Sports Interactive really hit the ground running when it released Football Manager 2005, its first 'footman' for Sega after its departure from Eidos in 2003. It was always going to be tough for the London developer to establish a new brand from scratch after building Championship Manager into such an unassailable position, but the team pulled it off thanks to another stellar product and some heavyweight marketing from publishing partner SEGA.
And with Championship Manager 5 failing to recapture former glories, the way is now clear for Sports Interactive to really forge ahead and build on their hard won success with the release of Football Manager 2006, due out on PC, Mac and - yes - PSP sometime, we estimate, around the middle of October 2005.
With the game's first six game features revealed today, we caught up for a chat with SI's managing director Miles Jacobson to tell us more about the firm's latest attempt to produce the definitive football management experience, as well as its hopes for the highly anticipated PSP version, its first ever handheld title...
Eurogamer: It's good to see the new Manager Contracts feature make it in - but is it compulsory?
Miles Jacobson: Yes.
Eurogamer: Okay, so what happens if you get fired midway through your contract? Do you get a pay-off, and does that have any bearing on your future prospects?
Miles Jacobson: The club will pay out compensation, yes, but as it's only virtual, it shouldn't really change your mind on other jobs. While we might keep records of how much you've earned, you don't have any living expenses in the game, and can't spend the money on anything, so it would be pointless accepting a job that you don't want, or turning one down that you do.
Eurogamer: Regarding half-time team talks, what sort of interaction will you be able to have with your team? Will it be directed at the 'team' as a whole or can you single out specific players who have been underperforming? And will it really have much of an effect on the result, positively or negatively?
Miles Jacobson: You can either direct it at the whole team or single out specific players. It will have an effect on the player's morale, which can certainly affect a result, and the different player's personalities will determine how the team talk changes their morale or form.
Eurogamer: Individual player interaction sounds like a promising idea, but again, can you opt out of this micromanagement? And for those that do like the one to one contact, how will it work in practice? As multiple choice, like the media involvement?
Miles Jacobson: It's not micromanagement at all - it's an important part of being a football manager. And seeing as the game is called "Football Manager", that makes it a part of the game! It will be multiple choice, like the other media involvement, yes.
Eurogamer: We're glad you've simplified the training modules, a part of the game that we really couldn't get on with. So is the emphasis now more on simply hiring the right backroom staff to influence how well the training goes?
Miles Jacobson: No, not just on that. You can choose to set the training manually as well, but that's also a lot more simplified, whilst still being accurate. It is made easier by you being able to tell the coaches what you want them concentrating on either for a schedule, a squad or an individual player, and they will set the training plan accordingly.
Eurogamer: You say you've enhanced the media involvement - is that to deliver on the much promised RPG-style of game that you've mentioned in the past? Can you now fall out with specific papers and journalists, and fall foul of smear campaigns from vindictive journos (and likewise get hugely disproportionate support from those calling for you to get the top jobs going etc)?
Miles Jacobson: Having the press against you was a feature that could quite easily happen in FM2005, so it can happen in 2006 as well. It's not normally a specific journal, but the press in general, and you can get hounded in the same way that players do. It just doesn't happen very often, and you normally get sacked pretty quick after it starts!
Eurogamer: So referees will now play a bigger part in FM. Are they based on real refs?
Miles Jacobson: We are hoping we can base them on real refs, but we're not 100 per cent sure yet.
Eurogamer: Does the new Player Positions feature effectively work as a hand holding exercise, basically telling you where they should play? Won't this make the game easier, to an extent?
Miles Jacobson: It's not really a hand holding exercise; it's a way to know where your players can play on the pitch. You can still play them wherever you want to, or even train them to be able to play in different positions, but there is little point having a player who is marked as a D/DM/L/C who can actually only play left back or defensive midfield. He might be 5 foot 6 inches, and you have him playing as a central defender looking at his display, so we've given people the opportunity to know that he can't play there.
Eurogamer: As much as we admire the 2D match engine, when will you finally bite the bullet and make it fully 3D?
Miles Jacobson: When are you going to make Eurogamer fully 3D? You could have 3D projected text, you and Mugs in our living rooms, virtually playing the games in front of us. Think of all the possibilities. [When we suggested later that he might mean that 3D is a nice idea, but it's hard enough to do 2D effectively, Miles responded affirmatively.]
Eurogamer: What finally persuaded you to make a handheld Football Manager after all these years. And why the PSP in particular?
Miles Jacobson: The PSP gave us the chance to do it - to have a handheld that powerful is great.
Eurogamer: With the PSP and PS2 tech quite similar, can we finally expect a PS2 FM to emerge at any point, or are you more likely to look towards next gen consoles for other platforms?
Miles Jacobson: We'll look at all platforms, but I think that the PS2 and the PSP should be giving quite different experiences really - if we were to do a game on a console, we'd want it to be the full PC gaming experience, as people are more likely to sit in front of their TVs playing a game for hours than they are on the PSP. With the PSP, we've approached from a different angle, and tried to make a game that keeps the depth of gameplay and the immersion of our games, but is more of a handheld experience. Oh, and the PSP has around 8 times the amount of usable memory for us compared to the PS2, which certainly helps us develop the game.
Eurogamer: Which leagues are you supporting in FM PSP, and roughly how many teams will there be to choose from?
Miles Jacobson: We've announced "at least six leagues" because we're not entirely sure yet. It depends a lot on when we finish the actual gameplay code and how much time we have left to implement more leagues.
Eurogamer: If you had to compare FM PSP with previous SI footy management games' complexity, where would you place it?
Miles Jacobson: Blimey. As I said earlier, we've approached from a different angle, so I don't think it's fair to compare. I expect the lazy journalist would say that it's around the "3" series kind of complexity, but it goes a lot deeper than that.
Eurogamer: What's the loading time going to be like? Will the game be more of a 'pick up and play' kind of experience that you can easily play while you're making a short journey?
Miles Jacobson: That's certainly the idea. We haven't tested it out as a UMD yet as that comes much later in the process, so any loading time figures would be guesses at the moment!
Eurogamer: Any plans to support wireless multiplayer on the PSP?
Miles Jacobson: That would be lovely, wouldn't it?
Eurogamer: With the touch screen display of the DS lending itself towards FM's mouse driven control system, have you not considered bringing FM to the DS? Was it down to how much money you can expect to make out of a DS game or purely technical considerations?
Miles Jacobson: I don't actually have full tech specs for the DS, but I would expect that if it was possible, one of the Ninty fanboys in the office would have smashed down my door by now, and no one has. So we'll stick to the PSP.