The Football Manager series is one of the best selling on the PC (review here), but in recent years Sports Interactive have had huge success with their Football Manager Handheld games, first appearing on the PSP and now developed for the iOS platform. I spoke to Marc Vaughan, Head of handheld development at Sports Interactive about the task of bringing the series to the handheld market.
Hi Marc, thanks for taking the time to do this interview, firstly can you tell us a little about yourself, your role at SI and your gaming habits.
I turned 40 this year, I’m married with three kids (the eldest of whom goes off to university next year). I’m a Brighton supporter and I’ve been a football nut all my life – I still play in a weekly league although these days I’m a bit slower than I used to be.
I’ve been part of Sports Interactive for around fifteen years now. I feel really lucky to be able to combine my love of gaming with my job – although it does complicate things with my wife when I’m working long hours as she knows I’m enjoying myself …. while neglecting my household chores ;-)
My current role is Head of Handheld Development. This is a flashy title which simply means I help organize all the handheld development within the company. My main strengths are project management, game design and programming and I spend my days trying to ensure that Football Manager Handheld is the best product it can be.
As far as gaming goes predictably the game I play most is FMH, outside of that my main addictions are turn based strategy titles (Battle for Wesnoth being a long term favourite along with Civilization) and football arcade titles (PES & FIFA). On top of that I play FPS’s with my eldest son – although I’m more of a handicap to his skill than anything these days ;)
How difficult is it to take a hugely successful title like Football Manager, and bring it to handheld devices, where the interface is less suited to the game, and how much work goes into developing the UI to make it as accessible as possible?
Football Manager Handheld was designed and developed as a separate product purely for the handheld devices and this allowed us to ensure that instead of trying to ‘port down’ FM PC we exploited the advantages which are available on the medium we were working with.
For instance while FM PC displays a huge amount of data on the screen at any time, FMH doesn’t have that advantage – but instead we designed a very clean presentation which is easy on the eye and intuitive to navigate with an instantly responsive user interface. This means that while we can’t show huge amounts of data at any time users can get to that data as quickly and efficiently as possible.
The design for this is something which took a lot of planning and evolution and is still improving all the time. For the original PSP game (back in 2004/5) mock-ups of the UI were undertaken on a PC using a sidewinder joypad and experimented with for 2-3 months before we had something which was usable which was when we agreed to undertake the original Football Manager Handheld product. With the original iOS game there was a two month period of design and evolution of the UI layout and presentation before a single line of it was actually implemented in code.
On any platform the user interface for a product is vital to get right if that game is to be successful, the perfect UI should be one which users eventually forget about and simply use without thinking. This allows them to totally immerse themselves in the game – which is very important with any sports sim.
Football Manager Handheld 2012 is obviously a streamlined version of the PC game, how does this affect choosing which features you carry over from the PC game? and are you mindful of introducing too much and thus making the handheld version too in depth?
The FMH game isn’t developed as a cut-down version of the PC game at all and while there is obviously cross-pollination of ideas between the versions sporadically its not something which is forced in either direction. There are many great features in FM PC which simply wouldn’t work on the handheld product because of the different playing style involved.
I’m always very aware of the difference between the two products and that its imperative that any handheld game remain easy to pick up and play and fast and fun at its core.
The iOS versions of FMH have been pretty successful thus far, how do the PSP versions compare, considering the smaller user base?
The iOS and PSP games started from the same core codebase; however due to the technical restrictions of the PSP hardware the iOS game is starting to evolve somewhat ahead of the PSP product – its as simple as that.
The PSP game remains a very playable product and people appear to still be enjoying it – however we aren’t able to put a huge amount of new features into it because of the memory restrictions on the device (processor speed as well as there being 32Mb RAM on the PSP in comparison to a minimum of 128Mb on iOS devices).
Talking of the PSP, Do you see yourselves taking the series over to the upcoming Vita in the future, and do you consider any of the features of the Vita particularly lending itself to the interface of the game?
I’ve really enjoyed working on the PSP products and I always love the challenge of working on new hardware (lets face it – who doesn’t like being given shiny new toy to play with ;-) ) – however at present no decision has been made regarding potential new platforms for FMH.
The iOS version of FMH12 is one of the higher priced titles available, do you believe the higher price affects the amount of sales you get, with most iOS users being more used to the 69p throwaway titles?
Its probable that the price of the game does put off some users from purchasing it, however its impossible for the game to ever be sold at 69p because of the licensing costs involved in the product – simply put if we priced it too low then we’d be giving away money with each copy sold.
Finally if you look in the AppStore then the pricing isn’t that different to other similar products really – rather than comparing it with impulse gaming items like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope, its more a product with long term playability like ‘Final Fantasy’ (RPG), ‘iOOTP’ (Baseball Management sim) or Carcassonne (Board game).
I think its a common misconception of both developers and publishers that games can ‘only do well at 69p’ on the iTunes store – there is definitely a market there for quality products at a reasonable price and users are astute enough to realise that a game like FMH which you’ll play solidly for a year is very good value for money at a slightly higher price.
Its been a few years since Football Manager appeared on consoles due to issues perfecting the interface, do you believe it can ever be perfected enough for it to return? Or is the handheld market enough at present?
I’m a great believer that Football Management titles can work on consoles if designed and implemented specifically for those platforms in a similar way to which we undertook the development of our handheld products. However as to whether SI will take that leap of faith onto them again, time will tell.
As a studio Its important not to overstretch and as always our main focus is ensuring that all our products are as good as possible, perhaps in the future we’ll expand onto consoles when the time is right – but its not something we’d rush into.
Finally as it customary here at Midlifegamer.net, and I always forget. What’s you favourite beverage & biscuit combination when gaming
Beverage either has to be PG-Tips tea or a Starbucks Latte. Biscuit would be an old fashioned digestive, not least because they’re like gold dust here in Florida and so have to be savoured slowly … preferably with a 4-0 victory on FMH ;-)
Football Manager Handheld 2012 is out now for PSP, and releasing “before Xmas” for iOS