FM21 preview – how to make Football Manager in a pandemic

GameCentral has had a week with the alpha of FM21 and spoke to studio director Miles Jacobson to figure out what fans can expect from Sports Interactive’s latest instalment.

The video games industry is one of the very few to actually thrive in 2020, with almost every valuable metric on the rise. Revenues are getting larger, time spent playing is on the rise, and the number of consumers is growing. In many ways, being consigned to a national lockdown bred the perfect conditions to expand on an already flourishing industry. 

And yet, although studios are still hiring, the realities of lockdown have brought a unique set of challenges for anyone developing a new title. Teams once dependent on close coordination through each stage of a game’s development are now having to operate remotely. It’s difficult and yet another hurdle thrown our way by 2020. 

Considering this context, you would be forgiven for thinking Football Manager 2021, like a couple of other notable sports games in 2020, might end up published as little more than a database update with some match engine tweaks and a new skin. That would be the easy route and you probably wouldn’t blame anyone if they chose to go that way. 

But that would be to underestimate the people behind Football Manager 2021. Miles Jacobson, managing director of Sports Interactive – the developer behind the Football Manager series – took time to speak to us and explain just how much work has gone into their newest title. 

Sensing the theme of the interview, he began by telling us that Sports Interactive gave all of their staff a work from home budget so that they could set up workstations and home exercise areas, ready to cope with the demands of working remotely on a game as massive as Football Manager in a world figuring out how to cope with a pandemic. 

‘For the last 20 years we’ve had between 10% and 20% of our team based in different countries. So we’ve worked out ways to make it work. But that’s very different to everybody working from home. 

‘Making games is hard. Making games in a pandemic – really hard. It’s not just about being able to work, it’s about people’s mental health and that’s been a big problem. None of us humans are used to being in a home prison,’ he adds, before shifting his concern from colleagues to consumers.

‘The mental health of our consumers has been really important to us as well – we’ve served over 100 million adverts for mental health charities around the world in-game – so people are only ever one click away from getting help. ’

If you’ve been part of the Football Manager phenomenon you’ll know all too well their commitment to mental health and other charity work with organisations like War Child. Ads for various charities have been emblazoned across their marketing, start screens and in-game matchday ad-boards. This isn’t something they’re doing for show in the midst of a pandemic, it’s been part of the fabric of the company for years and it comes from the very top down.

The commitment to staff wellbeing has tied in with a necessary change in approach too.

As Jacobson says: ‘We’ve had to change the scope of the game. The key question I’ve been asking them [game testers] is: ‘does this look like a game that was made during a pandemic? Or is it like a normal update?’ Every one of them says it’s like a normal update, they’re discovering loads of new things. The game is faster than ever before, we spent a lot of time on optimisation.’ 

Spending time with the alpha has been a journey of discovery, as every new Football Manager often is. The blogs and Twitter threads whet the appetite but it’s only really once you’re investing the hours yourself that you begin to understand the approach. 

The main area of interest after 5 to 10 hours with the alpha is whether Football Manager 2021 could be said to have one big ticket feature or whether it’s a combination of quality of life improvements and some reworks to jaded areas of the game. 

The answer? ‘Lots of features that are very complimentary of each other,’ Jacobson says. ‘Which considering we start with a giant jigsaw puzzle every year and part of my role is putting that puzzle together. 

‘I’ve had to throw that jigsaw puzzle in the air three or four times this year, I’m really happy with how it has ended up. The only negative of doing a day of interviews is that I’m not playing it.’

Fans will know that feeling all too well. 

So whilst there isn’t a major new feature, it becomes clear pretty quickly that this Football Manager is giving you, the manager, so many more tools than you’ve ever had before to shape your career and your personality. 

There are 30 different gestures you can have access to, and each one can make a difference. Knowing your players and their personalities has never felt more important. 

Beyond the interactions, the studio has finally succumbed to the clamour to include xG (expected goals) and has ushered in a version of it into Football Manager 2021. Whether or not you’re a fan of the expected goals metric, it does make the game feel more modern, even if Jacobson wasn’t always so sure: 

‘When we’re designing the game and deciding what goes in, we’ve got three different groups of players that we look at. 

‘We look at the hardcore of the hardcore – hello xG, you’re there for the hardcore – our own xG system as I’m not happy with any of the existing xG systems that are out there. 

‘So we worked with an existing provider which had the best but then added more stuff to it on top. So defensive positioning is really important to xG. You’ll see our numbers will be a little lower than real life xG numbers because if you’re standing on the six-yard box and you have a free header in some xGs that’s a 0.8 or 0.9, but in our system because we’re looking at goalkeeper and defender positioning as well that could be a 0.2 because you might have three defenders in front of you.’ 

Some might find that it over-complicates issues but there’s logic in Jacobson’s thought process, and ultimately the buck stops with him. xG stats in the games we’ve played so far don’t seem drastically down on what you might expect in real life, so the feature itself just feels like a welcome addition. 

Creating a game that will satisfy three different demographics must be tricky but it’s a challenge Jacobson welcomes:

‘For new users there are the transfer meetings, the extra tutorials, animated role descriptions. Then you’ve got the mid-core users – the people who play 300 to 400 hours per year – and there are loads of features for them. Every year I look at all three groups and make sure there’s something there for everyone.

‘The hardcore get the benefit of everything and might get some features that the mid-core don’t really understand why that’s needed. But it’s for the people that really want to dive in and get the most out of it. 

‘And for the new players, we have to look for features to make the game more approachable.

How do we make it so people are not completely overwhelmed at the start of the game?’

This is the key. As someone who has played Football Manager for 20 years, the idea of coming into the series completely new fills me with dread. It’s a massive game, with so many layers, and can still take 10+ hours just to get through the first month, even as a veteran. 

The reworked inductions will help new players get to grips with the various features but as ever, it’s committing the time to Football Manager that will really get them up to speed.

The pace of Football Manager has always been one of the top concerns within the community. ‘How many leagues can I run with this setup?’ is probably the most repeated topic on the Sports Interactive forums. The early signs look very positive and we’ve been whizzing through a Steaua Bucharest file with every league in the world loaded as view-only. It might begin to slow down but from the optimisation and tests the SI team have conducted we could be looking at the fastest Football Manager ever. 

And that ultimately leads to the whole reason we play Football Manager – the matchday experience. This is probably the area we’ve been most impressed by so far. Not only is it quick to load and transition, a lot of the unnecessary fluff has been stripped back to provide a sleek and sophisticated matchday screen-flow. 

The pre-match tactical meetings have already proven more useful than most of the tactical briefings in Football Manager 2020, whilst the overall feel of heading to a match captures the process of the day itself. From arriving at a game, making last-minute tweaks, a tunnel interview, a round-up of the opposition, the match and then the post-match interviews and around-the-ground data. It makes for a much enhanced experience. 

You’ll notice fans in stadiums too – whilst the Football Manager world has been economically affected by COVID-19, the rest of Football Manager 2021 is largely pandemic-proof.

Inevitably, there has also been big changes to the match engine and animations and early signs are good. 

‘This is the first year in a while we’ve got the defensive play really where I want it to be,’ Jacobson says. 

‘Maybe historically we’ve focused too much on attacking play, there’s been a real focus on defensive and midfield and improving strikers when they’re not scoring enough goals, rather than making strikers worse when we have too many goals.’ 

However, with this just being the alpha, that’s the only insight you will get right now. Our full review, due later this month will contain further thoughts and details on everything on the pitch. 

Formats: PC (previewed), Xbox One, and Xbox Series X
Price: £39.99
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sports Interactive
Release Date: 24th November 2020 (consoles TBA)
Age Rating: N/A

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