On 12th November 2015, Jon Hare launched a Kickstarter for Sociable Soccer, the spiritual successor to the classic football game he designed 25 years ago. Hoping to ride the crest of a wave of nostalgia for Sensible Soccer, Jon Hare asked for £300,000.
On 26th November 2015, just 14 days later, Hare canned the Sociable Soccer Kickstarter after just £32,498 was pledged. It was a complete and utter flop.
And yet, Sociable Soccer lives. In fact, it's out very soon on Steam as an Early Access title. This fast-paced football game has survived the cancellation of its Kickstarter and the difficult questions about the audience demand for a Sociable Soccer-esque game it sparked. But how? Determination and, of course, money.
Hare today admits the mistakes he made with the Sociable Soccer Kickstarter. The short pitch video, below, featured not enough gameplay and too much Jon Hare talking to camera, he tells Eurogamer. It was all a bit of a rush.
"We started working on the game in the October, and we had to make a decision: did we go with a Kickstarter very fast, pre-Christmas, or wait until the January afterwards?" Hare says.
"Our decision was, because we had some momentum go early, which we knew was a big risk. We put the best video together we could with what little stuff we had."
By day three Hare knew the Sociable Soccer Kickstarter was a failure. A Kickstarter expert had advised that if Sociable Soccer failed to get 20 per cent of its target in three days, it would fail. On day three, Sociable Soccer wasn't even close to 20 per cent.
"Actually, we were a little bit unlucky on the second day was when that big Paris bombing happened," Hare counters. "I was meant to do a big interview with Sky that second day to try to get those early numbers up. So we lost momentum there, but you can't put it all down to that."
What you can put Sociable Soccer's failure down to is money. £300,000 was a lot to ask on Kickstarter at the backend of 2015, despite some high-profile multi-million dollar successes on the crowdfunding platform that year. £300,000 was as low as Hare could go. Perhaps even too low.
"The scale of making a good quality game on lots of platforms is out of the scope of what a Kickstarter does these days," he says. "If you look at what Kickstarter's doing now, it's mainly £50-100,000 on board games. You can't make a good quality computer game, cross-platform with a great team for budgets like that.
"£300,000 was too low for us and too high for everyone else. So it just didn't work."
In the end, nostalgia for Sensible Soccer was not enough to brute force a gameplay-light Kickstarter for its spiritual successor. Hare admits he misjudged the goodwill for his much-loved series. But it turns out Sensible Soccer is a hard game to pin down when it comes to working out enduring appeal.
Sensible Soccer sold 2m copies over the course of its life, but a whopping 20m copies were played. Piracy was rampant in the early 90s (the UK was said to have a 10-1 piracy rate). In short, Hare knows Sensible Soccer was popular, but he's not sure exactly where and to what extent.
"I spent five years in Poland working," he says. "I never met a single person in Poland of a certain age who'd not played Sensible Soccer, and I never met a single person who bought a copy."
As with most video game failures, Sociable Soccer's was the result of a combination of factors: a poor pitch, bad timing, too high a target and an over-reliance on Sensible Soccer nostalgia. It's enough to make you think Hare and co would simply give up. But while Hare says the Kickstarter cancellation dented his confidence, he carried on regardless. And so, we return to the question of money, and how nearly two years of development has gone on without any income to support it.
Hare, who owns and runs Tower Studios ("essentially a small publishing, licensing and game design company"), is working with Finnish developer Combo Breaker on Sociable Soccer. It's Tower Studios, though, that's fronting up the cash. "I've always had this as my company to fall back on," he says. Eight months ago Hare took a shareholding in Combo Breaker and became part of the company. Clearly, he sees potential in the "Sociable" brand, which he says could be applied to any sport.
"I've got some money to fall back on, still from all those years ago," Hare says with a smirk.
"I've been earning money as I've been going, to be fair. I've been consulting. It means you've got staying power to survive. Some of the money has come from existing shareholders. We've taken some small share sales as well. And with a little bit of other help, we've managed to get this far. We're now two years in with no money coming in."
Sociable Soccer's Steam Early Access launch will inject some cash into the project, well, that's the hope, but Hare's still talking to publishers, investors and platform holders to see if there are any deals to be done.
Talking of platforms, away from PC, which Hare says is Sociable Soccer's lead platform, console versions are in the works (including a Nintendo Switch version I reckon would be a great fit), as well as mobile and virtual reality builds. The plan is to run Sociable Soccer's Early Access for the rest of 2017, then release console versions during the first half of 2018. "We're covering everything," Hare says.
But what Hare won't do, he insists, is do a deal that isn't right for the game.
"I don't know how many publishing offers I've turned down because the money's not been right," he says. "A lot. We believe if we hold out and prove this game to people, there's a clear hole in the market for the game. We've got FIFA and Pro Evo which are great simulations. Have been for years. Nevertheless, there's an opportunity for an alternative game targeted at modern technology."
At Early Access launch, Sociable Soccer is a responsive, super fast-paced football game that, as you'd expect, rekindles memories of Sensible Soccer. You play from a top-down perspective, although you can change the camera angle. Fast and accurate passing is the key to success. Curling passes and shots helps a great deal. Sliding tackles spark huffs and puffs from the stocky players. Once you get into the zone and the ball pings about as if on a pinball table, the whole thing clicks.
But is that enough? The key, Hare says, is for Sociable Soccer to break free from the shackles of Sensible Soccer. He wants - needs - the game to appeal to a wider audience than grizzled old gamers who played Sensible World of Soccer back in the day in order for the whole thing to be successful and worthwhile.
"It's nerve-racking on the public response," Hare says. "We don't just want old-school players who remember Sensible Soccer and say, this game's from the same guy who made Sensible Soccer. We need to hit a new audience, and we need to find a way to target that, which we're working on at the moment.
"We believe the fast gameplay, the cross-platform and online is fun. It's sport realistic, but it's got a sense of humour. FIFA and Pro Evo are great simulations, but sometimes they're a bit dry. Our game is lightning fast. It's a twitch game. Anyone who likes fighting games should definitely play this game. It's highly competitive.
"That's probably something a lot of people under 30 have never seen. We need to get some champions out of the old fogey world we live in and get people to pick this up as their own. This is not Sensible Soccer. It's a new game. It's just inspired by Sensible Soccer. I think people will understand that when they play it."
Sociable Soccer will do well to meet Hare's lofty expectations ("my benchmark is Sensible World of Soccer, one of the 10 most influential games of all time"). Based on my time with the game, it still has some way to go before it gets anywhere near the incredible package SWOS was. But Hare promises more... sociable features are coming, including a mode that's a bit like FIFA Ultimate Team and more.
Whatever the future for Sociable Soccer, Hare's made good on his promise to release the game despite the disappointment of its cancelled Kickstarter. There is now another football game to consider. The question is, will Sociable Soccer register on the radars of those who've never heard of Sensible Soccer before? Jon Hare sure hopes so.