When the idea of Football Manager Live was first mooted and the initial details became available, people were firmly split into two camps. There were those who were disappointed that real football teams wouldn’t be included, and that FML wasn’t setting itself out to be an online version of its parent. Others were just happy to be able to play Football Manager against a world full of humans, testing their skills against people for the first time.
Football Manager (and Championship Manager before it) has had an online option for a long time now, but this was restricted to a handful of players at most (apart from ultra-organised clan games) because players had a tendency to spend hours scouring the market, making everyone else wait. Sports Interactive have had to make significant changes to the way FM works in order to make it playable in the online arena, although anyone familiar with the offline version will be instantly at home. At least, they will be until they come across one of the most fundamental changes. For one, instead of just creating a manager, you’ll be putting together an entire club, right down to naming the stadium.
Many people have been disappointed with this decision, even going so far as to name their club after a real-world counterpart, but it gives you a great sense of connection to your creation. It’s your club, and the squad you assemble becomes far more personal than a preset collection of players you had no control in selecting. This allows you to construct a squad based entirely on how you like to play the game, fitting players into your tactics, rather than the other way around. This works well, but it has its drawbacks. You can pick who you want from real-world footballers (made-up players will appear as the game worlds grow older), but you’re also competing with thousands of other managers.
To stop other gamers picking all the best players before you even get there, you’ll start off with a small budget of £500,000 to assemble a squad. Money in FML doesn’t work the same as it does in offline FM: there won’t be any massive signings, at least, not until the game world you’re in has developed over a number of seasons (you can join a number of different worlds). This means most of the biggest names will be tantalisingly unavailable for a long time: at the time of writing, the likes of Kaka and Messi were still homeless.
What you’ll end up with is a team of average-to-poor players, with a couple of stars thrown in. Your initial selection could prove vital in giving yourself a headstart over your opponents, but it isn’t the be-all and end-all. As we know from FM, tactical skill can make up for the deficiencies of a weak squad. Because everyone will have a similar mix of players from the start, you shouldn’t feel as if you have no chance to win any matches against other starter teams. However, this means that luck seems to be a bigger factor than perhaps it should be. As most people will have teams of almost equal ability, it’s very difficult to get a consistent run of results going.
This leads to the unavoidable scourge of MMOs: those who devote the most time dominate very quickly. SI have attempted to counter this by creating various different official competitions for people who play more, less or at different times of the day. Good idea in theory, but people have already begun to abuse this. It’s the way of things that unscrupulous individuals will try to win at all costs, entering casual competitions in order to dominate more easily, earn more money and buy the best players. Good tactics and solid player acquisition can help you beat these players, and there’s nothing more satisfying than knowing your opponent is chewing furniture in frustration at having lost to a much lower ranked opponent.
The match engine itself is effectively the same as the one in Football Manager 2008, but it only has the 2D blob mode available (some will be thankful for this). This is one area SI have left alone, in terms of FM’s fundamentals. There’s one important thing they have decided to change, though – the way tactics are implemented.
Being an MMO, SI has sought to extend the lifespan of the game by introducing a role-playing element to your manager. When starting out, you choose a template – tactician, super scout, physician, that sort of thing – and you’re awarded a set of free skills. The templates give you a head start; for example, choosing the tactician will grant you a lot of the starting skills you’d otherwise have to spend time learning.
From then on you have to learn the skills you’ll be utilising. For example, if you want to play counter-attacking football, your manager will have to learn this, unlocking the button in the tactics menu once this has been completed. Initially this is frustrating, as you’ll be wanting to tweak your tactics before and during matches but won’t be able to. Once you get used to it, however, it adds an element of interest beyond the everyday grind of playing through your fixtures, especially when learning scouting skills. The higher the level of the skill you’re learning, the longer it takes (the highest levels take nearly a month to learn), so you’ll be there for the long term if you want to max out everything.
SI have made the conscious decision to hook players in for a long period with the skills system and a regeneration/youth system that will slowly replace the established stars as game worlds age. Perhaps it will even add up-and-coming stars of the real world as time goes by? We certainly hope so.
As with any MMO, the community is key to the game’s development. While you can set up friendly competitions with your mates, there are hundreds of unofficial tournaments cropping all the time, so you’ll probably never be stuck for a match. Even if you’ve exhausted the competitions, you can challenge people to friendlies or just make yourself available to other players using the Match Finder. It’s rare that you’ll ever be waiting more than a few seconds for a match if you use this.
The scouting system is essentially manual – that is, you do your own scouting for players – but the way SI have implemented it in FML is unique. Scouting is contained within the Skills section of the game, and you learn it to view the full number of players in the game. Each time you scout a region, the game unlocks 5% more of the players from that area for you to view. This means you can snap up the bargains and hidden gems a long time before others can bid, so you don’t necessarily want to neglect this area of the game in favour of being able to tweak the Closing Down slider by 15 instead of 10 notches, for example.
One thing that may put potential players off – considering a lot of people will have already forked out for FM 2009 (and its predecessors) – is the cost. Charging around £8 a month for what some are still calling an animated spreadsheet is potentially taking the piss. It isn’t really that expensive (FML is cheaper than World of Warcraft), but we won’t be surprised if gamers are reluctant to take up the FML challenge. If SI have miscalculated, it could defeat the whole purpose of FML. The fewer people playing, the less fun it will be, so players could be more reluctant to keep up their subscriptions. This is a vicious circle that a number of newly‑launched MMOs have suffered from (such as Age of Conan), and it could undermine the entire project, which would be a great shame.
However, SI seem to be aware of this and, in an attempt to counter it, are giving away four months’ worth of playtime when you buy FML. Compared to the standard 30 days’ time other new MMOs offer, this is immensely generous. And four months should be plenty of time to get enough managers hooked to the point where they’ll be be willing to then cough up the subscription fee.
There’s a lot to write about FML but only a limited amount of space to do so, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’ve missed out some minor points. Essentially, SI have succeeded in transferring their offline management opus into the MMO arena, although they haven’t yet managed to kill off the scourge of the obsessive MMOer. FML is one of those games that will reward those with lots of time on their hands more than the casual player. At least, that’s the case at the moment.
There’s so much potential here, and the game has barely kicked off. As it stands, it’ll take the most determined of FM Luddites to avoid at least giving FML a go. The addition of an all-human world could potentially revolutionise the football management genre, making this evolution its most important step forward yet.
While FML may have some faults, the addictive Football Manager gameplay we know, love and tear our pubic hair out in rage over is there in a different, equally intriguing form. So if you think you can take us on, search for Oscar’s Wilde Boys.
Feb 10, 2009