With the announcement of a major overhaul for the Football Manager franchise ringing fresh in our ears, we sat down for a brief chat with management overlord Miles Jacobson to get the scoop on some of the new features.
Strategy Informer: Obviously the match engine is the feature with the big overhaul this year. The team is quoted as working on it for three years, can you fill us in on how the time has been spent?
Miles Jacobson : We've had a couple of false starts where we've been working on tech that hasn't worked, and we've just had to say “lets start again”. It's more being able to translate the action to 3D and get it running on cards that are relatively low-spec, because obviously we don't want to raise the minimum spec to a quad-core or anything like that, so we don't know what the minimum spec is going to be at the moment, but we're trying to keep it low and if your computer isn't capable of using the 3D engine, it will default to the old 2D mode, so no-one gets shut out.
There are so many calculations that go on in a match, so trying to get all of those to display in 3D... what people don't get about the games being 3D for a while is that those are essentially 5-minute games of football, and not 90 minutes – if you play Pro Evo of Fifa for 90 minutes the score will be 27-24 – with us, we're trying to simulate the whole game, so having that amount of calculation and simulation going on, plus getting all the blending done, all the animation and motion capture is a hell of a lot of work, and thankfully when we went to Sega and said “we're going to go 3D” and then I get to sit down with the dev teams in Japan and they say “sure you can have our motion capture”, it really helps us quite a lot. I'm not sure whether tech sharing between east and west has gone on in the past, but it should do.
Strategy Informer: As a long-time fan of the series, the major draw for me is extrapolating what's going on the pitch in my head rather than graphically...
Miles Jacobson : You still can with the 2D view.
Strategy Informer: But as the 3D engine is now default, do you worry that will break some of the 'spell' that Football Manager traditionally holds over its users?
Miles Jacobson : It hasn't for me, I can only talk for myself on that score. I'm still loving playing it. When we moved to 2D people said the same thing about that, you know “oh you've got highlights” and “oh it's better in my head”, and then the move happened and people accepted it.
Strategy Informer: You've been stated as expecting around 100 animations in total for the match engine, do you have any plans for expansion going forward?
Miles Jacobson : We'll finish FM2009 first and then worry about that with the next release!
Strategy Informer: As the animation is pulled directly from Virtua Striker, does that limit you in any way?
Miles Jacobson : It's the motion-capture data that we've pulled, so many of the animations will be produced in-house from that raw data rather than directly from Virtua Striker, but some of the animations were provided to us previously. Having that raw data means that the possibilities are pretty much endless. The Japan team doesn't just work on Virtua Striker, they work on Let's make a Soccer Team as well, so there is a lot of stuff there. Also, there isn't anything to stop us doing more motion capture in the future as well. In the video you saw for the YouTube release you saw a goal celebration routine, lots more things like that will happen in the future. We think we've got, well, we know we've got what we need to take the 2D engine and turn it 3D, otherwise we wouldn't be doing it at this stage.
Strategy Informer: The other thing you mentioned really briefly was the re-written transfer system. Can you go into a bit more detail there – what's the ultimate goal?
Miles Jacobson : Basically, that system has been in place for a few years now, so we had the choice of improving on it again or completely tearing it out and starting fresh. The reason we did that is because when you add code on each year, eventually the system gets bloated, and it's very difficult to see what the issues are. We knew there were a few problems there though, it wasn't efficient and doing exactly what we wanted it to, so we ripped it out and started again. It's quite a brave move.
Strategy Informer: So what are some of the things we can expect from the new system?
Miles Jacobson : As a user you'll probably not notice many differences, it's the underlying code improvements we were after. There are a couple of nice nuances that I'll be blogging about in the next few weeks, but it's the underlying code that we're fixing. You'll notice things are faster, but there are other areas of the game that might be a little slower.
Strategy Informer: On that note, I remember reading that the team had learned a lot from the Xbox version in terms of executing code quicker in tighter memory confines and hard drive space, will 2009 continue to benefit now that it's PC-only?
Miles Jacobson : 2008 was the first to take advantage of that, and particularly with the patches. But yeah, having that extra knowledge, particularly from the guys that worked on the 360 version has been really useful in terms of creating much more efficient code that translates to speed increases for the user.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned in the Q&A that you'd be taking a year off from the console versions, but that you intend to return to them at some point...
Miles Jacobson : At some point yeah. I don't know whether it'll be a year or two years or what, but at the moment we've decided to concentrate on PC, Mac and PSP exclusively.
Strategy Informer: The last point I wanted to address was the specific 'niche' audience for the game...
Miles Jacobson : It's a pretty big niche!
Strategy Informer: True! But if you look at something like Madden '09, they've included many features this year to help pull in a new audience of players that might otherwise be a little baffled by the simulation aspects. Will Football Manager 2009 actively court such improvements to pull in an increased worldwide following?
Miles Jacobson : We're constantly looking to expand our audience because we want to be entertaining as many people as humanly possible. We are entertainers, that's our job. People don't necessarily understand that but we want to be selling as many games as possible because that means people are enjoying what we do.
Strategy Informer: Is there anything specific you can point to in '09 that would be a step in that direction?
Miles Jacobson : I think some of the usability stuff, and the assistant manager feedback definitely. If someone is playing the game and thinking “I really don't understand why I'm not winning”, the assistant manager feedback will give them information to help counter that. 3D is also something that people expect from games nowadays, so that helps. But everything we're adding isn't just to get new people on board, it's all useful stuff for the existing people that play our game as well, and we're not ever going to add anything into the game that we don't want to see in there ourselves.
Oliver and Paul [Collyer] started this 18-19 years ago, they don't want things in there that they don't enjoy, I'm not going to want things in there that I don't enjoy, so we sit down and figure out what fits and what will be cool, and what benefits our players the most.