Over the last 12 months, Sports Interactive has defied the pirates, released its most successful game and turned its Football Manager series into a full sports brand. Christopher Dring speaks with studio boss Miles Jacobson about his hit IP and what we can expect from his talk at London Games Conference
You told our sister title Licensing.biz that Football Manager is not so much a video game brand but a football brand. Why is that important?
It's something we've been trying to do for a few years particularly since the marketing and PR strategy team moved over to our side. We now do the strategy here at Sports Interactive and the implementation side of things is done by Sega. And the strategy is to be a football brand because that's where our audience is. I'm sure there are lots of retailers that are getting the annual customer who buys Football Manager and are not seen again for the rest of the year because our game appeals to a slightly different audience.
You attended Brand Licensing Europe. How was that?
It was awesome. It's the first time that we have actually laid down the gauntlet and said we are open for business and working with Sega's licensing team that has had such success with Sonic and also with the Total War book range coming out. So we decided that we wanted to get involved as well.
The interest from people wanting to work with us has actually been surprising. We should see the first fruits of that by next summer in time for next year's game. Not only is it good for the game but it's also good for retailers who are making more and more of their revenue from third party accessories and merchandise now as digital starts eating into their box business.
The PC download charts show that Football Manager is the biggest selling boxed game during Q2. How do your retail sales compare to your digital sales?
In terms of pre-orders on Football Manager 2014, digital is up by double digits. Retail is almost identical to last year. For other developers, games retail is falling and digital is growing. But with us we've seen retail staying the same and digital growing. I think one of the reasons for that is our game is more mainstream, and these people are not used to using digital downloads in a games space yet.
It's amazing to still be growing after all these years. Last year was our best selling game by quite a long way and we'll be talking about that at London Games Conference. And to see our pre-orders actually being up year-on-year is also great.
What can we expect to hear from you at LGC?
The whole talk will be around a brain dump of numbers around Football Manger 2013 which will be dealing with sales figures in different territories and also what happens to our sales figures when illegal downloads hits. We remained uncracked last year for six months and when we were eventually cracked we saw a big change in sales patterns in different regions.
When they cracked the game last year the job that they did on it actually meant that every single person who downloaded the game illegally, we could see their IP address. We'll also be revealing stats about exactly how many people illegally download and how many of the people played the game more than five times, what countries they were coming from, that kind of information. It's something that as far as I know no-one has had numbers in these kinds of detail. So hopefully it'll be interesting for some and might destroy a couple of myths.
Six months uncracked. Is that a new record?
It was for us. Normally we celebrate it not happening for two weeks so six months is the longest we have gone. The people who cracked it last year tried to release a version of FM 14 using the same methods, but things have changed in the last twelve months so that version does not work at all.
Does the piracy reduction mean you've been able to recruit more development staff?
Yeah, we've been doing that throughout the year. We have another half dozen on the programming team and we're looking for three more for definite and we'll see how things go in the next few weeks and see whether we can increase that or not.
What inspired you to do a Vita version of Football Manager?
When I first started talking to Sony about it I said the Vita can't handle it and they proved me wrong. We're working with Sega's Hardlight which is responsible for a lot of the Sonic mobile titles and we're also working with a studio called Little Stunt who are basically geniuses at managing to optimising and squeezing code down. The idea was if people had a Vita and were going to be playing Football Manager Classic, why shouldn't they carry on playing it on their computers at home? The save game format is the same so we started talking to Steam and Sony to try and find a way to make the cloud saves a possibility so you will be able to play your game on the PC, upload to Steam cloud and download to your Vita and carry on playing, and visa versa.
Have you tried the Steam Machines?
I wasn't there on that trip because we were trying to get FM finished. We have a trip to Seattle in December. I'm really excited about it. I obviously know about Steam OS because we've developed for Linux this year. We knew Valve was mucking about with some hardware, we didn't know that the hardware was likely to be made by others and it was getting other manufacturers to use Steam OS, which is awesome. The controller I cannot wait to try out – when I first read about it I was skeptical that we could use it for FM but things that I have been told by people who were at the demonstration mean we might actually be able to use it.
Will this take Football Manager to the living room?
We already support Steam Big Picture mode, so we're already there. We've made it easier than ever this year because we have some new technology in the game called ZiZo – Zoom In and Zoom Out – which allows you to make all the text and graphics bigger, or small, depending on the resolution you are using. If you wanted to play the game in 1080p, last year the text was tiny and really difficult to read. This time you just zoom in.
PS4 and Xbox One are effectively PCs. Does that give you something to think about?
We didn't have a lot of success on the 360. We did on the first version on Xbox, and we usually see ourselves going up year-on-year not falling. We have no plans for next-gen at all. I haven't spoken to Sony or Microsoft about next-gen. I want to look at the technology then and see if there's anything we can do. As a studio we are 90-plus people and we're growing organically – although much faster than ever before –so we can't take on too many projects. What we've announced so far is going be everything that is going to be announced until Football Manager Online launches next year, which is taking up a lot of our resource.
Football Manager Online has struggled historically. What makes this game different?
This Football Manger Online is for the South Korean market initially. We were working with a developer called KTH in Korea and earlier this year Sega decided to buy this studio and asked me if I'd run it for them. Now every six weeks I am out in Korea for a week. The team out in Korea has hired some amazing, really talented people. Hopefully the game should be out next summer over in Korea and we'll see how it does over there before deciding to take it to the rest of the world.