Thursday, 6 November 2014

My Personal Games of 2013: Football Manager 2014

To understand why football manager is successful you need to understand what it's like to be a football fan.

Supposedly the most stressful situation any human can be put in is one when either fight nor flight serve them well. Where they are compelled instead to ensure punishment and reward administered with administered with equal randomness. Cause and effect suddenly become seemingly disconnected, and the mind finds itself lost, the rational taking a backseat as superstition and ritual step forth to fill the gap where once logic ruled.

That someone would voluntarily put themselves in this situation seems absurd, but every week millions of fans do just this for there is no game in the world, where expectations are so readily confounded and hopes so frequently dashed as football.

To someone who has never sat part of a crowd thousands strong, their stomach's sinking as their collective dreams collapse FM's combination of stats, diagrams, and spread sheets, can feel like a awfully clinical. But to those who have for nearly two decades Sports Interactive's Football Manager series of games (& its predecessors Championship Manager) provided a quiet oasis of order in their lives. A place where the cruellest of sporting mishaps are just on reload away.

However as the series has become increasingly more complicated in its attempts to be a ever more accurate simulation some of the feelings that its players were attempting to flee began to make their way into the game. What had been a understandable abstraction of a complex game, because a mess of sliders, and impenetrable terminology.

It was like a old friend had turned up one day and without warning started speaking a foreign Language, leaving people understandably concern they might never understand it quite the same way. SI made their first attempts to remedy this by introducing a simplified Classic Mode, but part of what made 2014 the most important revision to this formula for a long time is that it took the first tentative step to resets list a common language between game and player.

Game theory maintains that verbs are the building blocks of any game, 2014 took what was an abstract set of numbers made it into a lexicon of terms familiar to anyone with a love of football(& provided detailed tooltips to explain them for everyone else).
Additionally unlike in some previous iterations of the series this was not a one way conversation, for those prepared to listen to what the same game was telling them FM2014 was the first in the series where FM provided both a compelling tactical and strategic experience.

Strategy players have always been served well by FM, the freedom to build up, and tweak a unstoppable footballing engine before pointing it at a unsuspecting AI's and watching the highlights flash by as their opponents quickly found themselves outmatched.I always feel like the big test for any strategy game is how well a 'plan survives contact with the enemy', and unfortunately in many of the previous FM's both the most optimal and easiest approach was to just adopt whatever the most fashionable formation of the moment happened to be and brute force your way to victory.
It offered one of the most deeply compelling examples of mechanical optimisation you will find outside the Board game world, where the Eurogame genre has long offered a perfectly ordered refuge from the unpredictability of day to day life.

FM2014 showed the beginning of something different, for the first time it became just as viable to play as a tactically reactive manager as it was to be a proactive one.
The improved match engine, and switching of the tactics menu to a set of clear actionable verbs meant that for me for the first time it felt to me that it was not just possible but actually advisable to watch how things played out in the match engine, see where problems were developing and adapt appropriately.

Every game became a sequence of planing, execution, observation, and adaptation. Forcing me to build a toolkit of players to help take apart the interlocking puzzles that every match posed. I started to value players not just for what they allowed my team to do but for what they stopped my opponents from doing.

In the end to not only fundamentally change the focus of what has been one of the most successful franchises of the past two decades, but to do so in a way which moves it away from being a unchallenging comfort food to tuck into after your team has taken a beating and into something which helps you understand why they took that beating was a risky but extremely impressive chance for SI to take. One which to a lifelong fan of the beautiful game feels like something very special indeed.

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