Motorsport Manager [official site] is about people as well as their cars. While you can spend time tinkering with the setup of the vehicles to some degree, all of your engineering and design work will come to nothing if your team can't stand one another, and don't understand their roles. As a person with little interest in cars wot go fast, I wasn't sure this would be the game for me, despite my love of sports management, but after sitting down with the developer at Gamescom and spending some time with a preview build at home, I'm hooked.
Mock me if you wish, but this is one of the most exciting times of the gaming calendar for me. Football Manager features are due to be announced. It's like the week building up to Christmas and, yeah, I might hope for Castle Greyskull and end up with a knock-off Yoda t-shirt and some socks, but I like to live in hope. Maybe this will be the year that Sports Interactive really crack media interactions and make them a compelling part of the game, or maybe there'll be a tweak to the tactical setup that changes everything.
Heck, maybe we might even see a brand new Footballer mode that lets you simulate the career of a player rather than a manager. New Star Soccer or FIFA career mode, baked into Sports Interactive's global simulation. Tasty. I have no idea if that's a thing that will ever happen but I want it more than Sam Allardyce wants Andy Carroll to fall into a cloning vat.
But we're here to talk about Motorsport Manager, not Football Manager, and what's immediately obvious when playing the preview build is that this is a game that knows how to handle people in a way that Sega's other big sports sim hasn't quite grasped. There are less personalities in play on a motorsport team, sure, but the bright cartoon faces of your drivers, designers and mechanics, and their clearly explained personality traits and temporary irritations, are far more appealing than the grim-faced staredowns of those footballers and all of the numbers that make up their character.
In MM, you can tell at a glance whether somebody is enjoying their time on your team, see what their ambitions are, and try to predict any toys being hurled out of the pram should they fail to achieve their goals. Although the actual racing – of which more later – is serious business, with just enough tweaking and tinkering to provide a sense of control without entirely confounding, personality handling is more like the “plucked from the headlines” frivolity that seemed to vanish from management games in the nineties. Drivers might complain if they feel they're not being treated properly, if all the best new parts go to their partner for example, and balancing their position in the team is vital.
Paying close attention to them is easy enough. Rather than managing a squad of twenty-plus, you're dealing with two drivers and a reserve. Mechanics and engineers have their own personalities and skills as well, but as in real life, it's the drivers who earn the big bucks and cause the most friction. In my current game, using a preview build, I have a passionate driver – that's great because he races for the sake of it and doesn't care so much about winning. The reason that's great is that I can have him hold up the pack while my number one driver sprints ahead. Passionate old Alex Rogers, who has a dodgy neck, enjoys the tactical thrill more than the podium, so there's not much chance of him having a strop as long as he gets out on the track.
All that stropping might cause a strop from real life counterparts, annoyed that their stroppiness and egotism has been translated into digital form, but MM is mercifully unlicensed. I appreciate what a license can bring to a game but in this case, the freedom of a fictional world seems beneficial. This is a racing world that doesn't exclude female drivers, mechanics and engineers, and the three-tier Championship structure has rule changes at the end of every season, voted for by the teams. You can influence those rule changes through your own vote but can also apply pressure in other, more nefarious ways, and all cars are tested for illegal tampering post-race. Those elements would almost certainly be dropped were a license in place, the squeaky clean world of Formula One not wishing to be associated with such things.
Preparation, good fiscal management and tactical smarts are far more important than rule-bending though. While there's plenty of statistical information to dig into in aid of long- and short-term strategies, the game is less a confusion of menus than many of its sports sim counterparts. There's a natural flow to the process of moving from one raceday to the next, and spending money on development of parts and allocation of those parts along the way. You're also responsible for recruitment and construction of new buildings at your HQ, as well as upgrades to those already in place. Considering my knowledge of the sport is extremely poor, it's testament to the UI and the surface simplicity that I've been getting along just fine. Granted, my team are terrible, but I'm gradually climbing up the leaderboard and don't feel as if I'm failing because I'm struggling to find the options I need to improve. That's often the case with Football Manager or Out of the Park Baseball, even for a long-time player. Where should I look to find precisely what the problem is?
Here, things don't seem quite so complicated, though that's not to say that fixing a problem is easy. It helps that almost every stat and measurement is shown as a comparison to other teams in your championship tier, so you're always gauging against your rivals rather than trying to extrapolate from a figure with no direct context.
In my limited experience, planning ahead is the smart thing to do, whether you're switching tires for a change in weather mid-way through a race, or trying to ensure your cars and their drivers are suitably prepared for back-to-back races on tracks with tight corners and rough conditions. You want the best parts for every aspect of your car, sure, but that's not going to happen; instead, you need to concentrate on what will improve your performance most in the next race or two, or across the whole season, or perhaps aim to make a well-rounded vehicle.
And when it comes to the race, you want your drives to be Batman rather than Spiderman. Preparation is everything, though you'll need to improvise as the weather screws up well-laid plans and pit mechanics make the occasional mistake. True to life, drivers will use their radios to let you know when they need new instructions or are concerned about some aspect of their car's performance, which works as a handy tooltip kind of feature as well as letting their character shine through.
Mostly, you're monitoring wear and tear on parts, fuel consumption and tire degradation. You'll need to switch tires to suit rainfall and grip as water levels on the track vary with the weather, and you can switch tactics on the fly, instructing each driver to be aggressive to varying degrees, or to burn through their fuel at various levels. You can always see exactly how long fuel is going to last at the current burn level, and precisely how much more tires can take, so the whole thing becomes a case of balancing risky and conservative driving. And reading the track. Some drivers and cars will respond better to certain layouts, depending on their specific skills.
The thing that makes me aware that MM is going to eat up lots of my free time is the evolving nature of the world. It's not as in-depth or broad as FM, but teams and individual drivers create their own dynamic stories, and the changes in track sequence for each season, as well as alterations to rules, create a good sense of existing within an evolving sport rather than a static set of challenges. My lack of knowledge about the sport means it probably won't overtake Out of the Park or FM, but the fact that I don't need to understand exactly why the precise angle of a wing (CARS HAVE WINGS!?) lets me enjoy the roleplay aspect of managing the team.
What I've played so far does feel like a foundation - and it's a foundation built on a foundation, the game having been released on mobile originally and completely rewritten for PC – but that works in its favour. Yes, there will probably be Motorsport Managers with improvements in the coming years, but the formula is solid, entertaining and light enough to allow a car idiot like me to tinker and experiment without feeling I'm going to break the whole thing and have to start from scratch.