Remember Sensible Soccer? Jon Hare, lead designer of the famous football series, is back with a spiritual successor, called Sociable Soccer.
Hare has kicked off a Ł300,000 Kickstarter for Sociable Soccer, which, if successful, will lead to a download release on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2016.
Here, in a wide-reaching, exclusive interview with Eurogamer, Hare reveals why now is the right time to return to the football video game limelight, reveals his personal frustration at how the Sensible games have fared since he sold his company in 1999, and explains how Sociable Soccer will stand out in the face of competition from big hitters FIFA and PES.
So, with a name like Sociable Soccer, you're obviously billing it as a spiritual successor to Sensible Soccer. But what exactly is in the game?
Jon Hare: The game is on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The gameplay will be in the style of Sensible Soccer, but in 3D. We're working in Unity, so it means we can create the game in 3D and lock the camera on different views. We've already got the game playing pretty good. We're quite pleased given the time we've had it in development for.
How long have you been developing it for?
Jon Hare: About a month. The passing's working well at the moment. The player selection is working well. We've got something where we can have a game. We're developing out in Finland at the moment. I left the studio last night and you can play a game. It's quite good fun, it's quite competitive. We've got the timer working now, so you can play for 90 minutes and try to beat someone. So it's not just an idea. It's a running thing.
As someone who played Sensible Soccer back in the day, I'm interested to know whether Sociable Soccer will have familiar gameplay mechanics we're used to from the originals. I'm thinking about the way you dribble with the ball, curling shots, that sort of thing.
Jon Hare: My history of making football games, I made Microprose Soccer, then I made Sensible Soccer, then I made Sensible World of Soccer. To me, the three games are like a story. I'm saying this is almost like the next game in the line. It's the spiritual successor of that line of games. Most people remember Sensible, but they don't remember Microprose before. But I do, because it was my first football game. And actually I've done consulting on about six different football games since Sensible World of Soccer. There's a game called I Can Football, which was released in Turkey. I worked on a Real Madrid game. Little bits and bobs. I was doing something with Sky Sports last year which unfortunately didn't come out. So, I've always had my eye on this area.
For me, this kind of game is something I've planning since I was working out in Turkey, which was 2008. The gameplay will be familiar to people who played Sensible Soccer. We're just getting to the base at the moment, the fun, fast playability. You will be able to configure the controls pretty much to how you like them. So if you want to play it exactly like Sensible Soccer you can. If you want to play it like FIFA you can, in terms of the buttons.
It's the same with the camera. You can switch the camera to where you want. I know I will be picking an up down camera and controls similar to Sensible Soccer, but some people may prefer to play it with a side camera like FIFA.
So you can position the camera in that classic Sensible Soccer viewpoint then?
Jon Hare: You can, absolutely. Equally, you can put it where you want. In terms of the game modes and teams, we will have a whole bunch of club sides and national sides. But we're not going to be using licensed badges and shit like that because it's too expensive. We'd need to up the Kickstarter considerably! But there will be what people are used to with a bunch of football games, insinuating rather than actually using real stuff.
What will Chelsea be called then?
Jon Hare: Chelsea. Chelsea is a place. You can use place names. We'll take some legal advice on it. If we can't use Chelsea we'll use London Blues I guess.
I'm thinking of PES.
Jon Hare: Yeah. We'll look at what everyone else is doing and we'll take the sensible options. It will be editable anyway.
There won't be as many club and national sides as in SWOS, which was enormous. There were 1500 clubs. But there will be hundreds. We'll cover most of the major leagues and all the national teams. And then we'll have a bunch of custom teams. You know, the silly teams like Pizza Toppings. You remember all those teams from Sensible Soccer? It's a bit of fun. Actually, the reason to do that is, a lot of people who played that game weren't really football fans. They just liked the game, and they preferred to play with the stupid teams. So we're acknowledging that in what we're doing.
It will be a game that on the one hand is appealing to real football fans. I'm a massive football fan, so I'll make sure that's done properly. On the other hand, it'll appeal to people who just want a game that's fun. We're clearly not taking FIFA and PES on head-to-head and saying we're super realistic. We won't be. But we will be extremely playable. There is room in the market for a new football title. It's got very stagnated in the last four or five years in my opinion. New Star Soccer was the last game that did something new on any platform. We're filling that hole. There's a good market for downloadable games on consoles at the moment. So I think we can fill that space with that not full price but good quality downloadable game for consoles and PC. That's where we're pitching it.
So, you've got those kind of teams. You've got all the pre-set competitions of cups and leagues in various countries, Champions League style tournament, World Cups, with the regular stuff you'd expect from most football games these days. And then we've got a totally new side to the game, which is the bit I'm really excited about. Because although making a game which plays really well and is maybe similar to the playability of Sensible Soccer is exciting, it's not new to me. This other bit is new.
We've got a whole online multiplayer side to the game, which is obviously something we've not been able to do before. We're playing very much on the way people think about football. Are you a football fan?
I am. I'm a Chelsea fan.
Jon Hare: When you log on to Sociable Soccer, it'll ask you for your profile. Your profile will be your name, and it will say which country are you? You'll put England. Which team? Chelsea. Then it will ask you to choose to join a clan. It might be a clan of game journalists, or death metal fans, or Jedis, or surf boarders, or whatever you want to call them. Say you pick death metal fans. When you log on to the game, you can play all your single-player stuff, all your competitions, win all the silverware and the cups in the preset stuff, which you can play with up to eight players in the tournament around one machine with your mates with cans of beer and pizzas and stuff. That's the way a lot of people used to play Sensible Soccer in the old days.
Then the third way to play it is the multiplayer online way. When you log online, it knows you're England, it knows you're Chelsea, and it knows you play for Death Metal Utd. It'll say, there's an option for you to play as Chelsea against Arsenal, because there's also another Arsenal guy out there somewhere. Do you want to play now? You can play alongside all the other Chelsea fans in a country. You're representing your club. You're playing a full game, obviously you're controlling the whole team. But you're playing a game as Chelsea against Arsenal, Man Utd, Bayern Munich, whoever, in a ladder league. So you can constantly play to represent your club. Or your clan.
You can log on and go, right, I fancy playing Death Metal Utd against Butchers. Or do I want Chelsea versus Athletic Madrid? Or do I want to play as England against Malaysia? They're your choices. Go. You just pick what you want and go and play. So, you can at any time represent one of your three allegiances online.
We'll probably limit the international games so you can't play as many of them, because they're more important. You've got these ongoing ladder leagues, which we'll then separate into divisions. We'll need to do a little bit of research into latency for multiplayer. In an ideal world you'd play Boca Juniors against Liverpool. If that's possible latency wise, then we'll open the leagues up so all the clubs will be mixed through all different continents. And we'll basically divide them into divisions of, say, 50 teams. And every week it's relegation and promotion. So you're literally playing for your club, fighting for your position in the league, getting relegated or promoted. We'll probably be doing it based on the average points per game. Obviously we'll have more Man Utd fans than Barnsley fans - they can sit aside each other in the league because we're going on the average points scored per game.
So basically you can log on at any time and represent your club. I don't think any other game does that.
Hence the title, Sociable Soccer?
Jon Hare: Absolutely. Sociable Soccer. When you set your profile up, you'll make a player avatar, which is you. It's all in 3D so you can make it look like you. When you play for your clan, all the team members will be all the other clan members' avatars. It would be all of us with our little faces. You just go any play with that team.
When you play as Chelsea, it would be the representation of a Chelsea-style squad in there, as we're used to seeing in other games. If you play really well for Chelsea, then your player avatar gets called up to play for Chelsea. He'll get some appearances in for your club. So you can position yourself on the pitch wherever you want - obviously try and get a few goals. You'll probably make yourself a centre forward. Most people do.
And likewise, if you get your player avatar to play well for Chelsea, then he could get called up for England. And suddenly you're sitting in the England squad with your little player avatar.
So there's a lot of little nuances which play on football fans and different goals. You've got your single-player, where you can collect all the trophies from all the tournaments. You've got your online multiplayer, where you're representing your clan or your club or your country in a league, and you're going up and down. And on top of that, you've got your player avatar, who occasionally gets called up to important matches to try and advance his career. That's what the game's about, really.
Why go with Kickstarter then? Haven't you tried to get a Sensible Soccer game off the ground?
Jon Hare: Sensible Soccer is owned by Codemasters and it has been since 1999.
Yeah, I know. Did you not have a chat with them about doing a new one?
Jon Hare: I've had chats with them, but they've never offered me reasonable licensing conditions. I've been talking to them for 10 years about it. It's just not worth my while.
You saw what happened with Cannon Fodder on PC. I offered to do a Cannon Fodder before that deal was done, and they said they didn't want to do the deal with me because they could get a much better licensing deal with another developer and they made that instead.
When you say a much better deal, are we dancing around the fact they went for the cheap option?
Jon Hare: Yep. I wanted a decent percentage because, why not? And because I could do a better job. They said they could get a better deal with another company. Well, you saw what they did.
When you saw that game, how did it make you feel?
Jon Hare: I was glad I had nothing to do with it. That's it.
My point is, Codemasters is entitled to do what they like with Sensible Soccer. It's their license now. I understand why people associate me with it, because I designed it. But I can't control that license any more. And I've not been able to for 16 years. So, I think now is the time to say, okay, I made Microprose Soccer. That was the best football game on Commodore 64. I made Sensible Soccer and Sensible World of Soccer. They were the best football games on Amiga certainly, Atari ST maybe, Mega Drive for a time. It's time to do it again with a digital game. Just set up a new franchise and go from scratch.
It would be great to get an idea of the scope of the game. Who's working on it? How many people are working on it?
Jon Hare: I'm working with a team in Finland. They expand out when they need more people. A lot of the guys are ex-Remedy. So they did Max Payne and Alan Wake. We've got one of the guys who worked on Quantum Break. And another guy who worked on Ice Rage, an ice hockey game on mobile. They're called Combo Breaker. They're a new Finnish team, but all of them are experienced. They're the best team I've worked with for a long time.
The timing of me doing this is allied to me meeting these guys. I've had this idea in the back of my mind for quite a while. I was at Pocket Gamer Connects Helsinki, and I met the guys in one of the parties there. They showed me this cool hockey game they'd made. We were having a drink and I said, I was thinking about doing a football game. Then, a few weeks later, one of the guys sent me a video and said, I've been working on this football thing. I said, that looks good. Why don't we do this then? That's how it came about.
But you're very much leading development?
Jon Hare: Absolutely I'm leading development. He was trying to pitch to get me to say yeah. I'm very much leading development. I always do.
So why Ł300,000? Not that I think it's a huge amount compared to other Kickstarters, but there's a lot of scrutiny on crowd-funding at the moment.
Jon Hare: We aim to have it out by the end of 2016. It's not particularly long. We've got three platforms to develop for. We've got all of us to pay. We're going to have extra coming in to do various bits of art and programming. We've got servers to pay for. We've got the TRCs [Technical Requirements Checklist] and TCRs [Technical Certification Requirement] to go through with Sony and Microsoft.
To put it into perspective, when we did Sensible Soccer 98 on PC only, we had a million quid for one platform. This is a third of the price of a game almost 20 years ago. It's not a lot of fucking money, really.
Kickstarter is in an interesting place at the moment, where some projects haven't turned out as backers had hoped.
Jon Hare: There have been some interesting projects we've looked at. We looked at Bloodstained, which was done by one of the guys who made Castlevania, who's basically bringing it back. They asked for a similar price. They asked for $500,000, which is just a little bit over Ł300,000, for the same number of platforms. So I think we're pitching it at a reasonable level. If you spoke to any developer they'd say it was cheap.
It just means we can get the game off the ground, have it stable and deliver it to all the backers. And look to build a franchise. This is the starting point for something big, hopefully.
So you don't anticipate Codemasters having a problem with it?
Jon Hare: Why should they?
Can you remember the last time you spoke with them about making a new Sensible Soccer game?
Jon Hare: It was about three years ago.
Jon Hare: They offered me unreasonable licensing terms. They asked me for money up front. And I said no. And to be honest, from my point of view, I'd rather create a new IP I can then manage and license. The problem with going back to them is I don't change the situation. I'm going to be in the same situation later on. They still own it. It's much better for me to build something new and have some control over it.
To be honest, Cannon Fodder's in the same situation. Both games have been in identical situations for a long time. I can't do anything about it. It's just frustrating. It's been going on for a long time. I love Sensible Soccer to death, but it's my past. I need to do something new. If we get a new game that plays well, or better than Sensible Soccer, and has online play and this football fan clan system, I think people will understand.
Although Sensible Soccer is a great game, and a lot of people say, we just want SWOS totally converted to now, which a lot of the old SWOS fans will say, the point is, that's 20 years old and it won't be as good as you think it will be. There are things that don't work, because we didn't design it to work for modern technologies and modern online systems. So although it sounds nice in theory, it won't work.
There might also be questions about transfer markets. We're not doing a full transfer market as we had in SWOS, for a very good reason. SWOS took three years to develop from scratch - from Sensible Soccer then going through to SWOS. It reflects a whole transfer market that was based on real players at the time. We cannot generate all that and deliver it next year. It would be too much work.
But if this is successful, perhaps you could work on a more ambitious project afterwards?
Jon Hare: Absolutely. With football games, you build franchises. When we were working on the Sensible Soccer series, we put it out on six or seven platforms and about five or six different versions. There were two or three versions of Sensible Soccer and about three or four SWOS. And then we did '98, which was trying to modernise to 3D in a way that didn't work at the time. And then 2006 was another attempt.
I think the way to go forward is to build a new franchise that puts all the online multiplayer in, and then let's see what happens next. If you've got a successful football game you then build on the franchise. Every season you put out a new version. We all know how it works. And you can build in over time things like transfer markets.
The biggest challenge for us is getting the online multiplayer to work fast enough. That's going to take up most of our time once we've got the game playing well on one machine, which I would suggest we're 50 per cent of the way there with that. Getting the online multiplayer to work is the biggest challenge for this, and it's the biggest difference to something like Sensible Soccer, or SWOS, which has never been able to offer that.
You contributed to the last Sensible Soccer game, right? The 2007 Xbox Live Arcade release of SWOS?
Jon Hare: Yeah I did. Myself and David Darling were controlling the design side. In 2006 I worked as a consultant for Codemasters. They ran the project, I was contracted in as a consultant designer. But I had quite a lot of control over what was happening. The gameplay of it, I wasn't that unhappy about, except at the end of the development process of that game, myself and David Darling kept on trying to improve it, and they banned us from going into the office for the last month because we were driving them insane and they wanted to finish it.
You were sticking your oar in?
Jon Hare: Yeah! They fixed some bugs in a rather detrimental way to the game. The one fatal flaw with 2006 is there was a bug with the goalkeeper where the game was crashing. They way they solved the bug when they banned me and David is they made the ball suck into the goalkeepers' hands at certain points in the game to stop this crash bug. But it just really changed the playability of shooting against the keeper.
The two things I'm least happy with 2006 are that ruined the shooting part of the game, and the big heads on the players, which I didn't like. Apart from that, I'm relatively happy with it.
But we haven't seen anything of Sensible Soccer since, so for a lot of people this will rekindle that memory. It will obviously trade on the nostalgia people have for the whole series.
Jon Hare: Yeah. It's very much spiritual successor territory. It's the same creator. I started off with Microprose Soccer in 1988. It's an extension of that. I've done consulting for a whole bunch of other football games in the middle. I've never really been away from the genre, but I've not had my name in it, because I've been working as a consultant.
This time it's different. It's an IP I own, and I'm working with a great team in Finland. It's a chance to do something new. It's exciting.