Sports Interactive is undergoing a "soft reboot" as it names its first COO.
Matt Carroll, a video games veteran who has spent most of his career at Disney, has started at the Football Manager studio today.
His appointment occurs as the company prepares to move to East London in April, and amidst a string of new promotions, which includes long-serving employee Marc Duffy taking a new senior management position.
"A COO is something that [parent company] Sega has been telling me that I've needed for a few years now," says studio boss Miles Jacobson.
"I hadn't agreed with them before. But we've grown. When we were bought by Sega there were 34 of us. Now there are 115.
"I have kind-of still been running the studio as if it is 30 people. And what has become clear over the last couple of years, that with four projects on the go, with a much larger team, with me having other responsibilities as part of Sega's senior management team - and also things that I do away from the studio regarding football and charity - I had become a bottleneck. If someone wants a quick decision, I have a three-day turnaround.
"Another reason is that things have changed a lot in 20 years. We're not a bedroom studio anymore. We are not a bedroom industry anymore. There were certain things that needed to be professionalised.
"So I wanted to look for someone who could not only do the day-to-day stuff better than I can do - the budgets, the approval processes, and the reporting upwards. But also someone who was going to make sure that our career development path was world class. Things like job titles I have always ignored, but they are a lot more important to people now than they were ten years ago. I understand the reasons why they're important in this world of Linkedin and professionalised industry, but I didn't feel I was the right person to be sorting that out. I would rather be concentrating on the creative side of my role.
"I have kind-of still been running the studio as if it is 30 people. Now there are 115"
Miles Jacobson, SI
"It was really important to retain to our status as a great studio, to be able to cope with the amount of projects that we were looking to do, and to have the possibility of being better. There were things that we needed to improve that I don't think I was the right person to handle. So I started looking for someone that could take that over."
He continues: "It's not just about the COO, either. We have had a wider restructure within the studio. Marc Duffy has been promoted to production director... we think that will be his job title. We will also have more people with associate producer roles within the studio. So we have used this as an opportunity, and the office move, for a bit of a soft reboot. Which hopefully the only thing that will be noticed from the outside is better games. But on the inside, it is going to make a massive difference to the day-to-day career at Sports Interactive."
Carroll is known for his work in the publishing side of the industry, predominantly his 17-year stint at Disney in various senior management roles. So moving into development is certainly a different challenge.
"It is an incredible opportunity," Carroll says. "[Sports Interactive] has a lot of very good stuff here. It has very capable people, an incredible product and community that follows it. So anything that will be built will be built on strong foundations. But obviously the future will be changing, it will be more competitive, there will be new technologies, the world of football is changing. It is a moving feast. That's exciting."
He adds: "I would like to think there are some similarities [with Disney]. There's a corporate structure of sorts in the sense that there is Sega as an entity.
"But it will be different. I am looking forward to learning a lot and seeing products created. And at the same time, I hope I can give a lot as well. Perhaps on the longer term view on things, helping with efficiency, removing obstacles, doing processes that people don't really enjoy - I can take that off their work load."
Jacobson again: "Matt's commercial experience is something that was not in the original job spec, but it's a really useful thing. The pillar structure that Sega operates means that we do make a lot of the commercial decisions at the studio. So having someone like Matt here, who has always be very future thinking, can help with some of my mad, harebrained schemes. That is going to be a great extra resource.
"Every studio all over the world is coming up with different business models, but when you are working with annual iteration titles, it is very difficult to shift the sands. You are expected to release at a certain date every year, but there are so many possibilities now with the connected world... is the business model we're using the right one? We need to look and see if there are potentially better models out there. And it's not something that anyone inside the studio has had the time to look at before.
"So that commercial experience is so important. As well as him being the calmest person in the room, who is now working with someone who can be a bit shouty."
Back to Carroll: "I am going to put in a peace pond in the front."
Jacobson: "So people can throw me in it."
The office move to Here East near the Olympic Park came partially due to necessity. "They trebled our rent," says Jacobson. However, the new location offers some big advantages.
For one, the whole team will now operate on a single floor, and they're also sharing a building with the likes of BT Sport, Ladbroke Coral, Scope, numerous start-ups, plus universities such as Loughborough.
"It's a great building," Jacobson enthuses. "And there's also things like having certain elements written into the lease. Like the fact we have to use green energy, and we have to be paying the proper London living wage, which are things we do anyway. So it's great to see other tech and sports businesses all in the same place, and there are loads of start-ups as well. I am very excited about moving there."
On the product side of things, Football Manager 2018 was another big success.
"We have between 50,000 and 60,000 people playing every evening concurrently," Jacobson says. "Around 160,000 to 200,000 unique people playing a day. About 400,000 people a month. When you think that it has sold around 600,000 units - we will end up doing the one million that we normally do - if you've got two thirds of those that bought it playing the game every day four months after release, you must be doing something okay."
However, Football Manager Online - the firm's attempt to grow in Korea and China - struggled to grab the audience it needed.
"The people who were playing the game really enjoyed it. Six-hours a day was the average play time, and the amount of money being spent was actually very good," Jacobson observes. "But what wasn't good enough was the funnel of people going into it. And when you look at the free-to-play market, you've got to decide whether you want to go for the mainstream, or if you want to be niche. We wanted the mainstream consumer, whilst also being niche. You can't have both.
"It wasn't going to reach the heights that we needed it to. We want to be able to entertain as many people as possible, and you don't do that by cannibalising a niche audience and have them moving away from the single-player game to go to the multiplayer game."
Yet this doesn't mean Sports Interactive has had to downsize. Quite the opposite; it's looking for new talent. It has a mysterious new game project - codenamed Yuka - in the works, and another unannounced game that will launch before the summer.
"I think our new home will be the envy of the industry"
Matt Carroll, SI
So there's plenty to be getting on with, and Jacobson hopes that the new structure, the new COO and the new office will allow it to not just make better games, but be a happier place to work. And maybe even win one of our coveted Best Places To Work badges.
"That's the plan," he says. "We've been a Europa league studio for a long time, and now we are looking to be in the Champions League.
"It is so important that everyone here not just thrives at what they already do, but are able to thrive with things that they may not have even thought about doing. If we can have fantastic progression, and not just thinking about what is going to be in the next game, and start thinking about what we're going to do in three or five years, that is going to be a fun transition to be part of."
Carroll concludes: "A big part of my role is to create a great climate for performance, and to make sure people enjoy what they do. The new move... it's a stunning location, and the facilities are wonderful. I think it will be the envy of the industry."
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