FM 2013 is Sports Interactive's most ambitious game yet. And if it can stay piracy-free for a few weeks, next year's title will be even greater.
MCV discusses the game's future with studio boss Miles Jacobson.
You've introduced a cut-down ‘classic mode' to this year's Football Manager. Why do that?
A few years ago in one of our post mortem meetings, I sat there and asked who in the studio had been playing the game. Most put their hands up but I was surprised at some of the people who didn't because they'd been with us for a long time. I asked them why and they said: ‘Well, I've got kids now and don't have time anymore.'
We'd been looking to do something console-wise again anyway. We went off and did a load of research; we did a poll with a few thousand people and presented the the idea of FM Classic as a console game. Everyone loved the idea but people were coming back saying we don't want it on console, we've got partners watching TV, we can play games on our laptop.” FM takes too long for that quick hour session and so that's when we decided to do Classic in the same box as the PC title.
Our other new mode, Challenge mode, came about because it had done so well on the handheld and we thought it was worth adding.
FM 2013 has over 900 new features. Is that more than usual?
Yes. Last year, we celebrated over 800. This year over 900. There are more people in the studio now than we've had previously. We've taken on 17 or 18 people this year. We're up to 90 now, which still makes us quite small. We've been somewhat ambitious this year, what with the fact that some of these new features were completely new game modes.
Has this raised the commercial expectations for the title?
Yes. I am expecting this will be the best selling version of Football Manager that we've ever had.
Pre-ordering gave access to an early beta of the game. Did that increase orders?
Giving people the chance to play the full game two weeks early has gone down very well. People have done it with multiplayer before; I haven't seen it happen often for single player games. I advise everyone to steal it because the feedback we've had has been invaluable in finishing the game.
It has really helped everyone out. It's helped retail judge the demand as well as giving the customer something great as a pre-order rather than a mug or a hacky sack that just ends up sitting in the corner.
Is piracy still a big issue? Do you have new measures to counter it?
Yes it's a big issue. With the measures that we used last year, the game wasn't pirated for two weeks. The extra sales that we got in that time has helped us to get the new members of staff this year. The new game does have a new system and, at the the time of talking, hasn't been cracked. If we can hold another, three, four weeks, as long as we can really, it will benefit the retailers and ourselves and ultimately, the consumer as well. If we do much better this year, we'll be investing that back into the studio, take on more people to be able to do more features.
Could a micro-transaction or DLC model help you generate revenue from pirated games?
With FM Classic there are ways that allow you to accelerate your progress in the game, much like the Mighty Eagle in Angry Birds. So we have chargeable things like that. we also have DLC in Challenge Mode as well, which gives us the possibility for more challenges throughout the year – as long as people are playing that mode.
We also have a free-to-play MMO coming out in January in South Korea, which uses micro-transactions. So it is a model we are experimenting with. I prefer to think of things as being good value for money in that side of things. If you think that the mean average play time on Football Manager 2012 was 129 hours, for 30 I'd say that was pretty good value for money.
But I don't think that going out at a cheaper price and having more paid-for content on top would actually curb the piracy situation. What I gather from the other developers I talk to, piracy is just as bad with the 69p apps as it is on 6.99 apps. People either want to pay for it or they want it for free, there doesn't seem to be a middle ground.
You've been making football management games for 20 years. How do you stay motivated?
There is always more that we want to do. I have got features set for the next three versions already. I also still love the game. I am still motivated in making games. Yes we make the same genre of game each year, but if you look at the difference between the first game I worked on at Sports Interactive – Championship Manager 2 – to what we are doing on FM13, they are very different games. One is a game, and the other is a football management RPG simulation, that just happens to have a football management game mode in it.
What keeps me going is I don't think we are any way near where we want to be commercially or critically. When we have 100 per cent Metacritic score and when every household in the world – that has a football fan in it – is playing our game, then maybe that is job done. But until that point, why would I want to stop doing the best job in the world?
Why have you sponsored Watford?
It is a good commercial deal. I got accused after doing it that perhaps there was bias as I support Watford, but I doubt we'd have been offered the deal if I didn't know people at the club. When you have Zola coming in as manager, the exciting players that we have and the coverage that's on Sky and BBC, it made perfect sense. It increases awareness to our audience, which is football fans. Our audience is more football fans than gamers. Retailers tell me they have customers that they only see once or twice a year for us and sometimes for FIFA. We don't sell to your typical audience.
Does this audience mean the game still sells better on the High Street than digitally?
Yes. Our bricks and mortar percentage is much higher than most of the other stats I see banded around.
How have your portable versions been performing and what can we expect from them going forward?
They are doing better than we ever thought they would. The PSP version still continues to do well, so we have a new PSP version coming out this year. And then there will be new iOS and Android versions before Christmas.
It's part of what we are trying to do at the studio in entertaining as many people as possible with our work. Before our largest audience was 18 to 26-year-old males. But now with handheld we are getting people younger and older. With FM Classic we are going to be getting some older people back into the series, but also some younger people trying it out for the first time. We just want to broaden our audience as much as we can.
Will you bring FM?to consoles?
We have no plans to come back to console. We are going to leave that to Sonic and Aliens.
I'd have thought Football Manager would work well on Wii U.
A few people have mentioned that to me. I've not seen a Wii U yet. I've not had one to play. I've got one pre-ordered. So who knows what'll happen there? But at the moment we have no plans to come back to console.
What do you make of the renewed focus on PC games at the moment?
I always found it hilarious that people were writing off the PC market. The PC market is there if you are delivering the right games. In the same way that the console market is there if you are delivering the right games for it. When we made console games we weren't delivering the right games, and that's why they didn't perform well.
PC is alive and well and not just digitally but at retail, too. It'd be nice for retailers to be supporting PC more, beca