Miles Jacobson on: not talking about Football Manager

Miles Jacobson is the Studio Director at Sports Interactive, creators of Championship Manager and Football Manager. I caught up with him for a feature for PC Gamer at the end of last year.

Miles is the Studio Director at Sports Interactive, creators of Championship Manager and Football Manager. I caught up with him for a feature for PC Gamer at the end of last year.
I’ve heard that you’re contractually unable to talk about Championship Manager. Is that right?
Miles: We agreed when we left Eidos that we wouldn’t mention the game that shall not be named…
How about the years with Domark?
Miles: Same thing. Domark were bought by Eidos, they just changed the name.
In that case, let me skip forward to 2005 when you started at Sega. What changed from 2004 to 2005 – what did you do new? Were there significant changes when you first came to Sega?
Miles: Well Football Manager 2005 was essentially a new game. Whilst there were certainly game play elements that were very similar to our previous titles and some of the code was the same, it certainly had a different look and feel to it as a management title. Obviously, we had a huge bunch of code that we’d used for a very successful series previously and we owned all of that code, so it would’ve been stupid to throw it all away, but we’d been working on Football Manager 2005 for some time before it came out and had done another game for Eidos. Whilst working on Football Manager 2005 we’d done CM03/04 for them, so it was really sitting back and working out what our dream game was going to be, or what a dream starting point was going to be for a new series of games. We knew that we’d planned to do Football Manager for a long time, it wasn’t just going to be a one off, so it was very much a starting point for the series.
Miles Jacobsen

So you’re saying you’ve already made your dream game?
Miles: No, we haven’t. We’ve made the starting point for what will hopefully, eventually be our dream game. But I’m quite realistic; we’ve been doing this a long time. The day we make our dream game is the day that I can retire. Either that or a heart attack is going to happen first and with the pressure that we put on ourselves each year as a dev team and for what we want to be doing longer term, I think the heart attack is more likely to come before the dream game. Even though we’ve announced today that FM 12 has over 800 new features in it, we’ve still got a features database with well of 1500 ideas that we didn’t even get to look at this year. So for us it’s not a case of unlimited time and money because we release an annual iteration, that’s what happens with [inaudible] titles if you don’t do that, then people are going to be annoyed with you. Even though not everyone buys them every year, some people skip a year, you still have to be releasing each year so we very much plan a feature set that we can fit into the time available rather than looking at it as a way of “oh yeah, we want to do all of this, we need to hire a million people to do it in one year” because to be honest, anyone who does that with games is a bit silly because it doesn’t work. It’s not something where you can throw a bunch of people at a problem and it gets fixed in the best way. You need to make sure that everyone is very committed and on the same page, which is why we do everything as a team, it’s why we don’t have designers at the studio. There’s nothing wrong with designers at all, but all of our coders like to be designers as well, so why shouldn’t they get the chance to be?

Obviously an awful lot of the original game, the initial conception of Football Manager, was that it was, compared to the other titles at the time, it was very database heavy. It was a database and then the game was integrated into that later. You still have that database first, you’re the most accurate stats of any football management game, or any management game as far as we know.
We’ve got the world’s largest football database. That’s not just in gaming, that’s in football. We’ve got more scouts around the world than any club does, we have a deal with Everton whereby they use our database as part of their scouting network, there are lots of other clubs that do it unofficially as well and that’s something that we’re incredibly proud of but it doesn’t necessarily drive the game. Obviously without that data then we wouldn’t have all the footballers who are in there but every football game has a database, any real world sports game has a database. Any game that tries to make anything look realistic has a database. I’m sure that people who are making terrain that isn’t all identical also have a database of deciding what the terrain will look like in the rain and things like that; it’s [inaudible] all data driven. For us, we add things to the database based on game features that we want to add. So the database does drive everything, but it drives your website as well, it drives your magazine. Without the database you haven’t got any of it. So some of our game might look more like a database because there’s only certain ways that you can display player stats.

We were more impressed by the size of the thing, and the amount of inputs you were getting from around the world and the amount of refinement that that takes.
Miles: No journalist I know has seen the latest version of our database, but it’s not just down to the player and stats, it’s down to having longitude and latitudes for every football stadium in the world. It’s down to having weather data from every city in the world, of what the weather is likely to be like in January, February, March, April, etcetera. We really do go into those kinds of sad, anal detail when we’re looking at this because we’re creating a game world. As soon as someone hits the continue button they are in their own fantasy world. I think there’s a lot more RPG elements in Football Manager than maybe we’re given credit for sometimes, because we have created a world, but everyone’s world is individual.

Yes. You’re trying to perfectly replicate all the relevant features of the world we’re in at the moment for football management and then provide a divergent alternate history which is… you have all of these science fiction authors and sometimes historians writing alternate histories of the world. I’ve not seen any written about football. I’m sure there’s fan fiction out there but you guys are producing it for every individual that plays your game.
Miles: A lot of the fan fiction is people playing our game and then writing about it. I got asked a question over the weekend on Twitter because I made some points about Stoke’s performance at the weekend. A Stoke fan came to me and went, “Well, why do they always get relegated then?” I just went back and went, “Well, they haven’t been in MY game – in 2032 they’re actually doing pretty well!” and it is, people don’t realise that all of the realities are different because everyone plays the game their own way.

Creative Assembly said that they’d been researching stuff on say, Roman history, and they’d go in and find that somebody had altered a Roman history article on Wikipedia to detail this history which had been pulled straight from the game, but then sometimes people pulled the data from people’s campaigns that people had written up as fiction, or as a mock history, and they were going through and they realised that Wikipedia was no longer reliable because people were pulling data from their own game into Wikipedia as authoritative sources. Is that something you’ve seen with Football Manager?

Miles: I have to admit I don’t go to Wikipedia. I don’t even have my own section on Wikipedia, because as you say, people can just go in and add whatever they want to. So if I want some facts, I tend to use a good old fashioned Encyclopaedia.


Weirdly, they did reliability tests on Encyclopaedia versus Wikipedia and Wikipedia came out on top, just because it’s endlessly checked and rechecked whereas Encyclopaedias often were just one editor, bizarrely.
Miles: Well, that proves me wrong then, doesn’t it?

So these scouts that you have around the world, are they individual people in their bedrooms or in local areas? I take it that they do it for the love of the game rather than anything else.
Miles: We don’t ever talk about payment methods and things like that. The scouts vary from people sat in their bedrooms who are football fans who watch it from all over the world, but they HAVE to go and watch live football as well because our scouts aren’t just looking at first teams, they’re looking at reserve teams, youth teams [inaudible] at low levels as well. Some of our head researchers are involved with football. At least one of our head researchers, off the back of his work in the game, is now chief scout at a Premier League club in his home country. We have players, footballers, who help, we have real life scouts who help, we have real life coaches who help, the one thing that we don’t have helping on the data side is agents, because otherwise they make their own players too good, but we do have agents help with the transfer system, the contract system. We have managers and coaches helping out with the training system. The new team reports feature for this year came about by us getting a few different clubs next opposition reports and seeing exactly what they do and then turning that into an in game feature, so we do talk to people in the real world of football a lot and get them involved with testing the game because their feedback to try and make it as accurate as possible is really important. Much in the same way as someone like a game like Battlefield will have ex soldiers working with them to try and get that as realistic as possible, we’ve been doing the same, but we’ve been doing it about 15 years.

2006. What were the big changes from that one? You’d made a game that you’d been working on for 2 years which is a long development time for you chaps. What could you do to revolutionise the game again?
Miles: To be brutally honest, it’s not about revolutionising for us. We had the revolution in 2005 and we had another revolution in 2009 with the 3D match engine and for that we did some nice Che Guevara postcards which were quite funny, Che Guevara dressed as Manager Man. For the other years we really do look at evolution and we look at each individual module and work out which needs the most improvement at any particular time. I’m going to be brutally honest with you, I don’t have a list of new features from 2006, 7, 8, 9… I can do that

We’ll stick to the high points. So the only things I can see about the 2006 possibly – was that the first one on the Xbox 360, so you were moving off to several different platforms?
Miles: The idea behind the 360 game was, we thought it’d be really great for people to be able to play on console, and now at long last there was a console that could handle the game. The harsh reality of it is that people play console games very differently to the way that they play PC games and taking over a TV in a living room for 6 hours is going to be different to someone sitting there on a laptop. So the first iteration of the 360 version did quite well and then despite the scores being fine and the people who play it loved it, the sales started declining quite dramatically for the second and third one, so we decided to stop. It took us three years to work out what the issue was, and that is, for a start, the control system was horrible. It was as good as we could get on the console, but it’s just not the same as a keyboard and a mouse, is it? We’re very lucky now that we’ve got touch screens so we’re able to do Football Manager’s baby brother in Football Manager Handheld, and the touch screen interface is fine for that, but Kinect wouldn’t be something that’d really work for us. Again, the taking over the TV in the living room for so long would be a difficult thing.

Unless Microsoft give you half a million pounds to make it work with Kinect… So then you got to 2009 and you put the 3D match engine in. That was the first time you’d had that in the games history. When was the 2D match engine introduced? Because that was a revolution in its time.
Miles: 2D match engine came in a game we can’t talk about. We’d been working on that for a while when it went into CM4. The 3D match engine, we’d essentially been working on for about 3 years. Most of the early iterations had failed. We tried it, it failed, we tried it, it failed, and we hired a guy from the console world called Des Owens who’d been working at Black Rock, and just said to him, “Can you do a 3D engine for us?” The idea was that we were going to take exactly the instructions that were going into the 2D and display them in 3D. So from the very early stages of Des’s work, we called it a match viewer rather than a match engine and it still is. The AI that you get, whether you’re watching commentary only, whether you’re watching 2D or whether you’re watching 3D is absolutely identical. There’s no changes to it at all. It’s the way that it’s displayed that’s different. I think with hindsight the first iteration… it was obviously a first iteration of what we were trying to do. I think what we had with 11 and certainly what we have with 12 on the match viewer side is looking so much better than anything than we envisaged at the time. We’re not competing with FIFA when it comes to the 3D side of things and we’re not trying to compete with FIFA on that side of things. They have hugely talented teams of animators, artists, trying to make everything look exactly as it does in real life, down to the bulges in people’s leg muscles. For us, we’ve always concentrated on the game play; we will always have a more zoomed out view than you have in FIFA because in FM you have to be able to see more of the pitch than you necessarily do in FIFA. So they’re two very different things, but from where we were a few years ago to where we’ve got now, I think is pretty impressive, and to be able to take the amount of instructions that we have and display that in 3D and get it working on relatively low spec machines is something we’re also very proud of. With a game of FIFA, if you played a 90 minute game of FIFA, you’re going to end up with a ridiculous score line. Even if you simulated a 90 minute game of FIFA you’re going to end up with a ridiculous score line. That’s because FIFA shrink everything in a game of football into 5 minutes, whereas we actually replicate the whole match. So every single kick of the ball has to be something that could happen in real life. So it’s certainly been an interesting thing for the guys to be working on. We’ve learnt a lot over that, and we also learnt that we can’t just be rigid with the one year development cycle. We have to be more flexible, so there will be years where an area won’t have any changes at all and people might think it’s being neglected. What’s actually happening is that we’re likely having a big overhaul in that area that’s going to take longer than a year to do.

You also introduced the manager sitting on the sidelines shouting… is that something you’ve kept in?
Miles: Yes, touchline shouts are very much still there. Seeing as this piece will come out after this has been announced, you can actually customise them in FM 2012 as well, and make up your own shouts. The reason for having the shouts there, is that we just felt that now that we were 3D in the match experience and it did look a bit more realistic, it was about time that we made the match day experience for the manager be more realistic as well, so the game doesn’t pause when you hit the tactics button, the game carries on and you make the substitutions and you do the shouts… effectively it’s a way to try and adjust the tactics quickly. What we’ve been trying to do with the whole of the Football Manager series is make is it more football and less computer game. If you have a look at the terminology in our previous series and even in FM 2005, there’s still very technical language that would be use, whereas the people who are playing the game are meant to be in a football universe, so they don’t want to know about dashboards. They want to know about player information, player profiles. So the touchline shouts were basically shortcuts to being able to make tactical changes but done in a football way. You want to tell your team to waste a bit of time? You set your team to retain possession, short passing, and you just shout for them to do that. It makes more sense to do it that way than to do it with sliders.

Going on to 2011, that was more of an evolution. Shall we skip over that one? Did anything differentiate it from 2010?
Miles: Well there were over 500 new features in FM11, which is quite a lot if you ask me. Not as many as we’ve got this year, we’ve got over 800 new features. Things that were brand spanking new were the contract negotiations with agents. Agents were introduced in FM 2010, but the contract negotiations… before what you would do would be, you’d make a transfer offer, you’d have the transfer offer accepted. You would then fax a contract proposal to the player and they would get back to you in a few days. In real life contract negotiations tend to be done either live face to face or on the phone so we worked with a few different agents to get their take on how they should be done, and you’ve now got the live contract negotiation in there. We added in night matches so there was floodlighting, over 100 new animations and something for the hardcore fans. We always try and add something for the hardcore fans each year. With FM 2011 we added in dynamic league reputation, so that meant that over time, if a team in Turkey started doing really well in Europe the reputation of the whole league will improve over time. Much in the way that we’ve seen more players now prepared to move over to Germany as German clubs have started doing better in Europe, more French players staying in France as more French clubs have started getting better in Europe, it’s something that does change over time so we’ve decided to change that in game. In FM12, the big thing for the hardcore today is the ability to add and remove leagues during a career game so if you were to start your game in England and you decided after 5 seasons that you fancy a new challenge and want to move to Spain, you can add the Spanish league into the game and you can then move over to Spain and have proper career games without having to decide right at the start which leagues you want to manage in.

We should probably talk about Football Manager Live, released in 2007. Obviously it was an experiment; talk us through the idea behind it and where it went, and why you decided to discontinue it in the end.
Miles: We worked on Football Manager Live for about 4, 5 years before it came out. What we wanted to do was create a football universe online and have an online game where people around the world could go for a bit of banter and to be able to play against humans. We made a couple of very bad design decisions very early on in the project that were irreversible which effectively meant it was never going to work as an online game. The main one of those being that we only wanted one Wayne Rooney in each game world, we only wanted one Leo Messi in each game world. That meant because there were a finite amount of decent, world class footballers in the world that we had to make each game world 1000 people. So because of that it meant that when people dropped out of the game world, newer people didn’t want to go in to that game world, because they thought that the other people had an advantage because they were already playing, and they had no chance of getting Rooney. So Football Manager Live was a very interesting experiment and a game that I’m still really proud of. It was a fantastic game to play. Just commercially, it could never be successful based on the design decisions that we’d made. It was very sad. It was Ov Colliers return to Sports Interactive. He’d been away travelling, and whilst he was travelling he’d come up with this idea, me and Paul loved it, everyone in the team loved it… it just didn’t end up working. I think everyone has to make mistakes sometimes and that was definitely one that we didn’t realise the mistake until too late.

How does it make you feel, that you’ve worked on this thing for 10 years now, and you’re having to shut it as soon as it should be reaching its peak?
Miles: We probably shut it later than we should’ve done. We tried everything to keep it going, including resetting the whole game. It didn’t work. Of course it’s gutting, and of course everyone gets very upset about it but we tend to be a future looking company and a future looking studio. We are working on another online game already. We’re working with a South Korean company called KTH on a game called Football Manager Online which we have announced but we haven’t shown anyone yet. We’re going to be showing that out in Korea at the start of September, launching that in Korea early next year. If it works well over there maybe we’ll bring it back to Europe at some point. It’s actually been really interesting for us collaborating with people as well, so it’s a very interesting project to be working on.

The Korean market is very different to the western market – one where a large variety of different MMOs and online games in general seem to work very well and people are willing to support them, work with them as they change and it’s a great market to go into the try things out.
Miles: It is and we’re learning so much as well. Learning about the free to play market and how it works, how people can pay for a dev team based on a free to play model is very interesting and I’m delighted that we’re working with such experts in the field.

Also you’ve moved over to the handhelds and the mobile side a lot more, recently. I had to delete Football Manager from my iPhone because I lost a few weeks. I think you’ve made a very very good version on the iPhone. What do you have to lose to squeeze something on to a device that small or are those devices powerful enough now that it doesn’t matter?
Miles: We started from scratch. We actually started from scratch on the PSP. The iPhone game is essentially a slightly cut down port of the PSP version. The original design brief for the PSP game from me was to make the perfect game to play while you’re having a dump. Now Mark Vaughn who is someone who’s been with us as long as I have, 17 years now, Vaughny had moved to America for family reasons and we wanted to keep him as part of the studio so he was working on the PSP game. He then switched from the PSP game… He was actually working on a DS game for a while which we ended up pulling. It was something quite different. It wasn’t Football Manager on the DS. For various reasons we decided to stop working on that. We were just talking and he went, “Do you mind if I have a crack at putting the PSP game on the iPhone?” and I went, “Yeah I don’t know what else you’re going to be working on for the next few months so go for it.” He popped over a couple of months later with a working prototype and I went in and said to Sega “do you fancy an iPhone version of FM in 2 months?” which they were very excited about. The idea of the iPhone game and the PSP game and Football Manager handheld as an entity is really to have a game there that is cut down. It’s for people who don’t have time to play the main game anymore, who want a more snackable experience. You’re MEANT to be able to put it down after 10 to 15 minutes. I’m a bit worried that you lost a couple of weeks to it…

It’s been a lot more successful than we were expecting, particularly as it is what’s known as a premium price in the iPhone market, £6.99. I personally think for the hundreds of hours of entertainment that you get for it, £6.99 is possibly the biggest bargain in the history of gaming, but some people do still complain about the price.

When you start doing in-app purchases, then they’ll REALLY start complaining.
Miles: But that’s the future of the industry, isn’t it?

Will you ever move over to that kind of model, where the upfront cost of the game is less but you’re making money off downloadable content?
Miles: I believe it’s what I’ve dubbed “cheap to play with micro-transactions”. It’s exactly what Epic are doing with Infinity Blade and I personally believe it’s the business model for the future for handheld devices.

Do you think it’s the business model for the future for games in general?
Miles: It depends what you call cheap to play. I think Football Manager at £30 on PC and Mac is amazing value for money. The average amount of time a gamer spends playing the game on FM11 has been 140 hours. That will go up beyond 200 hours as it has been on our other titles. If you can find me better value for money entertainment than that then I’ll be pretty much amazed. A game of Premier League football is 90 minutes and costs you £40-50 to get in and you’re not guaranteed entertainment. If you mean adding micro transactions or downloadable content on top of a £30 price tag or on top of a £7 price tag for mobile, then yes I think that’s possible if the content is good enough and if the people are going to want to purchase that content. But with the licensing costs that we have on the game, those really are the cheapest prices that we are going to be shipping at. Whether that means we can’t do DLC on top, I’m not really sure.

If you were owned by Activision rather than Sega, Bobby Kotick would be looking at you going “How do we charge a monthly fee for Football Manager?”
Miles: Thankfully, we’re not run by Sega. We run ourselves and Sega are our parent company and we discuss absolutely everything when it comes to business models. We work very closely together on every area so we’re not really a studio who get told what to do. We’re a studio who work with our publisher for what’s best for our games and for the customers as well. It’s one of the great things about working with Sega, that they recognise very well that we work on a long term “franchise” and next year is our 20th Anniversary. We still want to be making Football Manager. We don’t want to not exist because we’ve milked it too much. We want to be able to entertain as many people as possible but do it in a sensible way that is sustainable from a business point of view and also creatively making sure that our games get better each year and improve enough year on year to keep people coming back for more.

The design alteration on the mobile side and the way you compressed it down reminded me of Civilisation Revolution as opposed to Civilisation. Civilisation being a huge game with massive databases behind it, and Civilisation Revolution which was more of a cut down, friendly version which drew people in easily.
Miles: Civilisation Revolution was brilliant. Anyone who makes high detail games and are looking to make games on handheld platforms should be looking at that as inspiration. I think Football Manager Handheld is a lot more cut down than Civilisation Revolution; there are lots of reasons for that. Civilisation Revolution was absolutely phenomenal. I’m lucky enough to know a couple of guys who worked on it and they probably get annoyed with the way I go on about how brilliant it was. If we were ever to go back to consoles, Civilisation Revolution would be what we were doing on consoles, but there are no plans for us to do that.

Does it feed back into the PC game itself, the way it’s compressed and cut back on?
Miles: No. We’ve got a completely different data structure, we’ve got completely different league structures, so… In terms of design, no not really. We have a lot more to play with on the PC side of things. Certainly there are features that’ve been nicked from one another and there are features that’ve been nicked from FML, but then all of the games have the same exec producer, so they’ve all got … I’m getting to see the elements on all of them. Although I direct Football Manager I didn’t direct FML, Ov did that and FMH is directed by Vaughny. As I’m executive producer on all of them I do get a pretty good insight into what’s going on. We use the different titles to test things out, see whether we like them or not and then roll them out to all the different titles, so there’s feedback in that way but the games are still stand alone games.

Thank you for your time!