"It's evil," mutters jubilant Sports Interactive co-founder Paul Collyer as we file out of the Football Manager Live press conference. He's got that knowing, sheepish grin of a man who knows full well how compulsive his massively multiplayer title is going to be. He knows the hours it will consume, the sleep we will lose. With the thought still evidently rattling around his head, he later repeats the observation, nodding. "Evil."
Live is, of course, Evil spelled backwards. It starts to make more sense. Sadly, the best anagram of Football Manager I could come up with was 'Fab Goal! Loan term?' which is yet more evidence of the game's hidden intent. Just ask Paul Collyer. Miles Jacobson's dodgy Watford connections become even clearer once you re-arrange the letters to spell 'Fab goal. Ram Elton'. I'll stop now before it gets messy, or worse, sued. [Or even worse, edited out. - Ed]
Lining up together at a press conference for the first time, founders Paul and Oliver Collyer sit alongside beaming studio director Miles Jacobson, and proceed to rib each other throughout the least corporate demonstration of a videogame that you're ever likely to witness. Football Manager Live is about as simple an idea as possible: it's a fantasy football MMO with an eBay-style auctioning system, and nicks the best bits of the parent game we all know and love.
Tempted out of retirement
The brainchild of fellow darkening ginger Oliver 'Ov' Collyer, the other less outwardly evil co-founder of Sports Interactive, who returned from his globe trotting travels with an MMO plan to shake up the football management status quo. Acutely aware that many long-term Football Manager players were finding their life situation changing (marriage, kids, heavy duty life-sapping jobs, etc), Sports Interactive began thinking of how to bring those lapsed players back into the fold - while also creating the kind of expansive world that hardcore players could utterly lose themselves in. Welcome to your bosom, Football Manager Live.
In development for two years, and in Alpha since last autumn, a team of just four core SI staff have been beavering away on the PC and Mac alpha versions of the game, and already the game is in a fully playable state. In a remarkable gesture, Sports Interactive gave attendees to the press conference full access to a working version of the game, despite being 11 months away from launch. Refreshingly keen to get core members of the press involved at an unprecedented early stage, the hope is to gather as much feedback as possible, iron out all the kinks and deliver something that players will want to subscribe to over a long period of time.
"Rather than you all just going away and regurgitating the press release, we thought we'd give everyone in this room a chance to play it so you can make your own mind up about it," says Jacobson. Such generosity isn't misplaced confidence, either. In short, the game works a charm already, and even at this embryonic stage it offers an excellent insight into a project that has the potential to be even more successful than its parent game.
But these are still very early days, and there's an awfully long way to go before we can fully digest its long-term appeal. In the middle of next month, the game moves into a lengthy beta test phase, where 1000 members of the community (and competition winners) will be able to sign up initially (via the official website). After that, it's "likely" that more spaces will be made available as they ramp up to the spring 2008 release, so don't worry if you don't get a place initially. The game's development, according to Jacobson, is "proactive and reactive... community driven", and that concept alone gives you an insight into why SI is so keen to make it the product that the players want, as opposed to the whims of the team. As much as the game's about creating your team, SI appears just as keen to listen to what people want from the game.
So how's it looking now? Essentially you log in with an email address and password, select a squad from the pool of players in the 'game world', or simply auto-select and let the computer take care of it for you. As long as you don't go above the mandatory £100k wage ceiling, you can pick whoever you like, providing someone hasn't got there first. The first thing to note is that although the players themselves are from the real world of football, you have to create your own fictional team name (Pathetic Athletic), complete with nickname (The Tossers), stadium name, pitch length and width, as well as all your own personal details, photo, logo, favourite team, the area where you live and so on. That way, Sports Interactive reasons, you won't end up with dozens of people all playing as Manchester United to gain the advantage. In FML, it's all about your signings, playing the transfer market, keeping an eye on the contract situation and, of course, your tactical nous on match day.
Talking of transfers, SI is keen to push the auction-style system used in the game, with players able to bid up to a deadline in traditional style, or perhaps take the plunge and snag that tricky winger in an instant buy - and that applies to loans as well as full transfers, while other players (such as free transfers) can be bid on based on their daily salary. As you might expect, you have to watch out for gazumping - a factor that's sure to be a big issue in the fully fledged games when they get going in the beta test. But unlike FM, FML takes a more short-term approach to contracts, so you might end up only securing the services of a player on a four-week contract, for example.
Bottle pissers beware
In terms of ranking, it's not entirely clear exactly how it will work, but SI has stressed that it is experimenting with a proportionate system where casual players will be awarded more points for a win (and likewise lose more points for a defeat) than someone who plays multiple games a day. So, unlike other MMOs, the accessibility level should be extremely high, with the incentive to dip in and out just as strong as the "bottle-pissers" who want to live and breathe the game. That in itself makes FML about ten times more appealing than most MMOs for the average gamer.
All the little touches you're used to from FM appear in FML, from the font style and general look and feel of the front-end, to the drop-down menus and general intuitive ease of tabbed/drop-down menu navigation. For example, upon starting up the game you have the choice to go for single or multi-windowed view to allow all your background guff to still be easily accessible (while you 'work'...), while every part of every menu seems to hot-link to something else of interest. Having refined so much of the interface in FM, it's a breeze to just enter the game, arrange the squad, sort out general and advanced tactics, enter the chat room, find a player, set up a friendly challenge and play the match. Once a player has responded, the whole match scenario plays out almost exactly as it does in FM, so it's not a game that will take anyone long to get to grips with.
In-game, there are three different match speeds (which you have to agree to between you), and FML allows players to haggle over such details via the instant messenger system. Meanwhile spectators can actually join your game-in-progress to see how you're doing, as well as chime in with cheeky quips of their own. Perhaps the most crucial element of any online football management game is how stoppages are handled, such as enforced tactical changes brought about by injuries or sending-offs. In such situations, you're given a one minute 'Time-Out' to make any tweaks, which keeps the game fast and free-flowing.
Prior to a game you get four minutes to make final preparations, while half-time give you a maximum of two minutes of faffing. At present, the player interactions have been taken out, so the amount of distracting time-wasting stuff you can meddle with is largely limited to formation changes and substitutions, which is arguably a good thing for those who don't fancy sitting around waiting for an opponent to make painstaking tweaks. If players don't show up for a fixture or quit out, it's expected that there will be some kind of penalty system, with points deducted for repeat offenders. You can, however, have AI assistance, but SI has already experienced some abuse of that, with certain players currently doing better by relying on it - a good example of something the test phase will iron out
Another small, but perfectly formed new addition to the match-day antics is the ability to place a bet on winning. Although entirely optional, it gives players yet another way to squander their cash and/or fluke their way to be able to buy those top internationals that are otherwise out of reach. Again, possibly open to abuse, but something we'll find out the importance of in time.
One important improvement made to the general interface is the way the 2D match engine remains on screen regardless of what sub-menu you're in at any given time. For example, during tactical changes, statistical analysis, or when you nip to the overview screen, the 2D match slides over to the bottom-right portion of the window in a thumbnail form so that you can still see what's going on. In a nod to Windows Vista, you can still clearly see the commentary bar, as well as the blobs shifting about the play area, so there's never a sense that you're missing out on what's going on. If you want to replay a match at the end of it all, you can do that too. Handy if you missed anything while you were running after your 15-month-old son to retrieve the TV remote control from the lavatory.
Dishing it out
At the end of each match, you can type in your own insulting/witty comment about the result, and everyone in that game world gets to see that remark. Although such interactions aren't likely to make any difference to your team's morale, it's a simple way of dishing out banter and adding colour to the proceedings. In addition, you're given the opportunity to make comments about your player's decision to, for example, retire or reject a new contract and so on. But rather than select prescribed sentences, you can create your own, which obviously leaves the game open to abuse to an extent, though presumably mods will crush you like a bug if you go that way.
Other cool stuff includes the ability to get updates from the game world delivered direct to your email or mobile phone inbox. For example, if a specific player logs on that you really want to play, you'll be pinged a text as soon as they next log in. Like last night, when Miles 'no sleep till beta' Jacobson logged on at 1.39 AM and my jolly mobile phone beeped next to my bed.
So those are the basics, and there's nothing but positive feedback to report so far. Obviously at the moment, with the game being in alpha, the number of players registered was pretty limited (just 120-odd at the time of writing), so we can't report what the game feels like when there's the full 1000 in each 'game world', or how the system fares when there are hundreds of people connected simultaneously. Presumably things like the chat room will get a bit crazy and have to be sectioned off into multiple rooms, while the current system of in-game news updated might have to be scaled back so you don't end up with thousands of arbitrary items detailing every single thing going on in the game. Sports Interactive doubtless has a plan in mind for this, and we'll find out about it soon enough. It's all "subject to balancing".
Right now, SI isn't revealing how much the game will cost to subscribe to, but when it talks of it being "a couple of pints" that roughly translates to a fiver by our reckoning. But SI says, "we see it as a money saving device", mainly because you won't be going out as much, so it's actually pretty good value when you look at it like that. But what about the cost of the take-outs, guys? And the marriage counselling? And the divorce settlements? The child maintenance? Hmm? But seriously, the game is set to evolve continually, so there won't ever be an annual update - just a continually evolving game with new additions, fixes and tweaks as it rolls along.
So. Football Manager Live. PC and Mac. March 2008. Beta testing mid-May for about 1000 lucky Charlies. Console versions very much under consideration. Right, the full time whistle's just blown, I'm outta here. All I can say is "EVIL".