Numbers and small circles. That’s pretty much all Football Manager Live is. But in much the same way that football itself is just a ball, some grass and twenty two players, yet utterly compelling, FML does a lot with its seemingly limited materials.
Football management sims have always been prime candidates for conversion to an online world – they already look like browser games, and the allure of pitting your well-honed tactics against real people is obvious to any would-be armchair (or in this case, desk chair) managers. The only surprise is that its taken this long for any of the heavyweight developers to take the idea of a browser-based management game and turn it into subscription-funded MMO.
Here’s how it works. Players opt for a subscription which gives them access to the game for a set period (the boxed version seems like the cheapest way in, as it comes with a code for four months play and can be had for £15-20.) Then the serious work of pondering things like Team and Stadium names begins – surely decisions just as important as the first pretend band names you came up with as a daydreaming kid. Once that info is in place, players must join one of various ‘game worlds’ (I selected one which described itself as largely populated by managers new to the game) and, once inside that world, a Football Association to attach themselves to. These FAs place their members into various league and cup competitions and are organised broadly along the lines of when people feel they will most likely be online to play. As a lazy freelancer who never gets up before midday and who wanted to play in his pants, I joined an Afternoon FA.
People joining a game world already in progress are given an auto-selected bunch of eighteen players, but are also able to poke around in the pool of available talent and do some tinkering before settling on a squad. Those who join very early therefore have more talent to initially choose from – though I wasn’t unhappy with the hand I’d been automatically dealt. It may not be very realistic for Portuguese internationals to mix with obscure South Americans and League One journeyman defenders, but it makes for an interesting tactical puzzle to fit them all into a workable formation.
Of course you’re not stuck with this initial squad forever, and once your team begins to earn a little cash (for which joining an FA and earning television/competition money is very handy) you can begin to take part in one of the more important aspects of the game – wheeling and dealing in talent. Whether by official transfer, auction or private bid, developing an eye for overlooked genius (or, indeed, simply a decent squad player who will fit your style of play) is something to concentrate on. Knowing you’re up against real people in the race to secure that pacey winger’s services also adds a nice social dimension. Which, of course, is the point of all this.
Indeed, there are two things which clearly differentiate FML from regular single player football management titles. The social aspect is obvious, and we’ll come to that in a moment. The other is Sports Interactive’s decision to add an RPG-style (no, really) skills development system to the game. Some hardcore players (and maybe even some not-so-hardcore) are going to utterly despise this, but in terms of ensuring everybody starts off on a level footing, it makes considerable sense. In order to ‘unlock’ various aspects of the game – be it a tactical slider which tells your defenders how hard to tackle, or the ability to scout for more players in far-flung areas of the globe – the relevant skill must first be learned. This takes place in realtime (for example, to learn a basic coaching skill may take three hours, but later, higher level skills take closer to a week) and when one skill finishes, another needs to be started pretty sharpish so you don’t fall too far behind. Although it’s far from realistic that your starting squad have literally no knowledge of the offside trap whatsoever, it is a clever way of making sure that no team can develop too fast, while still giving a slight advantage to anybody willing to be online enough to make sure that no research time is ‘lost.’ It also (albeit artificially) gives a convincing sense of your team improving over time. Having ‘real’ international-class players slumming it with extremely weak teams who haven’t even figured out a proper throw-in routine seems incongruous at first, but actually adds a much-needed air of the unpredictable to a genre which was in danger of going stale through attempts to be all too realistic.
The social side of things is harder to judge at present. Talk during matches themselves (organised via a challenge system which informs you when an opponent which whom you have a fixture is online) is fairly hit and miss. Many players seem to maintain a strict silence in the match day chat box, giving the impression (whether accurate or not) that they’re playing with ruthless efficiency and have no time for idle banter. Every fifth player or so, however, is happy to shoot the breeze about the game, their injury woes or just football in general. This should gradually improve as regular communities form, teams begin to recognise one another and rivalries develop alongside friendships. The FA system seems to be going some way towards encouraging these kind of relationships to flourish and it will be important for this to succeed for the sake of the social side of the game. There are also a myriad of unofficial tournaments to enter in each game world for fun and prizes, which should help matters too. For now, proceed with the knowledge that the international statement of friendly online play ‘gg mate’ will serve you well.
Those gs are indeed g, because the match engine (which recreates the play as a top-down 2d affair, rather than the 3d engine of FM09) responds rather well to the desired method of play. I set out to play a slow tempo, South American style possession game, with a couple of quick wingers and a lone forward on hand for swift counter-attacks and that’s pretty much how my team performed. Of all the aspects of a football management game to get right, this is the most important – the engine must be able to maintain the premise (even if illusory) that the manager’s tactical decisions have the desired effect on the pitch. After a few friendlies it became clear that my current strikeforce was a little unreliable and it might be useful to find some wingers who could actually cross a ball, but the point is I was actually able to identify these problems from watching the games and had the tools available to me to put them right. This is testament to FML’s ability to give appropriate feedback to observant players through the match engine. When newly learned skills unlock aspects like corner routines, these too seem to have a noticeable effect.
As with most MMOs, it’s difficult to predict the precise long-term future for FML. For now, SI seem to be focused on making sure it’s as attractive as possible for new managers to jump in and have some sort of chance. The skills system and other economic tricks like transfer taxes appear to be in place to ensure the hardcore can’t simply steamroll newbies from day one and that nobody gets disproportionally wealthy. If this is sounding too much like communism for your liking, bear in mind that a completely free-market version of FML, operating like real football, probably wouldn’t be a whole lot of fun. The overall result of such economic micro-management, however, is hard to foresee; as is the progression of the social aspects of the game. Whether they will blossom into hundreds of tight-knit, thriving communities of fun and frolicks will largely depend on the communities themselves. Ensuring things stay fresh enough for those subscribers to remain interested after the first few seasons, though, will be down to SI.