Miles Jacobson: Part One

Sports Interactive's studio head on breaking the mass-market and age ratings

One of the UK's development success stories in the past decade - and more - is Sports Interactive, the people behind first Championship Manager, and now Football Manager.

With the release of the latest edition of Football Manager 2008 due for release on the Xbox 360 format tomorrow, took the opportunity to mull over some of the issues facing the industry today with studio head Miles Jacobson.

In part one he talks about the challenge of embracing the mass-market and unpacks some of the issues around age ratings and the social view of gaming.

Q: The latest edition of Football Manager 2008 is a few iterations in its console lifespan now - how have you learned to deal with some of the challenges in the format's difference to the PC's keyboard and mouse?

Miles Jacobson:Well the issue isn't so much the control mechanism, it's the amount of memory, and this year for the first time the game doesn't require a hard drive to play, so that was a massive challenge in itself because we're used to using the hard drive as virtual memory and temp storage on the PC and Mac titles.

But the beauty of beating that challenge has actually had great benefits for our other products as well, for the future PC and Mac side of things. The learning about technology that's been done by the console team in the past few months bodes very well for our other titles as well.

Getting the saved games down to memory card size was also important, which wasn't the easiest thing in the world to do.

Q: How significant is the additional user base of the Arcade Xbox 360 SKU, that you'll now be able to sell the game to?

Miles Jacobson:Well, obviously the more consumers that are able to play the game, the better - there's more possibility of selling the title. You would think that people who are buying the Arcade SKU were the more mass-market consumers, and that's an audience that with the next-generation consoles I don't really think we've hit yet.

You get a lot of people in the industry talking about the penetration of the systems now, which is obviously a pretty good point, but I still don't think we've even started to touch the surface of how many people out there will be using the next-generation consoles in the future - for them to get to the same stage as the previous generation got to.

Q: Shouldn't the aim be to exceed the PlayStation 2, to talk in ten years or whatever about videogames or consoles being as prevalent as televisions in households?

Miles Jacobson:Unless they start having screens built it I don't think we'll get to the stage where everybody who has a TV will have a console, because you're always going to get some people who don't want to play games, don't want to watch Blu-rays, don't want to download and stream films online.

I completely agree that we've got to start hitting larger markets than we did with the last generation. The point that I was making was that I think people are talking about the console wars at the moment, and the amount of users that have been hit with it, as though there are certain conclusions that can be made already, at this stage.

In my head we're still at a very, very early stage, in the same way that for me the games industry is still at a very early stage. While it would be lovely to hit that in ten years, I actually think it will take a little bit longer than that, until we've got a true 100 per cent penetration in the same way that television, music and films have got - because you've still got generations of people who haven't grown up with games.

And while the industry is doing a very good job at the moment of getting to particularly some of the older and younger gamers, I still think there's quite a big demographic of people that aren't being serviced - or marketed to, probably more than anything.

Q: Nintendo could be seen as a catalyst to drive the industry from its core demographic to embrace new audiences, but what else needs to be done?

Miles Jacobson:I'd actually like to thank Nintendo for giving me a great Christmas last year - seeing my mum and niece playing Wii Sports together - 7 year-old and a 70 year-old playing games together - was pretty amazing to see, having worked in the industry for so long.

There are titles out there, ours included, that do also appeal to a much wider demographic than people maybe realise. Certainly our core audience has mainly been students and football fans, whereas if you look at the current Football Manager Live beta world, we've randomly selected people and have a 61 year-old moderator, as well as a bunch of people in their late thirties and forties.

It's actually been quite eye-opening for me, because we don't really market our games to those people necessarily, and it's shown that perhaps we should be doing that more and more.

Q: Do you think the current generation of consoles can realistically reach that mass-market audience?

Miles Jacobson:I think what Nintendo has done has opened the doors a lot more to that thinking, and I think developers and publishers need to be looking into this a lot more at the moment to see whether it is viable for everything.

And we also don't know at the moment what's going to happen long-term with the Wii. There's talk from some analysts believing it to be a fad. I don't believe that to be the case, but certainly the people that it's appealing to are not the normal gaming audience.

Mario Kart coming out may change that, and get a few more of the hardcore people to dust their machines down, if you like. For me Mario & Sonic at the Olympics had that effect, I thought it was a fun game - I particularly enjoyed the trampolining -

But whether it's this generation of consoles that does it, or whether it will be the next one that comes along, I'm not really sure, and I don't think any of use can predict that at the moment. It depends on the kind of games that are made, and whether the audience picks up on them.

Nintendo took a big risk with both the Wii and the DS, and games like Brain Training doing as well as it has - there have been those kinds of games in the past that haven't done that well.

For me it's the way that Nintendo marketed it to people. I gave my mum a DS for her 70th birthday and she responded by saying it was the thing that Phillip Schofield plays. So she knew about it because of the marketing that used people she could relate to, which is quite a telling thing.

At the moment I think the marketing for the PC, Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 is targeted at a much different demographic to that of Nintendo. Nintendo took a risk, and it paid off massively - whether other people are prepared to take such a risk remains to be seen.

Q: Going back to the hard drive for a moment, do you think it was a mistake for Microsoft to release an Xbox 360 SKU without a hard drive?

Miles Jacobson:That's a difficult question. From a purely selfish development perspective I wish it did have a hard drive, because then the Xbox 360 version of Football Manager 2008 would have been released before Christmas, more in line with the PC version.

The fact that the games are now expected to run without a hard drive is fair enough and we've actually had huge technological benefits for the long term across the whole company, by making sure that the game does work without a hard drive.

I think price point-wise, particularly in Southern Europe, it's very important to get to a low point, and Microsoft realised that at the beginning, and that's why they went with the SKU.

But it is a slight frustration for anyone making games across any industry - because it's very similar in the mobile phone industry as well - where you have to make the games for the lowest common denominator machine. I think that's just a frustration of technology, wherever you go, particularly as the last Xbox came with a hard drive, so you didn't have the non-hard drive option - and also with the PS3 you have the hard drive built in.

Q: Surely there's a cost implication there, if you could have put the game out before Christmas - both in terms of the busy Christmas market, and an additional three months of development work?

Miles Jacobson:Yes, it does, but I'm very pleased with what's happened, and the long term technological benefits as well, so therefore it's a positive thing as far as I'm concerned. Certainly, yes, there was some extra revenue spent on doing it, and yes, we could have gained some extra sales in those months.

But I think the positives that we've got out of it in the long term, for the future development of our games, has far outweighed it to be honest. It's not something we would have probably looked at had we not been required to appeal to the largest audience possible.

Q: With the Byron Review in the headlines at the moment, what's your view on the age ratings issue - your games don't encounter that problem particularly?

Miles Jacobson:Well, that's true, although with Football Manager Live we've had to apply things like swear filters for the chat rooms, so we do still take that side of things very seriously.

Q: What's your view on the "overly violent" videogames issue, as seen in some mainstream media outlets?

Miles Jacobson:I don't think that "overly violent" games, as you describe them there, should be sold to kids, but I think they're perfectly valid for adults to play. In the same way as I wouldn't want my friend's kid, or my niece or nephews to watch Hostel, I wouldn't let them play an 18-rated or 15-rated game, and I think it's the responsibility of society to ensure that in the same way people wouldn't want their kids getting hold of porn or 18-rated films, that the same thing happens with 18-rated games.

Those age ratings are there for a reason, and should be adhered to in my opinion.

Q: How do we change that social view? There's certainly some claim that in some quarters age ratings aren't taken seriously.

Miles Jacobson:But in some quarters age ratings across the board aren't taken seriously, and I see every day in the area in which I live underage kids drinking and smoking. It's just something that happens.

It's not as if I waited until I was 18 to have my first drink, or to see my first 18-rated movie. But at the time I went to see them I was in the state of mind where I thought I could handle it, I guess. But I certainly wouldn't have had any of those things at home.

So hopefully what comes out of the Byron Review in time is something to promote a better understanding of age ratings. As I said earlier, I think the games industry is still at an incredibly early stage in its history.

If you look back at the Fifties, when Elvis Presley was first on the scene, you look at the TV footage now, and you hear him being described as the devil because of the way his legs moved - and that meant there were some TV stations that would not show Elvis Presley from the waist down because his knees would knock together when he was dancing.

It was the same thing in the Sixties, with all of the so-called 'devil' music made by the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones - you've have exactly the same thing with the film industry since the year dot - maybe Shakespeare's plays were deemed offensive and violent back then, and now they're part of the curriculum?

Q: Society has changed over the years to accept things more, and we in the games industry have just got to accept that we're at a stage where there are a lot of people who don't understand it, because they haven't grown up with it. And those are the people that need to be educated that the age ratings are correct, and are the way to be dealing with those things.

Miles Jacobson:Hopefully the mainstream press will pick up on that side of things from the Review, rather than the negativity that's so far come from people who were predicting what was in there.

I just think that scaremongering is exactly the same as what happened with Elvis in the Fifties, and with the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and every other major cultural timeline that has occurred throughout history.

Society contextualises the content, absorbs it, and over time we move on.

Hopefully in the long term that will happen, but at the moment there seems to be a lot of negativity flying around which I think clouds the issue a lot more than it solves it, because you get the other side of the debate that flies back in stronger, and then it just becomes a battle, rather than what it should be - and that's an acceptance of what the Review says, and making sure that all sides of the debate take it on board.

Better that than MPs start claiming there are games out there with rape scenes in them, and who aren't even there when proven incorrect on that. I don't find that kind of scaremongering useful to anyone - it certainly isn't for his cause.

But then the newspapers end up printing that side of things, and not the fact that it was factually inaccurate - which then doesn't help their readers, or the debate, move forward.

Q: Until videogames reaches that social maturity, do you think videogames are a bit of an easy target for some MPs?

Miles Jacobson:I think for some MPs that have decided that's the route they want to go down, then yes. Thankfully the majority of MPs see the benefit of the games industry and what it's brought to the UK, in terms of jobs, talent and entertainment.

And there are organisations at the moment looking into the health benefits of games, to help people recover from serious illness - there have been various studies over the years about how gaming can help disabled people get on with their lives, and enjoy themselves more. Those positives don't tend to get reported on.

But yes, the games industry is the current scapegoat. Which is quite ironic for me, sitting here as the head of a UK development studio, where our games have been used in classrooms to get disruptive kids back into the classroom - using projects through the games, in financial modelling and reading the text. That kind of stuff gets ignored entirely.

We also give a donation for every game we sell to Warchild, and the charity trade magazine published the story of that announcement as a negative piece, that this charity was making money out of the horrible videogame industry that goes around shooting people - we're a football management game - sometimes it still surprises me how vitriolic people can get about what is essentially an entertainment product, one that does have age ratings, and those ratings are in the same way as other entertainment industries.

Q: Do you think putting something into law about age rating enforcement would help?

Miles Jacobson:I've spoken to various people in the industry about that and some would support it, and some wouldn't. I know that in America there are much stronger thoughts about it, but I don't see why we shouldn't have the same kind of ID system in place as for other products that aren't allowed to be sold to minors for videogames.

Kids and adults tend to have ID on them most of the time, hopefully a driving license - but there have got to be ways of checking these things.

And parents have got to be responsible as well. If their kid asks them to buy a game and it's 18-rated, then they shouldn't be buying it for their kids.

Miles Jacobson is the studio head at Sports Interactive. Part two will follow next week. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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