The Football Manager series is a gaming institution. The annual release of the all-consuming virtual boss has been blamed for all manner of manly woes, from relationship breakdown to complete withdrawal from normal life.
Sport's Interactive's director Miles Jacobson describes this year's instalment as 'the most ambitious yet', with over 900 new gaming features, but it also contains new modes to recognise the maturing lifestyles of Football Manager's core fans.
We sat down with Miles at a recent Gaffer Academy day at Vicarage Road, the home of Watford FC, to hear more about the changes for the 2013 season.
So with Football Manager 2013, what's the big story this year?
Well there's over 900 new features this year, it's the most ambitious we've ever been, but I think the key things apart from the improvements, the new match engine, the director of football, the new interface, all the things in short that you've come to expect from one of our titles, is we've also got new game modes in there.
We've got a new mode called Football Manager Classic and that's basically a lighter way to enjoy Football Manager, if I can steal Maltesers' line. It cuts out a lot of the RPG elements really, so there's no press conferences, no team talks, it's just a tactics and transfers version of Football Manager. The idea being that whenever you've got a game which is a simulation - which is what we try and be - it means people are eventually going to run out of time to play it as they grow up and have kids and get proper jobs and things like that.
I think I've said to you in the past, we want to entertain as many people as possible with our work. We thought someone else out there would come and make a lighter football management game and no-one has, therefore we've done it. That's a new game mode that comes free with the game this year, We've also got a mode in their called Challenge Mode, which is kind of similar to Winning XI back in the day when it was ISS and they used to have set scenarios which they put you in.
"Football Manager Classic is lighter... It cuts out a lot of the RPG elements"
So it's that kind of thing where you're dumped in the game. One of them for example is called 'You can't win anything with kids' where you've got a bunch of youth team players, or you've got another one where all your main players are injured so you've got to get back in there and win. You get set targets basically from your board.
So we're adding more gaming elements to the Football Manager series, the network game has also been completely revamped, that goes through Steam now, so we've got a really easy, lobby matchmaking system. We've got global leaderboards, so finally your manager wages count for something inside the game as they go towards the leaderboards.
So that's probably the top line things, but the strange thing with the game this year is that we did 28 video blogs which ended up being around two hours worth of footage and there was still three or four hundred features we haven't spoken about at all. So we believe people going out there and buying the game this year will still be finding stuff six, seven, eight months down the line which are new to them which is something we've always really wanted to do.
We've been proud for many years that our games are always really good value for money, but this is that next step up from that. So it's the most ambitious year we've had, a lot of which was thanks to the extra people we were able to hire this year which was linked to us going Steam only last year and not being cracked for a few weeks and getting extra revenue. We said at the time that if we did manage to get extra revenue off the back of it and get sales up, then we'd re-invest that revenue back into the game and that's exactly what we've done.
Interesting you should mention that, cracking and piracy has always been a problem for the series, do you still think it will still be an issue?
Oh it's always going to be a problem, our PC piracy rate is about six to one, Android piracy rate is between nine and eleven to one depending on which way you look at the figures. It's just one of those things, it's kind of part of our business model now. Unfortunately there are a lot more dishonest people in the world than there are honest ones. You would think given the average time someone plays the game is one hundred and ten hours, they might see that as value for money, but unfortunately some people still want something for nothing.
The PC is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment and many developers are describing it as the most exciting platform to work on. As long-standing PC stalwarts, you must be pleased with that?
It's great having a lot of other people releasing games on the platform. I think the console market is very difficult at the moment, unless you're a triple A blockbuster you're not going to do that well. The downloadable games on console were doing very well for a while but they've dipped off a little bit.
iOS is obviously doing incredibly well, but the reason PC is so exciting for a lot of people is because the console industry has started being less predictable if you like, that's seen a lot more layoffs of developers which is incredibly unfortunate.
But those developers rather than sitting and moping around they've set up their own studios. With iOS and PC and even Mac as well, they've got the opportunity with low barriers to entry to get out there and get their creative works seen. So you're seeing so many new devs coming through with really interesting titles, plus you've got Steam which helps with it, you've got Kickstarter which helps with it and you've got loads of indie dev and major devs who are helping each other out.
"iOS, PC and Mac are low barriers to entry to get creative works seen."
I'm on the board of UKIE now, the games trade association. Who would have thought that would have happened five years ago? And I'm not the only dev on there. There's myself, Alice from MakeyLab on there, Noreen from Revolution and Paul from Splash Damage. So three indies and me representing the industry on every subject, all of whom are on PC, all of whom are on or looking to be on iOS as well. Maybe we're going through our Punk [phase]. Who would have thought that PC and iOS would be Punk?
I actually mentioned this to David Helgason from Unity. Unity is effectively the games industry's punk, because it's given smaller studios the opportunity to have a platform they can use and publish on loads of different platforms. We're the old men in the equation, but it's great fun being able to watch it and hopefully help out some of the new devs who are coming through.
And what are your plans for the handheld version of Football Manager this year?
We should be out in December, we haven't got a firm date yet, we're going to be on iOS again, we are on Android again as well because we set a specific sales target on Android rather than getting annoyed with the piracy. We said if we do this many units we'll be on there again.
We're going to start talking about that after the PC game has come out but we're also on PSP again this year, which again will be end of November/early December release. I think it's only us and FIFA that are left now, so there'll be two FIFA games and two FM games in the top five PSP chart. But the demand's still there particularly from continental Europe so that's why we're doing that.
Will there be a PS Vita version?
You can play the PSP version on Vita, we haven't got a specific Vita version yet.
We've seen the iPad Mini detailed this week and the Kindle Fire HD launches before the end of the month, do you see yourselves on those platforms too?
I think we're on them by default, with the resolution those devices are the game will work. We'll obviously get those devices in to see how good it looks and make any tweaks we need to, to have specific skin versions for them but what we've seen in the past is that we haven't had to do a lot of work to support the new screens.
So yeah, in theory it'll work. We were a little bit worried with iPhone 5 because we'd heard rumours - everyone had heard rumours - but no-one had ever confirmed the screen size to us and that came in just as we were looking to finish off on the game.
We get the specs in and one of the coders was like 'oh' [holds head in hands] 'we're going to have to do everything again.' But we tried booting the game up on the device and it was like 'oh, it looks really cool, okay.' So thank you Apple for making it easy for us.
This year has seen FM become sponsors of Watford FC...
We've been youth team sponsor for a couple of years so it was a natural step up if you like. There wasn't a big plan for it to happen, but I know a lot of people at the club and I have done for a while and they've been very helpful to us with things like turning up at training sessions randomly to help learn about what they're doing.
I've always had a good rapport with - when they've had a chief executive. When the new owners came in, one of the first things they did was actually steal one of my team. One of our QA team is now one of the chief scouts at Watford, so that was an interesting first conversation.
I just noticed that they hadn't announced who the shirt sponsor was going to be and there weren't any logos on the shirts at one of the pre-season friendlies. I sent a message to a man on the inside who turned around and went 'yeah, actually we might want to talk to you about that' and a few days later the deal was signed.
"I still sit behind the goal with my mates..."
I still sit behind the goal with my mates apart from last Saturday when I was in the boardroom with a couple of England cricketers (Steve Finn and Eoin Morgan). How bizarre is my life that things like that happen? The rest of the time I'll be behind the goal, but it'll be interesting to see how things go and Christmas and January when it's snowing. Will I then decide to retreat to the directors' box?
So you might be joining the prawn sandwich brigade? Surely not?
I think you've known me long enough to know that's not going to happen. But we'll see, we've got it for this year [the shirt sponsorship], we'd love to make it continue, but we'll have to see how the game sells.
In all honesty, if it did its usual bucketload, it'd be disappointing. Because it's the most ambitious game we've ever made - with the extra game modes, we want to take a step up. We believe there's been a step up in quality, so we want to see the same step up on the commercial side of things as well and particularly because so much has gone into the game this year.
It's been a particularly harsh development schedule this year, so hopefully people will really enjoy the game and if they do, we'll be rewarded by good word of mouth and people going out and trying it. I guess we'll find out next week when the reviews come out.