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Getting Interactive - Part One

Miles Jacobson on the challenges of creating an MMO, and what the team has learned from the beta test so far

The football season in the UK is well underway, and it's around now that a host of videogame titles around the sport are released. Over the years the pull of management games in particular has been very strong, and recently spoke to the top men at two of the best-known franchises on the market - Football Manager and Championship Manager.

In part one of this four-part series we speak to Miles Jacobson, studio director at the now Sega-owned Sports Interactive studio - the company who created the ChampMan franchise before splitting with Eidos to revive the Football Manager name. Here Jacobson talks about the challenges of creating an MMO, and what the team has learned from the beta period so far. You're currently working on three projects - Football Manager Live, Football Manager 2009 and Football Manager 2009 Handheld - are they all being released this year?
Miles Jacobson

Well, FML will be released, but we're not having a release day, or anything like that. So this year there'll be a limited amount of game worlds launched, which are available at the moment for people to pre-order at the moment, and they should be released before the end of the year. Then there'll be a proper push on FML early next year. Why is that? A cynical person could point to that as a paid-for testing period...
Miles Jacobson

Well, we've still got beta-testing going on, and we'll continue beta-testing after release and well into the future. Because the model that we're using for developing the game we've dubbed 'constant development' - so there are no plans to have expansion packs or anything like that, we're going to be adding new features every three-to-four months. There'll be people playing the game, and those people will be part of the decision-making process to some degree on what does and doesn't go in, because they'll be able to tell us what they want to see in the game.

The plan for the game has always been that. We've seen a million different problems for people who have tried to just launch an MMO straight away. We'd rather build it up slowly and retain that audience in the long term.

The initial packages that we have available, for example, of three month, six month and twelve month subscriptions - we're not doing boxed product at this stage, we'll look to do that next year. We're only in one language, so all the game worlds are English-speaking only.

We also want to make sure that the customer service is absolutely spot-on for every consumer, and that's something that you can't really do during beta testing, because you've got much smaller numbers during beta testing than you'll have when live. So if we went live with a million people I personally would be worried that we wouldn't be able to give the level of customer service that people would expect from us.

And it's also quite nice building up something slowly, seeing what's going right and wrong - not from a game perspective, the game code is done for the first version - but it's more for all the other elements. This is also our first MMO - it's not Sega's first, but it is ours, and we're learning every day, so what's the point of trying to run before you can walk?

So I understand what you're saying, that people might think we've just got extra people testing the game, but the game is done. So from that perspective, it's not the case. The first version is done, and we're planning for the first update, which should be out in January - and then every few months from there. The game development team are currently working on the code for that January update. Obviously with a phased release, you won't get the same 'big splash' in terms of marketing, but if you're not looking for a huge number of users to begin with, that won't matter?
Miles Jacobson

The marketing push, rather than marketing hype, will happen - but we're going to do that later on. With anything that launches and is new, doing a soft launch can work quite well if you look historically at things.

Look at something like Sky HD - they did a small push, they did a lot of PR announcing that it was coming. They let people pre-order months in advance, and when they felt that they had enough boxes and could handle everything that was necessary to go through, that's when they pushed the button, when they started pushing things harder.

So we've looked outside of the games industry model for how we wanted to launch this, and we've looked more at consumer goods really. Services?
Miles Jacobson

Some services, but some FMCGs [Fast Moving Consumer Goods], in the way that they launch in limited markets initially, and then grow over time. It's an amalgamation of a lot of different models - Sega has its own department that is working on the FML publishing side of things, and they work with the brand team at Sega, and the UK and various territory offices at Sega. Those guys are actually based in our building, rather than being in the head office of Sega in Brentford.

So we've been working very closely with those guys here to ensure that we're all happy with the launch plans. Some people, like the guys behind LittleBigPlanet, are looking at their games as services now -
Miles Jacobson

Football Manager Live is a service. There are no two ways about it, you're paying a regular subscription to a service, and you're getting regular content updates. Do you think all MMOs are services?
Miles Jacobson

I think they're all services to some degree. I think we've taken a slightly different tack to some of the MMOs on the market who release bug fixes and then expansion packs for more content - whereas we're looking at updating as part of the subscription package.

But I think anything that's got a monthly fee has got to be a service really. I think more and more traditional games are becoming a service as well, with the proliferation of forums, and patches now not just being on the PC and Mac but also being on a lot of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games as well.

We're an entertainment service industry. You've had a long beta test phase now - how much use has that been?
Miles Jacobson

It's been absolutely invaluable, not just from the perspective of having lots of eyeballs on it, but also helping shape the game. When we first spoke about the game back in April last year there was no league structure inside - the premise was that anyone could play games at any point, against anyone. Which they still can, and you can set up your own tournaments, but it was deemed during that first beta phase that people wanted something more organised.

So we've added in a football association structure, and there are various different associations inside the game - clans if you like - where you play against one another, and in some cases compete against the other associations.

A lot of the features have changed significantly from the initial phases on the beta, and it has been driven by consumer feedback. The other great thing about the beta test from the perspective of FM09 is the amount of people that we've had beta testing the match engine and giving feedback on that. It's been quite phenomenal having five or six thousand people playing matches on a regular basis. It's helped FM09 from that side as well. With a long public beta phase, has it helped you to estimate how long people might subscribe for - insights into churn patterns, for example?
Miles Jacobson

Yes, we've definitely learned about consumer patterns, and we've been working with people who have been analysing said consumer patterns - which has helped us decide our pricing model and subscription periods as well.

But we're also constantly listening to users - both those who have subscribed and those who haven't - to try and find out why. We've been doing various phone calls and questionnaires to people who have dropped out of the game worlds to find out why during the beta testing, which again has helped steer things in the right direction.

It's absolutely imperative that when you're doing this testing that you're not just looking for bugs, that you're looking for bugs as well. What are your expectations for average subscriber stickability?
Miles Jacobson

I can't tell you that. The beauty of FML is that there are so many ways to package it to so many different customers, and so many different customers playing the game, that it may well be we look at tailoring game worlds to certain customers in future because of the way that they want to play the game.

We're not set in the way that some MMOs are, where you have one huge world, with hundreds of thousands, or millions of people in. And you might have different servers, but it's still one huge world. With us we can actually tweak the world's setting to be appropriate for individual types of user.

So in the long term we'll look at having hard core and more casual game worlds, and we'll look at different language or time zone game worlds as well to ensure that we can cater for as many people as possible. Do you expect to see real-world events affect player patterns? For example, people signing up around the transfer windows, or in close season, or around big tournaments?
Miles Jacobson

I don't think the transfer window will have an effect at all, because it doesn't mean anything to the game. Isn't it more about when people are thinking about football though?
Miles Jacobson

But people are probably thinking about football during close season as much as they are during the season, but in the close season they probably want to get their fix. Close season I see as a key time for us to be getting customers in, but we'll obviously tailor our marketing and promotion around what we believe to be key times, of course.

We've got a campaign that we're doing with Jack FM in Oxfordshire, so we're able to do things on a local level, or a regional level, or a national level, or an international level with the game. Which is pretty exciting really, to know that you can have that flexibility to be able to do things as locally as a county or region, rather than doing things on a country-by-country basis - which is how we tend to do things with our boxed product releases. How's the in-game economy been shaping up?
Miles Jacobson

During the early stages of the beta we saw hyper-inflation. We looked at the reasons causing that, we fixed them. We fixed issues whereby the first person in a game world had it a lot easier than that thousandth person in the game world. That's now not the case.

When it was first set up it would have been relatively easy to set up a team that would have been a top ten Premier League team if you were the first user in, and the 600th user would have been more of a League Two team. The way it is now, everyone's kind of a Championship-style of team.

Yes, teams who do well are going to earn more money than those who don't do as well, but there is nothing inside the game stopping a team from doing well. So a team who starts badly in the first season could well turn it around in seasons three or four - and then make their way up the world rankings and start making a lot more money.

There are also competitions specifically for teams in lower-ranked positions, where they can earn cash as well. So we've got it to a pretty good level on the financial modelling - there are more features to come in the future that will help people spend money, and we found that as with any MMO there are some people who will try and exploit at every possible moment.

In normal MMOs that might be gold-farming, in FML it became buying players and then selling them a few weeks later. We've worked very hard to put in very good reasons to not just be a wheeler-dealer.

But if people just want to be a wheeler-dealer then they can - they idea is to try and stop making them so rich by being wheeler-dealers.

Miles Jacobson is studio director at Sports Interactive. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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