Football Manager: Exclusive interview with the man behind the magic, Miles Jacobson

Miles Jacobson, studio director at Sports Interactive

I must have frittered away literally hundreds, if not thousands, of hours on Football Manager and its predecessor Championship Manager over the years.

There is something addictive yet endearing about leading a side to glory, grabbing a bargain or fining a player who has been out on the lash and missed training.

It is has struck a chord with football fans across the world, from the everyday man to the likes of Robbie Williams and Jason Manford. Then there are the hoards of managers, scouts and players from the length and breadth of the beautiful game that use it as well. Everton even use the game’s database as an official scouting tool.

To find out more for a feature I am penning on Football Manager I spoke to the man behind the magic, Miles Jacobson.

During an enjoyable 20-minute phone conversation, Miles gave me his thoughts on this year’s edition amongst a whole host of other stuff, including players frustrated with their stats, a plotline on Dream Team and the indomitable Tonton Zola Moukoko.

Read the Q&A after the jump…

Simon Peach: Firstly, what are your thoughts on this year’s effort?

Miles Jacobson: “Looking at the reviews and the reactions we’ve had from the community, it is, as I said it was going to be, the best game we have ever made. It is kind of difficult asking anyone creative to give feedback on what they think of their own work because every time I play it – and I do still play it quite a lot – I spend my time looking for things that are wrong, not for things that are right because obviously we want to improve it each year. But I think the fact that I was playing it until 4 o’clock this morning shows that we must be doing something right and there are lots of other people doing that as well.”

SP: What do you believe are the best new features in this year’s edition?

MJ: “We’ve changed the way we develop games here now. We used to be incredibly haphazard with the way we were doing things and we changed our mind during development on what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t. And a couple of years ago we got to the size that as a team it wasn’t really possible anymore and there are 70 of us full time now. When we now approach our games it’s in a more structured way. Everybody puts their ideas into a database and then everybody gets a vote on what is in the database. As the director of the game I collate that and decide what is going to go in for each year.

“Now when I am doing that role I try and find something for everyone because different people play the game in different ways. Some people are hooked on transfers, for some people it is tactics, some people it is the backroom side of things, some people just want to zip through, and so we try and find something for everyone. Now the way I play the game, I’m a wheeler-dealer type. I buy and sell players so for me personally the addition of agents and the new contract negotiations system is probably my favourite feature. I think it is probably that and the animations in the match engine because they’ve made such difference to way the match engine looks.

“Those are probably my two favourites but, again, the feedback we’re getting is that different people like different things and certainly the press conference revamp has gone down very well because it is an area of the game that was not so popular before and now seems to be a lot more popular.

“There is also the dynamic league reputation, which for people who play really long term games and start at a lower level or in a weird country makes a big difference. In our previous games over the 15 or 16 years, whatever it is now, basically you could only take a club or a league to a certain level. And then the reputation would stop going up and you wouldn’t be able to attract better players. However, you can see in the real world when the Premier League began the English league started attracting a lot more foreign players, a lot more better players. Italy, Spain and even leagues now like the Dutch league, German league, and French league are changing. There would have been a time when the German league would not have been able to keep their players, now they can keep whichever players they want and attract huge names to move over there as well, so we’ve tried to reflect that within the game by removing those barriers and that has certainly gone down very well for the long-term gamer.”

SP: When do you and your staff start looking at next year’s game?

MJ: “We have done, we’re in pre-production at the moment for next year’s game. It never stops. We actually started the post-production process the Monday after release. So the game came out on the Friday and by Wednesday we had finished post-production, which is basically meetings on what went right, what went wrong and what we need to improve for next year. And then we started the pre-production process. We’ve already had some meeting about the longer term plans we’ve got because we no longer just plan year to year, we now plan for multiple years. Our feature meetings start again soon, which is where we sit down as a group and go through all the new stuff that is in the database. We’ve still got about 1,000 features that we have approved previously that haven’t made it into a game yet.”

SP: Would you be able to tell me any of the big changes for next year’s addition?

MJ: “Some things have been decided because some things have been worked on for more than the normal one-year cycle. But I’d have to kill you if I told you what they were.”

SP: I think I can hold out until next year then. Anyway, the game is very popular with the so-called ‘everyday man’ but do you know of many famous users?

MJ: “I know the game is incredibly popular between sound check and people going on stage for a lot of bands and comedians. And then also footballers and football mangers, but we tend to keep those relationships quite quiet because we do talk to these people. There have been some people that have come into the studio and are happy to do stuff, so Paolo Nutini, for example, is a huge fan. He popped in last year, did a little interview with us and was one of the first people to see Football Manager 2010. It’s well-documented that Robbie Williams is a fan as well. Jason Manford is fan of the game and has had Football Manager comedy in his set for about five years, I think.

“So there are lots out there, some odd ones as well. It’s always great when you hear from anybody who plays the game, but it is particularly good for us when we hear about footballers, managers and scouts because they are very useful people to be able to talk to about making sure the features are as realistic as possible. I do spend quite a lot of time with chief executives, agents, scouts and football analysts from clubs talking with them about how things happen in the real world and making sure the game is as accurate as possible.”

SP: It is surprising to hear you say that managers use Football Manager as well…

MJ: “Well there are managers that openly admit they’ve used our database. Jose Mourinho’s chief scout when he was at Chelsea was a big fan, we’ve got a deal with Everton whereby they use our database as part of their scouting network and we’re talking to other clubs about that now as well. Inside football it does get used. We’ve got international managers who play the game as well. There was a story from a few years ago when Peter Taylor took over as England manager for one game, a friendly against Italy. The Italian manager was there on the coach saying he hadn’t heard of certain players and Demetrio Albertini, who was an Italian star midfielder at the time, got his laptop out and sat there showing the manager who the players were off the back of the games. It’s amazing when your work can be used in that way. It even became a plotline on Dream Team, the old Sky 1 football soap opera. It was very strange sitting there on a Sunday and seeing somebody bring up a screenshot of your game that was then used by Harchester to sign a player. But I think it shows how far we have come as a studio and with the game. We’ve become more a part of football culture rather than video game culture, which was something we always strived for. We want to be seen as a football product as well as a computer game and I think we’re getting there.”

SP: Have you had any frustrated players getting in contact about their stats on the game?

MJ: “Yes, lots. I was at a training session a few months ago, which ended up becoming part of the training system that we have as part of the game. One of the players stood up in the team meeting after training and started having a go at me about his stats in front of all the other players. I just turned around and said ‘well, you were crap for the first half of the season and that’s why your stats are like they are, but you’re doing better now so keep that up and we’ll up you next year’.

“But we’ve always had players that come in and look at their stats. We had one guy who had been a trainee at Manchester United, who is playing in the Championship now, and he came in and was comparing his stats to his room-mate at the time when they were youth players there. At least he was honest, saying ‘I’m faster than him but, to be fair, he is better than dribbling so you should switch those two round’, which we did. People don’t tend to get too upset about them.

“We’ve got over 1,000 scouts around the world who are watching players play week in, week out at every level and our database has become well known for spotting talent before other people have heard of them. At the moment there is the whole Hatem Ben Arfa thing where one of the pundits on Match of the Day say ‘oh, he played really well today and nobody had heard of him before he joined Newcastle’ and millions of Football Manager fans across the world are going ‘err, actually we’ve been signing him for three or fours years’. Maybe the pundits could do with playing it a bit more.”

SP: As well as those who have gone on to bigger and better things, though, fellow Football Manager fans will be aware of the likes of Cherno Samba, Mika Ääritalo…

MJ: “…and the most famous, of course, being Tonton Zola Moukoko. We’ve got over 480,000 players and staff in the database so if we get a couple wrong that is still not a bad strike record. But I think with all of those players they showed huge amounts of promise and something else happened. In Cherno Samba’s case there may have been a few issues that stopped him reaching his potential. In Tonton Zola Moukoko’s case it is actually quite a tragic story because his father, who was his mentor, died and his mind just went. We actually did an interview with him a few years ago for a magazine we released at the time and he told us the full story and it was really, really sad. Mika Ääritalo, I think, was just someone being over eager. And we had one player, a guy called Tó Madeira who didn’t exist. He was added in by a very, very over-eager researcher that doesn’t work with us anymore. It was a mate of his and he thought he could get away with it, but he didn’t it. The other 480,000-odd are all correct, though. I think we’ve got a pretty good strike record and we’re happy with that.”

SP: Finally, the games are known for being quite addictive and I was wondering why you think that is? Also what makes Football Manager so successful?

MJ: “I think one of the reasons why it is so successful and why people play it for a long time, apart from the fact it is quite a lot of fun, is that it provides an escape for people. All of us our football fans and sit their in the pub after the game talking about how we could do a better job than the manager. All of us do it; ‘why did he take that guy off?’ or ‘why isn’t he signing this player?’ So, basically what we do is give you a chance to find out whether you really could do a better job or not in a slightly easier environment to the real world.

“The vast majority of video games are story-driven and you are playing a story, playing a character and it is quite a linear experience. Even the open world games have storylines in there, missions that you have to do or to progress the story and get better weapons, or whatever. With us the user creates their own story. They are able to use their own imagination while they are playing and I think that is quite a compelling thing really. Every single game is different. You won’t two people that could mirror exactly what happened during the game because personalities come into it and it is about letting the user create their own story.

“If you’ve got a good book and you get a chapter before the end you might stay up for an extra half an hour to read that extra chapter, right? With our game, the game never ends so if you’re enjoying it you want to read that next chapter, you want to play that next game. It’s not something that we ever did deliberately, it was just something that happened off the back of the concept of creating your own world to get lost in and we’re really happy that people still continue to play the game after all of these years.

“Football Manager 2009 was the last game we had great, accurate stats for and the average amount of time a user spent playing it was 240 hours. Now 10 days of your life for £30’s worth of entertainment is pretty good value for money compared to virtually everything else out there apart from free stuff. So we’re very proud that we have created something that is very good value for money and people enjoy.”

Thanks again to Miles for his time. And, if you’re on Twitter, he is a man well worth following @milessi.

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