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How Football Manager's creator is taking the beautiful game online

You felt like a band, so you wanted to act like a band.

Absolutely. The PR guy that we were working with at the time dubbed it 'word of mouse', in that the internet was really catching on at that point and people were talking about how we'd split [from Eidos], so that was a large part of it. We were also helped by a lot of retailers. HMV in Oxford Street, for example – if you walked in there they had copies of Football Manager on the shelf, and they had put stickers on themselves, nothing to do with us, saying, "You know it's Champo," on every box.

We also had a situation where – as part of our divorce settlement, if you like – we were able to put in small font on an A4 advert, "From the creators of the Championship Manager series." And we just happened to do 64-sheet flyposters rather than A4 adverts. And when you do that, the text is quite large.

Certainly we did much better in the first year as Football Manager than we were expecting to, or were expected to. And that accelerated afterwards to a point where I think we were outselling our bestselling previous title by either year two or year three. Nowadays, we're [selling] three times what we were doing then, so it was definitely a good move for us.

There's no one doing the same thing on the same scale, so who do you see as your competition now?

Firstly, we never cared about competition. And we've sometimes been accused of being complacent because there isn't competition out there. Whereas there have actually been 12 brands in the genre that have come and gone in the time we've been doing it.

'Complacent' is also the biggest insult you could possibly give to us, because we work our arses off every year. The reason that we do is not because [competitors] might come along, it's because we're trying to make the best game we possibly can for ourselves to play. And the fact that there are millions of people who enjoy our work as well is great, because, like I say, it does mean we don't have to go and get proper jobs.

Football manager

Do you take inspiration from other football games, such as FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer?

We certainly look at and admire the work that the FIFA team do and that the Pro Evo team do. I admire the work in a lot of games – Civilization, Grand Theft Auto, Destiny, a lot of Molyneux's work over the years as well. Certainly a hell of a lot of David Braben's work, and the way that he takes simulations and transforms them into more fun worlds than we do.

Something like Zoo Tycoon, as an example, is a hell of a lot of fun to play. I get a bigger kick out of an elephant eating a banana out of my hand in Zoo Tycoon than I do from going to the zoo in real life, because they don't slobber on you in the game. So we take lots of inspiration from lots of different games, even going back to Geoff Crammond's Grand Prix series, where he was completely uncompromising with the way he wanted the physics of the car, even if it meant it was really hard to play sometimes. He wanted that absolute accuracy.

His son actually works with us now, so I've got to meet Geoff a few times. It was an "I'm not worthy" moment the first time that I met him. What's been quite gratifying for us is seeing FIFA adding in some stuff that we've had for a while, like shirts getting dirty, for example, little things like that. But there's certainly a lot of respect between us and the FIFA team.

I don't know the Pro Evo team, so I don't know them to be respectful of them, but I think Dave Rutter has done a fantastic job with FIFA. I know a bunch of the other guys over there as well and I play their game and they play ours, so it's nice having that respect level.

But it does go a lot wider than that, particularly with my taste in games and other people here having different tastes in games that we're always going to learn from each other. I don't play a lot of games where you shoot people, whereas others here do. I play a lot of casual games, a lot of puzzle games, and you can learn a lot about the compelling behaviour people have when they're playing those games. And we've always liked the fact that our games are quite compelling. Learning about those different mechanics is important as well.

With the likes of Football Manager Handheld and Classic, you've simplified the core game in a way that suggests you've taken inspiration from casual games. Are there any other ideas you've taken from those games into Football Manager?

I was always very much a purist when it came to Football Manager, and was [against] anyone being able to – I'm not allowed to use the word 'cheat', so let's say 'accelerate their progress'. And then I started playing a few free-to-play titles and I found myself getting very frustrated by certain levels, and paying 69p to accelerate my progress, and I didn't feel dirty doing it.

So that was one of the things that we added for Classic and Handheld and with the in-game editor to Football Manager as well. What a hypocrite I was, sitting there saying that people shouldn't be able to cheat at our games, and I was doing the same thing in other people's games. So we now do allow people to accelerate their progress if they want to, because who am I to say what their experience should be?