Miles Jacobson: How we make Football Manager, the future – and where YOU come into it

FFT’s Joe Brewin spoke to the game’s head honcho about what it takes to put together the social life-sapping phenomenon, the most requested feature that won't get made and much more. Here's the first-person account... 

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Football Manager 2017 might be coming out on Friday, but work has already started on the next version. At any one time we’ve got a few thousand feature requests that haven’t made it into a game yet.

An initial feature set was put together for Football Manager 2018 in March last year, so now we’ll have meetings to go through new things we want to happen in the new game. Those tend to happen in December, and then between Christmas and New Year I’ll sit down and move things around to make way for new stuff.

New thinking

Normally we’ve got a few features that people have been working on in advance – not everything can be done in a year. So if we wanted to have some new fancy technology that might take a team of two people 18 months to do, they’ll be working on that for one of the future games. There are definitely some things in FM 2017 that we’ve been working on for multiple years, and there are some features for FM 18 that people who finished their work on ‘17 have already started working on.

This year we’ve worked really hard on the match engine. I think we’ve always had the best simulation of football out there – the other football games might look prettier, but from a pure football standpoint they’re not really football.

They’re more like five-a-side games really: if you play a 90-minute game of FIFA or PES, you’re going to end up with a pretty high scoreline, whereas if you watch the full 90 minutes on Football Manager you mostly get the scoreline you should get.

The match engine has always been great but this year I believe it’s exceptional, and that was a key thing that we wanted to do at the beginning. There are still some bits we’d like to iron out – that will always be the same – but the work that our team have done this year is brilliant. We’re five match engines further on than we were on the beta, and it’s even better.

Eyes everywhere

On the team we’ve got 107 full-time staff, 40 QA contractors, 51 head researchers and translators. We have 1,300 scouts around the world who are watching players week in, week out. We have 2,500 playable clubs in the game and scouts at most of those clubs watching first team, reserve and youth team games.

They then feed back into a team of head researchers, who are also scattered around the world and keep the master database for that country. That master database then comes back to us to get merged together, and we run a bunch of checks and balances – automated ones initially – before going back to the head researchers so that they can check whether their data is accurate or not.

A lot of them are volunteers, but it looks pretty good on your CV – there’s been a story recently of a guy at Plymouth who got a job as a data analyst. Plus, if you look back historically, Andre Villas-Boas used to say that he would use the game’s database to look at players when he was Jose Mourinho’s chief scout at Chelsea.

A lot of players use the game to help them learn English, or another language, when they’re moving to another country

Football, for the footballers

There are a lot of footballers and managers who play the game – we have over 1,500 beta testers from the world of football, from top international players through to non-league youth players.

It started off as a couple of people cheekily asking me for a copy. It got to the point where at the last World Cup I got an email from a player who was playing Football Manager while watching a game, and one of his mates had asked him for a copy. So I got an email. I wasn’t sure whether his friend was a footballer or not – and then it turned out he played for Real Madrid, so I was being copied into this email chain with him. Sometimes it does get a bit weird.

We don’t have commercial deals with any of these players, but some of them tweet about the game and have been photographed playing it – particularly the French national team. It’s just spread from there, to the point that someone at a League One club sent me an email last week saying that the gaffer was really impressed that I knew about a couple of the players in the opposition at the weekend. He also asked for a copy so he could use it for the same reason!

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It’s always cool when people from football get in touch, as long as they give feedback – and a lot of them provide absolutely phenomenal stuff. It’s pretty pointless if you don’t get any from them. While I can go to training sessions at quite a few clubs around the world and see behind the scenes – the access that we’ve got to the football world is unparalleled, I believe – there are still things you’re going to miss.

Footballers mainly use it for banter, but it’s always nice when you hear stories about them using games to decide where they’re going to move. A lot of them use the game to help them learn English, or another language, when they’re moving to another country: they’ll play the game in their native tongue, then switch to a different language, and then switch back again so they’re learning all the football parlance very quickly.

Someone at a League One club sent me an email last week saying that the gaffer was really impressed that I knew about a couple of the players in the opposition at the weekend. He asked for a copy!

Your feedback: it matters

Consumer feedback is obviously very important. From when the game comes out we listen to people on Twitter and through our forums, and collate quite a bit of data about how people are playing the game. Now, there is a lot more of that than there has been in previous years. We know, for example, that the average play time is 240 hours per year. That’s 10 days.

I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t do the same – I’d say probably between 3,000 and 4,000 hours per year – because it’s impossible for anyone to direct something if they don’t consume it.

Over time you do get a feel for what’s working and not anyway. I’ve been doing this a long time – blimey, 14 or 15 years now – and in the same way as FourFourTwo will know whether an article is good or not, I do with games as well. At the end of the day I kind of make it for me, and I’m just lucky there are lots of other people like me out there who want to play it.

I’d say I probably play the game for between 3,000 and 4,000 hours per year

Sometimes you have to remember that 99.9% of the people I’m interacting with publicly are awesome. I’m making the game for these people, not the ones who go to bizarre lengths on social media about a computer game that sometimes make you wonder why you bother. I’ve had a load of insults thrown my way – even some death threats too.

The most requested feature that we’re not planning to do is to start the game as a youth team manager. The reason? It would be really boring. It sounds great on paper and we’ve brought it up internally loads of times, but when you’re a youth team manager you don’t do any transfers, you don’t really set any tactics because they are coming down from the first team, and you’re not dealing with the media.

You’re just taking training, and that’s the least in-depth part of FM. In the past, when we tried to have really detailed training very few people used it because it wasn’t a lot of fun to do. Sometimes we have to weigh up whether we want to do something just because it would be a nice box to tick, or whether it’s actually going to be fun.

Ooo, the future

One of the things I’m most proud of is that in the last five years we’ve gone from being a computer game about football, to being a football business that happens to be a computer game.

I was talking on a panel at Soccerex the other week – that’s ridiculous – and there were people from football clubs around the world watching me talking, and asking me questions. It’s quite crazy when the sport that we’re imitating is actually getting stuff back from us, so that’s something I’m incredibly proud of.

In an ideal world, I would like to not be able to tell the difference between a game of football on TV, and a game of football within Football Manager. I would like it to be playing on a holographic on a table in front of you. I would like some kind of deep AI learning, rather than just having multiple-choice answers for press conferences, so you could say whatever you wanted to and the journalist would be able to react.

There are things that technology just can’t do yet that I would like, but as it stands, I think we’re pretty close to where I’d like it to be in the year 2016.

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