Category: FM2008

Football Mismanager

I am a born-again Football Manager. I have been playing Football Manager 2008 regularly for the past month. (I’m avoiding FM2009 until I get a PC good enough to run the new 3D match engine without any trouble.) At first my intention was to play for just an hour or so per week. This has crept up and up to the point where I’m playing at least a match or two every day. At weekends, I’m playing for a couple of hours. I’ve been tempted to start a spin-off from this blog called FM Chronicles. But one blog is enough to be getting on with. I’ll restrict myself to just talking occasionally about Football Manager here.

FM2008 isn’t my first FM game. But it’s my first for a few years. I played Football Manager 2005 for a good while, back in the day. I was unemployed at the time of its release and after many false starts and sackings I managed finally to get Coventry City (who else) promoted to the Premiership. By that stage I was pretty much addicted. But things were brought to an abrupt halt when I got a job. I didn’t play my FM2005 career for a while, and just drifted away from the whole ‘scene’…

speccy-football-managerBefore that my only previous experience of a football management game was 20 years earlier, in the 1980s. I was a fan of the original Football Manager on the ZX Spectrum. (It is playable online here.) It amazes me now how satisfied we were with so little. Back in 1985, this ridiculously primitive game was the epitome of management sim sophistication. Grown men salivated about it in the gaming magazines of the time. Seriously. How will we look back on FM2008 in 20 years from now? I do wonder.

Once again I’m playing as Coventry City in FM2008. This is mostly laziness. It’s been a number of years since I’ve followed the actual fortunes of the real Coventry City with anything like devotion (it must be a decade now since I last saw them play). But it’s easy to play with your hometown club, or any club whose players you know well. I know all the players and I know where they play. There’s none of the getting-to-know-you time that annoys me so much when starting with another club whose players are unfamiliar.

Starting in season 2007-2008 in FM2008, Coventry are among the weakest of the teams in the Championship. It’s a tough, tough challenge trying to get them out of this rut. So far so realistic. I signed a few likely lads in the August transfer window—among them one Nick Barmby, for £9000 from Hull.

barmby-profile-fm2008

He’s still only 33 years old. And he proved quite handy to start off with, grabbing some crucial goals and performing well all-round. The number of positions he can play in made him invaluable. He was easily my best player. Could I build my team around him and lead a charge up the table?

No:

fm2008-table

That’s the table after 24 games. That’s Coventry down there. At the bottom. I’ll be sacked soon—it’s only because it’s a game that I’ve survived for even  this long. No matter. As with FM2005, this is going to be one of the ‘tutorial careers’. There may be a few more before I finally start having success.

There doesn’t seem to be any way back for me in this career. During an International break I scheduled a morale-boosting match against the reserve team. This is what happened:

being-beaten-by-reserves

Utter humiliation. And that’s how things stand right now. When I get sacked I’ll restart, again with CCFC. And then, if/when I finally get it right, I’ll start dabbling in Lower League Management, which is a whole other level of immersion.

As a game, Football Manager shouldn’t work. Sceptics’ favourite critique of the genre, that it’s like playing an Excel spreadsheet, is unfair in a lot of ways, but mercilessly accurate in others. The menus are anti-intuitive and confusing. It’s not clear where everything relevant is located. There’s an awful amount of fiddling and micro-management that goes on, particularly in the latest iterations of FM. And yet, as a game, it does work.

And it’s not just FM. Before there was FM, there was CM. Or Champ Man, as I believe it must be called…

Championship Manager 01-02—reputed to be the best-ever Championship Manager—has just been made available as a free download. You have to register there on the official site to get at the download, and then the download turns out to be a disc image that you have to mess around with instead of a standalone .EXE file (tut-tut), but it’s worth it. Boy is it worth it.

The first set of Champ Man games came out during a period when I had no computer of my own. Yes, there was a time just before the turn of the century when it was still quite rare for people to have computers in their homes. I heard about the CM games, of course. They had become a cultural phenomenon. Even non-gamers had heard about Championship Manager.

Its text-based matchday engine was something I had never understood. We are a visual species. Football is a visual game. How could text-only matches ever really work? How?

But text-only matches do work! After several matches, something clicked. I started intuitively following the action via the medium of that ever-changing strip of text. Not only that, I started enjoying it as much as—or more?!—than the 2D match in Football Manager. Browsing the CM forums over the past week, it seems that the text-only side of CM, coupled with the game’s greater simplicity overall, abstracts the game further into the player’s imagination. It makes you do more work to appreciate it, and thus your appreciation is proportionally greater. Or something.

There is still an active online community supporting the game. As a gamer, I think it’s quite something to see the evident love that so many people have for an avowed classic of the genre. There’s an active effort to keep the game updated with patches. There is a patch to bring the game bang up to date with 2008-2009 squads and competitions, but I’m playing CM01-02 with the original database. For now I prefer the nostalgia of 2001-2002, when my life was very different, and Coventry actually had some good players.

cm0102-2

I managed to get CM0102 working on a USB stick and it is turning out to be a dangerous luxury. I’ve been playing it at work, and at home. At work it runs flawlessly from USB on the office’s XP machines. At home it runs—with occasional niggles—on my Vista laptop. Here it is running in windowed form:

cm0102-1

(When I get a chance later, I’ll outline all the steps I took to get the CM01-02 download working on a USB stick. I’ll put them in the comments on this post.)

Many years ago now, when my first PC was still a distant dream, I asked a friend who often talked about his ‘Champ Man’ exploits just what the fuss was all about. He said that if he was deeply into a game of CM and he heard Radio 5’s ‘going around the grounds’ buildup to a bunch of real-life matches, he wondered why his team wasn’t being mentioned… I must have looked blank, because he then said it was impossible to explain properly: you just had to play it for yourself.

He was right. The other night I saw a preview on Channel 5 of some UEFA cup match, and the mere sight of a man in a football kit kicking a ball instantly made me think of my team. Or teams. I thought of my FM2008 team and the precarious position they find themselves in, thanks to my (mis-)management. I thought about my CM01-02 team and the big League Cup quarter-final that I’ve somehow got to (thanks to that amazing 2001 squad!).

Just this week, a work colleague who has never even heard of Champ Man—or its successors—caught a glimpse of it in ‘action’ over my shoulder. He said it looked like the worst game ever. I opened my mouth, thinking I would try to explain how wrong he was; then I closed my mouth.

A guilt-edged chance goes begging

It’s been another week with precious little action on other football games besides PES2008. Every Sunday is supposed to be Other Football Game Sunday on PES Chronicles, but I often have little or nothing to write about.

It’s getting too common for me to spend Sunday listing the other football games I could have played and saying why I didn’t play them all week. Or why I only played them for half a minute before running back to PES. If this keeps up then I might have to abandon OFG Sunday altogether—and all the signs are that it will indeed keep up. I’m still loving my Master League and I’m still loving the PSP/PS2 version of PES2008 (as I loved all of its predecessors; hence the blog). If I have time enough to play a football game then I want it to be PES2008, not one of the pretenders.

The pretenders, in case anyone is wondering, are all the football games that I’ve liked enough to have played and written about over the past 6 months—but not liked them enough to keep me away from PES for any length of time.

I feel an odd sense of guilt about neglecting some of them. Next-gen FIFA08, for one. I have really got to get back to my twin Manager Mode careers in that game, and soon—otherwise, inevitably, I won’t ever go back to it at all. And that would be a real shame. FIFA08 was and is a significant game in the history of console football games, mark my words. Nothing can be the same after next-gen FIFA08, for better or worse.

So I feel a nagging sense of guilt about not playing it. But when it comes to AGG (Abandoned Games Guilt), nothing can touch the monumental guilt that I feel about Football Manager Live.

FMLive—an MMOG spin on the single-player classic—is still in closed Beta and likely to stay that way for the forseeable future. I received an invite about a month ago and I was absolutely delighted. I never usually get asked to do things like that. After several days of intense play, I started to get very busy with a lot of very important stuff in my real, non-gaming life (there really is such a thing, it turns out). Something had to give, either PES time or some (or all) of my Other Football Game time—and I chose to sacrifice OFG time.

Before anyone poses the question, no, the FMLive Beta accounts are not transferable. I’ll be keeping my account. I might even look in and play it from time to time. But I can’t help but feel that I’m missing a great opportunity. It’s a shame, and I feel guilty.

From now on, I’ll only do an OFG Sunday if I’ve actually played another football game enough for it to be worthwhile. I don’t anticipate there being many OFG Sundays between now and September and the release of FIFA09.

But hey, there’s a whole PES-flavoured summer to get through first. Those seasons aren’t going to play themselves…

Stand by your PES, man

Another Sunday, and another quick look at how I’m getting on with any other football games that I might have played recently.

My newfound love for PES2008 in the guise of its PSP/PS2 version (*hawks and spits at the very thought of the next-gen version*) has led to a few casualties among my other games. Well, casualties is a slightly exaggerated way of putting it. ‘Games that I’ve stopped playing’ is what I mean.

I’ve got about a dozen great games on the backburner. I’ve got about another dozen very good games on top of that. I’m a games hoarder. Just looking through my drawer here, there’s a copy of Homeworld2 that I bought when it came out over 4 years ago. I still haven’t found the time to play it.

I’ve had an Xbox360 for a couple of months. Halo3 and Assassin’s Creed still haven’t seen any action for longer than about 30 minutes apiece. It’s almost criminal of me, I know. PES really does edge out everything else.

I’m most concerned about the PSP games that I’ve played a lot in the past but abruptly abandoned as soon as last-gen PES2008 came into and then took over my life. Disgaea in particular is one that I’ll really have to get back into soon. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. Patapon. The list goes on.

But the foremost casualty has got to be FIFA08 on the PS3. EA’s remarkable football sim has been hit by a double-whammy: last-gen PES2008 is great, and the UEFA2008 demo has just come out. I’ve played UEFA2008 a lot this week, and now FIFA08 just feels wrong.

I played three games of my ongoing Dagenham & Redbridge career. I’m second in League 1and an almost certainty for promotion to the Championship at the end of the season. Within three seasons I should have Dag & Red in Europe.

I should be utterly transfixed by it all and, to be fair to FIFA08, a couple of months ago I was transfixed. I’ve been pretty open on this blog about something that most PES fans have found to be quite shameful to acknowledge: FIFA is pretty damn good on the next-gen consoles. It was and is a truly scary proposition.

But time passes and attitudes can change—in both directions (eh, Seabass?).

Suddenly, FIFA08 doesn’t seem so good. I pushed my players around the pitch rather listlessly. The scripting in FIFA08 now seems very obvious and very annoying. Scripting, for me, is when the game initiates any sequence of play that is predetermined. It’s most overt when the CPU decides to keep the ball and you just can’t get it off them whatever you do. Even if you make up your mind to foul them, they’ll know when to jink sideways, when to accelerate, when to stop, when to change direction. You can’t catch them. They’re demons in the corners of the pitch in particular, always getting their crosses in. Scripting in FIFA08 is a reality. It’s just different from PES scripting, is all.

UEFA2008 could be a very early glimpse of what EA has in store for us with FIFA09. Most striking is the camera: it’s the first true Wide camera in a next-gen football game. It’s disconcerting at first, and after half a year of making do with the existing next-gen games’ faux-Wide cameras, you almost think the UEFA2008 camera is pulled too far out. But it’s not too far out. It’s perfect.

Next is the gameplay. It’s a development of FIFA08’s gameplay, I now feel—not a retrograde step as I thought last week. The animations are smoother, the passing crisper. The shooting still feels anti-intuitive to me, but that’s probably the recent weeks of intensive PES2008 playing with my mind.

I won’t be buying UEFA2008. No matter how great its gameplay, I’m not attracted by its Euro2008 tournament setup. I need club football in a football game; international teams are only there for occasional amusement. UEFA2008 is an all-International affair, which is what it’s meant to be, so I can’t complain, really.

Maybe in June or July if I see UEFA2008 in a bargain bin for a tenner then I might be tempted. But otherwise, my next football game purchase will be the other side of the summer, in September. FIFA09 is only five months away. PES2009 is six months away. It’s going to be a tense summer, wondering what the respective studios are up to, although in all but a few cosmetic aspects I’d say both games should be already substantially complete right now.

In other other football game news, I downloaded the FM2008 demo on the Xbox360 but haven’t had time to actually play it. And I finally checked in again to the Beta version of Football Manager Live. After spending almost two weeks absent, I spent 30 minutes tweaking my team. I put some players up for transfer and bought a couple of others. Then I had to go. I didn’t even have time for a quick friendly (we’re between competitive seasons at the moment).

I simply don’t have the time for gaming—really, I’m not joking. I shouldn’t play games at all. I really, really, really have zero spare time. But I make time, I steal time, and I tend to want to use it to play PES. Everything else is just an impostor.

Mystic Greg

There’s been only one other football game on my mind this week: Football Manager Live. Just over a week ago I joined the game as a Beta tester—one of thousands, it seems—and I’ve been playing it ever since with delight. Not just enjoyment: delight.

Delight is a whole other quality of enjoyment when it comes to gaming. Delight is the mysterious X-factor that transmutes ordinariness into excellence. Delight is what I get from games like PES, Bioshock, Final Fantasy, Portal, Metal Gear Solid, and many others.

I’ve always enjoyed the Football Manager games, but FM Live takes the game to the next level. It really does make a difference watching those little circles run around the virtual 2D pitch when you know there’s another human manager watching the same action from the other team’s point of view.

FM Live is deep, but here’s the thing: it’s as deep or shallow as you want it to be.

I’ve spent three-quarters of my cumulative time logged in (about 6 hours in total all week) just tinkering with my team, my tactics, my formation, and my skills training. One of FM Live’s innovations is that you no longer spend time training your players, adjusting sliders and slotting in various coaches to various roles. All of that has been dispensed with for the online version. Instead, you train yourself. For example, you self-train your coaching skills, step by step, and each new level of the skill has a proportional effect on your players. Within coaching skills there are numerous sub-divisions: goalkeeping, defending, and so on. Each skill takes a proportionally longer time to train. Coaching level 3, for example, which I am just about to start, takes three-and-a-half days to train. That’s real time. The training continues even when you log off. You get emails informing you when the training is finished. It’s all very immersive.

You also get emails letting you know whether your bids in the transfer market have been successful or not. The #1 piece of advice I would give to any new player of FM Live, now or in the future, is: make sure you’re able to watch the end of any transfer auction. Most auctions last 24 hours. Several times I’ve placed bids for players and logged off happy that I’d have them in my team the next time I played. But then I’ll see that someone else sniped me, eBay-style, at the last moment of the auction, and did so by bidding £1 more than me. It’s frustrating and I’ve missed out on so much good talent because of it.

The competitive league season started at the end of the week. I’ve played five games so far, live against other players, and am not doing very well. My record is something like played 5, won 1, drawn 1, lost 3. I’m just below mid-table in my league of 20 teams. Most of the other players have played an equal amount of games. You have to play a certain quota of games within 4 days or so of the fixture becoming active, or the AI will play the games for you. It’s the way it has to be. And it works incredibly well.

It only takes about 10 minutes to play a game on FM Live. In an hour-long play session you can easily fulfil your live games quota for the week. Of course this depends on the other players being online as well. So far that hasn’t been a problem. Time will tell if it becomes a problem as any novelty wears off. I predict that in the future there will be a hard core of regular loggers-in, and it should be possible for them all to identify each other and set up their own regular leagues. Less committed players won’t be excluded and will have their own leagues too.

I’ll make another prediction here: FM Live will become one of the biggest MMOGs on the whole internet…

A brave prediction given that I’ve only played a Beta version for about 10 days, but I think it’s a no-brainer of a prediction. It’s based on the biggest sport on the planet, it has an existing userbase in the offline FM games, it’s accessible, immersive, flexible… what’s not to like?

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