On paper, Football Manager Live couldn't lose. Take one established and very popular PC series about a sport loved by millions around the world and turn it into an MMO. But the contender Sports Interactive turned out wasn't fully match fit, and the result was a long hard self-examination last summer and the difficult decision to reboot, reset and relaunch Football Manager Live.
This week brought about D-Day, and loyal subscribers lost months' worth of time invested as the playing-field was unilaterally levelled. Why did it happen? What happened? Will it work? Will it happen again? We cornered Marc Duffy, Sports Interactive's product manager for Football Manager Live, to find out.
Eurogamer: Football Manager Live has undergone a reboot. What's going on?
Marc Duffy: OK. We soft-launched the game in November 2008 and had a hard launch in January 2009. What's happened can be broken down into three areas: gameplay mechanics, pricing and operational issues.
With the gameplay mechanics we made too many major changes to the game in a short space of time. We had the game structured so it definitely favoured people with database knowledge.
If you were a Football Manager fan and you played all of our games previously, it was a mad rush to get into your game world on the first day. If you did that, our statistics showed that you would be in the top 20 or 30 in your game world, and you had no chance of ever being caught. We had completely, not deliberately, totally imbalanced things.
We made steps with the reboot to address pretty much all of the major concerns that we found and people told us about the original release.
Price-wise, we've dropped to £4.99 a month. When the game was first launched, the headline price was £72 a year, which although it probably worked out the same, was asked for upfront in one big instalment. The minimum you could join for was three months. Your minimum outlay if you just wanted to try the game was £24.
For Football Manager fans, that pricing model was alien. What we've done now is get the price down to match our original PR message, "A couple of pints a month," rather than, "A couple of pints in Norway." So, £4.99 a month, absolutely no tie-ins at all. You pay one month at a time and it's recurring billing, so if you don't like the game, or if your circumstances change, you can cancel straight away. There are no other costs to bear.
Operationally, the main issue was that we spread our subscriber base too thinly across the game worlds. We didn't manage our roll-outs of game worlds properly - not because we didn't do our jobs properly, but because MMOs were new to us at the time.
We had this scenario where if we had 700 people waiting to join the game, we'd open a new game world. We didn't create any sense of demand for the game. Literally, 700 people, "Let's go." And because of the gameplay issues as well it became very hard to fill those older game worlds up. That was one of the key learnings we had in the summer when we took a step back and had a look at how the game was performing.
All of those issues helped us come to the conclusion that the best thing for the game was to reboot it.
Eurogamer: There's lots of controversy about the server reset. Why are people so upset?
Marc Duffy: Because you've invested 15 months of your life in a game. We always believed it was a long-term game, a rag-to-riches story: you start your club from scratch and develop your youth players.
In effect, what we've done is completely broken their clubs up. If you spend a lot of time on something you're generally quite annoyed when someone takes that away from you. We certainly 'get' why people are upset.
We are trying to smooth the transition, so we're allowing them to keep skill points, tactics, short-lists, match-plans, filters, views, club-name - as much as we can keep about the user and their team that doesn't imbalance the new game world.
Eurogamer: Did people throw tantrums and leave?
Marc Duffy: Some people did leave, definitely, but it wasn't as many as we had anticipated.
I'd say probably 20 per cent of users left. It's a bit difficult to get a true number as one of the things we did in November, when we announced we were doing a reboot, was made everyone's accounts free to play. If you did have any time left in your subscription it was extended, and we won't start taking any money again from people until the reboot.
That's contributed a lot to some of the inactivity in the game worlds because someone have said, "Well, I won't bother playing to the reboot, even though it's free, because there's no point investing any more time in my club."
Eurogamer: You're levelling the playing field so veterans won't be better than newcomers. That makes sense. But aren't those veterans your most loyal and valuable customers. Isn't this a bit of a stud to the thigh for them?
Marc Duffy: We're going to consolidate the game worlds to keep our loyal fans together.
We've got these two flavours of game world now. We've created a Fantasy Stars game world aimed at the loyal player, because that's what they've told us they want. They want to play in a game world where they don't know anyone, there's no Rooney or Messi, it's just Joe Bloggs and myth.
The other type of game world is Returning Stars, which is aimed at people who like the famous names. When someone retires in the game they'll be respawned. If Beckham retires in FML after five seasons he'll come back at his current real-world level.
We've given every single subscriber a chance to tell us what type of game world they want to join and we're trying to keep the communities together.
The idea behind that is for new players it's very difficult to make headway in the game world. We've added other things to help them, but one of the things is to try and give them a 'named' player when they come back.
If I join a gameworld that's been running for 10 seasons, there's a very high chance that I'm going to get one of these big-name returning stars in my very first season. Either you can keep the player yourself or you can sell him to another club and make some money.
We've also created - to stop there being a mad rush to get into the gameworld - pre-selected squads. It doesn't matter if you get in on day one or day seven, there's a squad that's been allocated to you and they're there waiting. No one can take the players, you can't change them in the first season; you just have to pick your initial squad from the pool of about 50.
Someone who's been playing for 15 months in our current skill system has developed a character who's really good in lots of different areas: scouting, coaching, etc. That's really scary for new players. We've changed our skill system. We'll give an old player all of his skill points, but in the rebooted game he will only be able to specialise in two areas.
Rather than having a scenario where every single manager is a jack of all trades, everyone is going to have to decide where their speciality lies. Our long-term aim for that is to allow people to sell their knowledge and their skills. If I concentrate on coaching and finance, I could pay someone to do my scouting on players for me because they've specialised in that area. We want to allow people to work together.
Eurogamer: Are servers still capped at 1000 players?
Marc Duffy: Yeah, and there's a good reason for it. We've got 400,000 players in the Football Manager database, but in FML we only load in around 50,000. We take out a number of the lesser players and make sure when you start the game you have a squad probably comparable to a Championship side. You won't have a load of old duffs in there.
If we loaded in too many players the game would be slower and there'd be loads and loads of rubbish players floating about that no one would bother buying.
Eurogamer: A bit like Brighton FC?
Marc Duffy: They'd be a lot like Brighton! A hell of a lot like Brighton.
Eurogamer: Our Eurogamer TV man James Hills is a fan, and he's crushed that he'll lose his stadium and fleet of young players to the reboot. He was a long-term-minded manager. What sort of guarantee is there that this won't happen again?
Marc Duffy: Realistically, if we're at a stage where we have to reboot Football Manager Live again, then we're seriously looking at whether the game exists. This is a one and only reboot for us. We can't think about doing it again.
There are reasons why certain things like the stadiums can't come over. If we gave James a new stadium of similar worth or a compensatory sum, we'd immediately imbalance the new game world. The same with his squad of youth players.
Eurogamer: If I were to play devil's advocate I'd argue that someone who had invested 15 months of their life playing your game ought to have an advantage. Oughtn't they?
Marc Duffy: With them keeping their skill points, they'll immediately have enough to specialise 100 per cent in one area and pretty much all the way in another. You could argue that that's their advantage over newbies. Although we can't do as much as people like, we've done as much as we can.
Eurogamer: James Hills' long-term approach to managing is just like Arsene Wenger's. Tell me, Marc Duffy, how will Arsenal celebrate winning the Premiership and how many goals will they put past Barcelona? [Oh god, here we go. - Ed]
Marc Duffy: Arsenal winning the Premier League? I think you're delusional. Arsenal have absolutely no chance of ever... well, not ever winning the league, but they have no chance of winning the league this season. And I personally couldn't see them beating Barcelona.
Eurogamer: Who is going to win Premiership this season?
Marc Duffy: The league, I think, is Manchester United's.
Eurogamer: Is the revamped Football Manager Live the type of game for someone interested in fantasy football but put off by the complexity of Football Manager proper? Can I keep up by playing on my lunch break?
Marc Duffy: You could, yeah. An accusation levelled at the game that had been true, previously, was that FML was too hard and favoured people who logged in a lot more. With the reboot it's a lot less like that. We've added skill-queuing deliberately for people playing on lunch breaks.
I would go along with what you said: FML is very much aimed at fantasy football, football fans, that don't want to put the time and the effort in to playing Football Manager but who like the thought of competing online against other human managers.
Football Manager Live has relaunched. Head over to the official website to join in.