Sports Interactive has, over the years, cemented itself as a key UK developer thanks largely to its market-leading Football Manager franchise which all but guarantees a healthy annual income for parent company SEGA Europe.
Late last year the company launched an MMO, Football Manager Live, and GamesIndustry.biz recently caught up with studio director Miles Jacobson to find out how the title was coming along.
Q: Explain the process of launching Football Manager Live.
Miles Jacobson: We actually launched it as an online retail game last October, it was a couple of weeks before Football Manager 09 came out - we pushed the button on the first live, paying game world.
But we didn't market or PR it, and deliberately kept it very much under the radar, partly because of FM09 and partly because we've said at every step of the way that we want to start small and build it up from there. It certainly worked for the franchises that we've worked on as a studio, so the 'official launch' was basically when we started doing PR.
We've still only officially launched in the UK, we haven't done any PR or marketing outside of the UK at all. The process is very different to a boxed game, and the process we've decided to use is pretty different to a lot of the routes that the higher profile MMOs have used. We're using elements of the approach that maybe EVE Online, RuneScape and those kinds of games - which have grown virally over long periods of time to get their subscriber bases. We just believe that's a better model than the huge hype, massive launch MMOs that all seem to be opening with a lot of fanfare and not necessarily being there a year or two down the line.
Q: That said, you do effectively - as a company - already have a large subscriber base with respect to your annual Football Manager titles.
Miles Jacobson: Correct.
Q: So it's not like an invisible start, or building up from nothing - there's already a solid base of people that you can market to.
Miles Jacobson: Yes, we do - if the two games were very similar and appealing to exactly the same audience... then to be honest we'd be pretty stupid to launch a game competing with ourselves.
Football Manager Live is deliberately aimed at a slightly different consumer to that which plays the Football Manager games. We are aiming it more at the Fantasy Football user, to maybe people that don't have the time to play its brother title - so while they're still football management games they are quite different in the way that they play, with the amount of mind share that you have to give them.
Q: There's probably still a fair bit of crossover though?
Miles Jacobson: I'm sure that there is a lot of crossover, especially at this early stage. In the longer term we want the crossover to be a similar percentage of the Football Manager users, or maybe a bit higher, but we certainly don't envisage all FM players also playing FML.
Otherwise we'd have been stupid to do this - we want to do this to expand to a broader audience, and be able to entertainment more and more people. If there's some crossover there's fine, but we want there to be extra people playing FML.
Q: Could it work the other way, converting people from FML to FM?
Miles Jacobson: To be brutally frank, we just want to entertain people, so it doesn't matter to me which of our games they're playing, as long as they're trying them and having the chance to play. There are a lot of football fans out there who have never played one of our games and might not even know these kinds of games exist. They may well play Fantasy League, and so on, and those are our future consumers because we've done very well with the Football Manager games in what is a niche market - we've become quite a large niche with the amount of people playing it.
But we're still only scratching the surface of football fans, so we want to be doing much better than we are now on a sales basis. It's weird for me to say that, because however many week at number one on the PC charts we have, we still want to be doing a lot better - and FML will hopefully give us that chance.
Q: So how are subscriber numbers for FML coming along?
Miles Jacobson: It's going alright - I think there are 22 or 23 game worlds live now, which shows the amount of subscribers with 1000 people in each game world. The SEGA ops team is being very proactive in launching new worlds when existing ones are full.
So it's kind of going to plan - obviously if it was going perfectly we'd have 1 billion subscribers playing, and eventually 6 billion, but realistically with the economy the way it is we're doing pretty well [smiles]
We're certainly doing well enough for SEGA to keep pushing us with more content, and certainly the flexibility of the business model is there. When we initially launched the subscriber periods were 3-, 6- and 12-month subscriptions having to pay upfront. We've looked at that, at the comments coming back from people who said they're interested but maybe haven't subscribed, and we've now added another business model which is more like a mobile phone contract - the longer you agree to subscribe for, the cheaper it is, and you pay per month.
So if you subscribe for 24 months you can get the game for GBP 4.99 per month, which is pretty damn good value for money.
Q: And obviously it's good for you because it means you're monetising the game over a much longer period.
Miles Jacobson: Completely, plus we've also announced a recommend-a-friend scheme, whereby people who already subscribe to the game can get more time for free by recommending friends. If six of their friends subscribe for three months they effectively get the game for free - so looking at working with those kinds of flexible models, with us at Sports Interactive and the people at SEGA working as a team... that flexibility is very important when you're working on an MMO, particularly one that's starting off at a low level and reaching for the stars over the long term.
Certainly with the plans we've got around new content, with foreign language versions of the game coming in the future as well - there's a long way to go with this story.
Q: What about the dreaded "C" word - churn - it's a huge issue for those 'big bang' titles because they have to make a lot of money back in as short a time as possible. What's it been like for you, and actually is it that much of a big deal?
Miles Jacobson: Well, churn so far has been very low, but then when subscriptions started in January they were a minimum of three months - and when the retail version came out at the end of January it was four months. So we'll probably have much better stats on churn rate at the end of April and May.
Certainly at the moment it's not something we're concerned about - people seem to be enjoying the game. We know where we expect churn levels to be and they seem to be lower than that at the moment.
The problem that we'll have if there is churn is that because our game worlds are 1000 users, you might find a lot of teams leaving a particular game world slightly ghostly - but it would then be our job to ensure that the game world gets filled up, probably by pushing recommend-a-friend really hard to those users that are still in place.
But at the moment it's not a problem we've had to deal with. We've had lots of discussions about it internally, but we haven't had to do anything so far. Hopefully we won't have to, by keeping the content flowing inside the game, listening to people inside the game and making sure they're getting what they want.
Obviously you can't please all of the people all of the time - some people want different things to others - but we're doing our best to understand them.
Q: As a company now you're working on multiple projects at any one time - there's ongoing FML work, but the other big one will be the next edition of Football Manager -
Miles Jacobson: Will it? Are we doing a new Football Manager game this year?
Q: Are you?
Miles Jacobson: I don't know, you tell me... I don't think we've announced anything this year...?
Q: Okay... so are you working on other projects?
Miles Jacobson: We're always working on other projects at Sports Interactive. The FML team is completely separate to the other teams - the only work that is duplicated between the two teams is the match engine. Everything else... we have a different producer working on the title to the other games, and obviously while I'm involved with everything the studio does FML is a separate team that has a lot of input.
We still have three development teams here who all sit and work together, and all communicate very closely, plus we still have an R&D team who work on little bits and bobs - if those things look like something good, then we'll green light.
So not much has changed from that perspective - we do have more people here now than ever before, because as projects grow you need to grow as a studio. But we're still a pretty tight-knit studio.
We do have different periods when we're busy, though - the core FM team has busy periods when we're feature complete, or when we're about to code lock, whether that's the main game or with patches. The PlayStation Portable team has to submit stuff earlier for when there's a new PSP game coming out, and the FML team is on 3-4 month cycles for each game version, so it's pretty much constant.
Miles Jacobson is studio director at Sports Interactive. Interview by Phil Elliott.