Jon Hare, the creator of the '90s classic Sensible Soccer, is returning to football development with a new Kickstarter for a 'spiritual successor', which launches today. Alongside Hare, a team of AAA veterans based in Helsinki will be developing the multiplatform release, due to hit PS4, Xbox One and PC before the end of 2016.
The original series saw several releases on numerous platforms over the course of seven years, accumulating around 20 million players worldwide. With modern football gaming dominated by FIFA and, to a lesser extent, Pro Evolution, Hare feels that the time is ripe for a return of his particular brand of fast-paced arcade style immediacy. It's not a one-off vanity project, either - Hare and his team have plans to develop Sociable Soccer into another long-running franchise.
"I think the challenge is to make a viable football product which isn't the same as Fifa or Pro Evo," Hare tells me. "A football game, but a slightly different take on it which can stand alongside them, maybe even as a companion game to play. And in order to get to the market to that level that it can hit the market that much, beyond the Kickstarter, you then to think more seriously about your full publishing strategy. With a football game that success tends to be long term.
"I mean, to be clear about this, the plan is very much to build a new long-term football franchise like Sensible Soccer was"
"I mean, to be clear about this, the plan is very much to build a new long-term football franchise like Sensible Soccer was. We put Sensible Soccer out in '92, and Sensible World of Soccer came out in '94, and actually that was three years in development. So we're not gonna go straight in with a game with the depth of stuff of SWoS, because it's just too much to do in a year. So we'll be supporting most of the major leagues throughout the world and we will be having full international teams, every international team in the world."
For many, Sensible Soccer embodies the golden age of local multiplayer - the dead-leg giving, joystick jostling, potentially friendship ending sofa games which were largely superseded by online multiplayer. With something of a resurgence of local multiplayer thanks to games like Rocket League, Towerfall and the continued brilliance of Nintendo's first-party content, Hare thinks the time is ripe for the series to return, but with all the convenience offered by online too.
"So where we're looking with Sociable Soccer is two basic strands of gameplay. One is on one machine, so a hot seat or whatever you'd call it, which has got friendlies, about 30 different competitions, preset competitions, based on national leagues, national cups, international things like European Championship-like stuff, World Cup-like stuff, so using the national cup teams. And you can make your own competitions up, create your own league, cups and stuff, up to eight people playing on one machine, in the old 'invite your mates round for pizza and a beer and play in a tournament'.
"A totally new bit is the online multiplayer side. So, the online multiplayer side, I think it's fun, and for me it's the bit which I'm pretty sure we can make it better and better. The fun bit for me is working on the online side and innovating in this way. So, when you register with Sociable Soccer as a new player it'll ask you for your name. You then create a player avatar in your own likeness with a little player avatar editor, and it will ask you to choose a nationality, which football team you support if any, and which clan you want to join. You clan could be, I don't know, it could be game journalists, could be heavy metal fans, could be Jedis, could be, you know, whatever.
"In the clan, all the players in those clans will just be player avatars, so it'll be your player avatar in, say, the game developers clan along with all the other game developers you might know, although you'll control the whole team yourself."
As well as your clan, you can also play games with your favourite team against fans of other clubs, and for your nation. Playing well for your clan might see your personal avatar called up for your club, says Hare, and doing well there could see you in the national colours. By leveraging these three tribal divisions, so central to the idea of football fandom, Hare hopes to create a bubbling social rivalry which will keep players engaged. Community interaction is going to be a big part of the plan going forward, then, but for now Hare and his team are focused on the game itself.
"The team is a very new team of very senior developers, they're in Helsinki. There's quite a lot of industry experience there"
"At the moment haven't got the budget to have a community manager, but you know, obviously it would be great to be able to sit there and chat with the other guys from your club. The reality is that you need someone to community manage that 24/7 because of all the laws and stuff around that. That would be something we'd love to be able to achieve, but that's gonna require quite a big consistent ongoing budget to do that. So I know, having worked for a while with the guys at Jagex with RuneScape, what kind of volume and size that kind of thinking can get to. It gets quite big, actually. I mean, in an ideal sense it would be nice to have that, but this basic budget certainly doesn't cover that."
That basic budget is an initial Kickstarter goal of £300,000, plus the usual stretch goals, for Hare and four other developers over the course of the next year, but Hare recognises that both the budget and the team might need to grow.
"The team is a very new team of very senior developers, they're in Helsinki. There's quite a lot of industry experience there. "What I like about the team is we've all been in development a long time - the minimum time is fifteen years from anyone - and there's been consistent success across lots of years on lots of different platforms and in lots of different genres.
"So that's the core team. Of course, if we need to flesh the team out more, which we certainly will need to do for things like all the different platforms, server-based stuff and that, maybe some of the art if the art load gets too much, we will. But it's a nice, very experienced core team. There's five of us with a lot of experience mostly driving it, that's enough for a core team."
In addition to Hare, that team is Sami Vanhatalo, co-founder of Remedy and lead technical artist on Max Payne and Alan Wake; Jouni Mannonen, co-founder of Bike Baron and Death Rally developer Mountain Sheep; Sami Arola, a muisc producer who also co-founded Sumea, later to become part of Trip Hawkins' Digital Chocolate, and French-born artist Amar Djouad, who worked on Housemarque's Super Stardust Delta and Dead Nation as well as The Walking Dead: No Man's Land. Collectively, they're known as Combo Breaker, although Hare's Tower Studios is still its own entity, working in partnership.
"As I say, they're a very new team, they were only literally formed a couple of months ago, and I happened to catch them at exactly the right time when they formed. Combo Breaker are working in cooperation with Tower, is the easiest way to say it, and that's pretty much how I've worked for the last almost ten years. So these days, since Sensible Software, I tend not to employ lots of people in my company. I tend to work in partnership with people. That's how we delivered Speedball and Word Explorer and any other games before that."