VBG: Football Manager Live: The MMO Evolution of Football

Did Sega’s new MMO football management sim have a debut to remember, or was it sent off to an early bath for foul play? The answer to these and more football clichés in this week’s Very British Gamer.

Be warned; Football Manager Live and Football Manager 2009 are not the same game. OK, yes, that’s obvious, but don’t let them both having Football Manager in their titles fool you into thinking they are similar, because they aren’t. Please don’t buy Football Manager Live if you think it’s going to be the same Football Manager experience, but played with countless others across the globe. Don’t buy it thinking that you can play as your favourite club with your favourite players. Don’t buy it thinking that you can instantly dive into a well of intricate tactics. If you do any of these things then you will be sorely disappointed, because Football Manager Live is a whole new life form, mister.

My unusually shaky start is proof of that, of course. So, once I’d signed up, chosen my game world and created my fabricated club (the mighty Reilloc Elite), I selected a squad from players available within my budget. Wait, doesn’t that sound familiar? Well, the fantasy football approach makes sense within the game’s limitations, since it does begin with tons of newly created clubs and many more tons of unsigned players. Regardless, I soon realised that I wasn’t sure how much money I should spend initially; should I go for a couple of superstars, relying on them whilst sacrificing the rest of my squad’s quality, or go for the conservative option and purchase only fairly competent players whilst saving a few pennies? The only indication was the imposed wage constraint, but I still wasn’t sure of what other investments might have to be made in the future, such as stadium improvements and youth team academies. Consequently, it was no surprise when the first team I amassed proved themselves to be total garbage. How was I supposed to know how good they’d be?

Being a smart, beautiful, and astute reader – you are reading one of my columns after all – you’ll have noticed that I said “the first team I amassed”. That’s because Football Manager Live generously lets managers reset their club, as long as they do it within seven days of originally setting it up. That’s what I did, and I suspect that I wasn’t the only manager who chose this option, an apparently defeatist one since the game tells you that you should hang your head in shame for doing so. Well, loads of people should be doing exactly that right now if the game’s news stream was anything to go by. Either way, it’s a munificent liberty to extend to noobie managers, and one that I was most grateful for.

After resetting my club, and thanks to being more knowledgeable of deeming which players were worth my money, of my club’s likely financial projections, and on how to balance the two, I was able to settle into my second attempt with some positive results in friendly matches. OK, so this wasn’t world domination for a humble club from the small town of Halifax, but thanks to the familiarity of the historically much-maligned spreadsheet interface, modest top-down 2D perspective for matches, and the tactics page’s Subbeuto-esque look, it still felt like good ol’ Football Manager.

I had been fooled, however, because Football Manager Live is its own beast, and looks can be deceiving. So, once again, be warned, because this game is definitely an MMO. Here’s an example of its MMO-ness: rather than having all the tactical options available at the start of the game like Football Manager 2009 allows managers to have, Football Manager Live makes managers learn their tactical (and coaching) skills over time. So, if managers want to learn how to make players use the offside trap or man-marking, they’ll have to learn that skill over the course of what can be minutes, hours, or days depending on the skill. Dammit Football Manager Live, I know how to tell my team to man-mark! Yes, it’s a little patronising and strange, but there is a good side to it, as skills can be learnt whilst managers are signed out. Unfortunately, they can’t be set up into an automated queue, meaning there can be periods of time when you’re not learning a skill that other managers are. Yes, you can set up to learn skills that take a long period of time to learn when you plan to be signed out for a long period, but the principle goes against the developers’ theory of a game that wasn’t going to give advantages to players who play more frequently. Hmm, what genre does that remind you of? Well, it reminded me of the same one.

Maybe I was being too sensitive, and maybe the skills issue wasn’t akin to the infamous MMO grind, but Football Manager Live was increasingly feeling similar to World of Warcraft and its peers, no less than when I encountered the game’s transfer system. The transfer and auction lists were noticeably similar to WoW’s auction house, and the same MMO principles of maximum bids, instant buys, and timed auctions applied, as did their annoying companions. Yep, ridiculously overpriced rubbish that wasn’t worth a moment of my time shoved its way to the top, people were shouting WTB and WTS in the transfer lobby, and there was an unrelenting flux of transfer messages that were too overwhelming to partake in but too important to ignore. Honestly, I didn’t think I’d see people using WTB and WTS in Football Manager Live. Perhaps it’s pretentious to say it, but it just didn’t seem right for a Football Manager game.

So, before I falsely lead you down this ever-winding negativity road too long, I’d better admit that I don’t have too much of a problem with all of this. Maybe it’s because I’m an MMO fan, because I’m used to the niggles and oversights of MMOs. Either way, if you stop judging Live against other Football Manager games’ polish, and start judging it against MMOs, it all clicks, and from underneath the game’s many imperfections rises a fun, convincing, online management sim.

Take the WoW-esque skill set; choosing which skills to learn when is a strategy in this game, too. For example, adding counter-attacking early on gave my side a strong option in those early, tricky away games, and combining it with set piece skills proved to be a rewarding strategy. Even then, I had to balance it against other managers’ tactics, and knowing that I was up against someone with a limited skill set gave it a different feel than playing against the AI from Football Manager 2009. Sure, there wasn’t as much depth, but this was a different kind of challenge that capitalised on the game’s most important factor; the human one.

As for the game’s AI, it was sturdy, as it should be since matches will be passed by it if they aren’t played by their set date (seasons must be completed within a period of weeks). Sometimes I’ve had the AI play for me, sometimes I’ve played against it, and either way it’s been pretty balanced. There’s an argument that the AI is too sturdy, and that it nullifies the human factor, but I think it’s just the game doing a decent job of finding an average level of competence for the AI to operate at, or that the AI is just doing a good job of representing the choices the manager would have made based on the limited options he had. So, even though this game isn’t quite as casual-friendly as it could be, it has features like a strong AI to take managers’ places, borrowed auction house mechanics from WoW, and reset functions for noobs who’ve screwed up their first go.

Since this isn’t a review (an American site doing a Football Manager review sounds like a dodgy business to me), I’m happy to conclude that this is what I really wanted from Football Manager Live. It’s interesting, it doesn’t suck up all of my time, and I’m having fun with it. It’s not going to set the world on light like some reviews would have you believe, but I do think it’s going to be successful, even if it’s nothing like any of the successful Football Manager games before it. This is the MMO evolution of Football Manager.

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