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The Big Pitch: Football Superstars Interview

This is turning into RPS' biggest Foot-to-ball day ever. Walker posts about little plastic men. And I, following up from last week's post on Football Superstars, had an exchange of e-mails with CyberSport's Creative Director on their Football MMO. Can RPS cram in more foot-to-ball before the end of the day? No. We probably can't. In what follows, Steve is enormously expansive about the history of Football Superstars. This is fine reading for not just anyone interested in Football - but anyone interested in the still-unexplored possibilities of the MMO. Sez I.

RPS: Could you talk about the origins for the project and the team? Where you come from? Why did you decide to go into the world of Sports MMOs?

Steve Marshall: Football Superstars was born from a conversation with my uncle, now CEO of CyberSports regarding my lifetime of gaming. I have been a gamer before the pixilated pleasures of the spectrum and a table top and live RPG’er to boot. Whilst at his house for the weekend he enquired about my latest addiction, no prizes for guessing the MMO I was playing at the time. The impressive numbers begged him to ask me if I had any ideas that could leverage MMO technology and five minutes after leaving his house Football Superstars popped into my mind. A few days later after doing some research on potential competition it was obvious nobody had considered going down this route so we set about investigating what would be required in achieving this monolithic task.

Enter stage right and Monumental games. Malcolm happened across Rik Alexander, CEO of MG whilst looking for a solution on how to create such a virtual world. Fortunately Rik had recently started a company supplying middleware for MMOs and conveniently had a team ready to work on the project. Football Superstars ticked the right boxes as far as he was concerned and it made sense that we use his team for the development of the project. I entrenched myself with the team as Creative Director and the relationship has proved extremely rewarding ever since. 

RPS: Why a sports MMO?

Steve Marshall: Well for me the term MMO is simply a platform not a genre. Many immediately associate MMO with a fantasy or sci-fi game, but I feel that an MMO fits with any game genre, just that the participants also have an engagement in the “world” and not just the key game relevant to the original title. To date nobody has created a Football MMO. Sure there are what I deem as “half” MMO’s but these tend to be nothing more than a lobby based system and in my opinion don’t constitute a full MMO as there is no virtual world other than a 2D panel allowing them to buy stuff. My dream is to create a virtual world that is home to multiple sports simulations where participants can actually create a home and enjoy interaction with millions of people globally on or off the pitch.
RPS: Which leads to football. In short: why football? As in, specifically what does football offer as the basis for an MMO above everything else? 

Steve Marshall: Football is the world’s most popular sport, a team based game and exceedingly tribal in nature. My aim was to create an MMO that broke the niche market and could potentially become a mainstream product that excited football fans as well as gamers. If you asked me what components make a perfect MMO my answer would be something that encourages group or team play, allows people to build an affinity and therefore personal ownership with the “story” or main game, encourages frequent participation by allowing continual development and promotes interaction outside of the main game. There are more but these are certainly key areas that in my opinion make a successful MMO. What better sport than football then to fit perfectly into each of these ideals?

RPS: What were the challenges in making the game? Multiplayer football is one thing - but doing it as an MMO, with the associated skill-gaining was another. Why did you end up with the game you did? It could have gone many other ways, I'd imagine. What were some creative dead-ends you've passed along the way? 

Steve Marshall:We identified our initial “Big Five” challenges early.  

1: How do we get around the issue of fixtures and leagues?
2: How do we make a twitch based skill game and overcome the issues of latency?
3: How do deal with “playground football” behavior?
4: How do we deal with the fact that everyone wants to be a striker?
5: How do we handle disconnects and drop outs? 

We answered the first by creating 14 fictitious teams, a full 20 year back story including match results and major events. This gave us our initial tribal or faction system. We then modified the ELO algorithm which is used in a number of competitive games such as chess and tennis where players may play any number of opponents of various skill levels. This allowed us to create a four week season with any number of matches played between these 14 teams. This became our FS Club system and is the mainstay of Football Superstars football. Players are able to compete in 3 to 11-a-side matches 24 hours a day and contribute to the team’s effort in the season whilst improving their own avatar with levels, skill improvement, money and fame. 

Point two was solved by building our football engine from scratch focusing on the challenges the internet brings. We avoided a “peer to peer” matching system which was deemed too unreliable so a full “server client” infrastructure was built which goes some way to guaranteeing the experience for players. We have also a unique method of handling animations and game play which we have patented that allows participants from literally all over the world to enjoy the game with little perceivable latency regardless of where they are. 

Point three is dealt with naturally. The first 11 aside match in the office was comical, there were 20 people chasing the ball like school children, however it didn’t take long before a few broke from the “pack” and hung back to defend loose balls from becoming a threat. Soon after a few more left the mob to facilitate break aways and before you could say “FFS Keep position!” The two teams naturally fell into a reasonable effort to keep some form of order. The beauty of Football Superstars is you can truly appreciate space, position and playing as a team in turn rewarding groups of players that consider team play and punishes those that are overly possessive. We have also integrated 3D positional voice into the game available by default which improves the communication on the pitch, a player behind you shouting for the ball sounds as if they are behind you, a player to your left is heard from the left, all aiding the team play aspect and the importance of watching the opposition as much as making space. 

We address the fourth issue by capturing a huge amount of statistics of every action performed on the pitch and “score” them accordingly. A sliding tackle in the box that blocks a shot on goal is arguably worth as much as a striker making an attempt to score. Every action is weighted according to the location it was made, so a pass from a mid fielder to a striker is valued higher than a pass from defender to defender (he should be looking at putting the ball forward). The problem exists to a certain extent but is further minimized by people that understand football generally playing in positions that reflect their real world style. People that consider man marking and watching for break opportunities make great defenders and find it as rewarding as putting that cross in to see it headed in by the striker. 

The last was resolved with a substitution system. Any FS match that loses a player gets filled by another player in the “pool” for that team. We discourage deliberate drops by only rewarding players at the end of the match, and win or lose every player gets statistical improvements, money, experience and fame for competing. These rewards are based on your participation and not the score, so a player that is on the losing team can still get awarded man of the match and stands to gain more than someone on the winning team.
To answer your other questions I had a clear vision from the start on how I saw the game being played, there were a number of times when this was challenged, some felt that we should use tried and tested control and camera views. I was asked many a time why we were bothering with the lifestyle world and wouldn’t it be better to have a more significant AI presence? The answers to each seemed simple to me at the time and I strongly feel that my stubbornness has paid off. We now have a football game like no other and although there is a learning curve, those that get through it are tremendously rewarded and can really enjoy a unique take on the beautiful game. Our initial take on a virtual world is simple right now, but the foundations have been laid to allow us to grow the activities available iteratively and focus on content requested by the community as much as our own (HUGE) list of features

RPS: When I was chatting to The Empire of Sports people a year or so ago, they were a little reticent around football as a game - their plan at the time was starting on smaller team games to give a chance for the infrastructure of clubs to build up, which would mean when football arrived it wouldn't just dissolve to everyone chasing the ball around the field like a group of five year olds playing in the park. Would you agree that's a problem? Or does people's knowledge of how they "should" play football mean they act more sensibly? 

Steve Marshall: The behavior of the players will largely be dictated by the mechanics they are presented with. As mentioned previously this kind of behavior was expected. However, give them the scope to be able to play a realistic representation of football and you will allow them to develop their play style accordingly. Encourage playground football with your mechanics and that’s exactly what you will get. We also “gate” the types of games players can get involved in. All players begin life in the fourth division where they can play three or five-a-side games. This allows them to get used to the controls and play more dynamic and fast paced football without having to be overly concerned about positional play, although splitting the four outfield players to attack and defense is a common and well worked strategy in five-a-side football. By the time the player has reached the third division they will understand the controls, the mechanics of the game and will have developed some relationships with common FS Club members allowing them to find their “place” on the pitch. We then unlock seven and 11-a-side football for their next challenge they have to consider offside and truly get to grips with positional play or they will soon find themselves at the hard end of defeat.

This problem completely disappears in Player Managed Clubs as teams will be very well coordinated having played with their team mates frequently. 

In Football Superstars the matches are as much a pleasure to watch as they are to play. Every competitive match is recorded so participants can download other players’ matches via our iSpot search function. We currently do not force players into any position or otherwise enforce positional play other than the methods we have mentioned, although we do have plans to facilitate additional positional and man marking feedback to help. Players however inherently understand the art of football and what it takes to behave as a team and our match engine further enforces and rewards players for doing so. We also took a simulation approach to developing our engine rather than a casual one, in turn delivering an experience that in my opinion (and one shared by many of our community) is second to none, in turn justifying my risky approach of creating a completely new control system that allows you to play the beautiful game more closely to the real thing than ever before.

RPS: The problem with multiplayer games is always other players. Any game has some manner of griefing. I have to guess in a game as unusual as Football Superstars there's room for some imaginative griefing. What sort of things do people get up to when they're trying to be awkward? What in-game elements are included to stop it? 

Steve Marshall: Indeed, and as someone that finds “holes” in mechanics quickly and experiencing griefing first hand on a wide number of occasions it was a key focus. We currently minimize the risk of griefing in a number of ways and more are in the pipeline after feedback from our community. Currently we have a system that tots up a number of infringements such as players being afk whilst in a match, abusing the slide tackle and fouling too often, scoring own goals etc, some are penalized more harshly than others but when a player has accumulated a number of “points” the rest of their team have the opportunity to vote them off the pitch. So if you have a player afk for more than 45 seconds and they either hadn’t notified you of their impending absence or have generally not had a positive impact to your team you can attempt to have them replaced with a substitution. A player that scores an own goal but has otherwise had a positive impact on the game may be forgiven by their team mates the first time and kept on the pitch, but a second may not be taken so lightly. The vote system alludes to the presence of a virtual manager that due to that players actions wants them off the pitch but the decision is ultimately left in the team’s hands. We will shortly be implementing a red card system too which should plug some of the remaining holes. Backing this up we have a great customer services team and a community that I am particularly proud of. These guys have been responsible for taking Football Superstars to where it is now and certainly go along way in helping us to police grief players. There will of course be many other ways of griefing that haven’t been experienced or solved yet, we will continue to plug holes or take other measures as and when they appear. We approach the game as a service and take the feedback from our clients very seriously.
RPS: The game's not just the actual game element - there's also the whole social side of the game. What was the inspiration there? Were you tempted to take it as far as the coke-binging excesses of the worst professional footballers? Even a little bit? 

Steve Marshall: In my opinion the presence of a lifestyle world dictates whether you can call yourself an MMO or if you are just a lobby based internet game. Having a 3D space where players are able to demonstrate their flair and individuality in a number of ways providing a wide range of methods for them to interact with each other is not only great for the players and building relationships but ensures they remain engaged and gives them more of a purpose. We have so many great plans for developing the virtual world it excites me each time I consider them. We will ultimately be adding features such as housing where you can host high profile parties, potentially having top line artists performing for your guests whilst replays of your winning moments from the world cup final are being shown on screens scattered around your palatial estate. It doesn’t stop there either. We plan to have a wide range of other activities that may or may not influence the players on pitch experience such as arcades, mini golf etc. We quite literally have many man years of features each as solid as the next. We will of course be guided by our community on the priority of these but there will be no coke snorting or other nefarious activities on our general servers. Football Superstars is a football utopia :) although we are considering an 18 rated server which may include some more adult orientated content.

RPS: Linked to off-the pitch stuff, I was pleased and amused to see the ability to talk to the press in there to gain fame. Could you talk a bit about the mechanic? 

Steve Marshall: Well, you couldn’t become a Football Superstar without receiving some love from the media. This feature is our starting point for the “Fame” system. Players start life as a “Local Newcomer” and advance this rank by either playing competitive matches or hanging our in bars and clubs spending inordinate amounts of cash on fancy drinks (sound just like real life huh…?). We wanted a way to reward players that were more social so by giving them fame for every minute they spend in a bar we allow them to advance without having to spend all their time on the field. Many bars and clubs also have voice chat on so participants can talk about anything from the match they just played to the cup final they watched on TV. Accumulating fame this way will eventually elevate your status but the players can double their rating by approaching one of three media types, radio, newspaper or television journalists are scattered around the world looking for the next star to interview. Purchasing an interview minute will cost you fame which in turn fills a card for that media type. Get 36 minutes of interview and you will be able to choose one of 3 rewards (on behalf of your FS club for additional exposure) as well as getting you more money for FS club match appearances which in turn allows you to get better skills or pay for gym time improving your physical statistics.

The key purposes of introducing the fame system was simply to have a circle linking the football back to the lifestyle but ensuring it was elective and not enforced, so those that wanted to get the most from the lifestyle world can, but those that wish to focus purely on their footy can do so too whilst still progressing through the celebrity rankings. We will leverage additional features that will impact a player’s celebrity rating such as in-game newspapers highlighting star players, tournaments for celebrities etc.
RPS: Oh - and what team do you support?

Steve Marshall: I’d love to answer this question in much more detail but feel I have probably waffled on too much already. Save this one for version 2 if you ever wish to do a follow up...

RPS: Agreeably Diplomatic.

Football Superstars' client is available to download now.

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