Miles Jacobson OBE is a busy man. Studio director of Sega’s Sports Interactive, he’s putting the finishing touches to Football Manager 13, the latest edition in the time-chomping, soul-sucking footie sim, due out on 2 November.
Games typically take three to five years to make. But Jacobson’s been turning out a new Football Manager (or Champ Man, as addicts fondly remember it) every single year since 1995. How does he do it?
“At the moment my typical day is get up about 10, work at home until half twelve, come into the office, then play the game until three or four in the morning making notes on things I’m not happy with,” Jacobson says. He’s so busy, in fact, that last week he had to squeeze six dates with his girlfriend into one day.
The real world can wait though: right now, the 70 odd staff at SI are prepping Football Manager 13 for release, and squeezing in almost a thousand new features.
“We’ve got over 900 new features,” he says, from a “completely revamped match engine” to the ability to throw a strop in a press conference, just like the Premier League’s legendary gaffers. “It’s the biggest overhaul of any iteration of the series since the first FM that we worked on,” he says.
And it’s not just a few new features: there’s a whole new game mode too, Football Manager Classic. Think of it as FM Lite: it strips out many of the most intricate options for the broad brush strokes: I’ll sign you, you play here, go.
“We’re trying to increase our audience by trying to get some people back,” says Jacobson. It’s “been designed specifically for people who don’t have time to play the game any more because FM, the main simulation mode, it is a simulation. It’s very in depth, it does take a long time to play, so the days of being able to do a season in a day certainly haven’t been available in the series for a few years.”
Though it’s not a game you can speedrun, plenty of people do want to lose themselves for days at a time in Football Manager though. Every new Football Manager game leaps to the top of the charts, and now that the game can be downloaded through Steam, Jacobson knows just how long people play for. The median average (the length for the most number of players) is now 106 hours - or four and a half days non-stop with no sleep.
And that’s just the typical player. “I regularly get tweets from people who’ve played over a thousand hours of the game,” Jacobson says. “People going a hundred seasons into the game isn’t unheard of either. For some people this has become more than a bit of a hobby.”
Football Manager’s even been cited in scores of divorce cases, though Jacobson believes his game is a scapegoat for a much more deep-rooted problem.
“I don’t think that the game is responsible for any relationship splitting up,” he says. “If someone is needing to escape so much into a computer game that their marriage falls apart because of it, there’s probably some other issues going on there rather than it just being down to a computer game.”
But Jacobson’s playing down the importance of Football Manager. It’s no longer just a game anymore. The studio has a network of scouts, including 51 head researchers and almost 1,500 assistant researchers, scattered across more than 50 countries globally, and the numbers and stats they assign to players for the game’s database can even affect that player’s chance of success in the real world.
Scouting for goals
Four years ago, Everton FC struck a deal with SI to use their database, and Jacobson says other top flight teams are after access to the crown jewels as well.
“We get approaches quite regularly and there are things going on in that area at the moment,” he says, hinting at a much bigger deal in the pipeline this year. “The lawyers are talking about things at the moment so there’ll probably be more news about that, I’d have thought, towards the end of next month.”
In the meantime though, it looks like teams are more than happy to play the game, see who it recommends and keep an eye on them. “No-one has ever come out and admitted that to us but yes. We regularly look at [real world] signings and think, hang on a minute.”
Who was the last one? Jacobson pauses. “Although Newcastle do have a fantastic scouting set-up in France,” he says, “the irony of Hatem Ben Arfa being signed and Alan Shearer being there on the telly saying who is this bloke, I’ve never heard of him,” isn’t lost on him.
It’s hard to imagine the US military watching how people play Halo and using it to shape their strategy, but that’s really what’s happening here.
“If you’ve got a tool to be able to go and find out what someone in that local region thinks of that player, and whether they think he can be good enough, then it can save you a lot of money by not flying out to Peru, just to go and watch someone who once did a couple of decent tricks.”
Want to get signed?
Want to be one of SI’s scouts, on the hunt for the next Lionel Messi or Jack Wilshere? It’s not hard - if you know what you’re talking about.
“Just talking in an informed manner about football is a good start on our forums,” says Jacobson. “If you think there are things wrong with our data go and start a conversation in there - that’s the kind of place that you’re going to get noticed.”
It could be the start of a whole new career. “A bunch of the head researchers that we’ve worked with have ended up in the game professionally as well as working with us from scouting positions through to director of football positions, as well as working for FIFA, UEFA and various sports betting organisations. It’s a pretty good thing to have on your CV.”
Before Jacobson takes the reins at a real world club though, there are still games to make. Like everyone else, SI are finding their way in a brave new world of mobile gaming, and free-to-play games.
Football Manager Handheld’s proved a hit on iPhone, but suffered from massive piracy rates on Android smartphones, now “ranging between nine to one and 11 to one” stolen copies for every version of the £6.99 game. It’s so bad, Jacobson says, that they’re having to play it year by year on whether to stick with the platform.
“We set a sales target at the beginning of the project that if we hit we would do another version. Thankfully we have hit that, so we will be doing Football Manager 13 on Android, but it’s quite sad when a business actually has to take piracy into account...we will be making the call year to year.”
Playing for free kicks off
Jacobson’s more hopeful about the free-to-play version of Football Manager due to launch in South Korea in a closed-beta next month, and publicly early next year. Don’t cancel that pre-order just yet though: it might be a while yet before it hits our shores.
“We’ll be looking at a few other countries in south-east Asia as well, and then looking to see where we should be launching it next. We’re going to be treating it as a territory by territory launch rather than going right, now we’re going to do Europe, now we’re going to do South America. We need to make sure that it’s right and feels local for every territory to be able to get the most out of the game.”
If we’re talking the Premier League, you’d think that would mean more options to date WAGs, smash up a mansion in Cheshire or just tweet abuse about the ref. Don’t expect any FM game to pack in more off-pitch antics anytime soon though.
“I think as far as we’re allowed to go legally at the moment is people not turning up for training and getting upset with their teammates, things like that. We can’t and nor do we particularly want to add friends of players letting fireworks off inside their house,” he says, referring to when Man City star Mario Balotelli’s house was set on fire pulling that same stunt last year.
Though he’s not saying, Jacobson knows what features he does want to add to the main game three years down the line, but he’s hazier about where the genre will be after that. “For all we know in five years’ time, the PC will be dead and people will be doing everything by wearable computing so we’ll just adapt to that as we go along.”
For now though, it’s back to getting his beloved Watford into the Champions league, and fixing bugs along the way.
“Hopefully in February I might get some bloody sleep,” says Jacobson. “It’ll be much needed by then.”