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A Beautiful Mind - Part One

Beautiful Game Studios' GM Roy Meredith outlines the challenges ahead for the Championship Manager brand

Following on from the first part of the interview with Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson, we continue our look at the football management genre with the first of a two-part interview with the general manager of Beautiful Game Studios - Roy Meredith.

The former EA man took over the reins just under a year ago with the task of reviving the Championship Manager game, which has suffered significantly since Sports Interactive parted company with Eidos and took their own code and database with them.

Here Meredith talks about the challenges that BGS now faces if it wants to become a serious player in the genre once more, and explains some of the changes that the studio has gone through. You've recently moved offices to the same building in Wimbledon as the SCi/Eidos headquarters - how many people do you have based here?
Roy Meredith

About fifty. And is that close to the final size of the team, or are you still expanding?
Roy Meredith

We're still looking for a couple of areas, because there are plans to expand what we do in terms of Championship Manager, but we're not quite ready to talk about that yet.

But there are fifty people here, and that's part and parcel of the structural changes that have gone on, both within ChampMan and Eidos. I came here from EA last November with a remit to make it a vertical business rather than that old publisher-developer mix that's been inherent in our industry for ages.

EA had made those changes as well, and about three months after I got here Eidos decided to do the same thing. They went through that big business review in February, which was an exciting and interesting time, and decided to create these vertical business pillars across six franchises.

So the fifty people we've got are bringing everything together - a really good example of that is mobile. Mobile never used to communicate, for various reasons - they were a different division within Eidos, they made ChampMan, they obviously wanted it to be basically the same game, but there was never really any integration in terms of either look or feel, or plans for the future about what we could do.

So we brought mobile in-house, and we've got one and a half people working on mobile, and we'll broaden that out. That gave us the ability to say that mobile has some obvious comparisons with handheld - you should own a handheld business, as a producer, and start ramping that team up to look at what we can do on handheld in the future.

The obvious comparison is that mobile and handheld don't have much memory, so how can we create a Championship Manager business on those when we can't put in a database of 120,000 players, or whatever? So we've got to look at that.

The reason the studio is quite as large as it is, is because everything is in-house now - marketing, mobile, everything in the same place. That means we get to a franchise level, whereas before it was separate bits of business dotted around, and it's hard to get games that look and feel the same, so that you know you're playing a ChampMan game - whether it's mobile, eventually online, and so on. The games may be different, but you've got to know you're in a Championship Manager universe - it's massively important.

The greatest example of that for me is The Sims - and I don't really want to compare us to The Sims business, because it's totally different to ours - but you know you're playing The Sims, whether it's MySims, the minigames... it's a great business model, and you know you're in that franchise. What's your assessment of the health of the ChampMan brand as things stand?
Roy Meredith

The health of the brand, as a name out there in the marketplace is incredibly strong. I think Football Manager must get a bit frustrated at times that people still refer to their game as "ChampMan" - although they do a good job of bringing that audience to them.

We did some research this year, and looked at football fans in general, and Championship Manager is probably one of the strongest brand names there in gaming. We're quoted left, right and centre. There was a piece by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on the Manchester United website last week where he said, and I can't remember the exact quote, but it was along the lines of him having played Championship Manager for years so he knows how to structure teams and so on going forward. That's brilliant - so the strength of the brand name itself is huge.

In terms of the quality of the franchise, the quality of the products we've put out - yeah, I know, it's pretty poor. So that's why I was brought in last year and told to do this, because on one hand you have a very valuable brand, but at some point it's going to be worth zero because of the quality of the product.

So at the end of 2008 we're in a strong place in terms of name, but people aren't buying into our franchise. What we need to do is give consumers a reason to believe the franchise again. They know the fundamentals, the basics of the game, and they need to know the quality of the game is strong, because for too long it hasn't been.

I think for too long we've been a me-too product. There's no question that FM is a really strong, very good game, that knows its place in the market. For too long we've not had a vision that explains what Championship Manager is. No vision, no direction - where are we within that genre? We want to create a strong alternative, a competitor to Football Manager - irrespective of what they do, we need to be clear on what ChampMan is all about, and identify where we need to be. Is one of the biggest challenges that Sports Interactive have been making these games for over 15 years - they have so much experience that you have to really, really perform to make a dent on people's perceptions?
Roy Meredith

We do, you're absolutely right - the time pressure [following the Sports Interactive split with Eidos] and panic to bring a game to market actually was a pretty rash business judgement as it turned out. You can't build a game as good as they had, and BGS have been running to catch up ever since. The longer you go down that path, the longer it's going to take you to catch up.

That's why we've deliberately taken an 18-month development period - I'm not going to tell you the release date but it's been developed for quite a while. I came in halfway through and said that the important thing is to take a long dev time, convince Eidos they're here for the long term - we can't make short term fixes. We take a long time to develop this game, and we make it the first step on the road to recovery.

We've got to get things right, we've got to get a lot of fundamentals right with this game. We can't keep rushing and rushing and rushing and not have a plan. We've got to have a fixed plan and take some steps forward.

You're right with regards to Football Manager, they've been making games for 15 years - I think there are advantages and disadvantages to that. The advantages are obvious - they know what they're making, they know what their audience wants, they know their engine better than anybody, they know how they can progress.

But they've also got an engine that's full of legacy, and I'm not using this to knock FM at all. There are certain things they can do brilliantly going forward, there are certain things that their software will restrict them from doing.

We need to look at the market opportunities for us within the football management market, a 'thinking' football game if you like, that we can go into areas that maybe they can't, or they couldn't do as well as us. I did say earlier on that we need to avoid what they're doing and just make our game as strong as possible, but we've got to look at the opportunity to create our own area.

So we're looking at what the game's all about, what do football managers do? I don't want to go into FIFA Manager iterations of setting hotdog prices and building stadia - that's nothing to do with football management, that's dire, and that's why they don't enjoy big sales I believe.

But there are a lot of opportunities within what a football manager does, and I don't believe that FM will go down that route, but we can do it strongly - and it gives us an enjoyable game experience.

With two strong games in the marketplace it's good for the consumer, it's good for the genre and actually it's good for FM as well, because it will keep them pushing forward to iterate as well. Can Championship Manager be proof internally that putting game quality above fiscal period results is the way to go?
Roy Meredith

Quality is absolutely paramount. Phil [Rogers, CEO] and Chris [Glover, communications director] have gone on about quality, they understand that. Annual iteration is a killer. On sports games you can see the necessity for it because of the changing rosters - but having come from EA where they talked about Need for Speed falling into this annual iteration... there was a real worry within the company how it could be done, how to get it right.

I used to work in the music industry, and it goes back to that 'difficult second album' concept. It used to be quite a cliché, but there's a reason for it as well - you'd sign a band when they're really good, and had spent the past five years honing their set to their audience, they'd got 14 classic tracks.

So they put it out, a number of singles, great album, everything goes well. They go off and tour that, and are then expected to bring out the second album, but they haven't had the time to build up the roster of tracks. So they take the five tracks that weren't good enough for the first album, the five tracks that were getting good receptions on tour, and then hastily writing another three tracks, and out comes that disappointing second album.

Record companies, when they really invest in bands, don't go through that. U2's third album, they took about two or three years to release it. I think there's a parallel with the music industry - give people time to get things right. Quality cannot be rushed - if you haven't got a quality game, your community's just going to get fed up with you.

I guess the industry's moving towards new business models, with downloads and micro-transactions, where you can keep iterating. I think what Burnout's doing could be very, very smart at EA, which is releasing stuff that gives them the ability to prepare for the next iteration well into the future, but it keeps monetising - so it keeps the quarterly profits up.

I think there is a steer towards these micro-transactions, expansion packs, and so on. Battlefield Heroes?
Roy Meredith

Perfect example, and The Sims again, and World of Warcraft is a great example in a slightly different way online. I think people generally in the industry are coming round to understand that you're just going to bleed a franchise dry if you do it the other way. I assume that it can't have been much fun for the people working on the first iterations of ChampMan post-SI, so does this way help you to keep a more positive atmosphere?
Roy Meredith

I think that's right. I don't think we're there yet with BGS, I think that we've still got to go through a few cycles of this. But any studio, if they're on an annual iteration, and let's use the example of a game coming out in October - if they feel that every July and August they're going to be crunching, you can almost guarantee that you're not able to have holidays in the summer.

I think we've got to alleviate that. I don't think we'll ever get away from crunch, because there's never a finite end result - people are always pushing to get things back in. But to get to a point where you can make people feel the scale of the work is manageable and it's a decent quality product - nobody wants to produce something that falls short, particularly when you've got people that love football so much. You said that ChampMan this time around has had an 18-month development cycle - can you see a situation whereby every ChampMan takes that long, rather than the annual iteration?
Roy Meredith

If that's what will help quality, yes - definitely. I'd like to alleviate some of the stress of getting to the autumnal iteration, and there are a number of ways we can do that. We're looking at those at the moment.

Or we have a cycle where there are people working on stages, so we do bring out an annual iteration, but individuals are working on a longer period.

Roy Meredith is general manager at Beautiful Game Studios. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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