On the day of the launch of Football Manager 2014, Sportra spoke on the phone with Sports Interactive’s studio director Miles Jacobson. Miles is an extremely passionate football fan, a keen supporter of his beloved Watford FC. We asked him to share his thoughts on Watford’s promotion chances this season, this year’s game, and where the series could go in the future.
How’s today been going (we spoke on the day of the launch of Football Manager 2014)?
MJ: (laughs) I’m very, very, very tired. But at the moment, everything seems good.
Knowing that you’re a Watford fan, after the play-off loss last season, do you think this could be your year?
MJ: Well looking at the table at the moment there are a lot of teams that have improved during the summer. Then you’ve got the surprising qualities of Burnley, although I shouldn’t be that surprised, because Sean Dyche was a fantastic manager down at Watford and a really lovely bloke. He is very good at getting the best out of players.
So I’m hopeful, but what we need to stop doing is giving away stupid goals in the last five minutes, and we need to make sure that referees give us goals when the ball goes over the line (in Watford’s last fixture, Watford wasn’t rewarded a goal against Brighton despite it crossing the line). There’s good team spirit down there, and we’ve got one of the best squads I’ve ever seen at the club, even from when we were in the Premier division, or the old first division. I still think our current squad, skill-wise, is absolutely fantastic.
We brought in quite a few players in the summer, and it takes them a while to gel. But it would be good to get on a nice long unbeaten run if we are to catch the likes of Burnley, QPR and have a chance of going up automatically, because after last season’s play-off final, I really don’t fancy going through that again.
Zola’s a pretty good manager, but he was also a brilliant player, do you think he could still get a game?
MJ: I go to training, every now and then, and I was there the other week with Max Rushden, filming some things for Soccer AM. Zola, on the ball, is still the most skilful player at the club, by quite a long way.
I was also lucky enough to be injured, I know that’s a strange thing to say, but I was lucky enough to be injured in a game I was supposed to be playing in, and Zola decided to play instead of me. It was pretty phenomenal, but he played as a centre back and he was still the best player on the pitch. I don’t think he’s quite got the stamina to be doing a full 90 minutes, but certainly from the perspective of being able to teach the younger players at Watford some amazing skills and tricks, then he’s a very good person to be able to do that.
I saw Rob Green say he once conceded a goal against him in training, and Zola apologised while the ball was mid-flight.
MJ: Yeah, Zola is also an absolute lovely bloke as well. Very down to earth. There was a story I got told by a couple of journalist when he lost the job at West Ham, and had signed a non-disclosure agreement so couldn’t talk about it. There were loads of journalists stood outside his house trying to get him out and have a chat, and it was a very cold day. Zola walked out with a tray with a load of cups and a teapot, and he made tea for everybody and apologised to everybody for not being able to talk about it. But at least he made everyone a cuppa, and he is that kind of bloke, a real gentleman.
Moving across to Football Manager, I can imagine that you’ve sunk a few hours into the game, but what’s been your greatest achievement thus far?
MJ: I’ve managed to get Watford into the Premier League, so that’ll do me. I started on the beta just before it was released, and I’ve managed to do four seasons on it so far. My new board, because the club actually got taken over last season, and I’m getting on alright with the new chairmen, just not really as well as I get on with the current guys at Watford in real life! (laughs). But we’re getting on ok, except he wants me to push for the UEFA Cup this season, and I think that’s going to be a little bit difficult. I think my team’s a bit young to get there, so we’ll see what happens. I have a five-year contract, so if he does sack me it’s going to cost him a fortune.
Football Manager has one of the most loyal and passionate fanbases of any game. With the new game each year, is it difficult to make wholesale changes without risking the wrath of that core? How important is the feedback you receive over the course of a game when implementing changes?
MJ: Well we get loads of feedback from our forums, on Twitter, on Facebook, even bumping into people down the pub, talking to journalists, talking to people inside football. We do take everything on board and it does help steer the game. We also have a huge backlog of things that we do want to do at some point in the game but haven’t had time to do yet.
We never really have problems coming up with new ideas and stuff like that. It’s impossible to keep everybody happy all of the time. So the way that we tend to do things is to make sure that we’re happy with the game. Because most of us at the studio play the game just as much as anyone does. So the fact that we are our own target market probably helps.
It would be quite difficult for us to make a, I don’t know, a platforming game that’s aimed at kids, because then you’d have to do all the focus-group side of things, and try and get into the head of kids. Whereas for us we’re all massive football fans so it probably makes it a bit easier.
But as I said, you can’t please everyone. I’ve had one death threat so far this morning.
MJ: I don’t even know what he doesn’t like in the game, but I’m presuming he doesn’t like something. But then again I’ve had a few hundred tweets from people telling me how much they love it, so the good outweighs the bad.
Well having already put 80 hours into the game, I’m pretty addicted.
MJ: You’re not addicted, you’re compelled to play it (laughs)
Classic Mode has been included for a couple of games, do you think that’s a good mode to attract new users, or help keep hold of core players who have less time?
MJ: Well there were two groups of people that we wanted to hit with Classic Mode, one was new fans, and you know we’re getting those people through on both Classic and Football Manager Handheld. The other group was people who just don’t have the time to play anymore, but want to be playing. So maybe they’ve got a job that takes up a lot of their life, or kids so maybe they don’t have as much time to play it anymore, so we wanted a quicker way for them to still be able to have a lot of fun managing the team without necessarily the depth of the experience, and I think FM Classic has been very good for that.
With the more demanding parts of the game, like the match engine, is it difficult making vast improvements without risking losing players who have lower-end PCs?
MJ: Well the way that we do it is we make sure that we’re aiming for the low end, but still have features that are there for the high end. So if you were to play the game on a seven-year old laptop, with a bad graphics card that just about covers the minimum spec, you’re still going to see a 3D replication of football, but it’s not going to look beautiful. Whereas if you play the game on a machine that’s got a really great graphics card, the lighting and shadowing that we have on there is absolutely beautiful. But most people won’t get to see that, apart from the people that are working on it directly.
But we still spend time on that kind of stuff, because it would be wrong if we didn’t. If people do have those high end machines, and it’s also useful for us, for when the government turns round and bans all machines that are over three years old or something (laughs). Because, you know, you never know what’s going to happen, do you? So we have to be ready for the future as well as keeping our core customer base happy.
Speaking of looking to the future, the next-gen consoles are right around the corner, and have a strong focus on social media and second-screen interaction. Could we see these sort of features make their way over to FM? Perhaps players handling tasks on their smartphone when away from the PC?
MJ: I have a bit of a problem with second-screen. Because humans only have two eyes, and their eyes only ever face the same way, so it’s impossible to make them look at two completely different things at the same time. Whilst people go on about the second screen and loads of people tweet while watching football, what they’re actually doing is looking away from football and tweet, rather than watching football and being able to miraculously tweet at the same time.
Even with the new functionality that you’re going to have with split screen and stuff like that, you still can’t be looking at both sides of the split screen at the same time, it’s physically impossible. So until the human anatomy actually changes, it’s not something that I think is going got be a good way to be playing games. So it’s not something that we’re going to be looking at particularly and we have no plans at all to be on next-generation consoles at the moment.
But what about when players aren’t at their PCs? For example if I bid for a player before leaving the game, could I check my smartphone for an email telling me if it’s been accepted?
MJ: The game’s not played in real-time. So if we have a massively-multilayer online version of the game – and we’re working on those at the moment specifically for the Asian market – with that game, yes that’s the kind of thing that’s possible because it is something that, you know when you’re in a pervasive online world, then yes you need to be able to have alerts like that.
But with FM, once you shut the game down, time stops. When you go back to the game, time starts again.
You spoke briefly about the handheld version of the game, and we also have the mobile versions too. Technology with mobile devices is advancing very rapidly, so do you think it will be long before we get the PC-quality Football Manager on mobile devices?
MJ: Technically, it might be possible with the new [iPad] that comes out in a couple of weeks, whether it’s the right game for that device, probably not. Because people play games on mobiles and tablets differently to the way they play games on PCs.
On the PC our average play time per session is over two hours, whereas on the iOS devices it’s less than half an hour. So the iOS game is specifically designed for those devices, but you know, who knows what could happen in the future. Obviously with Vita we’re bringing Football Manager Classic across, but we’re not bringing across the full game, so maybe we’ll look at the same in the future.
But people also do have to remember that everytime a new device comes out, if we were just to support that new device, it means that anyone who has any of the other iOS devices won’t get the game at all. So you know, unless everyone throws away their old devices, and just gets new devices, it’s something that might be difficult for us to support, certainly in the short term. Who knows in the medium term.
For someone like me, that news would certainly be a system-seller for the new iPad.
MJ: Well if Apple want to give us a few million pound to go away and make the game specifically for that device so that you go away and buy a new iPad, then that sounds like a good deal to me! At the moment we have to concentrate on where the main part of the market is, and that’s on the lower-end devices.
For people picking up the game today, do you have any advice you’d like to share?
MJ: The best tip that I can give people is player roles. Player roles are incredibly important in the game, as they are in real life. If you have an absolutely fantastic player, but you’re playing him in the wrong role, it’s unlikely he’s going to do that well for you. In the same way, as in real life, there are lots of very good attacking midfielders that people might start playing as a striker or defensive midfielder and then wonder why they’re not as good, the same thing happens inside the game. So be very careful when you’re setting up your tactics, make sure you set player roles that make sense and you’ve got good cover in defence as well as attack. If you can balance that well, then you’re going to do alright.