Let's side-step the foot-to-ball gags for this one. The Championship Manager story fascinates me.
My first words to Roy Meredith, General manager of Beautiful Game studios, is that I followed the whole Championship Manager/Football Manager story as a journalist rather than a gamer. It was a fascinating example of a trend in this decade - where the developers went in one direction, and the actual franchise itself went in the other. It fascinated me in terms of What Actually Matters. The most prominent example would be Infinity Ward, Medal of Honor veterans who left and took the heart and soul of the game with them. You can trace the other wars from that time - Codemasters' making Flashpoint 2 while Bohemia make their own more eccentric path with the Armed Assault games. And then, relevantly, there was Sports Interactive and Eidos. When they went separate directions, Sports Interactive took the physicality of the game itself - its engine and their expertise. Eidos kept the name, and built a new team - Beautiful Game Studios - to continue its never-ending season.
So far, it's fair to say that the winner has been Sports Interactive. He joined Beautiful Game towards the end of 2007, and his purpose seem to do enough to turn them into actual contenders. Talking to him, there's flashes of the sort of media-friendly bites defending the validity of what they do with the name Championship Manager ("Same team, different players" is the most memorable - and I don't think the metaphor holds, but it's a brave try) and an admission of how much work they have to do. He clearly feels that the response to Champ Manager 2008 - a 68 metascore compared to Football Manager's 86 - was a nadir. They have to do better. They think they have done better. They're also aware that it's a long haul.
What they show, to a layperson, seems interesting. The theory seems sound, with an eye on coherence and transparency. Things like having pertinent facts on a player circle circle on the top level menu, meaning that to get to key info you don't have to actually dig every time is clearly useful transparency. A media engine to mix up the mails a whole lot more, with numbers like half a million different messages last time they texted it. Increasing ability to filter what messages you get in different areas. Most relevantly to someone like me, an autopick which gives its pretty-good suggestions of any given team of who should be playing where in what formation. So, if you're dropped into a team you don't know - in my case, any team - you at least have somewhere to start. Stuff which they removed - for reasons which Roy is bewildered by - is brought back, like an overlay to see how much running your poor little fellas are going to have to do to switch between your offense and defensive formations, with and without the ball. Drill-training, which is apparently totally new, and the match engine working with the practice modes to best show exactly how people are working out. Tendencies in players as well as skills, so if people are best known for certain sorts of play, you'll see them doing those moves...
Lots of stuff in short. I'm far from an expert, but he's talking a good game.
And, of course, we do some talking...
Roy Meredith: I'm being quite genuine in this – but I want Football Manager to build its success. Because what we have is a genre which people call niche – and by niche, they mean small. The definition of niche is that it appeals to a specific target market. In that respect it is... but genuinely, I'll be really happy to have two or maybe three really strong players in this marketplace. On console, my favourite games are WW2 shooters. But I don't just buy Call of Duty. I buy Medal of Honor. I don't buy one strategy game – which is what I play on PC – I play a number of them. And if someone's into racing games, I'm sure they're not just going to buy Need for Speed or Gran Turismo – they're going to buy Burnout and Project Gotham. I don't see a reason why people could play both, as long as both are quality games which seek to innovative. Need for Speed analyses what GT did. I was at EA for seven and a half years. I know they do. They look at what Project Gotham does, and look for their own area in a racing genre... that's what us and Football Manager should do. I do want them to succeed.
RPS: So... how did you get involved here?
Roy Meredith: I came in from EA... November 07. It had been on the slide... we describe as “mid-table mediocrity”, but it had been on the slide in quality and sales for a number of years. Eidos are aware of its value as a brand – it's the oldest sports brand in gaming now. It's got huge recognition, probably much to the chagrin of Football Manager.
RPS: It still does "Championship Manager" is almost the genre title.
Roy Meredith: Yeah. Eidos... they're aware of that. How to change it? So my job for six months was to analyse what we needed to do. There was a lot of learning to do. A lot of very stupid mistakes were made on Championship Manager, and a lot of dark decisions. One of the things we needed to do was to decide what Champ Manager was really about. You look at a franchise, and you want to look at its future and try and plan out a future of where we want to be. We talk about going back to fundamentals – what Champ Manager is all about, what football games are all about, or games in general are all about.
RPS: So, what did you do?
Roy Meredith: We have to align ourselves much greater with football and its culture. There's a reason why we're here. We've been here for about five months now. We had a gross hole of an office up in North London. The idea was that this new place could let us seep us in Football Culture. That's all that we've got. We're not a game about football. We're a football game. And football comes first in that context. If you walk in, you'll see Subuteo and table football and all that kind of stuff. It's important to understand we're in the same part of culture around football. We belong in the outside of football – not just in Subuteo terms, but in Panini terms, in Shoot [Old Football Mag - Ed] terms and all these things which are around the outskirts of the event. We had to remember that when making the game, which is about making it a fun experience. You know how long people stay in front of this game. They'll play it for 30, 40 seasons, at six hours a time.
RPS: So what directions are you pushing it?
Roy Meredith: It's about accessibility. It's about innovation. There's been a pause in Innovation. We've tried to do it. I think FM does it quite well... and I should stress, I've been playing Champ Manager since January 95, so I do know the genre pretty well, and am highly opinionated about it. I still play and enjoy it now. I think it'll be good to have two healthy games in the marketplace, as then it may encourage us both to innovate more, which would be exciting – for both consumers and me. And a good excuse as far as my wife is concerned, as then I can play Football Management games all year round.
It's all about cause and consequence. It's about a series of challenges. That's all games are – a series of challenges for a gamer to get around. What our game has – and any strategy game has, I think – is an information flow. Information is more direct. In a shooter, the information flow is “Oh look – there's a German soldier peering out behind a pillar”. And then you shoot him. Information flow in this is a bit more measured. It has to leave to a challenge – which is cause and consequence. There has to be a consequence – either positive or negative – at the end of it. But without you actually making that apparent... well, if they don't see it, it may as well be an invisible soldier in Call of Duty, because if you don't see it, you don't know if you've shot it. So it has to be transparent. We'd lost that. We'd put features in without thinking about that cause and consequence would work. There's a number of features I could highlight which would be indicative of it. It would be “this is in football, so we ought to have it” with no thought about how it fit together.
So that's what went wrong.
RPS: How could you increase transparency?
Roy Meredith: The complication we have over the look and feel is that it's a statistic based game. And statistics are numbers. And at the moment, we won't get away from that. As we evolve this franchise we'd look at better ways to communicate the numbers, and better way for you to access the information... but at the moment, we're fixed on numbers, because it's part of the evolution process. They've disappeared in some places, and made simpler in others.
RPS: I admit, I used to have a conspiracy theory. That all the football management games weren't actually anything at all. Most of those numbers weren't connected to everything. It was just a confidence trick. Things like features seeming to disappear from the simulation when they added more graphical representation made me suspect it more - because they weren't able to hide it.
Roy Meredith: I think potentially it's true! I wasn't here. A friend of mine who worked on Potter with us... when Champ Manager and Football Manager came out, he used to take the piss relentlessly. “Powered by excel and all that”. He once convinced me that he'd managed to look at the code and said “you know all of the results are pre-ordained don't you? And for an hour or two, I believed him. And then I remembered years ago in one of the early iterations, I was playing Spurs against Chelsea and I was getting trounced. And then my cat jumped on the keyboard and crashed it. I'd saved it just before the game, so I went in, played the same game, formations, tactics and changed two players... and I beat them 3-2. But I think back into the early, mid-nineties, there was probably a lot more smoke and mirrors than there is now.
Some smoke and mirrors are there for a very good reason. I worked on Burnout, as a publishing company, at EA. And I was talking about how, even though the cars aren't real, everything about it is so realistic and graphically so right. And the person I was talking about said “you ever looked at the size of the street-furniture?” And it's totally out of scale. The roads are extra wide to allow racing. The fences, I think, were absolutely huge. I'd never noticed it... but it's kinda smoke and mirrors. They feel real. It's not a negative smoke and mirrors. I don't choose everything. I don't choose to have the meeting with the financial director. I'm sure that Ferguson meets with his chief executive and financial director on a one for one... but they're the dull bits. It's the heart of what it is. It's the truth of what it is. The entertaining truth. And that's the difference between realism and real, which is very important to me.
RPS: I don't envy Beautiful Game studios. I find myself thinking... well, I watched the FIFA/Pro-Evo wars with some interest. At one point, FIFA may as well have been dead in terms of critical feedback. But now, from the impression I get in terms of conversation, it's actually on top. And I feel there was a lag between FIFA actually being better and people - reviewers especially - admiting it was so. There's a lag. And, really, you're stuck in a war of attrition.
Roy Meredith: I was at EA for FIFA. And I was there – in 2002 I think – when they took the decision that it had reached an all time low. The amount of top level people who were focused on FIFA. It's a long term plan, coming to fruition now. It worked brilliantly for them. I remember going through through I think you're right. One difference we have is that prior to this year we've said “we've got a quality game this time around” - and it's our watchword, at Eidos moving towards making quality games... which takes a while to get to. And people like being cynical about it. I will always say our goal is quality... but I'll never say we're delivering it. There's only two people who are able to say that. And that's you guys and its the consumers. And I'm not going to say what I believe the quality to be.
RPS: So yeah. I really don't envy you.
Roy Meredith: I really have one of the luckiest jobs in the world. Not only do I adore football, and work in a franchise which I have a passion in and for.... but during a time of turning a franchise around, which isn't a short term thing. Bringing something back to how it was. I've got such a supportive management. They're not looking for quick fixes. They realise I have to do what I have to do. That's massively important. Without that sort of support, it's impossible to do the job.
I like to think we'll get better reviews than we got last year – we have to. But there will be a cynicism... and if not that, a reluctance or hesitancy. No-body's going to say CHAMPIONSHIP MANAGER'S BACK! No matter what we achieve. And to be quite honest, I don't want them to. Because I don't want to rest on our laurels. I want to keep pushing people for a few years yet. And in a few years, we'll say “We're back where we want to be”.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
The next Championship Manager will be released in September.