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Getting Interactive - Part Two

Miles Jacobson on sharing tech with Sega Japan, and why FaceBook and YouTube are the new marketing frontiers

In the first part of the interview with Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson, he talked about the challenges of building an MMO and what the team learned from the beta test.

Here, in part two, he reveals how the company was able to work with other internal teams at Sega to leverage key technology for Football Manager 09, and why social networking and media sites are important for marketing videogames today. In other MMOs you can play a number of different roles, whether it's PvE, PvP, crafting and so on.
Miles Jacobson

In the long run with FML people will be able to have different roles. With the skill system within the game there's nothing at all stopping you from being a scout and one of your mates being a physio. You scout players for him, while if one of your players gets injured, you send him to your physio mate to get him fit more quickly.

We are expecting mini groups of people to join together to help each other out, which is quite a good way of doing things. In real life FIFA introduces regulations for various things, like transfers. With Football Manager 08 the aim is to create something that's as realistic a management environment as possible - with an MMO you have to add in game mechanics that might not be realistic, but if you don't, the game isn't fun. Any examples of that?
Miles Jacobson

Something like buying a player, and not being able to sell them for seven days. That was put in because people would pay silly wages in a wage auction for a player, and then put them on the general market hoping that someone else really wanted that player, but maybe hadn't seen the wage auction going on. They'd then make a profit on selling them.

There are lots of examples on the finance side of things, but some of them are features which are being added for 1.01 - the January release. Do you have to add more of those fake game mechanics than you expected to?
Miles Jacobson

Yes, because we didn't expect so many people to cheat. Mainly because we didn't cheat when we were playing the alpha. But that's what beta tests were for - I wouldn't say we were disappointed that there were so many people cheating, but some of the best beta testers we had were people who were constantly trying to exploit the game, because we've learned a lot from that... and hopefully fixed all the issues.

I'm sure that people will try and exploit as we go into it, and as soon as we see it we'll stop it happening for everyone. You've added a number of features this year to FM09, most notably the 3D match engine - how was it working with the team in Japan on that?
Miles Jacobson

The match engine was something we've been thinking about for a long time, and we've had a couple of attempts previously, but for whatever reason they hadn't worked. Around a year ago we took someone one who was at a much more senior coding level to the people we normally take on, so we sat down and worked out whether it was going to be possible to do it, what the limitations were for us as a studio and as a team in the roles that we had.

We realised that to put a full team of animators together, to do all the mo-cap work, was going to be a very, very difficult job for us to do if we wanted to get the 3D view of our existing match engine ready for FM09.

I'd gone to Japan for some FML business and went out for dinner with Kawagoe-san and asked him what the chances of getting the mo-cap and animation from the Sega sports team over there, and he said it wasn't a problem. The next morning he delivered a DVD to me with all the mo-cap and some animation stuff on there, which I brought back here, and the guys took some of it to help us to do all of the animations you can see inside the game.

The technology-sharing angle has been incredibly painless for us. There have been some other asks of that team as well, and they've delivered straight away. They've asked us for some of our technology too, which we've given them.

It's something that's being encouraged more and more between the studios Sega. We talk to each other anyway, but we're free to talk, we're free to share tech, free to share knowledge - and we tend to work together, rather than against one another.

We're very lucky in that there's a lot of mutual respect among the different development teams. That means that if we're stuck on something, it's very easy for us to talk to Creative Assembly, or Sega San Francisco, or the teams in Japan and get the information we need. It's been a real benefit.

There's no case for anyone being forced to use any technology, because that wouldn't work. For any developer to be told "You have to use this" - I don't see how that would work, personally.

But information sharing is incredibly useful - what difference does it make if we've got some code and one of the other studios needs the code we've already written? They may as well just grab it, it'll save everyone time. Something you've been quick to get involved with is new ways of marketing Sports Interactive products - Facebook, MySpace, and the latest FM09 content was debuted on your YouTube channel. What was the thinking behind that?
Miles Jacobson

We've used MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, our own community, there'll be a blog happening in another community in the coming weeks as well. We've had our own website and community up-an-running for many, many years. I worked on a website for one of our games back in 1996 when I first started, and there was already a community growing there from some of the other websites.

We've seen it grow and grow and grow, and our community is huge, and they're incredibly vocal. The people who are constructive are fantastic, but it's the internet, so you're going to get some disruptive people as well.

But we know we can talk to those people instantly, and we know they're our core customers. And if we were happy entertaining the same customers every year, and the same amount of people every year, it would be easy not to follow any of the other ways of doing things.

But the beauty of being able to use something like YouTube, or iTunes - which we're using at the moment - is that we're able to reach a much wider audience. As an example I do a podcast every other week, and we've just started the second season of it, and the first episode of this season... we go into the sports chart rather than the gaming chart (we experimented with the gaming chart last year but we decided to do sports) - the first one went in at number three in the iTunes sports podcasts, beating a lot of shows on Radio 5Live and TalkSport, and national newspaper podcasts.

From my perspective, the beauty of that is that so many more people will see it, so many more sports fans will see that we have a podcast out, and they're able to download it. That's actually more football-based rather than game-based - there are some exclusive features being spoken about in each podcast for the game, but it's mainly a football discussion. It helps get the brand out there and it helps spread the word about the new game.

With YouTube we wanted to do a video to announce the new features in the game, because with 3D it's something nice to look at. We found that just by doing the drip feed of new features through blogs, through MySpace, that works for the smaller features, but not for the bigger features - you don't get the big splash, because gaming websites will not report every day on new features that are being announced, they'd rather lots of stuff in one go.

So this year we looked at the 70 or 80 new features that are in the game, and worked out just over a dozen that we could do in one big splash. Press releases are boring - who cares about press releases any more? So we made a TV show.

Originally, when we looked at it, we were looking to get it on TV, and we realised there were so many restrictions to what we'd be able to do if we did it for TV that it wasn't viable. I met someone who works for Google/YouTube at a party, and she said we should put it on YouTube. So we did, and rather than the normal 50,000 people seeing the press release, it's had over 400,000 views to date [towards the end of September].

It was number one and number two in the UK when it came out, it's been featured in the gaming section - none of which you pay for, it's stuff you get if it's successful - and it spread it to a much wider audience that we could have done by putting it out as an exclusive on a games website. Those websites had an opportunity to embed the video directly, or link to it, or just report on the story, and different people did it in different ways - and it spread quite nicely virally.

It's always interesting experimenting, seeing what works, and if it hadn't worked - and if the podcast hadn't worked - we would have learned and not done it again. The difficulty now is coming up with something for next year of how to announce, because 400,000 is quite a lot of eyeballs to look at something away from traditional media. Are you surprised that other people don't use those channels more often?
Miles Jacobson

I think they will do in the future, I think some of them are already. Electronic Arts certainly are, and there are lots of other videos up there from other games developers and publishers as well. I haven't seen that many being pushed heavily by other publishers, but Sega have had a presence on YouTube for ages and their videos get good numbers.

I don't know how many developers have their own channels, but it's certainly worked incredibly well for us, and if there are any developers reading this, if they don't have the means to set up channels themselves, if they send me an email I'll gladly point them in the right direction.

It's been a very good thing to do, the amount of comments we've had has been fantastic, and people are asking for more videos from us as well now. So it's a good platform for us in future.

But one thing I would say is that if you're going to do something like this, don't just film it on Handycam - you've got to get it done properly. We were very fortunate in that Sega's brand marketing team were very keen to do this, and therefore there was budget in place to do it properly and professionally.

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

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