GameCentral speaks to Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson about Football Manager 24 and why the game will never be perfect.
Miles Jacobson started at Sports Interactive as a beta tester in 1994, the year the company was founded, and quickly moved up the ladder to become the director of the Football Manager franchise in 2001.
He oversees all things Football Manager (except for the Mobile game) and, after a hands-on preview of Football Manager 2024, we recently sat down to talk to him about the new game and the future of the franchise.
Jacobson certainly proved passionate, as he explained why last year’s was one of the less popular entries of recent years and how he approached this year’s game differently as a result…
GC: So, what has the development process been like for this game? Essentially, how did you make FM 24?
MJ: We’ve actually worked quite differently this year to how we’ve worked in the past. The way the game gets developed is, once we’ve declared what we want to do with a feature, we then get together what’s called a feature pod. A feature pod will include programmers, design production, art, animation if required, user interface, and quality assurance, all working together in a group for a specific amount of time to get the feature to a point where it can be shown to me; so that we can then do some iteration. And every discipline has a say on the way that that feature is done.
From a production perspective, it’s making sure that the right people are in those right pods, because we’ve obviously got lots of feature pods being worked on simultaneously by different groups of people. What that’s meant for us this year is actually more polish from the off. And that’s because we’ve changed the way that we’re working into those pods, and it gives everyone a bit more ownership of those features as well. While they’ve been working on that, around a quarter of the team has been working on Football Manager 25, and a lot of the technology underneath the hood that’s required for that.
GC: FM 23 had the lowest rating on Metacritic in five years. What’s different from FM 23 and how that game was made?
MJ: We had more developers working on the game, essentially, because we’ve hired a lot of people in the last few years. And so, yeah, there were more people working on it. I think feature-wise we made a mistake on FM 23. We didn’t have enough features for certain types of players. We dropped the ball a bit last year with some of those smaller features that are really important for the hardcore players.
This year we made sure when we were designing every feature we were talking about exactly what kind of player that feature was designed for, to make sure that we had something for every type of player. And that was a really good process to go through and it meant that we had to move a few things around at the end, because it wasn’t enough for this particular cohort.
GC: You have this game that will always sell well, partly because you’ve amassed this huge community of players but also perhaps because there’s maybe not that much competition around…
MJ: If we made something that was s***, excuse my language, we’d know about it.
GC: Then how do you make sure that every year you keep making that good game?
MJ: We want to raise the bar every year. We will never dial it in. If I saw people not giving full effort then they shouldn’t be here, because you have to think about the reason why we make games. Part of it is we make games for ourselves, right? We make games that we want to play, but that’s not the big part of it. There’s not many people in the world who really enjoy their jobs, they’re doing it to put food on the table, and those people are working really, really hard to get the 40-50 quid together to come buy the game.
We have to ensure as a studio that it’s the best value for money game on the planet. And that’s what I talk to the team about all the time. I want people to be delighted with their purchase and it to be the thing that they spend the most of their leisure time on during that year.
GC: I think few argue that a Football Manager game on its own isn’t value for money, considering all the data, players and teams included, but is it that much better from year to year?
MJ: But I want it to be better value for money every year and we as a studio want it to be better every year. We’ve had a lot of competition over the years, we’ve just made our games so good that others can’t do the same thing. And even when we have no competition, even when there’s no one else in the market, we still try to do the same thing every year.
So, it doesn’t matter to us whether there are other people making management games or not. When there have been competition in the past, great, that’s awesome, but it doesn’t change our plans and doesn’t make us do anything differently. It just makes us want to keep on increasing the bar year on year, whether there’s that competition or not.
Otherwise, where’s the joy that you’d get out of it as a developer? If you’re just treading water or resting on your laurels, where’s the fun in that? I’d quit. because it’d be boring.
GC: So you strive to make a better game every year and you keep the bar as high as possible, how do you know what to improve your game from year to year, and where do you find those solutions?
MJ: As the game’s director those decisions are down to me, but the ideas come from everywhere. It could be things that the design team sat down and said, ‘We don’t like this because we think we should be doing this’. It could be a programming team saying the same thing. It could be feedback from quality assurance. It could be feedback that we see on our forums, feature suggestion forums that have been up since 1994.
It could be something that a footballer turns around and says to me, something an agent turns around and goes, ‘You’ve got this wrong.’ Ideas can come from absolutely anywhere, but there’s a lot of intuition that goes into it and that I will never understand, but just happens to be there.
But there always have to be things that we surprise people with every year. No one was expecting player incentives this year. No one was expecting intermediaries to be added. No one was expecting Transfer Room. But lots of people are expecting set pieces, because it’s been so well requested on our forums. It’s about balance and intuition, but also watching what’s happening in football.
GC: That’s essentially what the game is all about, it’s a simulation of the real world.
MJ: Yeah. So, when Pep Guardiola decides to bring forward a new tactical role that shouldn’t exist in the world, we have to react to that. But there are other things that we’re doing that football then reacts to. It’s a symbiotic relationship, to use far too big a word for a Tuesday afternoon.
GC: Sounds like Pep keeps you on your toes. So, with all these new features every year to keep the game improving, it also becomes more and more detailed, maybe even a bit cumbersome to play, especially for the casual player. Are there any thoughts for keeping the games simple and making sure that casual players aren’t left behind? Because there’s a lot to get into if you’re new.
MJ: We make three different football management games: Football Manager Mobile; Football Manager Console, also called Touch; and regular Football Manager. And Football Manager is a pure simulation. Football Manager Console is a bit like Maltesers – it’s a lighter way to enjoy football management. And then Football Manager Mobile is the quicker game for people who don’t want the full experience.
We’re very deliberate that we have those different games, with different experiences for different audiences, because it’s very difficult to satisfy all football fans with one game. Some really want all the detail, some just want to do transfers and tactics. And if you want to do transfers and tactics, Football Manager Mobile is a brilliant game.
GC: Are there any features or ideas for Football Manager 24 that you wanted to include, but that you couldn’t?
MJ: Every year. Every year there are hundreds of them. The initial desires list always ends up being paired down during development, because as features are designed we realise how much time will be spent on implementing them. So, there are always things that get dropped.
Normally I would turn around and go, ‘Yeah, there were lots, but those will be in next year’s game.’ This time around, they’ll probably be in a game in two years time, or three years time, because we’re pretty nailed on what we want to do for FM25.
GC: Are there any of those specific features that you could mention now?
MJ: There are, and I could tell you about them, but as the saying goes from the Godfather, ‘I’d have to kill you.’
GC: Holistically, or even philosophically, what was the aim for Football Manager 24? What did you want to achieve with it?
MJ: A love letter to Football Manager. We knew that this was going to be the last game on this engine. So we wanted to make sure that it was the best game and the most remembered game from this first era.
When you look at our back catalogue and which of those games still have communities, it’s always the last game in that particular series. The last game in the Championship Manager 3 series was the most popular, the last game in the CM2 series was the most popular. So, that’s what we were trying to do with Football Manager 24, and I think we’ve succeeded.
GC: The website also states that Football Manager 24 is the most complete game you’ve ever made. But what still needs improving? And can a Football Manager ever be perfect?
MJ: No, it can’t be perfect. I describe myself as a realistic perfectionist: I want perfection, but I know I’m never going to achieve it. It’s the same with the game. We want to achieve perfection, but if we achieve perfection the game wouldn’t be released, because we’d be busted by the time we release it. We wouldn’t be able to release it each year.
There’s still a huge amount of things that we want to add to the game. The engine change next year is going to give us the possibility to do some of those things that we might have had technical issues trying to get across the line before.
But everything now is about setting up the next 20 to 30 years of Football Manager, that’s what we’re moving on to. So, whilst it’s right for our communication team to be saying it’s the most complete version of FM, it’s the most complete version of FM to date.
GC: And lastly, what’s the reasoning behind the exclusive deal with Netflix for the mobile game?
MJ: The Football Manager audience was falling. People started moving across to other platforms. I’d love to say that it’s all just about the game, like you hear bands all the time going, ‘It’s all about the music.’ It’s not, it’s about the business side of things as well. And with FM Mobile, we saw that the numbers were dropping, we didn’t want to get into a bad situation, but we also want as many people as possible to be able to experience our work.
Netflix has built up such a huge consumer base around the world who want quality, so we’re heading in the right direction. They were heading in the right direction with what they’re trying to do on the game side of things, and it opens up a much bigger audience to us than we would ever have.
I know there are some studios out there who don’t particularly like subscription platforms. I personally think they’re looking at it the wrong way, and it’s something that you have to build into your business model and be part of what you do rather than and afterthought. We’ve had a lot of success with Game Pass, we’ve had a lot of success with Apple Arcade, and we fully intend for our new relationship to go the same way.
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