Capturing the essence of Football Manager – we speak with Football Chairman’s creator about the game’s development and future goals
I am immortal. I am the Jack Walker, Mohammad Al-Fayed, saviour sugar daddy vampire. Occasionally, I am also mad Jesus Gil – formerly at Atletico Madrid – or Florentino Perez at their ‘Galactico’ neighbours Real, promising turmoil and scandal or extravagant superstar-attracting spending in equal measure. And occasionally, just for a laugh, I can be Freddy Shepherd at Newcastle or the Blackburn Rovers Venky’s consortium, making joke decisions in the name of roleplay to emulate their incompetence.
All in all I have overseen the tenures of 125 different managers over 299 years, winning 93 Premiership titles with Sadlier FC including eight in a row from 2168-2176, where once we started out in England’s seventh division. Nowadays, though, our standards are higher: 3rd place finishes are disappointing as we should have taken more points against lesser teams like Arsenal, Liverpool, or Chelsea. Yes, Sadlier FC, a fictional creation of mine named after a street I once lived on, have well and truly hit the big time and added excitement and intrigue as an unexpected, but now bona fide challenger to the existing top 6 juggernauts in the top flight.
Outside of the latest FIFA, Pro Evo or Football Manager games, arguably only two titles in recent years have captured not only the excitement of football but also its follies and financial wastefulness: the indie hit New Star Soccer, now in its sixth iteration by merging ‘Be A Pro’ mode with simple Sensible Soccer playability – and a comparatively lower profile single player smartphone game. We spoke to Underground Creative’s James Black about the inspiration behind, construction of, and future plans for Football Chairman.
Developed by Black and his co-founder and director Sean Wilson, each of whom started making web-based Flash games and animations 15 years ago, the freely downloadable app represented a natural progression in their careers. With their company being the first in the UK to specialise in utilising Flash for viral marketing, no one – least of all Black himself – could have foreseen how this experience would contribute to Football Chairman’s popularity.
“I wasn’t really sure if people would enjoy playing as a chairman, or whether they might find the whole game too simplistic. So I just built it in my spare time without really imagining that many people would actually play it”, Black opens. But play it people did, despite the title still being in its ‘Lite’ incarnation and missing features such as cup competitions or the ability to run a team outside of England. And thanks to the game’s “in-built viral mechanisms”, its popularity spread through word of mouth to the point where the team’s servers were getting overloaded as fans flocked to save their promotion-chasing progress.
The ability to take an amateur non-league side up into the elite echelons of English football was inspired by classic management simulations of the 80s and 90s, where Black tells of how his dad taught him to code one at a young age on the family’s BBC Micro computer. With today’s Football Manager becoming even more of full-time affair than its already life-sucking forebears, with its Trequartista vs Complete Forward positional decisions and live match engines potentially taking a full 90-plus real minutes, it was time to dial things back a tad whilst giving their creation a fresh perspective.
“I’ve actually helped out on Football Manager for years doing research, so I love that game, but it does take up months of your life,” Black explains. “The aim with Football Chairman was just to create something that you could play for 10 minutes while you’re sitting on a train or waiting at a bus-stop…[and] I just thought there were a couple of gaps in the market. Firstly, a game that allowed you to be a chairman, and secondly, something as simple and addictive as those old games used to be”.
And thus, within a mere 6 month timespan and before you could utter the words “Abu Dhabi United Group”, Football Chairman was born. Forget allocating roles to coaches or screaming touchline instructions at your newly-signed Russian striker to “just feckin’ run around”: FC allows you to become the ultimate smoking jacket-wearing brandy-swilling authority for whom managerial sackings and star player signings is your day-to-day on-the-commute-home reality.
Living forever helps a bit, too: much like those manager games with their infamous ‘just one more match’ compulsions but without the concept of retirement, FC lets you keep going for as many seasons as your heart desires. Before you know it, you would have overseen a century of progress with your ever-expanding stadium capacity now hitting the hundred thousand mark – with each season only lasting around seven minutes. Well, that’s if your playstyle involves tapping through each game for instant outcomes rather than sitting through anguish-filled minute-by-minute report-style score updates. Football is a results-based business, after all, and what better way to encapsulate it than by having them pour in to the point where focus switches from not only a couple of years of decent league finishes, but setting a legacy of dominance of 1990/2000s Manchester United proportions.
“The manager was disappointed that you chose not to sign his latest transfer target.”
You’ll be seeing that message a lot. Despite playing the role of an apparently benevolent chairman you’ll soon find yourself running Vincent Tan-levels of interference to mould the club in your image in Roman Abramovich fashion rather than letting those pesky Villas-Boas types try to do anything as remotely offensive as the very jobs they were employed for. “Some of the chairmen are now as high-profile as the managers, so the game tries to reflect that”, Black notes. The final say is always yours, and hence you can royally piss off your latest manager by refusing to sign his targets and instead sell fan favourites when gargantuan 100 million bids come rolling in as you balance the books to reduce that 3-million a week wage bill. The stakes are high, too: run a club into debt for too long and it’s game over, and you’ll be back in charge of Withington FC in your 600-person all-standing local ground.
In this respect, Football Chairman highlights the stark reality facing many a supporter of teams making up the lower leagues, where financial recklessness by those at the top of the game has a crippling trickle-down effect. “All these billionaire owners and Premiership TV revenues mean it’s almost impossible for smaller clubs to take on big teams”, Black says. “But as a fan of a lower division team myself, what I wanted to do was capture that dream of taking a small club all the way to the very top just through clever management and hard work – sadly in real life it probably couldn’t happen anymore”. And true enough, as Man Utd canter to a 249th title in 320 years, one could say that the programming is spot on.
Just like its forerunners, that very fantasy of ‘doing a Swansea’ is where the magic of Football Chairman can be found, with such a small production managing to spring its share of pleasant surprises and presenting just enough stimuli to add flavour to the player’s own interpretation of in-game events. Black explains that “creating the in-game ‘universe’ was really the first stage of the whole process, and I was surprised by how well that went. But the cool thing is that, because the game itself is pretty simple, people fill in the gaps by using their own imagination. So when you sign a player called ‘M Gonzalez’, in your head he automatically becomes Mario Gonzalez, the flamboyant Argentinian international striker. People seem to enjoy that side of it, and actually seem to get very attached to their players!”
As for the billionaires, there is also the clever, non-intrusive option of paying a small sum of real money for a PSG/AS Monaco-style investment in your custom club. But thankfully for both purist gamers and football supporters, it’s entirely possible to not spend a single penny to achieve success, making FC more akin to the Southampton academy or Arsene Wenger model than those pay-to-win real owners.
There are flaws with the game as one might expect for a debut release, with the lack of cup and European competitions and play-offs, fickle fans calling for your head with alarming regularity, and contract renewal standoffs easily won by simply persevering with your terms until wantaway players inevitably accept – making Arsenal’s Ashley Cole negotiations look needlessly complex. Black promises that improvements to these will be added to the full version of Football Chairman in the “first few months of the year”, along with new features like “interacting with the fans, setting ticket prices, etc”, whilst ensuring that the new content doesn’t detract from the game’s simplicity. Your dream of steering CF Los Pollos Hermanos to the Spanish Primera Liga to knock Barcelona and Real Madrid off their perches may also soon come true, with the ability to chair clubs in other countries earmarked for “some point in 2014”.
“Even so”, Black offers, “we were very surprised by how many years people have played it for. We just assumed that people would give up once they won their first Prem title, but some people just keep going for hundreds of years. It’s great to know they’re enjoying the game enough to still get a buzz from winning their 200th title in the year 2350!”
So not only does Football Chairman offer a time-saving alternative to Football Manager, it impresses by keeping many of its charms intact: be it taking immense pride in the 17-year-old youth academy starlets produced from foundations you set in motion, or facing tough choices like staying safely in the black in fifth place or operating in debt to secure another league title. Whether the full version will allow you to truly do a Freddy Shepherd and insult your side’s female fans – or switch your side’s kit from blue to red on a whim – still remains to be seen, but with a sterling launch title such as this, one can only imagine how great its updates will be. Or similarly, how brilliant that old BBC Micro homemade title once was.
All Images: Underground Creative