"There have been plenty of 5am finishes": Sensi legend Jon Hare on Sociable Soccer, Helsinki nights, and future footy plans

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For many, the only two games in contention for 'greatest football sim ever' honours aren’t FIFA or PES - they're Sensible Soccer and Sensible World Of Soccer. This week, the most revered footy series of the '90s gets a spiritual sequel in the form of Sociable Soccer. The term ‘legend’ is bandied around far too liberally within gaming, but for Sensi creator Jon Hare, it’s surely merited. As he tells GamesRadar+ ahead of Sociable’s Steam release, even the greats of the sport occasionally have to suffer through some dressing room butterflies…

GamesRadar+: How are the pre-match nerves now Sociable is ready for release?
Jon Hare: Pretty jittery. We have tried this twice before and failed to pull it off properly so we cannot take anything for granted – but this time we have a great team, a brilliant game and a solid roadmap to keep on making it better and better over the next year.

How has the last month been? 5am starts and a race against the clock, or calmly applying the finishing touches?
We were initially pushing for an early September release, so the last couple of months have been pretty full on. Having said that, I love the process of everyone really pushing hard to make something happen when it really counts. We never have 5am starts, but plenty of 5am finishes. We are currently adding the finishing touches to the Early Access launch version, then there is a hell of a lot more to come throughout Early Access on Steam over the next three-to-four months.

I’ve been as guilty as anyone of billing this as a second coming for Sensible Soccer. Is that level of expectation a blessing or a curse?
It is useful, and flattering, to have the heritage of a few classic football games behind me – and to an extent the spirit in which this game is being made is similar to what we did with Sensible Soccer back in the '90s. But this is a very different team, working on very different machines, in a totally different era. It is great to have good interest from the older gaming community and of course we value this – however, it's vital that we appeal to a percentage of younger players too. Some previewers have even said that Sociable Soccer is better than SWOS. It is certainly a highly addictive game, we know that from almost everyone that plays it.

Why Sociable rather than, say, Sensible Soccer 2017 HD?
Sensible Soccer has been owned by Codemasters since 1999. We have to respect their copyright. Sociable Soccer is a very different game, but with fast, fun gameplay and real soccer world content at its heart.

How do the pillars of Sociable Soccer differ from your past football games?
Sociable Soccer has fast arcade action and a real football world at its heart like most of my football games, but as for what is different… Sociable Soccer was first conceived 10 years ago as a game in which you can represent your club and country online against the fans of other teams. Quite early during development we saw the immense cross-platform potential of the game: technically it’s possible to play any platform of Sociable Soccer against any other platform. Online arcade football gaming is at the very heart of the battle that Sociable Soccer is striving to win, and card collection is not new in football games, but I have never used it before. So it is new to me.

You’ve spent two years working on this with Combo Breaker – a studio based in Finland. From both a practical standpoint, and a personal one, how does it compare to developing in the UK?
Game development is all about the team. The guys I am working with are all very experienced individuals with a lot of hit games between them. I spend just as much time in the office in Finland as some of the guys who live outside of Helsinki or prefer to occasionally work from home. As long as we keep talking when we are not together, on Slack mostly, things progress. Personally I am used to travelling a lot for my work, although sometimes I grow tired of it.
I have never moved myself or my family to these other countries and cities, I just outsource myself to the development team – visiting on average one or two weeks per month, and doing the rest of the work online.

What drove you to work there in the first place?
I have been working in different countries around Europe, as well as UK, for a long time now. Two years in Ukraine, six months in Turkey, five years in Poland and now two years in Finland. I go to where the work, or potential partnerships, are.

You’ve implemented VR, which is a world away from Sensi’s original top-down viewpoint. Was that a tough call to make?
It wasn’t a tough call. We are a totally cross-platform game. The viewpoint is quite zoomed out, as if you are sitting in the TV gantry viewing the game through a centre-line TV cam. Our lead programmer Jouni tried VR as an experiment over a year ago, and it looked great in about one day of trying. VR is really not the main focus of this game at all, as it represents a tiny fraction of the potential market. Nevertheless our VR is very cool. We displayed it in the London Science Museum last year and have been asked to go back again this year.

The series made a comeback on PS2 in 2006, but it felt to me like a mis-step. A decade on, how did that experience inform Sociable Soccer?
Sensible Soccer 2006 was Codemasters' attempt at turning Sensible Soccer into 3D. I worked on the game very closely right the way through as lead designer, together with David Darling and the Kuju team up in Sheffield. In my opinion the gameplay was actually pretty good – but the big heads were horrible, the forced 3D camera angle was not nice and the last-minute bug fix that sucked the ball into the goalkeeper’s hands was unbelievably bad. I really hate [saying] this but it was ‘out of my hands’ at the time.

What’s the development plan from here?
Content wise, the first version of Steam Early Access Sociable Soccer will be fairly similar to Sensible Soccer, with the focus bring on PvP friendlies, 67 real world competitions with over 1,000 teams to choose from, and also Boss Mode. That allows you to upgrade your own boss character by winning tournaments from all around the world. We are also putting the finishing touches to the lobby system for online play. That will be featuring at some point during Early Access, along with customisable tournaments and Online League mode, where you choose which of the 1,000 world clubs you wish to represent. You then collect, upgrade and swap around 30,000 player cards to assemble your team, before taking on fans of other clubs online.

Are you still hopeful of PS4 and Xbox One versions in 2018?
Absolutely. The only thing that will stop us is if the market uptake of the game is poor. These are the kind of pre-match nerves we are having right now. 

Sociable Soccer is released for Steam on 12 October. Want more football reading? Then be sure to check out GamesRadar+’s reviews of FIFA 18 and PES 2018.