Football Manager 2016 [official site] is out this Friday, but before we publish our review, Adam and Graham decided to gather in the RPS dugout to discuss this year's tactics, transfers and press room meltdowns.
Graham: I think I'd be pretty disappointed if I spent £35/$50 on Football Manager 2016.
Adam: It’s definitely one of those years that plays into the argument against annual releases. Last year too. From a distance, it looks like the last significant addition was the new Classic mode, which is a more streamlined approach that lets managers play through a season without dedicating half of their waking hours to press conferences and transfer negotiations.
But 2014 was a strong year as well. It consolidated a lot of the tactical instructions and emphasised that management was about communicating with players - by providing them with roles and instructions - rather than ticking boxes on spreadsheets. It felt like a much more human game than its predecessors.
I’m going to stick up for 2016 briefly, on a couple of counts, but it’s major back-of-the-box/bullet-points-on-the-Steam-page features really aren’t very exciting at all. And while it’s only fair to say we’ve been playing with a beta, the match engine seems much more erratic to me.
Graham: I should state the bounds of my criticism, first off. Football Manager games are always good or at least good-ish. The advantage of the incremental updates is that they are never starting from scratch, never leaping to a new engine, never suddenly adding entire new continents. It's a process of slow expansion and tweaking, and there is therefore a core there that remains engaging. But as you note, the back-of-the-box features that are there this year aren't very exciting for the second year in a row, whereas many of the criticisms of systems introduced over the past three or four years remain.
I agree with you about 2014 being a good year, despite adding nothing as major as Classic (now Touch) mode. I thought 2015 was a disappointment, but its match engine seemed stable, moderately improved, and the addition of RPG-style skill points for your managers seemed to be throwing a cap over the wall as a signal for where the series was going to go. I thought 2016 would make all that better, but a limp character creator for choosing between tracksuit and puffy coats, and the ability to have children, are not what I was hoping for. The stats still seem opaque to me in terms of how they affect your ability to accomplish things in game, for example. Press conferences and player dealings still seem limited in terms of their reflection of the current game state and your ability to express yourself through them. If 2014 made the game feel more human, the RPG stuff has had the opposite effect for me.
Adam: Agreed. The human element came from an overhaul of the tactics, which went from sliders to more explicit instructions. You could imagine how telling somebody to act in a certain role and to press higher up the pitch might translate into a set of instructions from one human being to another, whereas the sliders made it feel very much as if you were controlling an artificial simulation.
With the press conferences, team talks and manager stats, there’s been so little progress. That’s more understandable with the latter, which is new as of 2015, but the media side has been in place for years now. I’ve always defended its presence in the series because the media plays such a huge role in real life football, and provides it with the ongoing circus that so many fans seem to be more interested in than the actual on-pitch action. You couldn’t make up Mourinho’s current season, and if Football Manager simulated it, you’d claim it was broken or buggy beyond belief.
And if Sports Interactive want to flesh out the media side of things, I reckon they’d do well to embrace some explicit RPG mechanics. Not a morality scale or anything quite like that (although it would be amusing) but a more obvious relationship between your behaviour and the consequences. If I am abrasive in a press conference, have a message (maybe from an assistant, for credibility’s sake, or through the media itself) warn me that I risk becoming known as a Volatile manager. Have that characteristic attach itself to me if I don’t back down, and have clear consequences when I challenge referees - maybe it intimidates players and they’re less likely to complain, but it makes sporting associations quicker to punish me and the media more likely to try and get a rise out of me.
If I bring through three or four youth players in a season and they all get a fair amount of game time, maybe that should be a mark on my character as well. These are all things that I assume the game is reacting to in some way but with the press conferences and team talks being such a routine of question and response, with no real thought put in and deviation from the norm often punished to an absurd degree, I’d rather they were made more explicitly ‘gamey’ rather than left vague and dull.
Graham: Football Manager always favours being opaque than clear in terms of cause and effect. I can understand why in most instances. It's not a game that's strictly concerned with offering a power fantasy; though you can still take minnows and turn them into world-beaters, it more often creates the sense that you are merely an individual within a larger crew, trying to steer the ship by giving orders which are often incompetently carried out, and subject to the storms raging outside your team and are entirely outside your control. That works, mostly, when you're talking about picking players and defining tactics and the meatier parts of football.
But yeah, as you say, press conferences need to be much clearer as to the nature of their cause and effect. To give an example: I was fired as manager of Leeds United after 10 days, despite winning the two matches I played, because of some seemingly mild comments I made during press conferences.
Now, maybe in real life you'd be fired for being consistently volatile, but I don't know know what I said that was so bad. That's unrealistic for one, because in real life I'd find out that I'd said something wrong by the headlines and internet outrage that followed. But there's none of that in Football Manager, and the team's owner didn't tell me when he spoke to me to fire me, and there was never any dialogue option in subsequent press dealings that allowed me to address it in anything like explicit terms.
I like that there is a system of 'promises', because that is a gamey attempt to make these things matter and to make them explicit. But cripes. In real life there might have been controversy about what I said, but there'd also be controversy about a winning manager being turfed out in such little time. Again, none of that in the game. It doesn't even pass the, "this is for realism" defence. It's just bad design and bad in the same ways as last year.
Adam: I just want to note that it’s hilarious to me that you were fired from Leeds after winning the only two matches you played. It may be bad design (it IS bad design), but it made me chuckle. A combination of it being Leeds and it being you, I think, brought a smile to my face.
I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I think, on the whole, the opacity of your influence on the simulation is a strength when it comes to tactics and player performance, but a different approach is needed to make your personal behaviour interesting, fun or realistic. There’s not a chance in hell that Wenger doesn’t know he’s ridiculed for certain things and admired for others, and he knows that Arsenal fans are going to want him ‘out’ before they want him ‘in’ again at least fifteen times over a season. The ‘Promises’ - which let you lay out to your chairman what you will and won’t do short- and long-term - are a good touch. More of that would be a fine thing.
To an extent, a great deal of what I want is already there, in the board and fan confidence sections, which give an indication of what is pleasing and upsetting fans and board alike, but so much is still unpredictable or - worse - lacking in character or communication.
On a positive note, I think there has been a big improvement this year. I’m going to have to spend a while with the release version to confirm but I’m fairly sure the AI has been improved significantly. Playing (and spectating) a bunch of games over the last week and a half, I’ve seen more variations in tactics, both from different managers and sides, and those same managers and sides in different competitions and scenarios. Van Gaal’s United struggle to break defenses down and play a possession game - I saw him sacked in the game’s second season and replaced by Brendan Rogers of all people. The club finished lower in the league than they had under Van Gaal but they scored more goals and were more exciting to watch.
I’ve played against teams and seen tactics shift dramatically after the first goal in a way that hasn’t always been evident. It’s always been the case that AI managers make big changes right after a red card - and that makes sense - but now they seem to react to other changes in the status quo much more readily.
Again, I’ll need to play for a good while longer to judge transfer market AI, but that seems improved as well. I think there’s a more sensible approach to long-term team-building, with clubs looking to replace like-for-like sooner rather than later. There’s still an irritating tendency to run star players into the ground though, barely rotating the squad as and when needed. Although that might be my limited experience of (in-game) Premier League idiocy.
Graham: I've noticed some improvements, although yeah, it's hard to make general statements about the match engine till we've put more time in. But even if it is better, is that and the other features enough to justify a whole new game, for you?
For me, it's not. The new things are half-formed or of little interest, the improvements don't improve enough, and there's lots that's still a problem. Now that I have it, I reckon I will play Football Manager 2016 for the year and enjoy it. But I'd have been just as happy saving my money and sticking with Football Manager 2015 with a database patch to bring transfers in line with the new season.
Adam: Yeah, I’m with you. I’ve chronicled the death of my Football Manager 2015 world and I feel a bit like I moved out of my old apartment into one that’s almost identical, except without the years of happy memories. There are things I do like - that potentially improved AI and the hugely intricate Prozone stats that allow analysis of every kick of every ball, and every run by every player. And the interface handles news and headlines better than ever before, filtering important information into several areas so that it’s bound to catch your eye if you’re scanning around.
But none of that is quite enough. I was really excited before I got my hands on the game - I always am - and I can’t pretend that tweaks to news delivery systems, and piles of stats that I’ll barely need to dig into are what I was hoping to be talking about a couple of days before release, having been playing the beta for a week and a half already.
Even things like the Create a Club mode, which is a fine thing to have right there on the menu, are recreating things that the included Editor could do. And the interface for that mode isn’t slick or efficient enough to make it entirely approachable anyhow.
Like you, I’m in there now and I’ll stay. I have two save files and I’ll probably keep one of them and go forward with it for the rest of the year. Forward to wherever it takes me. But I’m playing because I enjoy the series in the same way that I ever have, not because I’m excited about anything shiny and new.
Football Manager 2016 is out Friday 13th November for Windows, Mac and Linux.