Football Manager Live is a daring proposition for Sports Interactive, there's no doubt about that. The studio that has, for more years than we'd care to remember, notched up annual success with its footy management titles is taking the online plunge and the only nets in sight don't look too safe. At least, they don't in my experience, as yet another shot from an opposition striker I've never heard of thunders past my inept goalkeeper.
The funny thing is, while Football Manager Live might look pretty much like any other Sports Interactive game, the difference between playing AI teams for seasons on end and taking on other human managers is huge - and now that the beta stage of the game is maturing into something that will probably bear more than a passing resemblance to what's released, it's interesting to see how it has changed completely from the early days.
The chaps at SI were always adamant that they wanted a long beta-test, and as they've gradually increased the player base, evolved the functionality, tweaked the economy and added in features completely new to the series, it's easy to see why. The test has been running for about nine months now, and features several active game worlds - in other words, servers that contain an entire FM-like football universe within them. Over that time a whole plethora of adjustments and additions have been made, not the least of which include numerous updates to the match engine, user interface tweaks - even a spangly new downloader complete with patch notes.
But there are a handful of aspects to the game that have changed significantly since our last impressions of the game were posted, and it's these we're going to focus on now.
The root of all evil
In the last few months the servers were completely reset (giving everybody a clean slate) to see how the latest incarnation of the economy would work out - and that's proven an interesting experience.
Basically on a daily basis your team has to pay wages to its players and insurance costs, while in return you get a lump sum based on your game world ranking, as well as cash from whichever association you've joined. And while you can't rack up a wage bill of more than GBP 100,000 overall to begin with, once you're out of the initial squad selection process there are no restrictions - apart from those that the bank put in place, that is. Try and sign a player on a four-week contract and it'll calculate your projected bank balance to the end of the month, and if it doesn't like what it sees it'll veto the deal.
On the one hand, while that does effectively prevent the all-too-familiar sight from the previous phase of the beta - where people would overspend, go vastly overdrawn, then bankrupt, and then start over repeatedly - now it can veto perfectly reasonable deals when your balance is nicely in credit.
The other side effect is that with the new, frugal starting budget in place, and acquisition fees charged on all player purchases, it can take some time before the top players even get a sniff at being signed - and some older players may never find a team before retiring. Of course, that's the point of beta tests - to try things out and tweak them, particularly for things like economies which depend on lots of people trying lots of things all at the same time.
It's good to talk
Another aspect of the game that's now beginning to develop fully is the community angle. As the number of testers has grown and new game worlds have been set up, the official competition structures set up within the worlds - the football associations - are becoming more player-run, and more individual as a result. While some associations cater to the more hardcore players, who are up for matches scheduled at almost any time of the day or night, others are kinder to those with actual real lives to consider, and even allow the computer AI to take charge of games without penalty.
There is also a nice variety of league structure within the different associations as well. TV money is assigned depending on how many members an association has, and then users - overseen by SI regulars - are free to establish a mixture of competitions, from traditional league pyramids to friendly and competitive cups and under-21 leagues. And of course the possibility of inter-association competitions is raised after the first four-week season, as champions and high performers then qualify for the FML version of the European cup competitions.
Add to that the various other community functions, such as voting, non-association user-created competitions, feedback, chat rooms and of course the transfer market and it's even possible to get an impression of the added value that an online proposition could bring to the FM series.
It's skill, innit?
And speaking of additions, one of the latest elements added to FML in the past few weeks is the notion of skill training, a system not unlike that found in EVE Online - you choose from a huge list of potential training options and the game will then train that skill over time, whether you're logged in or not. The range of skill options encompasses virtually every aspect of the game's other facets, with the obvious ones such as general and specific skill training, as well as more spurious ones like financial management and influence.
What this brings to the game is the tried and tested aspect of levelling up a character, which can become a pretty addictive theme - although this particular method does mean that older characters will always have a potential advantage over newer ones, something which might affect the game's appeal to newcomers.
Getting deeper all the time
In fact that last point is something that's clearly developed over time since the game was announced and the alpha test ended - with each new iteration the game's taken on a more focused, less casual approach. Initially the billing of Fantasy Football meets eBay conjured up images of a game that could appeal to any net-using Telegraph reader, but nine months on and the mechanics have definitely evolved. It's more likely that FML will appeal to SI's existing user base, and work for those that are already familiar with and playing online games, while serving as an entry point for those who aren't.
One thing is for absolute sure - it's incredibly hard to achieve any degree of success if you define success as winning leagues and cups. Whereas in Football Manager 2008 and other single-player games you write your own story, for better or worse, it's all too easy to have yours written for you - and although you're in no danger of getting the sack, making significant strides as the seasons roll by seems to become harder.