out and something that could be shortened to “Champ Man” which it was.

The disc came in… The guy who was producer on it was a guy called Kris Hall. He was a young chap at our place. Domark was a really small company, it wasn’t big. We had some decent stuff there. It was a small little office in Putney. Very different to how things are these days. When the disc came in, because it was a small place, when it was fired up we all rushed over to see something new. All the blokes in the office were crowded around it. We were all playing it for the rest of that afternoon and from then on for the rest of our lives, pretty much! I don’t play it as much as I used to. I just don’t have the time. When they did the iPad version, the iPad version’s a lot more like the older ones, you don’t have to spend as much time …it’s less like a job. So it’s the same addiction in that one that I’m finding now again, that we had on that title. That first thing when it came in, it was a guy called Kris Hall and he had as a junior producer a guy called Steve Lee. They fired up in the office and those two, especially Kris, became the guiding force in working with Ov and Paul. I think they were still in Liverpool at that point. Then they moved down to Brighton.

FM 2005

What’s their background?
Woodley: They were just programming in their bedrooms. Self taught, passion for football, great big Everton fans, and the match engine was done by Paul and he’s led it all the way through. I often say, I swear there’s code still in it now that was in it on the first one. It really wouldn’t surprise me. But Paul did the match engine and Ov did all the other stuff. It was just the two of them and they’d sent the game off, I think prior to us they sent it to EA. They still have the rejection letter framed somewhere in one of their houses. Quite an ironic thing. It’s a wonder that they let it get away really. There were lots of bugs in it to start off with, that’s one of the frustrating things, because it really was… you know, in a games company gets sent stuff all the time but EVERYONE was playing it, all the blokes were playing it. Me and all the sales guys all wanted to get a copy and then getting frustrated when it would crash at a certain time. We’d help them out, we got them in touch with some other people who helped them out a little bit on some of the coding. There’s a guy called John Jones who helped out on the Amiga versions. They turned around something which was a little bit shaky in places into something that was really robust and then they just worked brilliantly. The difference between the first and second one in terms of overall quality, I thought was huge. We put some gimmicky things in. We got Clyde Tilsley to do voiceover commentary which was a thing to put on the back of the box, and it actually worked surprisingly well. Beyond that, underneath, the match engine was much better; the game itself was more polished. That’s when we looked at the brand for the first one and the brand for the first one was very much a manager in the changing room with the traditional duffel jacket on. We got this guy from this agency called Ugly…

Bizarre! A photographer told me I should work for Ugly once. Not exactly a compliment.
Woodley: He was spot on for that sort of early 90s manager. Then the game took off really well. We managed to get more money to put into it. I remember going to see the boss, a guy called Mark Strawn, and Dominic Wheatley. I was walking past to get a coffee and just said, “Look, a gem has landed on our laps” and they said, “Well, just speak to Mackie Timms” who was the publishing director and get him to sign it straight away and they did. The thing is, the company then did put a lot of effort into it, to make it a big success. We did a lot of rebranding and created a more “sophisticated” brand, a bit more stand out. We moved away from the pointy, crafty looking manager in a duffel coat. I put a really simple ball on a green background motif, which Champ Manager’s pretty much kept that same idea for quite a few years. The idea being that you could change the colours and do different versions of it so we did loads of different language versions. We did Spudetto and L’Entrepreneur for France, sometimes different local managers on the front but we’d do add on packs. How we used to work it, because bearing in mind it was 2 guys coding it (I think they have probably about 70 people at SI now) we couldn’t do a brand new game every single year. We’d do data discs to update the data – really simple, just in a box. This is around the time the community really started picking up. The line we came up with for Championship Manager 2 was “A game by football fans, for football fans” – genuinely, I’ve worked in the business since 1985 and I’ve never come across a game which had such a brilliant community. The idea that they could come in from outside really shapes the game. So that was the line we went down, you guys made the games. That’s how I got to know Miles first.

Did Miles come from the community?
Woodley: Miles was a fan. He was a fan of the games and he had something called the Miles Files which were updated stats and data for it. That’s how I got to know him. He always liked computer games, he started putting music in games and stuff, did Gran Tourismo music. He used to work as an A&R man for Food records. So I was into music and the guy I worked with, we were both into music and he used to look after Blur, and he’d get us tickets and stuff for Blur and we’d get him games and things. Then when Ov and Paul were looking for someone to be like a business manager for them, we put Miles in touch with Oliver and Paul and said, “Look, this guy could do a good job of taking it to the next level, managing it and letting you guys concentrate on the code.” So that’s how Sports Interactive really got borne out. So Miles started working for them as a manager and then as full time, and then the company started getting bigger and started recruiting. Eidos started investing more and more money into it. Champ Man 1 we did basic advertising, Champ Man 2 we did loads of outdoor advertising. I’ve still got the old fly posters and things. It was around the same sort of time that Domark was becoming Eidos. So we did this reverse rotation into Eidos. We did the campaign around the city, trying to raise funds from those guys.

I know when you started Champ Man there were a couple of other football management games out there. I remember playing Premier Manager 92 maybe. That was the only football manager game I played until I came back to the iPhone version, maybe the XBOX version. Back in the day, there were competitors. How did Champ Man differentiate itself and how did you effectively kill them off?
Woodley: It’s just pure quality. There’s still games out there. I’d just left EA,  they’ve got their FIFA Manager which is done by these guys from Germany which is a solid game but what Champ Man has always had, the most important thing, is the match engine. You make a difference, you make a change and it’s like you’re making a difference and that’s where most of them fall down. People saw that you could actually have an effect here, it wasn’t just all random. I think that’s what we felt a lot of the competition did. These games are “quite easy to make” but very easy to make badly. So it was the match engine that was the difference. There’s something incredibly hypnotic and addictive by the way that the first one displayed the information with the text commentary. The text commentary that the guys did… now we’ve got 3D graphics that we ended up working with the guys in Japan to get, but the text commentary to me was so pure and precise but so brilliantly from a coding perspective, so brilliantly paced, the way it would pause over certain things… and it would be a goal go in and then it would be disallowed.

Football Manager Live - sadly defunct.

I know what you mean.
Woodley: I was working on other things and was still at home, when they were coming out… I’ve never ever played another game where I’ve been stood behind the chair with my hands on the chair, you know, pacing around the room watching a bit of text on screen to see what the result is. I remember doing that when I was living in Claygate; my girlfriend thought I was mad. I had my hands on the back of the chair like I was watching something really important happening. Well, it was important!
I think they just managed to make – I was slightly sceptical about 3D, I wanted it in there for marketing purposes when we were at Sega, it’s like having the Clive Tilsey doing the commentary. It’s another thing on the box, but for me it doesn’t really add too much to the game experience. The 2D box worked pretty well, but the reason why we did better than everyone else and kicked them all out of the park at the start was the match engine was really robust. You make a change and you can see it happening, whereas all the other ones you couldn’t really see it happening. There was something beautifully hypnotic and addictive about the text commentary and the way it came up on screen, it just all worked well. That’s what they’ve carried on doing.

It felt a bit like listening to it on the Radio.
Woodley: I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve always lived around London. That’s when Capital Gold started first started doing their football commentary with Jonathan Pearce heading it up. That was what was always on in the background whilst you were playing the bloody game. I think the thing about it is that they’ve managed to listen to feedback. They get so much feedback and they’ve always managed to improve. The main thing is that I don’t have time to play it but if I was 15 again or at school or whatever no doubt I’d be into it as much as all the kids are.

From a business perspective it was brilliant. You know you’ve got banked money coming in. You made it every year, a bit like us with FIFA I guess. Every year you’ve got a gold star triple A product that you can rely on. I don’t think they were ever late on delivery. You can plug it into your books and do all your planning around something that’s solid and reliable. In video games. as a publisher, having something in your release schedule that you can rely on year on year is… that’s pretty amazing to have.

It does absolutely hook people in.
Woodley: I know people who genuinely have gotten divorced because of it.

It was cited in a large number of divorces, wasn’t it?
Woodley:I know a chap who I won’t name, but he’s still working in the business, who used to tell his wife at the time that he had to go in to work – whereas most people when they say that they have to go into work they’re probably having affairs, he was playing Champ Manager…. This was one of our customers at the time, it was brilliant. Yeah. When they talk about addictive computer games on the radio, you can see it. Addictive is such an emotional word, isn’t it? So many negative connotations to it, but it’s because you’re investing time in something and you’re getting a reward out of it, it’s compelling.

It doesn’t have a natural break point. You can get to the end of a season and think, “Well I probably should stop playing here…” but you know, I want to buy all those new players and it just keeps going… So whilst it was at Eidos it got better and better and you added in more and more new features, after CM 03/04, it moves from Eidos to Sega. Did you help organise that?
Woodley: I left Eidos about a year or 6 months, 8 months after Tomb Raider came out so whenever that was. The first one. I went to Microsoft and did all the stuff for those guys and then Atari going bought by Infograms and at Infograms I used to look after… Sega completely pulled out of publishing their own stuff, their big office went down to 15-20 people or whatever and I used to look after Sega’s business in Europe on the marketing side of stuff. Sony used to do their Playstation stuff and we did everything else like Super Monkey Rule on GameCube and stuff like that. So I got to know the Sega guys and they decided that they wanted to go for it again in Europe as platform agnostic publishers, so I was talking to them and they were absolutely brilliant in terms of the guys they brought in Japan and the guy who ran it in Europe, about having a western developer. I’d known for a while that things between Eidos and Sports Interactive might have run its course.

Why do you think that was? Were they just treating them like a cash cow?
Woodley: Well I think to a point, yes. Lots of people have different opinions on this. Eidos had massive ambitions and I think they took Sports Interactive for granted. That’s my opinion on it. Not everyone there, because there’s still some people there who think the world of them but I think there were some people there who took it a little bit for granted and didn’t make the most of it, and it all comes down to if you’re a developer, how much marketing you’re going to be putting into it, how much you’re going to be backing it. I think things might’ve got a little bit stale with it. The timing was right, they could get away from Eidos and they were looking for someone new to go with.

It was part owned, so they had …I’m not entirely sure. Off the record, I think it was like (deleted)%. It wasn’t a huge amount but they had a publishing agreement with them which was up for renewal. I knew the guys, I know Miles and I’d known Paul & Oliver since the start and then had some early conversations between them about potentially doing something with them. Then all the adults took over and did a really good deal, in reasonably good time as well.

Our lawyers are brilliant, the guys in Japan at Sega they’re inaudible are absolutely brilliant, some of the guys. Top notch.

Football Manager 2012

 

They must have trusted you so implicitly.
Woodley: It was part of an overall plan. They’d done some sort of PC versions of Sonic or whatever, but they’d never really been in the PC market, so having something on the PC to start the business we thought was a good thing to do. It was slightly different to Creative Assembly, when we got those guys, we wanted to have something which was again, on the PC market on say, technology which was – I mean, their tech is amazing -the technology which would be like the next generation of console, so you learn from what the cutting edge PC is and apply it to your console stuff which sort of worked and sort of didn’t. The game sold so it worked. They were great, really into it, Sega had their own management game & still do which is a console title which was much more along the …icons and buttons and fixing your stadium kind of thing. That’s a big market for them. It still sells reasonably well. I think it’s called “Let’s make a soccer team”.

It’s interesting though, because although it’s a football management game, it’s like how different FIFA Manager is to Football Manager. FIFA Manager sells big numbers in Germany, but nothing over here. It’s the type of game that it is. I don’t think it’s ever done what it deserves to do in other territories. I still think there’s loads of scope in the UK actually.

For Football Manager to grow?
Yeah. When you think how big Football Management is, it’s on the back page of every newspaper. Today it’s Arsene Wenger. It’s culturally relevant, so I think this is probably where the iPad and iPhone versions can really come into their own. It’s people who haven’t got 4-5 hours of the night to play it but like the idea of being a manager so I think they should definitely be pushing those iPhone/iPad versions.

I always thought that the iPad & iPhone version have a little bit drawn from Civilisation Revolution in that. Civ Rev was extremely consumer friendly, easy to learn.
Woodley: It’s culturally relevant and it can be played in little bursts of time, although you end up playing it longer. It does work in that format. The guy who programmed the iPhone and iPad versions has been at Sports Interactive for a long time, a guy called Mark Vaughn, and he knows the match engine inside out. That’s why the bones of it are so good. This is the problem that somewhere like Beautiful Games Studios had when they were doing it from scratch, they had rights on the look and feel of the game, which is what they did, but it’s like having a Ferrari body but a Ford Fiesta engine in it. If there’s nothing underneath that’s properly working it, all it’s going to do is look good. Back to the genius of the match engine, how it pulls out the data. Beautiful Games Studios had a lot of people there, each year they make a better game and a half decent game, but it’s nothing like the quality of what the guys at Sports Interactive are doing.

Are they still doing it?
I’m pretty certain they’re still doing it, they definitely launched one last year because they did it free to start off with.
It just proves that it’s a difficult thing to make. I reckon there’s still code in now from the first one, because there’s some magic, some things, from a coding perspective just work, you don’t necessarily know how it works but it does work.

When we bought them, the game was in progression and all being made. We had to rename it because Eidos owned the Championship Manager brand, so Miles got the name Football Manager and bought it out. Then we did a competition – and this goes back to the whole community thing – for someone to design the logo. So that was designed by a fan. Then I just got this agency I use in town to do all the branding and the packaging and we just came up with a highly unoriginal but incredibly effective Football Manager Man. A guy standing there with the ball.

Football Manager 2005 - with the topless head

You changed it later, you chopped the top of his head off?
Woodley: We stopped showing it for some reason. I’d moved up to Creative Director at this point and marketing was run by someone else. I kept an eye on that, but there was a reason for that.

It works, you can’t see the face so you could imagine yourself as the manager.
Woodley: That’s a reason as much as anything, but it did look odd, going into a store, seeing standees which had half a man’s head on it. The idea behind the packaging, like we did with Championship Manager, just to keep it consistent and change the colours each year. I think it could do with a freshen up now, it’s been long enough. I’d like to see them do something new and fresh. One thing we could say in the promotion of Football manager, we could say for one year “From the makers of Championship Manager” – that could go on all the promotional material. So we had that line on the bottom and straight away people got it. The sales were awesome for what is a rebranding, it’s a classic rebranding exercise.

Were the team in the same offices? How did the change affect everybody?
Woodley: For the team and everyone, I don’t think things changed too much. They stayed in the same offices, Islington at the time, and then after a couple of years we got them into a new office near Old Street  which had space for expansion. The office in Islington was on lots of different levels and had wonky staircases and stuff. It’s not the best environment for a dev studio, the idea that you want everyone on a flat level making it easier to communicate – this was the complete opposite.

About Football Manager 1982, the original series they bought the title of. Obviously that had died back in 1993, it ground to a halt. How did they get hold of the name? Was anything taken from that game?
Woodley: It was JUST the title. Miles had done that. That was nothing to do with us at all. That was all Sports Interactive, Miles did it. I think he just had been in contact with Kevin Toms who I’m pretty certain owned the rights right the way through to the end. We didn’t take anything out of the game at all. It was just the name, which was owned for computer games by Kevin.

The original 1982 game has been ported to Android, apparently.
Woodley: That was the first game I got when we first got the Spectrum, that was just a classic. That was the first thing we bought. It was absolutely brilliant. There’s a little match engine sort of thing going on. That’s got to be a great inspiration, that title, to Oliver and Paul. There were lots of other games that came out, Tracksuit Manager was a particularly good one. I forget who made it.

How was Ian Livingstone (founder of Eidos and Fighting Fantasy) affected by this?
Woodley: I know Ian, he’s a mate of mine. I don’t think Ian was working at the company at the time, he might have been. He was an investor. That’s how I got into the business. He wrote a story for this game called Eureka, which was a graphic adventure, sort of text adventure, he’d already done all these Fighting Fantasy books for Steve, and it was Domark’s first ever game and it was like a masquerade treasure hunt and I finished it first. I cracked it and cracked this password and filled in all these riddles and thing and finished the game first. I won this prize and that’s how I got to know Domark, Mark and Ian. 1985 that was. That’s how I got to know all those guys. 26 years later….

There’s got to be a story in the rise and fall of Eidos.
Woodley: I do have some of the old Domark brochures… What I tried to get for Sega was a rounded release schedule but looking at Domark they actually had it. They had James Bond, Star Wars licenses, but things went tits up when it shouldn’t have done. There were a couple of years where we really had a brilliant, brilliant line up but the ball got lost and then after that I left and Eidos did well for a couple of years but …I guess they’ve slightly bounced back. Deus Ex seems like it’s a pretty hot game.

Thanks!