Football Manager 2021 launches on November 24. In anticipation for the game's release, we sat down for an interview with developer Sports Interactive's studio director Miles Jacobson. As always, Mr. Jacobson was very responsive and informative while discussing topics such as the new features in FM21, the effects the coronavirus pandemic had on development, taking Football Manager back to console and much, much more!
Our conversation with Miles Jacobson took us in various directions, some of which we already foreshadowed. Prior to the interview, we had the opportunity to test the alpha version of Football Manager 2021 upon which we wrote a thorough preview. Here's what the Sports Interactive studio director had to say about the new game, the series as a whole and the processes behind it.
Let's jump straight into it, Miles! What can fans of the Football Manager series expect from FM21?
As you can expect from us every year, there are lots and lots of new features. We've had a complete revamp of the interaction in-game – the way press conferences work, the tone system is gone to be replaced with gestures. There were six tones before, now there are 32 gestures. Changes are not only with press conferences but in quick chats as well. You can now communicate with agents to find out if a player would be interested to join or not.
There are a lot of graphical changes, match engine and AI changes. We introduced our own version of xG, which I'm very proud of and believe is better than the systems out there in the real world. Worked very hard on new gens, manager faces and the graphic side of things, plus loads and loads more.
...it was really important to me that the mental health of my team was taken as seriously as we were taking the mental health of our players
Did you have to leave any ideas on the cutting room floor?
There were lots of things that we wanted to do this year that we ended up moving to future versions of the game and lots of things we had for future versions that we moved to this year. While we have delivered a lot of stuff in there, it was really important to me that the mental health of my team was taken as seriously as we were taking the mental health of our players. Therefore, there were some things that we would have loved to have done but we couldn't fit into the schedule. Those will come in future years.
That's how we work every year. There's always a process of cutting off of what I call my "dream feature set" around June and July when we realize we don't have enough time to do it all justice. It's part of the process. It was just a harder process this year because of everything that was going on in the world.
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How does that process of deciding what to do in a particular year go usually and was it affected by the pandemic?
It's basically a giant jigsaw puzzle that I'm trying to put together. I have a team that works on the features database, another team that works on the design and obviously, the dev team who are making the features and estimate how long are they going to take.
Once we have a feature signed off by me, it goes to the programmers and the artists who let us know how long it would take and whether we have enough hours in a day to be able to do it. Typically – there aren't. Typically, we're 20-30,000 hours over the limit, so what I do is start moving things around to fit within our schedule.
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It's a game in itself that we play very late into the cycle and it was no different this year. We're trying to fix that for next year and are already doing stuff for FM22 alongside our work on FM21.
...we sat down, talked about it and plotted together on how we can come back to console
An interesting milestone for FM21 is that it brings the series back to Xbox. How did this come to be?
Microsoft have been hassling us for about 11 years now. A few years ago, we partnered with them to bring the series to Xbox Game Pass for PC. We were a launch title for that platform and our relationship's just gotten better and better.
What happened is they said "Hey, the Series X is coming out, we'd love you to be on console again. What do we need to do?", we sat down, talked about it and plotted together on how we can come back to console with a game based on Football Manager Touch. It will have a few differences for Xbox which we haven't spoken about yet, but we'll do it soon.
We're just delighted to be coming back and try to give people a great football management experience on console, something we haven't been able to do for a while. We thank Microsoft for their patience for waiting on us to be ready to come back. It was their long-term aim to bring us back to console and we felt that now's the right time to do it.
We have gone away from our mantra of "realism, realism, realism", but I think we've done it for the right reasons, important reasons.
We already know that you've included the coronavirus pandemic in FM21 to some capacity, yet you didn't go all-in. What was the train of thought there and how did you balance between realism and escapism?
I've always been a firm believer that the game should be a simulation of the real world. That has helped shape the decisions of what goes into the game in the past. An example was having different versions of Brexit because we didn't know which one was going to happen, but we still had to have it in there.
With the pandemic, what became clear very early on is how much our game was helping people get through it. So I decided that we should take a different path. I spoke to a bunch of people – regular players of the game, and we could have done the whole thing with the pandemic potentially going on for two years, three years, four years, five years, but it was really clear that we were helping with people's mental health. That's why we decided to give in-game advertising over to mental health charities around the world, so that people playing the game are just one click away from getting help with their mental health if they need it. We were very mindful with this in our studio as well, making sure we were doing things to help the mental health of our team. We didn't want to be a trigger point for people.
There were certain things we couldn't avoid, like the lack of finance in the real world at the moment. If we had all the normal money in the game world, it would have made the game completely unrealistic. But crowds in the stadia? We all want to see crowds in the stadia, so we decided that we won't take that out. We weren't going to have a situation where players are getting injured with COVID and it's wiping through your whole team because that would only stress the person playing the game out more.
We have gone away from our mantra of "realism, realism, realism", but I think we've done it for the right reasons, important reasons. I wouldn't want to be responsible for us making someone's mental situation worse during these difficult times. I hope I've made the right decisions on that, I hope we've made the right decisions on that. We're not going to know whether we have or not because we're not putting a version of the game out with different decisions in it.
People seem to have responded well and say that we've got the right balance. Not everyone was happy but we could put out a 24 karat diamond in every box of the game that we ship and and someone will complain that it wasn't a 25 karat diamond. You can't please all of the people all of the time, so we hope we got that balance right to make it realistic but fun.
You do love to take care of the FM community, don't you? How much of the decisions you make are based on community feedback and how much is down to the studio's own vision?
We have three different "cohorts" of people that play Football Manager: the hardcore user – people that tend to follow me on Twitter, then we have the mid-core that play it a lot but aren't as engaged, and of course – the new players. When we come up with features each year, we make sure that each one of these groups has some features made for them.
For the hardcore, there's a perfect example with xG. It's something they've wanted for a while and we had to create our own system, because the systems that were out there in the real world weren't, for me, good enough. That's one example. For the mid-core, things like agent availability and the interaction revamp are there for them. And for the newer players, things like the transfer meetings are there to teach them of transfers and give them some pointers on what you should be doing in that area.
It's probably more of a 20% hardcore, 20% new and 60% mid-core split because that group is so much bigger. That's how the process goes. We just try to make sure there's something there for every group. There'll always be something for the hardcore but they also understand that there are people that play the game in different ways that are probably a larger group. And those features are still valid for them, they may still enjoy those features. It's just that they are not specifically designed for that group.
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When you get a new job in FM21, you're introduced to the club's five-year plan. What is Football Manager's five-year plan?
I could tell you that, but then I'll have to kill you. It's all very, very, very top secret. The next couple of years are pretty much defined already but all it takes is for one person to come up with an idea I think's incredible and I think needs to be in the next game and we're ripping up the whole game anyway.
It does change a lot. Five years is a very long time in our cycle. I hope we're still able to make games in five years. I hope people are still going out and buying them to give us that possibility. We've got so many ideas of things that we want to do. All I can say is that the future is bright, but I'm not gonna start talking about FM22 yet, let alone FM26 or 27.
Fair enough. Thank you very much for your time and let's have this chat again in five years to see where we're at, shall we?
Looking forward to it! Stay safe!