In 1963 Coca-Cola introduced a diet version of their ubiquitous fizzy drink to the American public for the first time. Despite fears that it would cannibalise Coke's existing marketshare, 'Tab' (later usurped in 1982 by its successor, Diet Coke) was a roaring success for the company, succeeding both by capitalising on a new, health-conscious consumer-base and appealing to existing Coke drinkers eager to try something different.
Fast-forward 50 years and Sports Interactive are taking a leaf out of the soft-drink giant's book. In the biggest shake-up of the series since leaving Eidos in 2004, Football Manager 2013 will come bundled with Football Manager Classic - a Football Manager 'lite' aimed at a growing community of time conscious football management fans. It won't make you late for work, it won't make you miss deadlines. It won't even cause arguments with your girlfriend (and it won't make you fat or rot your teeth either).
While my opening analogy may be specious, what particularly intrigues about FMC is what's implied by its very existence. Coke is bad for you. So is Football Manager. Here's something else to try.
It's a bold step for a developer that has for so long cherished complexity as a byword for progress. Football Manager 13 - and I'm talking about the 'full fat' version here - continues much in the same vein as its predecessors, adding more and more variables and a finishing gloss of cosmetic sheen to the database we've all loved interacting with for the past 20 years. Fans will love it - and rightly so, as it's undoubtedly the most in-depth and fascinating football management sim that's ever been made.
Training has been completely revamped, and improvements continue to be made to the more repetitive parts of the game (I'm looking at you, press conferences). What stands out most is the changes made to the matchday experience. Managing from the touchline is much easier than in previous versions, and an ingenious, Twitter-inspired 'match feed' offers short messages from your assistant about the team's performance. For the first time I felt like my involvement with the game didn't pause when the players stepped out onto the pitch - and the game is more absorbing as a result.
A souped-up, steam-integrated multiplayer offering and a new scenario-based challenge mode complete the package (who said annual release cycles were unsustainable?) but it's FM13's little brother that justifiably demands the most attention. After all this time spent chasing realism and depth at all costs, why change now?
To some extent, the motivation is obvious - if anything you could argue it's a wonder FMC hasn't come out sooner. If I had a penny for every time I'd heard someone reminisce about their 'Champman' glory days, or read a user comment along the lines of 'used to luv it too difficult now - Kennedy Bakircioglu legend! ROFL!' I'd be a rich man. It makes a product that harks back to previous versions something of a no-brainer for Sports Interactive - especially considering the success of their ideologically-paired mobile iterations.
Having had the best part of the week getting to grips with the game, even as a purist, I couldn't help but be impressed, and to describe it simply as a slimmed-down FM is to do it a grand disservice. FMC retains all the best parts from the evolution of the series over the last ten years, but manages to revive the simplicity and speed with which you could navigate the game back when it was Championship Manager. Add in a sexy new interface (that's right, sexy) and many will find it hard to turn back once they've had a taste.
Fancy having a go at managing Liverpool on a rainy Sunday? Load up a game during Soccer Saturday and you'll have a season finished by the end of the 5.30 kickoff. Strange as it may sound, more than anything it's this speeding up of the game that recreates the simple pleasures of the CM days of yore. Football Manager's full version, more than being just a very difficult game, is also one that requires huge commitment. For most people with busy lives it'll take at least a week to get through a season - and each extra hour invested creates more and more stress. Go on a bad run in FM13 that you can't pull your team out of, and it could be months of playing time down the drain. If you get sacked in FMC meanwhile, so what? It's only a few hours of your life.
The flipside of course is that FMC is never going to feel as rewarding - and I imagine it will be along this line that the community splits. Winning the Champions League with Tonbridge Angels in FM13 would be something to tell the grandkids about (hey, they'll probably be old enough to play with you by the time you get there). A similar achievement in FMC - especially considering the unlockable cheats on offer - may be more fun, but the feeling of accomplishment just wouldn't be the same.
It's this question that I've had to ask myself several times over the last few days - and it's one on which the future direction of the series will rest. Can it be worth all that extra effort for that small extra feeling of pride? And if the majority find that it's not, will SI continue to invest in the original game? Put it this way: if Diet Coke tasted better, we probably wouldn't need regular Coke anymore.