Focus On: Sports Interactive's Miles Jacobson
It's been a busy year for Sports Interactive. Although there are probably nicer ways to phrase it, twelve months ago the Islington, London based developer was very much a one-trick pony; although if you had to pick one trick for your pony, creating the most popular football (soccer) management title in the world and one of the best-selling PC titles in the UK wouldn't be a bad one to choose by any means.
Since then, many things have changed. Dispensing with a long-term publishing agreement with Eidos (and losing the Championship Manager name in the process), Sports Interactive has gone on to sign a five-year development contract with Sega, announce a new football management game (the rather obviously titled Football Manager 2005) and expand its range with the addition of management games based on ice hockey and, most recently, baseball.
Swelling the ranks
According to Sports Interactive's managing director Miles Jacobson, the transition from a one-project company to one with three games in development hasn't been as sudden as it looks. "Actually, a year ago we were a company with one main released title," he clarifies. "We've often had things in research and development, and Riz [Eastside Hockey Manager creator Risto 'Riz' Remes] has been working with us for well over a year now."
"Staffing wise, we've gone from around 16 a couple of years ago (plus head researchers, translators and assistant researchers), to over 30 (plus testers, researchers and translators), of which 90 per cent are on the development side of things."
Although the company remains quite small by development standards, doubling your staff numbers and trebling the number of games on your release schedule is no small undertaking for an independent developer. "It's been quite a rapid jump," agrees Jacobson, "and is something we're slowing down on now. We've got three great teams in place, plus R&D, and the different teams work well together and everyone still gets on pretty well, so we're pretty lucky really. And, it keeps us fitter being on four floors with no lift!"
The expansion of Sports Interactive hasn't happened in the traditional organic way that most successful development studios undergo, however. Instead, the company has absorbed two previously existing teams - with Riz' Eastside Hockey Manager team and Markus Heinsohn's Out of the Park Baseball team both coming on board and relocating to SI's Islington offices, giving the company experienced teams and pre-existing products to work from.
"To be fair, we haven't bought anyone or anything," Jacobson emphasises. "What we have done is created partnerships between SI and Riz, and SI and Markus and their teams, who have become employees of Sports Interactive."
"It's great for us, as a company that started out as two bedroom coding brothers with Ov and Paul [Collyer, SI founders], to be in a position to give Riz and Markus a chance for their games to be released on a global basis and being able to draw down on our knowledge, tools and code to help them."
Of course, working with experienced teams means that the knowledge can flow both ways - and the Football Manager development team have been benefiting from the experience of their new colleagues as well. "There are already features in EHM that will probably end up turning up in FM at some point," according to Jacobson, "so we're learning from them too! We're fortunate that we managed to find two really talented teams that want to work with us and that are as passionate about their games and chosen sports as the original team is about football."
The approach of taking on teams who have previously created successful shareware titles is obviously one that has worked well for SI, and it's one that Jacobson doesn't rule out using again in the future. "For now, that's it for other sports, but we're not saying 'never'. Marc Vaughan [SI's head of development] always keeps an eye on the freeware and shareware scene, which is how we found Riz and Markus."
The company isn't ruling out starting work on internal projects either - and with plenty more sports to cover (how about rugby or American football as perfect candidates for a management sim?), there are certainly a lot of options open to the developer. "We are not planning any brand new games at the moment beyond what we already have," says Jacobson, "but if one of the team at SI had a great idea for a game that fitted into the company's philosophies and spheres then that would be the likely way that we would start something new."
"But, for now, we're concentrating on ensuring that the releases for this year - EHM and FM - are as good as they possibly can be, and are very happy with both games progress at the moment."
To be this good takes...
Sports Interactive's publishing deal with Sega, an enviable partnership which sees the developer providing games to the Japanese giant for the coming five years but still retaining much of its independence, is one of the strongest strings to the company's bow - and indeed, the partnership bore new fruit only this week, with the securing of the official NHL brand for Eastside Hockey Manager (now NHL Eastside Hockey Manager as a result).
Asked whether Sega's influence played a key part in this deal, Jacobson's response is emphatic. "Yes, definitely," he says. "Sega have great contacts with the NHL and NHLPA through their ESPN games, and the licensing and legal people in Japan, the US and the UK were great in getting the deal put together. I also have to give thanks to Visual Concepts for their help with the approvals process - it's been invaluable to us."
Although Sports Interactive has made a few minor forays onto consoles - most notably an Xbox version of Championship Manager a couple of years ago - it's a company that remains focused almost exclusively on desktop computers. So what are the chances of seeing SI titles on consoles again any time soon?
"We've got three games in development now - what more do you want!" jokes Jacobson. "Seriously though, we are concentrating on getting the games amazing for PC and Mac first, but we'd never discount returning to existing or next-next-gen consoles and handhelds. Who knows what the future holds?"
NHL Eastside Hockey Manager and Football Manager 2005 are both on Sega's line-up for the E3 Expo 2004 in Los Angeles this week.