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The RPS Verdict: Football Manager 2014

Men United

Adam already told you Wot He Thunk about Football Manager 2014, but foot-to-ball is a team sport. For the second half, he's drafted fellow ball fancier Graham onto the pitch to discuss Sports Interactive's latest old-guy-in-a-warm-coat simulator. Spoilers: it ends a draw.

Football puns out the way? Read on for the John Barnes rap, the ethics of pigeons, and the Speedball management mod for which we all hunger.

Graham: Finally a place where we can talk about football without being judged by the others.

Adam: They will be judging us from afar.

Graham: As long as I don't have to see their withering stares.

Adam: I wrote many many words about Football Manager two thousand and fourteen but I didn't mention the Classic mode at all. That's where Graham comes in. Hello, Graham! Is it fair to describe Classic mode as a streamlined version of the game for wimps?

Graham: Yes, hello I am Exhibit A: Wimp.

I'm a Championship Manager and Football Manager player from way back, but I drifted away from the series around 2004 or 2005, when I got a life and the game grew too complex and unknowable for me. I came back last year with Classic Mode and I spent about 12 hours this weekend playing FM2014's version of same.

Adam: It's a time commitment issue rather than one of difficulty then?

Graham: A little of both. It's... I take philosophical umbrage with certain elements of Football Manager. Which sounds insane. But they've built a vast, complex system full of detail, and it's impossible to know in the full game which of that detail should be paid attention to and what should be ignored. If you're winning or losing, I find it difficult to work out why. In other games I really admire that kind of worldbuilding, that depth and complexity, but in Football Manager I feel like the satisfaction of employing winning strategies is dependent on me knowing. Like I'm supposed to know. That feeling is multiplied when it takes dozens of hours to complete a season, and as feature rich as the main game now is.

Adam: I understand that. As the series moves more toward a complete simulation of the footballing world, some aspects are still unknowable. How much does a team talk actually impact performance when a player's head drops? How much does a private chat change mentality?

I find the roleplay aspect, which brings some of that out, fascinating. But it does move the game away from a purely tactical game. That's always been part of the pleasure for me though. I've never been the kind of player who wants to take a lower league team to European glory - I mean, I'd like to, sure, but I also take a perverse pleasure in disaster, the sack, job hunting.

The unknowable is an enjoyable part of the simulation, just as it is in Crusader Kings. If I know all of the systems, some of the magic is gone.

Graham is rubbish at tactics.

Graham: There are strategy games that tell you the outcome of a battle upfront, and there are strategy games where you learn the systems through practice, and there are strategy games that lean more on roleplay as, like you say, in CK2. Football Manager has a bit of the roleplay thing for me, but also it's about winning matches. The story you're crafting feels less important than in a game like CK2. It feels more about winning.

Sometimes when I'm playing it, I feel like I'm a pigeon inside a skinner box. I press the button, and food comes out. I press the button again... and there's no food. Why?! I'm trying to work out this system which is too complex to fully fit inside my brain. Because they're simulating a world, it's erratic and unpredictable. But also it's a system and it has rules. It turns me into a mad mathematician trying to work out chaos theory.

This is all partly my own psyche, of course. Like, as a kid, Championship Manager is the only thing that has ever made me superstitious. Actual madness. I used to pump my first every time I scored a goal, because I'd become superstitious that if I didn't, if I took it for granted, my opponent would score against me. I knew that was rubbish but did it anyway, in the pursuit of success.

I wonder if there isn't something slightly unethical about this kind of game. Books like Football Manager Ruined My Life are played for laughs, but there's something about this mixture of success and failure, control and lack of control, that... If they included microtransactional gambling, Football Manager would bankrupt people, because it's hitting the same chemical highs and lows. I'm not sure it's not bad for the brain.

But on an experiential level I love it, and Classic Mode gives me an entry back into it. Lovely chemical highs.

Adam: We can talk about the chemical highs and ruined lives in a moment, but before that let's talk about this specific version. For my needs, the storytelling and the grand strategy buzz, I'm almost convinced it's the best yet. I say 'almost' because it'll take weeks to know for sure and it's not even out yet.

As a glory hunting, fist punching, superstitious victory addict, how well is 2014 pushing your buttons? Does Classic mode work as a sort of old school Champ Manager update?

A videogame.

Graham: Absolutely. Football Manager is building a world, but Football Manager Classic feels like more of a game. It streamlines the fantasy down to its core: pick your team, set your tactics, buy new players, and try to win matches.

2014's new additions still drip down into Classic mode, too, like the greater number of player roles, and I feel like compared to 2013, I spent a lot more time tweaking smaller details of my tactics beyond simply mentality and positioning. I really liked that. Despite all I just said, it actually feels simultaneously more nuanced and understandable.

I guess I'm curious what team you played as most? I've been leading Manchester United, to fulfill my duty as a Scottish manager in Alex Ferguson's wake.

Adam: Manchester United for me too - I'm a former season ticket holder AND ACUTALLY FROM MANCHESTER. It's the first year I've felt really comfortable playing as them - weird to think that there's never been an edition of the game, in any of its forms, when doing so hasn't involved displacing Ferguson.

I'm never sure how well the backroom staff are simulated but Edward Woodward seems like an utterly useless stump, which appears to be accurate. I flogged Cleverley and Nani in the first January window and have failed to replace them. Top of the league though!

I've restarted now as a random team, which I usually take a shot at. English, simply because I know the names better. I'm the manager of Brentford, who are quite brilliant.

Graham: I think Steve Round is the name of the Assistant Manager, and I can't tell how much of his bad advice is the game being dim and how much is it simulating him being a dolt. He keeps telling me to switch to direct passing, then panicking when we start to lose possession and contradicting that suggestion 10 minutes later. All without seeming to acknowledge the overall match strategy.

I started doing better when I began to ignore him. I'm 3rd in the league now, and gaining steadily on league leaders Chelsea and second place Tottenham.

Also, poor Cleverley. I sold him instantly at the start of the game, and brought in Marek Hamsik from Napoli for a Man Utd record breaking £60 million. Nani is doing good business for me, but I've since sold Fabio and Anderson as well, though I partly regret those decisions as my team are a bit knackered and a little thin in a few positions.

Cleverley. Even if you've never heard of him, you don't like him.

Adam: Rotation and squad management seem more important than ever. I've noticed players becoming tired and jaded more frequently than in the past, although that might be because of poor Steven Round.

I'll be interested to see how well AI managers deal with that. There's been a tendency toward stabillity in the past, with very few personnel changes from match to match. They seem tactically more flexible now.

All this talk of actual football names may confuse and frighten people who think a Nani is naught more than an elderly relative. That leads me to the big question that I always ponder when I write about the game - can a person who doesn't follow football enjoy Football Manager? I've tried to describe it as a football-themed strategy/tactics game but is the theme too deeply threaded to grasp for the uninitiated?

Graham: Everyone knows Nani is the sound an ambulance makes. Nani nani nani.

Adam: I thought that was Wilshere (ignore me)

Graham: I think you can appreciate the game without a working knowledge of current footballers and teams, absolutely. My interest in real football died in my late teens, but my interest and enjoyment in FM continued into my twenties. When I started playing the game again last year, I didn't really know much of anything about the current crop of players. I managed Glasgow Rangers from Division 3 back to the top flight of Scottish football, wondering all the while where Mark Hately and Brian Laudrup went.

As you say, it has roleplaying, storytelling, and 4X charm, and you technically don't need to know any more about football than Europa Universalis requires you to know about historic battles of the middle ages. That said, I'm not sure its storytelling elements are rich enough, for example, for the narrative of a football team to mean much to you, if you weren't at least partial to the sport in the first place.

Adam: Yes, I meant more the specific knowledge of individual players. There's even a 'don't use real players' option that gives everyone random faces and names (though not stats), which can be fun, purely because when they don't have the real name they're allowed to be involved in mischief. Presumably actual real life human beings do not like to be involved in randomly generated scrapes with the law and dubious morality.

Graham: Ooh, I didn't realise that. How do you get involved with those scrapes, as a manager?

Adam: Disciplinary actions mostly. It usually starts with them missing training and then, before you know it, they're causing a ruckus that demands attention.

Of course, the sort of players who cause trouble are usually the sort who react badly to being disciplined. You can drop them from the team, fine them a couple of weeks' wages or threaten to put them on the transfer list. That sort of thing.

Out of the Park Baseball takes that side of narrative further, with branching storylines that can emerge for players. All sorts of mad stuff can happen, which is odd in a game that's so incredibly stat-based. Fun though.

Oh, and sometimes they slag off their teammates or, god forbid, manager on Twitter. Bastards.

Graham will get sacked soon. Just like the real thing!

Graham: Do you ever wish you could take part in more of that kind of thing as a manager? I used to read Football Manager fan fiction - yes - and it would add these soap opera storylines in between the match reports. I sometimes wish there was a roleplay mode, or a set of options, where I could express fascist political views or commit tax fraud or get involved in agent bribes, match fixing, and racehorse related drama.

Adam: Oddly, I don't feel the need to be involved in that sort of thing myself because I'm not a fascist or a zoophile - side note: googling zoophile brings up a forum thread "I am a pansexual zoophile". I'd quite like it if there was the occasional hint of more life in the world though.

It'd be a lot of work for little return though, I expect, and a lot of people would complain that ANY time and resources had been spent on it. I do tend to flesh out relationships in my head (and in the game), so when Sam Allardyce insults my managerial style I assume I chucked a cup of Bovril on him at the end of the press conference. That sort of thing.

I've definitely keyed Mourinho's car a few times. The game doesn't track that sort of stat but it definitely happened.

Graham: It seems like managers and their foibles are as much a part of football now as footballers getting drunk at nightclubs, but I agree its ultimately tangential.

What are your Football Manager play habits like, generally? Do you play the game consistently for a year until the next one comes out, binge and then forget about it forever, or...?

Adam: This is where it gets weird. A person's Football Manager habits should be a private affair. But here goes.

I tend to play when I'm doing other things, it's background noise without the noise. I listen to a lot of new music to try and keep up with The Kids, so I'll get through a couple of albums in an evening and have FM on at the same time. The beauty of a silent game.

But when I was playing last week, I spent so much time with it that I wanted more than music. So I started listening to audiobooks while I was playing. Brentford's league one travails have been backed by Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts and a whole bunch of John le Carré.

I usually play fairly consistently until around Christmas, by which point I've worked through a good few seasons in one saved game. Then I take a break, usually because I'm away from home for a few days. Often don't go back until the end of the real football season, at which point FM replaces football on the telly.

Graham: I tend to binge for a few weeks around release and then not touch it again until the next version. I wonder if that might change given my new homebound vocation, as its always a second screen game for me as well. Whenever I'm doing anything at the computer, I've got music on, and when I need to think I normally don't think, and instead flip over to refresh Twitter, check email and so on. It's easy to imagine Football Manager just always being there and open.

There's certain kinds of art or entertainment which you value more for devoting attention to them, but I appreciate Football Manager for being, as you say, this background noise of fun. I appreciate that it's always available.

When I was playing at the weekend, it was FM2014 filling one side of my monitor, streaming football matches on the other half, and Spotify popping away in the background. Foot-to-ball bliss.

Adam: I assume you were listening to the John Barnes rap on repeat?

Graham: Come On You Reds. Natch.

Adam: In my mind, the future of Football Manager is a game simply called Football. Play as a manager, a player... maybe even a bloody referee. Something in the New Star Soccer mould with Sports Interactive's background simulation would be terrifyingly consuming.

Graham: New Star Soccer was the thing I was thinking of when talking about a broader life simulation for managers. I guess its the Dwarf Fortress approach: a single world, many games to play within that world. It would be sort of fascinating to have the AI take over as manager of your team, while you assume control of a player, or a chairman, and try to work around your own prior actions.

With Steam Workshop support now in there for database updates, I wonder how far Sports Interactive would consider going with mod support.

Adam: Enormous possibilities. Hopefully more than slightly tweaked leagues. Crusader Kings II has a Game of Thrones mod - will we ever see the Speedball mod for Football Manager. Time shall tell.

Final thoughts?

Graham: Football Manager 2014 feels like Football Manager 2013, only slightly better in important ways. That's easy to be scornful of or cynical about, but I'm totally fine with it. It's just... it's just a great, enjoyable thing. I hope I'm still playing it in a thousand years. I'm going to open it up and play it RIGHT NOW.

Adam: I beat Gillingham 2-0 while we were talking. Such is my commitment to the Brentford cause.

Graham: Well. Football Manager 2014 is a game of two halves and both of them are wizard?

Graham: I'd let him give me the clap any day.

Football Manager 2014 is out this Thursday, October 31st.

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