Photo by David Vintiner 

Football Manager has become the definitive experience if you're enamored with tactics, man management, and supervising the ins and outs of a world football club. The new PC iteration, Football Manager 2018, releases on November 10, and I talked with series director Miles Jacobson about the real-life foundations of this year's big, new feature – dynamics – as well as a few larger issues for developer Sports Interactive.

You've released some updates from the beta, so I imagine it's been useful?
Miles Jacobson: [We've] had some really good feedback from the beta, so it's not just crash fixes that we're working on at the moment. As an example, the 2D match engine – some of the more old-school players had some issues with the new look for 2D and we looked at what they were saying. We agreed with some of it and we didn't agree with all of it, but where we agreed we actually made some changes, so you've now got a camera zoom on 2D so that you can get closer into the action if you want to, as one example. We've made some changes this week to the tactics screen because a few people were coming back to us saying they didn't like all of the changes that we made to the tactics screen. And there was one particular item that they needed to press another button to get, so we've brought that back out into the screen. So it definitely helps for everyone who is going to play the game when it comes out to get more eyeballs on it. And, you know, we've got tens of thousands of people playing it and giving us feedback, which has been very, very useful for the final version of the game. So we do react quite quickly.

With people putting so many hours into the Football Manager product, do you find that people might want a longer amount of time between releases? Do they like the yearly release schedule? Or is it that they play it so much that they would be fine with it being shorter? 
I think that there is definitely a group of people who carry on playing the game for two or three years. And I have no problem with them playing one version of the game for two or three years. We have some people who update every year. So we want to give people the choice, really. I think we'd be in quite a strange situation if every single person moved from one year's to game to the next every time because that would probably make me think that previous year's game wasn't good enough. So even though the beta is out there at the moment, we have just over 20,000 peak concurrency on Steam last night, but there was still 30,000 people playing last year's game. Once we come to release day, we'll probably have 50, 60, 70,000 peak concurrency, but we'll still have 20,000 to 30,000 concurrency on '17, we'll have 10 to 15 on '16, etc. So we try to give people good value for money for what we do, so it doesn't concern me at all if people buy the game every two or three years. I think releasing every six months would probably be a bit too much. 

In this year's game dynamics and different social groups within the team is a big thing. As far as setting that up initially, how did you guys go about determining what kind of social relationships or social groups the real players have? 
Well, again, because of a lot of the access that we have, we tend to be seeing this stuff firsthand. So when we were looking at the different kinds of social groups that could be in place, one to me that's very obvious but people don't necessarily think of is that people from similar nationalities who are moving over to European leagues tend to hang out together, whether they are at one club or multiple clubs. For example, there are various places in London where all the Brazilian players who play in the clubs in London all tend to hang out in the same place. Whatever club they play for. The same with a lot of French players. They all know each other. The Belgian players. And the players from America as well. They all tend to hang out. So that's one that was a natural one to be in there.

But you also have people joining places at the same time and I'm sure with colleagues of yours that started working at similar times to you, because you're the new people there, you tend to hang out a little bit more. Then you try to break in with the people who've been there for a long time further on. So football is not that much different really to any other job when it comes to the people you're hanging out with. You certainly you gravitate towards people who speak the same language as you, but also people of similar ages and people of similar backgrounds. So that's how we approached it in game as well. You always will get some people who just don't fit into those groups and they might hang out every now and again in the different groups. They might, even in the long term, break into them, but sometimes can be, not necessarily outsiders, but not as friendly with other people on the training ground as possible.

There's one main dynamic that we couldn't really get in there, which is because we don't have a way to track this with every single player. There are some footballers who don't follow at all the normal stereotype of the sports player, and it's very difficult actually finding where those players should sit in the scheme of things because we cannot know which footballers like watching foreign films when they're on the way home from a match rather than listening to their music, right? Unfortunately, we're not there yet, but maybe we will be in the future. 

Did you have specific stories from some of the players who play the game and informed how set up the dynamics and how it works? 
Yeah, we talked to a lot of people. And having the alpha testers definitely helps. The problem that we have with telling those stories is that we don't actually have commercial deals with any of those players, so I can't give you the names of any of them. But I have had a few people WhatsApping me this year going, "Why am I in the same social group as this guy?" And you've got to kind of be really careful with that because when you're dealing with real players as well we don't want to get sued. So we have to be quite careful even we're responding to those players and pointing out to them that, you know, this is a fictional scenario that you're in, even though it is a simulation. But it's quite funny seeing some of those things coming through. And it's normally very late at night when those things come through, after a team has won a game. So maybe they've had a couple of drinks when they're sending me those kinds of messages. 

Speaking of winning, in terms the dynamics within the team, is winning something that kind of cures all with the team in terms of players' attitude and their general mood? 
Absolutely not. It definitely helps and if you win a game when the team aren't particularly fond of you at that point – that really helps because we have tactics meetings in the game now and players will react to those tactics meetings. So if you tell them something and they turn around and go, "No, we disagree," and you stick to your guns and then you win, basically you've proved them wrong so that is going to gain you the respect of most players. But every player has their own individual personality in the game. Our NPCs don't just have six or ten stats like a lot of games have. They have 250 different attributes, which means you have millions and millions of different possible combinations. So each player is different. You have some players in the game that it would not matter if you told them they were the greatest player in the world, you gave them the biggest pay raise possible, and you let them live in your house. They would still hate you. But we've all dealt with people like that in society.

With all the tactical and behavioral systems in place, as well as the player attributes and A.I., how do you juggle all of these overlapping factors so it's not one big mess of computations? 
Essentially on Football Manager that's kind of my job to make sure that they all talk to each other. We run the studio quite differently to a lot of other studios out there in that we don't have a design department as such. All of the programmers are involved with designing their modules and with each of our games we have a director who works on there. So on FM, that's me. On FM Touch, it's Oliver Collyer. On Football Manager Mobile, it's Mark Vaughn. And part of job is to make sure that all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit together. So when we're adding in big new modules, like the medical center, like dynamics, we have to make sure that each area of the game that that feeds into is working on their areas as well. So with dynamics for example, there was work that had to be done by the match engine A.I. team because if players are going to get along better with each other then they're probably going to perform better together on the pitch. So you have to feed that kind of stuff into the match engine. So nothing really sits away from everything else. Whilst there are bits of jigsaw, there are lots and lots of connecting points from each of the jigsaw pieces into other areas of the game. And I've been doing it for quite a long time now, so I don't find it as difficult as I used to. It's just a case of sitting there and thinking about things in a 360-degree way to make sure that things tie in. And some that stuff happens very late in the dev schedule. So once we're feature-complete and it's all in there and can be tested properly by the Q.A. team, by me, by the other people that are helping out in the testing process, there are still quite a few features that get added after that point because that's the point where we can really see how everything is fitting together.

One of the things I've always been interested in with sports games are the ratings scales. On a 100-point scale for attributes, for instance, does a single point make a difference and how do you surface that to the player? 
Well, there might be one-point differences on the screen, but they're not one-point differences under the hood. So things that in the game tend to be one-point differences are more likely to be on a hundred-point difference underneath. We have some areas that are thousand-point differences underneath, so we tend to round up. You know, 11.1 becomes 12. If we were doing everything from one to twenty, the game would fail because the jumps would be too big and the scale would be nowhere near big enough. And that's why a lot of games do 100 point scales. A lot of sports games do 100 point scales. We stick to 20 and just widen it underneath.

But it's not just about the individual attributes; it's also about things like morale inside the game. And this year with dynamics one of the changes that we had to make for it to better understandable for the person actually playing the game was to have more levels of morale. I think there were five before, it might've been ten, we had "good," "very good," "superb," "ok," etc. for morale. This year we've doubled the scale of that for the user to be able to see, the person playing the game to be able to see, so that they really do have a better understanding of the differences that it makes.

But for things like training, we have different levels and different sizes of arrow that show when a stat is going up even though you can't necessarily see a number change there so that you know that you're stepping in the right or the wrong direction with the way that you're working it. So, yeah, a one to twenty scale behind the scenes would be far too simplistic for what we're doing and the way that we work, but it's a much better way to present it to people.

This year's game has players who come out as gay. Did you consult with any LGBTQ groups about how that feature occurs in the game? 
We worked with an organization called Kick It Out, which started out as an anti-racism organization in football, and we've been working with them for 20 years. The original idea of putting this into the game came about due to someone who works at a Premiere League club. A non-player who works at a Premiere League club, who came out to the players a year ago and then came out publicly a couple of months ago. So we're talking to him about it. I've spoken to straight and gay footballers, ex-footballers, staff members, etc., so I've spoken to quite a few people about it.

So far we have had no one at all that works in this area saying anything negative about the way that we've handled it in game. There were a few comments on the first day from people talking about, "Oh, they're just trying to force people to come out." That's the not the idea at all. What we're trying to show people is that this is just a completely normal thing in life. Some people are straight, some people are gay. It doesn't matter. Because in a lot of other sports, people have come out and it hasn't affected anything negatively at all and it's a shame that homophobia still exists.

Does a player coming out affect the team dynamics? 
No, because from the examples that we know of from other sports, it doesn't in any way. People are just like, "Oh, ok. Fine. Let's crack on." So if it doesn't affect things in real life then we're not going to have it affect things in game either. You know, when we were first thinking about doing it, it actually affected a lot more systems than it ended up affecting because of the people that we spoke to who were just like, "No, nothing changed there. Nothing happened there. Didn't affect my performance at all." And yeah, people accept it as they do. Those of us who make games and who work in the games industry, there are lots of people in the games industry who are gay and no one cares, right? So why should anyone care that a sportman's gay?

One of the things that American sports fans are dealing with is some players expressing political thoughts. At least on the surface with fans and the media, it's a topic that gets brought up pretty regularly. Is something like that in the game at all? 
Well, we have to be quite careful in game to not get sued. So with real players, those kinds of things don't happen at all. It's a strange thing with soccer because there is a mandate from the organization, the global organization, who looks after soccer that politics and soccer do not mix. Even the UK national teams wearing a poppy symbol on their shirt, which is symbol that's used in the UK to remember the people who've died in war, that led to fines. If political organizations get involved with the national football association, that can lead to bans for that football association. There's recently been a country that's been banned from international matches because of politics getting involved. So those rules are in place that people can't really talk about politics in football and therefore it's not something that's in the game. 

In the past, Sports Interactive has done other sports. Are you interested in going back to that or expanding in new directions? 
Well, we still do ice hockey. So we released an ice hockey game a couple of years ago [Eastside Hockey Manager] that Riz [Risto Remes] who works on Football Manager does update every few months. The baseball game that we worked on, the dev team that we worked on with that game became a part of us. They then split away from us and have carried on making that themselves. Out of the Park Baseball. Beyond that at the moment, we're pretty busy with the three/full football titles that we're making. So we have no plans to make games for other sports at the moment, but we certainly never say never.

For more from Miles Jacobson, take a look at this previous Sports Desk columns on the real-life impact of the game, as well as a personal obsession with Football Manager.

Missed some of the previous Sports Desk entries? Take a look at the past installments via our Hub page by clicking on the banner below.

Have a suggestion or comment? Put it in the comments section below, send me an email, or reach me on twitter at @mattkato.

 

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EA Sports has announced its next UFC title for release in February, and you can check out Brian Shea's hands-on impressions of the title here. You can also get beta and pre-order info on the game's official site.

 

REVIEW ROUND-UP 

Madden NFL 18 
NASCAR Heat 2 
NHL 18 
Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 
FIFA 18 (shown)
NBA 2K18 
NBA Live 18 
Golf Story 
Project Cars 2 
Forza Motorsport 7 
NBA 2K18 (Switch) 
FIFA 18 (Switch)
GT Sport 
Mutant Football League  

 

THE TICKER
A quick rundown of some of the sports news from the week

MLB: The Show 18 Announcing Cover Star 
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