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Extra Time: Football Manager Interview Part 2

Clean sheets and spreadsheets

As we enter the second part of a marathon conversation with Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson, I begin by checking that the half time oranges have done the trick. Once we're both warmed up and ready to go, talk turns to Football Manager's place in the wider world of games and Miles' background in the world of music. When we're not discussing Jesus Jones and Blur, we're pondering whether comparing Football Manager to open world games is instructive. Part one is here.

RPS: Now that the game is out, does your schedule lighten up at all? There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of downtime.

Jacobson: No. It never stops but then I am the luckiest bastard alive! I do a job that I absolutely love and for many years I did it without being paid a penny because I had another job on the side when I first started out. When you are lucky enough to have something like that, that I’d call a vocation rather than a job, then you don’t want to stop.

I could certainly do with some sleep. At this time of year when we’ve just released, we’re knackered. We’ve got Football Manager Handheld coming out tonight (ed: interview was conducted some time ago) and we’re still working on the Vita version as well, which we don’t have a release date for yet. And then there’s Football Manager Online, which I’m going out to Korea for towards the end of December. And then FM 15, which some of the team are already working on while others are working on patches for 14. I’ve also got a lot of directorial work for 15 happening already.

There are already 300, maybe 350, features that we know are going to be in 15. We’ll decide on the other six or seven hundred when we have the feature meetings in January.

RPS: Football Manager can feel like a thing apart from the rest of gaming culture, whatever that might be. Do you play lots of games outside sports titles?

Jacobson: I do play a lot of games but I don’t play many games with guns, mainly because I don’t like shooting humans. I don’t mind shooting aliens or Lego characters, and I love all of the Lego games. I like some unusual games as well – I’m a closet RPS reader and I play a lot of the things that you guys write about. I’m actually sitting here wearing a Thomas Was Alone t-shirt – I think Mike Bithell is an absolute genius.

I know quite a few of the indie teams. I can’t wait to play Kent Hudson’s new game, The Novelist. Even though I don’t particularly like shooters, I really like Gunner Z. I know it hasn’t been everyone’s cup of tea but being someone who is rubbish at shooters, having one set on rails is a good thing.

I tend to play games that make me think – strategy and puzzle games. Because I work in the industry and appreciate the work that a lot of other people do, what tends to happen with the Call of Duty and Gears of War games is that I have a mate who plays them, and I’ll watch them and treat them like films.

RPS: One of the reasons I ask is that the simulation aspect that attracted you to Champ Manager back in the day, where the player is part of a wider universe rather than the centre of a blockbuster movie, is something that still isn’t done particularly well by many developers. It’s something I associate more with grand strategy and oddities like Dwarf Fortress. The more obvious ‘open world’ games like GTA and Skyrim, for example, don’t do that to the extent that they appear to do at first glance. It’s rare for a game to simulate a world when the player isn’t looking at it.

Jacobson: We don’t have a story to tell. We let the players make their own stories and there aren’t many games that do that. When people talk about open world games, FM doesn’t quite qualify yet, but it’s a lot more open world than a lot of games that claim to be are. I’m interested to see what Titanfall and Destiny are actually like because they seem to be trying to break those barriers down and to be a lot more free-form. Some of the MMOs that I’ve tried are a lot more free-form. The last Guild Wars is an example of that, I think.

Our part in that open world conversation – it’s not something that we want any credit for, but it’s nice when people bring it up because it is a key differentiating aspect of our game next to other sports games. When people ask why we don’t have competition in this market and the truth is that we’ve had loads of competition over the years, but everyone has had a slightly different ethos. And right now there are more people legitimately playing Top Eleven, for example, than playing FM legitimately. If you add our piracy stats together, we come out ahead but Top Eleven offers a very different experience and there’s plenty of room for that. But there’s no other football game that offers this idea of a world.

You can find it in some of the other sports games out there, like Out of the Park Baseball, and our own Eastside Hockey. And a few of the Front Office games as well. But it’s something that people who haven’t played our game, and who see it as a giant spreadsheet, really don’t understand.

Every game is just a giant spreadsheet. Every game is a load of data points and animations that allow you to see those data points on screen. We’re no different in that way but I like to think that our world is more believable than some of the others out there.

RPS: Out of the Park is interesting because it’s the only other sports game that is anywhere near as in-depth but they have the historical and fictional aspects as well. I know you’ve said before that you’re not interested in recreating the past with FM, or that the workload isn’t worth the payoff, but you have added more modding.

Jacobson: I’ve laid that gauntlet down for people! If you want it, you can make it. Back in the days of CM 2 I did a World League update. Those kind of fantasy elements are something that we encourage and the reason that we wouldn’t do a historical version of the game is that, for me, part of the charm of the game is seeing the new-gens coming through and working out which ones are going to break through.

If you start a game and you have Maradona, Messi and Pele as sixteen year olds in a database, you know that they’re worth buying as soon as they’re available. You know they’re going to become legends. When new players start entering the world, as unknowns, it creates a more interesting dynamic.

RPS: Before we finish, something that I’ve always wanted to ask – is it true that you worked for Steve Lamacq at one point?

Jacobson: I didn’t actually work for Steve, but he did take me under his wing. When I was about eighteen I was writing a fanzine for the interweb and I used to go round selling it at gigs by bands like Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine and Thousand Yard Stare. I managed to interview some very neat bands before they were successful and because I was working in a record shop I got to hear their albums before they came out.

Steve was training me to be a journalist to write for the NME but basically my writing wasn’t good enough. But a gig one night at the Bull and Gate, he introduced me to a guy called Andy Ross at Food Records, and he told him that I wasn’t a great writer but I had a good pair of ears. About a week later, I started as an A&R guy at Food. I got to work with Blur, Jesus Jones, Dubstar and Shampoo. Then I moved to Universal, or Polygram Island as it was then, where I worked with Feeder and Fatboy Slim, and about forty other bands. And I put soundtracks together for games, like the first couple of Gran Turismo soundtracks, working with Sean Kelly.

I did some FIFA soundtracks as well and worked on some of the early Harmonix games, like Frequency and Amplitude, on the soundtrack side. I was doing all that while working on Champ Manager on the side.

RPS: Do you maintain any of your music links through Warchild?

Jacobson: Yeah. When we split from Eidos and were looking for a new publisher we had offers from pretty much everyone. So we put a clause into our contract that we wanted a certain amount of money given to a charity of our choice as a way to weed out some of the publishers. Sega came back to us and said ‘we think that’s brilliant’ so we ended up signing with them. We talked to a few of the big charities but they didn’t want to know because we were talking about £100,000 a year and they didn’t believe that was a large amount of money.

I’d worked with Warchild before and knew a lot of the people there, so I started talking to them about it and they bit our arm off. And I’m also on their entertainment committee so I help to put on all of the concerts and events that they do. That’s awesome because it has kept my hand in on the music side of things, but we’re at the stage now were a lot of musicians play FM. And there are a lot of musicians who grew up playing our game. I was at a do the other week, a BAFTA thing, and there was a musician there that I’m a rather massive fan of and I was going to go up and say ‘hi I’m Miles, thanks for the music’. Before I could do that he came up, gave me a hug and said ‘I bloody love your game’!

It’s funny how we’ve become part of culture now and football culture too. We have 300 footballers who test the game now and receive the beta a month before everybody else and give us feedback at every level. We’ve got some cricketers as well who spend a lot of time playing the game when they’re on tour.

RPS: Does anyone ever complain about how good, or rather bad, they are in the game?

Jacobson: Yes! (laughs) We had one player who phoned up to say he should be in the first team and wasn’t being picked, even though he was better than the guy who was getting picked. And I was thinking, ‘are you talking in real life or in the game?’ It does happen quite a lot.

The more honest footballers will say they should be better on a certain stat and have another reduced. We’ll sometimes tweak them if that’s the case. Quite a few say they can play in loads of positions and I’ll say, ‘we’ve never seen you play there’ and it turns out they do it in training.

RPS: How about diving? Is that entirely based on a sportsmanship stat? Do you tweak that tendency if players fall into a habit in real life?

Jacobson: It’s a sportsmanship thing but that doesn’t just cover diving. There is a player preferred move for ‘simulation’. Only a few players have it and it’s well hidden. Again, it’s a side of football that we don’t want to see but obviously it does happen.

RPS: Thanks for your time!

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