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Football Manager 2005: the post-game analysis

SI's Marc Vaughan on how they built a championship winner

Chances are you're already up to your baggy eyeballs with transfer fees, spoilt superstars throwing tantrums, disgruntled fans calling for your head and parasitic sports journalists twisting your words into spitting diatribes of hatred - and loving every minute of it.

Yes, Football Manager 2005 hit shelves across Europe today like a Wayne Rooney wonder strike. Girlfriends and wives are up in arms about this new threat to stable relationships and the government is crapping itself about the combined cost of millions of Sports Interactive-induced sick days.

As part of our pre-match coverage we quizzed Sports Interactive MD Miles Jacobson on Monday to get a sneak peak at Football Manager 2005's tactics and why it's better than last season's effort.

And today we're moving to the training ground to speak to Sport's Interactive's Marc Vaughan, the man responsible for whipping the Football Manager 2005 code into shape. He's spent the past year putting it through its paces, coaching its progress and making sure the final version is completely 110% match fit.

We sat down with Marc to find out what's at the heart of a championship winning effort like Football Manager 2005.

Just how different 'under the hood' is FM2005 to Champ Manager 03/04?

Marc Vaughn: It's considerably different from CM03-04 having had an extra year of development, tweaking and tuning from our previous game engine. I consider FM to be a natural evolution of the previous game and am confident in indicating that it's our best version yet.

Has developing FM2005 been a significant departure from developing the new versions of Champ Manager?

Marc Vaughn: It's been a very similar process and indeed our aims for the game are very similar as for the previous games - simply create the most realistic, playable and addictive management game possible.

The main 'departure' that has been possible with FM is to give the whole user interface of the game a much deserved makeover. The GUI for the new game is much more intuitive and logical than for the previous games we've made.

Have you had more creative freedom on the development side to try new things or do things you haven't had the chance to before?

Marc Vaughn: Sports Interactive have always retained full control of our games creation and how they evolved so no this hasn't changed at all for FM. It has been cool, however, that Sega (and Miles at SI) have managed to acquire so many official league licences for this game. While largely cosmetic touches, these are nice additions to have in the game.

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We're told FM2005 runs around 40% faster than CM03/04. How was this speed increase achieved?

Marc Vaughn: This speed increase was achieved by optimising the code base in the game and also by harnessing the power of the (increasingly common) multiple processor/hyper threaded systems.

One of the advantages the Championship Manager 5 team claim they have is that because they're developing the code from the ground up they can optimise it to perform as quickly as possible. How do you react to this?

Marc Vaughn: I look forward to the release of their game with interest, to be honest I'd prefer to concentrate upon making our game as good as possible rather than get into a tit-for-tat with a rival developer.

Inherent in the Champ Manager 5 team's comment is the notion that FM2005
will be slower as it's built upon an existing code infrastructure. To what extent is this true?

Marc Vaughn: I don't think this is true at all to be honest. So long as software is structured sensibly from the beginning optimising a program is something which can be done effectively at any stage.

Football Manager is designed in a modular format that makes evolution and optimisation of the code intrinsically easy as each section of the code can be refined separately in a blackbox environment.

I would go so far as to say that in a lot of ways it's much easier to optimise a mature codebase than it is to do so for a new game engine. This is simply because our code is tried and tested and as such the fundamentals didn't require large changes for FM2005 - it was mostly refinement and enhancement.

When a program is new it changes more frequently making optimisation more difficult as any optimisation done prematurely will likely be undone by later changes to the game engine.

What advantages and disadvantages does building on existing code offer?

Marc Vaughn: It takes a lot of time and experience to build a realistic management game, so evolutionary modular code is a huge advantage for SI,

The advantages of having an existing code base are fairly obvious, we've based FM2005 upon the most successful and realistic management game software developed before. Being able to enhance and add to that engine obviously is a huge boon for us.

There are no real disadvantages to using the existing codebase, the code was designed to be modular in fashion and to allow the game to evolve over a period of time which is exactly what we're doing with it.

Eidos has been eager to promote Championship Manager Online. What can you tell us about FM2005's online options and how do you see online multiplayer in the football management genre?

Marc Vaughn: Football Manager 2005 takes the same approach to management play as we have for the previous titles we developed . You can play online games free of charge with your friends simply by starting a network game and then letting your friends connect to your server.

We've listened to feedback about network games in CM03-04 and have enhanced the control of such games with 'admin' features such as kicking players off the server (for instance if someone causes trouble) or forcing continue. These options help ensure that the game is as smooth and fun to play as possible.

What new features in FM2005 are you most proud of and which presented the most significant problems?

Marc Vaughn: I'm most proud of both the new GUI interface and the current evolution of the match engine which is a huge step up from our previous version.

The most problematic part of development was probably having to redesign much of the financial side of the game to cope with the lower level of league that is supported in FM2005.

The addition of the Conference North and South have added hugely to the challenge given to a player, not least because of the very constrained finances available at that level.

The manager mind games feature is an important addition to FM2005's gameworld. How difficult was it to implement this feature realistically?

Marc Vaughn: This was a definitely a challenge to implement, however I'm confident that not only has it been done successfully, but that this side of the game will give us a solid platform to go on and implement other features for the future such as increased player to manager interaction.

Something that won't be truly appreciated initially is that the 'mind games' feature is user enhancable. People will be able to edit and add to the comments available using our forthcoming 'media editor'.

The enhanced match engine seems far more impressive than before. How important do you think an accurate match engine is and how difficult is it to achieve?

Marc Vaughn: The match engine is looking very mature in FM. I think an accurate and realistic match engine is critically important to the success of a football management game as any weakness in the game world destroy the illusion of the 'real world' you're trying to create.

Creating a realistic match engine is a huge undertaking and is something that takes time, dedication and experience to get right. The match engine in Football Manager 2005 is now around 4 years old and I think you can see the love that has gone into creating it when you watch the matches.

What aspects of the match engine make you feel especially proud?

Marc Vaughn: Simply put, I love the fact that its like watching a real game of football. The games ebb and flow brilliantly and the tactical changes you make can have a huge effect upon your side's success (or indeed lack of it).

In general, how smoothly did the FM2005 development process go?

Marc Vaughn: The development of FM2005 went extremely smoothly and I'm very proud of the final game. I'm very lucky in that I work with a hugely talented and experience team which makes managing the development much easier and, indeed, ensures I can get on with helping to make the game myself.

Do you find it strange that, in this age of amazing visual effects and expansive game universes, that a game which - with all due respect - essentially crunches statistics is so beloved by millions of players?

Marc Vaughn: No, I don't. To be honest I think the main thing with football management games is that they capture a person's real-life passion - football - and their imagination. These two combine perfectly in FM to allow people to immerse themselves in a fictitious world where they control their favourite club and prove what they already know: that if only they were in charge, things would be different.

Champ Man has always been, and FM2005 will be, the kind of game that cannot be played casually, because casual players instantly become hardcore fans. What do you think is the secret of your success?

Marc Vaughn: I think one of the main reasons for our success is simply that we're all fans of our own game. It's imperative that people enjoy the game they're creating or they won't dedicate the same passion and commitment to getting it as perfect as possible.

What do you see in the future for the Football Manager series? Are there other platforms you'd personally like to expand to and do you have any pet projects you'd like to implement as features?

Marc Vaughn: I see Football Manager continuing to evolve in the future in a similar manner as has happened for our previous work .

As far as new platforms go, should any become available that can support games of this complexity then I'd consider looking into porting across to them as we did in the CM3 days to the Xbox. However, until that happens I'm content to concentrate on our current platforms.

Finally, there are a huge number of pet projects that I'd love to implement as features. I have a huge document containing literally hundreds of ideas for future versions, many of which have come from fans of the game via our forums on sigames.com. As for which ones will make it into next year's version, I'm afraid you'll have to wait and see.

We'll bring you our final impressions of Sports Interactive's footie management masterpiece tomorrow - keep it here for the definitive verdict.

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