All the major football leagues are dominated by teams and owners with the most money. Breaking that dominance is not an easy prospect for those looking to share in some of that success, least of all in the one league that exists to license them all – the mighty FIFA franchise.
However, there’s a sense that the bigger the dominance, the bigger the opportunity exists for a team to challenge it. If not for the title, then perhaps for a cup or two along the way.
Of course, such a feat still requires some serious investment, which is why Tower Studios and the squad at Combo Breaker have teamed up with Kiss Publishing to bring Sociable Soccer – a spiritual successor to 90’s football hit Sensible Soccer – to PC and consoles next year (Q2, 2022).
Masterminding the challenge behind the scenes here are legendary designer Jon Hare and the equally veteran Darryl Still.
You always intended to bring Sociable Soccer to a wider audience. Why is it now the right time?
Jon Hare: From the outset of the development of this game, we have been aiming totally cross platform at the widest possible audience. Given my heritage of taking Sensible Soccer to all of the platforms available at the time – and the more recent ability to develop easily for all platforms with Unity, Unreal and the like – this has always been our target.
During the six years that we have been making the game we have allowed the more attractive commercial opportunities available to us to shape our more immediate priorities as to which parts of the cross-platform development to do next. The game was deliberately constructed from the outset to work with controller and touchscreen and to monetise via premium, subscription and free to play models. So this has enabled us to transition our focus between platforms and varying publisher requirements quite easily.
In the background, I have spoken to around 200 publishers and platform holders over the course of six years and turned down many potential deals to end up with the three that we have currently signed – firstly via Rogue, our US publishing partner on Apple Arcade (a subscription model for iOS, MacOS & TVOS); secondly via our Chinese mobile publishing partner Crazysports (a free to play model for iOS and Android in China only); and now finally via Kiss, our UK publishing partner on PC/Console (a premium model for PC, Playstation 4/5, Xbox One/X as well as the Nintendo Switch).
We are absolutely delighted to have finally tied the knot with Kiss after six years of searching for the right partner on the flagship versions of Sociable Soccer
How did you come to partner with Jon on this title?
Darryl Still: I’ve known Jon for too many years to mention – going back to when Sensible Soccer was head-to-head with Kick Off, in the same way that the Atari ST brand I was managing was head-to-head with Commodore’s Amiga! Oddly, as time passed, we’ve never managed to work together but have always bumped into each other at events and had a good chat about football. So, when we embarked on a separate (and so far unannounced) project that required some football input, I reached out to Jon and it soon became apparent that what he was looking for in a publisher for Sociable Soccer, and what we were looking for in the type of product we wanted to publish, had us going down a directly parallel path. Whilst there is no such thing as a no-brainer in business, this is probably as close as we’ve come to it.
It’s an interesting period in football games, with eFootball being received rather negatively and EA seen to be wrangling with FIFA over licensing. What is your take on events?
JH: We see the current situation as an opportunity for us to establish our place within the current football action games hierarchy. FIFA has been so dominant for so long now that you see many people reference it as if it were the ONLY football game in town. Even before the change to eFootball, it was outselling PES 19 to 1, such has been its dominance.
However, over the last few years there has been a growing appetite for a good quality alternative to the rather staid and po-faced style of FIFA; something a bit more fast, fun and light hearted, but with more to it than the plethora of lightweight, pixelated retro-reverential soccer games at the bottom end of the market.
Do you see an opportunity to take points, so to speak, from “the big two”, or do you look to the more modest successes of games like New Star Manager and Football, Tactics & Glory?
DS: To use an analogy, I like to think that as a QPR fan myself, and Jon being a Norwich fan, neither of us have any great illusions of beating Liverpool or Man City regularly. But with 11 players on the pitch over 90 minutes, we might sneak a cup win now and again.
But seriously, I firmly believe there is a gap that the immediacy of this product fills. I love the focus on the social element and, whilst you can put in the hours and build a career path, it’s just as much fun to pick it up and have a five-minute kickabout with your mate on the tube. I really can’t see any reason why devotees of “the big two” can’t enjoy this just as much, and maybe more. So, our aim is to build upon our own userbase and appeal to the others’ userbase too.
It’s like the fact that Leicester City is everyone’s second favourite team. And hey, they’ve won both the Premiership as well as the FA Cup in recent years!
How was the experience of working with Apple, and in what way was it the right move for you at the time? Would you recommend others down the same path?
JH: I would absolutely recommend developers with titles that befit the Apple Arcade platform to consider working with them. In our case we stumbled upon Apple Arcade through an unlikely route. In one of the many meetings in the many GDCs over the years in San Francisco, I met with an American company offering agency services and showed them Sociable Soccer in 2017. Two years later they requested a meeting with me at GDC 2019 for a new publisher they were forming (Rogue). Rogue knew about Apple Arcade and that Apple was in need of sports games that worked with online multiplayer.
By the time we signed the Chinese deal with Crazysports in 2018, we had been working for two and a half years with almost no income; that deal enabled us to keep going just at the right time. Then a year later the opportunity with Apple Arcade through Rogue emerged. This time we were offered a deal that gave us the cash we needed to kick on some more and start to flesh out the features we knew the full game needed.
The exclusivity Apple demanded was not a problem for us because we didn’t have the PC console deal signed at the time, and China remained unaffected, so it allowed us to proceed with minimum friction and continue to develop the game in a live market with real players.
I can say that a platform with 80 per cent US consumers and 50 per cent of those female (FIFA’s customer base is 98.5 per cent male) is far from ideal for a soccer game and initially there were some teething problems for Apple as they got to grips with suddenly working directly with 150 developers all at once on their new service. But, by and large, this has been a great move for us and Rogue has also been a great partner for us.
What are the difficulties of retooling a game for mobile, and then retooling it back?
JH: I am a non-tech guy so my answer here could contain some stupid statements, but I will try to articulate the situation as best I understand it. The game is being developed in Unity and our initial target for the Kickstarter was PC, PlayStation and Xbox, so most of our developers have long been using PC as the central format.
With mobile, the main considerations are touch input and graphical quality, so since we signed the China deal back in 2018, we started to focus on optimising graphical efficiency for low end mobile devices and ensuring all of the controller-based controls also worked properly on touch.
When we signed the Apple Arcade deal – which also includes Mac and tvOS – it became necessary to support controllers properly and the game has been playing really well on controllers for a long time – in fact, since the very start including when we were showing it in the London Science Museum in 2016 and 2017.
However, there are a whole bunch of TCRs and TRCs from the console platform holders that require us to further regulate the use of controllers in the game, particularly on the menus side. The big advantage of the console platforms being at the top of our priority list now is that we can finally focus on top end graphics and animation again, which is a big part of what we have been doing for most of this year
Sociable Soccer has been a success on Apple Arcade, but it’s not had much competition. How do you think it will fare battling the “premiership” titles?
JH: Yes, we have had good success with the game on Apple Arcade; it hit number one on the platform shortly after its release in 2019 and Pocket Gamer declared Sociable Soccer 2020 “the premier arcade football game on mobile”. However, you are right, the competition is very limited; the only other football game on the service is Charrua Soccer, which is a bit more lightweight and casual than our game.
We tick the boxes for high-speed online play, complete with banter and emoji sending, fiercely competitive couch multiplayer and a full single player campaign via a series of 10 online leagues and over 100 real world trophies to win.
How we communicate this vast amount of content wrapped in an easy-going casual wrapper is our main marketing challenge. I would like to pick up on some of the cheeky attitude we used back in the Sensible Soccer years and run with our Gamescom T-shirt slogan ‘Sociable Soccer – Faster than F***’ – but those kinds of decisions are down to Darryl and his team.
Do you see a future for Sociable Soccer as a free-to-play title, or with an Ultimate Team-style economy driving revenue?
JH: It depends on the platform. For mobile in China, we are already using free to play so we can monetise card packs and battle pass subscriptions in this way. For Apple Arcade, IAPs are banned. For PC/Console versions, we are unlikely to roll in IAPs, but the option is there if it is required. Again, that is down to Darryl and his team. We have designed our legends and battle pass system in a way that they can function with no additional payment required, or via subscription, or via IAPs. These are publishing decisions which can be taken on a platform by platform and territory by territory basis as required.
You’re obviously looking to build something stable and lasting. What needs to happen for Sociable Soccer to become a successful long-term franchise?
DS: Yes, the release of PC and console takes us into the next era for Sociable Soccer, in my eyes. There’s a whole new group of audiences who can play each other for a shared experience, but with individual focus. Obviously, the improved graphical quality and power this hardware allows gives us lots of opportunities, but I’m just as excited about the buzz we’ve already received around the Switch audience, for example, who are somewhat football starved and wildly enthusiastic.
I think as we move forward with new technologies and iterations, we can offer the experience to more and more gamers way beyond the current fanbase, and the plans for each future iteration go way beyond an updated data pack. Everyone in the team is a fan of the game and that shows in the long list of suggested enhancements that the team is working on.