A Sensible Decision

Exclusive: Jon Hare on the rebirth of Sensible Soccer.

Never mind the next gen: Sensible Soccer is back!

You read that right. We’re not talking about the admirable-but-awkward-to-control mobile version, or the Megadrive-in-a-joypad re-issue. We're talking about an all-new 'mid-priced' Sensible Soccer, remade, redesigned, reinvigorated for the PS2, Xbox and PC, Easter 2006.

You can probably guess that we're 'pretty excited' at the prospect of reviving our Sensible rivalries after (more or less) a decade of absence (we binned our Amigas back in '95). As much as we love PES to bits, there's definitely room for a game that takes an entirely different approach to the beautiful game. The fast-paced top-down flowing football has all but been abandoned, as game developers took the prettier side-on/isometric view to show off the advances in 3D graphics.

Yet, for all their showboating, there's a lot to be said for playing footy games top-down (or 'God's Football', as we like to call it). You see more of the pitch, you can identify the positional weaknesses of the opposition much better, and there was always a greater degree of freedom over where you placed your shot. All of this will be making a comeback, and - better still - the original creative visionary behind Sensible Soccer, Jon Hare, is the man being tasked with making it all come together.

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Even better is the fact that we won't have long to wait to find out if it's any cop, and the mid-price release will also go down well with those of us looking for a fun and frivolous companion to PES or FIFA. All round, it's looking like a dream return for a much-loved and sorely-missed classic game franchise - a revival that understands that staying true to its original charm and simple premise was what made it so revered. Amen to that.

Now, over to Jon, who tells us, "there is no reason why [Sensible Soccer] cannot outsell FIFA and PES" in our world exclusive first interview on Codemasters' exciting new title.

Eurogamer: Remind us, how long has it actually been since the last Sensible Soccer?

Jon Hare: Well there are three answers to that question:

On mainstream formats it would be Sensible Soccer '98 released in October 1998 by GT Interactive.

The version that I have developed most recently would be Sensible Soccer on mobile phones which I did with my friends at Tower Studios and came out November 2004 through Kuju. The last version to come out was the Radica Stick version which is based on the old Megadrive version [boo - Ed] and plugs into your telly, that came out in July 2005.

Eurogamer: Why did the brand seemingly stop dead in 1998? Surely the series was massive and should have carried on. Why didn't it?

Jon Hare: The reason the series stopped in 1998 was all tied in with our contract with GT coming to an end and Chris [Yates] and I wanting to sell the company. I must admit I did not anticipate the gap being this long before Codemasters would release the next version, but when you sell a company such decisions are out of your hands. In retrospect I think the gap has probably done the brand good and earned it its "Old Classic" pedigree.

The '98 version was probably the worst version ever released (particularly the PlayStation conversion, which was done out of house I might add), but luckily this seems to be largely ignored amidst all of the hype.

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Eurogamer: What prompted getting such an old classic revived? Who's working on it? How many people are there in the team, and are there any other ex-Sensible-types involved apart from you?

Jon Hare: Well, the team structure is complicated. I am creative director/lead designer for the project so to speak but I am also working with David and Richard Darling and Jamie Firth at Codemasters on the design front. It is very useful to work with a design team when it is managed in the correct way. Then we have Adam Parsons on the Codies side as producer and a guy called Trevor [Slater] dealing with the design of the Front End menu graphics. The development is being done by Kuju Sheffield, which finds me working with Tony Kavanagh again. His team is headed up by producer Ross Kidner (ex-Codies) and lead programmer Malcolm Stead.

So it is like a fairly incestuous sort of Sensible/Codies/Kuju mix. I believe Chris Chapman (original Sensi coder) is also helping Adam out with some bits.

Eurogamer: Obviously, PES and FIFA have commanded an unbreakable stranglehold over the past decade. How on Earth are you going to break that?

Jon Hare: Well, obviously PES is an excellent game and FIFA is getting stronger all the time [debatable - Ed], but like any dynasties in this position their weakness is their predictability and reluctance to make changes for fear of alienating their existing customer basis - I know this because we had the same with Sensi in the '90s. There are several truly original features in the new Sensi that PES and FIFA simply could not add for fear of change, we know that and we intend to use it to our advantage.

Also the quick gameplay and overhead view giving 100 per cent controllability when shooting at goal (you can pick your spot exactly with loft, dip and bend) is something that young players will not have grown up with and are going to love about Sensi, again this is something that it is impossible for PES and FIFA to do with their side on cameras.

There is also another major advantage we have over both of these games, right now Sensible Soccer is still the most popular 'second' football game for all games players in the UK and by quite a margin (I am sure research in some other European countries would also back this up).

In other words PES and FIFA players hate each other's games but they all love good old Sensi, it is our very realistic aim to have our game sitting on people's shelves at home between either PES or FIFA and Football Manager or Champ Manager.

At the price we are putting this game out for there is huge room in the market for another football game that will be perceived as being a bit more fun than the others, with a lot of football world and gameplay depth and the immediate accessibility missing in slightly more anal games like PES... One for all the family if you like.

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Eurogamer: What do you think you've learned from those games in the intervening years? What can you borrow from them to make Sensi better, and what do you want to avoid?

Jon Hare: Oh there is a bucket load to learn from these games. All of us involved in making football games over the last 20 years or so have been pushing the benchmark forward year upon year.

The obvious things to learn are better-looking animations, improved player models, cameras and cut-scenes, not to mention slicker methods of squad selection, sprint buttons, more recognisable players, etcetera.

The main thing to avoid is animation slowing down gameplay, anyone playing New Sensi and going back to FIFA or PES will notice just how slow and non-exhilarating it feels in comparison.

Eurogamer: How do Chris Yates and the other ex-Sensible mainstays feel about it being remade?

Jon Hare: I don't really know, I haven't seen Chris for a couple of years (although I spoke to his wife and son outside Boots last month), Chipper (Chris Chapman), Stoo (Stuart Cambridge), RJ (Richard Joseph), I guess they all find it interesting that there is something happening again on it... and I am sure they will all be quietly hoping that it is not quite as good as the original.

(I know I would if I were them!)

Eurogamer: Tell us about the new game. Do you think there's a demand to return to that style of top-down, fast-paced footy game?

Jon Hare: I don't think there is a specific demand for anything except more of the same in the marketplace at the moment.

However more and more people are moaning that all games are too samey these days and I believe that when people pick up the new Sensi and play it they will think, "Wow this is so much fun, why don't PES and FIFA allow you to see more of the pitch, build moves really quickly and actually aim your shot instead of just guessing what the AI is going to do with it"

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Eurogamer: Will it still feel like the old Sensible in gameplay terms? Do you think you can attract a new audience as well as the older fans that loved the series in the '90s?

Jon Hare: Yes we are doing everything we can to accurately replicate the best bits of the old Sensible Soccer and then to add a whole load of new and more modern features on top without taking away from Sensi's hallmark instant playability.

I think the old fans will be the initial purchasers and when new players pick it up and realise how much fun it is then there will be a second wave of purchases from new converts. As stated previously this game will not replace FIFA and PES, it will live alongside them, your little brother's favourite football game if you like.

Eurogamer: When is 'New Sensi' coming out? On what platforms, and why did you choose them?

Jon Hare: Simultaneous release is planned on PS2, Xbox and PC roughly for Easter next year. We chose these platforms because they will be the main platforms in the marketplace at that time.

Eurogamer: Is it really going to be a mid-price release? Why's that?

Jon Hare: Yes as far as I understand it is... we believe that this price point reinforces it as the must-buy second football product to have in your home. If New Sensi really fulfils its potential there is no reason why it cannot outsell FIFA and PES in its strongest territories seeing as we already know that in general FIFA players don't buy PES and vice-versa.

Eurogamer: Won't it feel weird to be going up against Dino Dini again? (He's got a new footy game coming out in 2006 too...)

Jon Hare: Has he really...? I didn't know that! All we can do is play our own game, don't give the opposition too much respect, give it 100 per cent, take it a game at a time, and concentrate for the full 90 minutes. And various other football clichés!

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Eurogamer: Why is online play not included?

Jon Hare: We are not including on-line play in these versions of the game purely because we do not have the development time to do it justice. New Sensible Soccer is a considerably faster game than all of its competition and the one drawback of this is the latency issues you get with an on-line version. We know we cannot solve these before our scheduled release so we are not going to even attempt it. Instead we have focussed on a very in-depth single-player mode the likes of which has never been seen before in any football game.

Eurogamer: Now that Codies has finally woken up to the potential of the Sensible brands it owns, do you foresee any other old games like Cannon Fodder being remade for the next gen?

Jon Hare: Don't start me on Cannon Fodder! I designed Cannon Fodder 3 with Codies six years ago, development stopped and started three times and eventually it was seemingly permanently halted when the London studio was closed 4 years ago.

Nothing would please me more than to see this project resurrected, it was very advanced in its structure and therefore would need little modernisation. And then after that one, Mega lo Mania and Sex n Drugs n Rock n Roll... now that would be fun. I must admit it feels like there is more chance of some of these old titles coming back now than at any time before, as the industry is busting a gut to make the best use of all of its quality IP, and it is certainly better than buying licenses in, in my opinion.

Codemasters is really progressing and being aggressive with a host of new and classic brands recently and I am very glad to see it.

Eurogamer: Is this a one-off "see how it goes" project, or have you got more plans for new full-on games like this?

Jon Hare: I have always got plans but that is one you will have to ask David, Rod and the brand managers at Codies about.

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Eurogamer: So, you're still involved with Tower Studios. What games are you doing for them, and how did Sensible Soccer go on mobile?

Jon Hare: Sensible Soccer is excellent on mobile as is Cannon Fodder & Lions Rugby 7s.

At Tower the best accolade we have had so far is our nomination for the best mobile development house Award at the Develop Awards in our first year of business. We are currently doing a few more licensed sports games (we just finished another rugby game) and are currently looking at a number of different new games and ways of expanding our current business model and growing our income streams without exposing ourselves too much (isn't everybody?).

We are also constantly talking with media and other companies from outside the games industries, telecoms, financed companies, film companies etc. You know these guys are really good at talking :)

Eurogamer: Why can't Norwich City beat obviously inferior teams?

Jon Hare: Because they have a hideous confidence crisis stemming from the fact that at the start of the season they were depressed for throwing away their last game in the Premiership and going down. And by the time they had stopped sulking they had a load of injuries throughout the centre of the team (again) and started to put pressure on themselves due to their bad league position and their belief that they are cursed in this horrible division. (Also missing two penalties that cost us 4 points and 9 places in the Championship table don't help much!)

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