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Side Talking

We chat to Risto "Riz" Remes, creator of NHL Eastside Hockey Manager, about the game's path to market, the reaction to the demo, updates, and the importance of the NHL license.

It began life as freeware. Coding from his bedroom in Finland, Risto "Riz" Remes created a little hockey management game focusing on one league. Fast forward a few years and he's sitting in Islington, London, having just finished work for new employers Sports Interactive on the first of potentially many iterations of NHL Eastside Hockey Manager - a full blown, multi-league hockey management game built on top of the Championship Manager codebase and published by Sega. Quite a change. With the game due out this Friday, July 2nd, we caught up with Riz and tried to get a handle on how it came together, the benefits of things like Riz's relocation and the acquisition of an official NHL/NHLPA license, and what happens next.

Eurogamer You recently released a beta demo of NHL Eastside Hockey Manager - what was the reaction like to that? Did you change anything based on the feedback you received?
Risto Remes

The feedback was really good for us as it always helps us tune the game towards the right direction. The general reaction was pretty positive but as always, we cannot please everyone and some people found it a bit too different to the old freeware game. There were a few complaints about the database issues, but most of it was due to the fact that we had not received all the data from our research team in time for the beta. Some of the interface issues were streamlined based on the beta feedback and some gameplay issues as well. Overall, we got good amount of feedback and it proved helpful in finalising the game.

Eurogamer We understand that the game recently went gold. Congratulations on that. How do you feel now that the game's complete? Is it everything you wanted it to be?
Risto Remes

Thanks, it feels weird as it's our - the EHM team's - first commercial release but also it feels great at the same time. There are always things that I want to improve and tune but if it were up to us, the game would never be "finished". We want to keep on improving it and making it more realistic in all areas. But for a first release, we're very happy about the game.

Eurogamer You moved to London in 2002 to work full time on the game at Sports Interactive, basing the current version of Eastside on the SI codebase. That must have been quite a significant change to make - were you ever worried that it might not work out?
Risto Remes

Not really. I had the codebase back in Finland sometime before I moved over, so I had the chance of learning about how things worked and I was able to think ahead to figure out how things could work out. Naturally, there are always moments when nothing is going your way and you feel you've ended up in a dead-end but with the amount of knowledge we have in the building, there is always someone who can help out if you're stuck with a bug or something. And for us it was especially helpful since the guys who wrote our codebase were there to help us out if needed.

Eurogamer Obviously your relationship with Sports Interactive has made a huge difference to Eastside's development - would you say this version of Eastside is completely different to the versions you've released in the past?
Risto Remes

Yes. It is a completely new game with a new approach but the same idea. The original game was pretty limited in scale as it only revolved around one league and now we are talking about a game that rather simulates a whole world of hockey.

Eurogamer What sort of things have you been able to do now that you're part of Sports Interactive that you were perhaps unable to do when you were developing the game by yourself?
Risto Remes

I don't know where to start on this one. There have been so many things we've been able to do with the new game that would have been impossible in the past. Certainly one of the biggest things was the ability to build our own research team around the world to help create the huge database for the game. And that's not even going into the things we can now do with the code...

Eurogamer We understand the game has received a lot of pre-orders and press interest in Scandinavia. Do you think that's where it will be most successful in Europe, and how do you think it will perform in the places like the UK where hockey is less popular?
Risto Remes

Yes, I'd say it will certainly thrive in Scandinavia but I've been pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome the game has got in the UK so far. Not just the hockey fans, but also people who have played SI's previous games seem to be willing to try the game out even though they may not know anything about the sport of hockey. Hopefully they enjoy both our game and also the sport, so we can help hockey grow as a sport in the UK as well.

Eurogamer You've said in the past that you've tried to make Eastside accessible for hockey novices whilst obviously catering to die-hard hockey fans who understand the finer points of the game. How did you go about doing this?
Risto Remes

What we tried to do in some of the areas of the game was to include the kind of real life help a manager would have, such as suggestions for line-ups from the head coach and ranking lists for drafts, so people with less knowledge of the sport and the players can still get into the game and get help from their staff in the game. Also some of the areas of the interface were planned to work in layers, so you can start doing general team tactics for example and as you learn more you can move on to making more detailed tactics for each line and even each player.

Eurogamer ChampMan is obviously famed for its attention to detail and its massively detailed player and staff database - how detailed is the Eastside database by comparison? How much research went into it in all?
Risto Remes

We are a long way from getting into the level of the football database since they have so many years of research behind it all and we have just started our database for this version. We've had about 30 Head Researchers during the development of the game all over the world with their own countless team researchers and they have all worked hard on getting the database where it is today. I cannot estimate any specific hours that have been spent on the research but it has been an enormous effort.

Eurogamer What sort of difference has it made to have the official NHL licence for this version of Eastside?
Miles Jacobson

It makes a huge difference. Without having the licenses, the NHL and NHLPA players wouldn't be in the game at all, and it's the most popular league in the world, so kind of important. It also means that the game will be released in North America and Canada.

Eurogamer How does that sort of relationship work? Do you pay the NHL a fee to make use of their official logos and such, or is it royalty-based?
Miles Jacobson

We legally aren't allowed to disclose the relationship with the NHL/NHLPA, or any other license. What I can say is that they've been very helpful in ensuring that all of the player rosters and the like are accurate for the league.

Eurogamer You're probably bored of answering this sort of question by now (so sorry about that in advance!), but would you mind describing an average game of Eastside for our readers? Say we were just starting out - what sort of things would we have to worry about initially?
Risto Remes

Starting a completely new game, it would go something like this. First you'd take a glance of how your team looks and what kind of players you have available. Maybe ask your head coach to do the lines to see what they would look like to start with, so you can start looking at any weak spots and finding new players for those positions. Then a quick glance at the upcoming exhibition games and the league schedule before setting some training schedules and assigning some of your scouts to look for new players. Then moving on day by day through the pre-season exhibition games, trying out different line combinations and different tactics, preparing for the season. If you are lucky and find some suitable players to improve your roster, you can sign or trade for them (depending on where they currently play and you manage). Once the season starts you'll need to keep an eye out for possible good signings or trades to improve the roster even more while coaching through the games and keeping your players happy. Handling the media will probably also play a part during the season and if you do well enough, you'll find yourself battling in the playoffs at the end of the season in order to win the league title. After the season, there are drafts in some leagues to select promising youngsters and then the off-season to sign some free-agents before it all begins again and you'll prepare for a new season. (This was just a general glance on a season without going into too many details...)

Eurogamer How will you be handling seasonal updates to the game? Will you be releasing annual updates ala ChampMan, or do you have something else in mind?
Risto Remes

Hopefully we'll be able to continue making the game on yearly basis and make it into a series similar to what SI has done in the past.

Eurogamer Finally, from everything we've read it seems apparent that ChampMan has had a big influence on Eastside since you moved to London - do you think Eastside will have a similar effect on the development of Football Manager in future?
Risto Remes

Definitely. SI's games were and inspiration for me even when I was back in Finland coding in my bedroom. And now that we have a few different teams working in the same offices, there are ideas flying around between teams and we are constantly exchanging ideas that can be applied to all the games in their own ways.

Eurogamer Riz, thanks very much for your time, and good luck with the game.
NHL Eastside Hockey Manager is due out on the PC on July 2nd.