Do you remember the 5th of June? I remember it as the day that Ireland clawed their way back in the dying seconds of their fixture against Germany; the day that Mick McCarthy dragged his team out of Roy Keane's shadow and installed them in the top tiers of world football. But meanwhile, somewhat closer to home, Staggan Ltd. chose the 5th of June to announce their own entrance into world football, thanks to the massively multiplayer United Soccer. We caught up with their gaffer Martyn Hughes last week to talk ball tricks.
The Fun Factor
Massively multiplayer football gets us excited. [Speak for yourself - Ed] The prospect of a virtual pitch for budding Owens and Beckhams to spar on a world stage, with virtual world cups, sponsored tournaments and a friendly atmosphere is an enticing one, and we were dying to find out how it's shaping up; specifically though, whether it fell into the category of arcade game or simulation.
"We are aiming for a realistic approach, but not at the expense of the fun factor," Martyn told us. "We want people's skill to be the deciding factor in the game, rather than the ability of the game's AI to make them look good", shooting down one of our primary concerns in flames. Like a Brazilian bullet.
"The game will need a similar approach to real world football where team play and skill are the most important factors. We want to make it clear that playing in a team where everyone runs for the ball and tries to score on their own will not work; team play is the essence of this game." Getting players to understand that could prove difficult, but Martyn isn't too worried, and for good reason. "In games played on the concept demo we already found that people did not hog the ball or all cram into the goal areas - they actually tried to pass, to make space and ultimately to win as a team."
One of the aspects of football highlighted so well by genre-leading Pro Evolution Soccer is the nuance and intricacy of the beautiful game. Games like FIFA are written the wrong way round, with teams of artists and huge motion capture studio sessions at the expense of football-savvy AI programmers and a system that approaches the real-life play of teams like the dazzling Argentineans. As far as that game went by the way, Martyn thinks that "we were lucky".
And unlike our dearly beloved England team, "[United Soccer] will have a lot of variation in the way people can play it, as well as in the style of gameplay. Our skill system, which we haven't mentioned yet, will allow each player to tailor their skills to their own avatar, making some people better at passing, some at shooting, and some in the air. Things like curving the ball, air play and even fouls will all be an integral part of the game." But presumably not diving, unless the internet enjoys a massive boom in South America in the next year or so.
"The multiplayer side of the game is the best feature of this project of course, however the game still has to be fun to play in its other modes. We don't expect a FIFA killer on our first release, even if we had the budget, but we do expect a great title that will give EA's FIFA a run for its money when it comes to enjoyment. After all, games are played for fun, right?"
The technology behind United Soccer has been in development for quite a while now, as those of you who read the recent interview on our sister site GamesIndustry.biz will know, but the game is still some way off. "The core game features have all been tried and tested, which is what we concentrated on rather than nice lighting and fancy shadows", Martyn told us. "Hence the comments you made about the website screenshots, I think," he adds, grinning. "We already have a very early playable, in the form of the concept demo, but we decided to re-write from scratch after testing all the features we wanted, rather than extend the demo."
"As for release dates, we hope to be able to be able to release some news about the beta date soon."
One of Staggan's goals for United Soccer is to stuff tournaments with prizes to offer players a big incentive to test their skills on the world stage. "Our intention is to have sponsored leagues, world cups and real leagues," Martyn says firmly. "To this end we have a guy called Ezra Garside working solely on sponsors and advertising partners. We think sponsorship, as well as advertising, will play a large part in the success of this game and in helping to subsidise the costs of future development and improvement of the games. Also, I think the competitive element of this game needs a league system and a world cup, otherwise what's the point of playing?"
The Next Step
At this point, Martyn stops me. "I'd like to say as well," he begins, "that we are not looking to make a one hit game; we are looking to build a solid community for future games. I think at the moment too many companies are jumping on the online bandwagon with new titles coming out that are far too similar to each other - there's no real innovation. We hope to change that, but not with a single game, with a series of games emphasising the community aspect." Encouraging words from the managing director of a massively multiplayer sports franchise developer, who is demonstrably aware of the pitfalls ahead of him.
Looking slightly further ahead, Staggan wants to work with the concept of United Sports and produce games in other genres. "We aren't arrogant enough to think we can step up and take the crown from EA for its FIFA game, or F1 games," Martyn explains, "but what we think we can do, is bring a quality title to market that offers something new and different. We intend to continually update and improve all aspects of our games, based on player feedback, so we hope to speed up the learning process that titles like FIFA have gone through. We also hope our gameplay and new community features will bring us players that FIFA, ISS and other titles don't have. As for other games, we hope that after United Soccer's first release is completed we will see titles appear pretty quickly as the current game holds most of our core technology for the other titles."
As a developer, Staggan seems knowledgeable and determined, and although a self-confessed seasonal supporter of the beautiful game, Martyn Hughes' enthusiasm is infectious, and his project goals well and truly on the ball.