Jon Hare’s Retro Football Reviews
Passion, excitement, competition, innovation and diversity. Football videogames had the lot. Nowadays it can be argued that football titles are like a severe form of the Scottish Premier League – two titles vying for the top with other developers having seemingly given up trying to topple them. But while FIFA and Pro Evo rarely offer anything startlingly new from one year to the next, they dominate the charts and are as expected by fans as a Ronaldo wink and a dive.
In the early days, however, football games were radically different from one another. Developers tried hard to capture the spirit of the game and few succeeded as well as Jon Hare, who not only created Microprose Soccer in 1988, but also went one better with Sensible Soccer four years later. And then, his Sensible Software development house surpassed both with Sensible World Of Soccer in 1994 and became a worthy champion.
In some ways, Sensible Soccer then lost its way a tad. It had a couple of ill-fated forays into 3D, but in 2004 a mobile version produced by Tower Studios was nominated for a BAFTA. More recently the magic of Sensible Soccer was rekindled when it was dusted down and spruced up for Xbox Live Arcade. It seems gamers just can’t get enough of playing as tiny players on a pitch viewed from the sky. Not for them, it seems, the realistic stadia, near photorealistic players and television-style commentary.
If there is one thing Hare had on his side, it was his love of football. A Norwich City fan, Hare, now 43, is still a regular at Carrow Road and is still interested in producing soccer games on many platforms. He was a consultant on Football Superstars and Real Madrid: The Game and he has been working with Turkish developer Sobee on a 3D multiplayer online soccer title called I Can Football, which is still at the beta phase. More excitingly, he is currently designing and developing a game called Fingertip Football, which promises to follow on from the successes of Microprose Soccer and Sensible Soccer and is being designed specifically for the unique features of the iPhone, just as Microprose Soccer and Sensible Soccer were designed specifically for the C64 and Amiga.
The iPhone game will be made by Hare’s own Tower Studios. “We’re working on perfecting the controls,” he tells us. “The iPhone offers a fresh way to play and it’s an exciting platform.” And much of this is born from his feeling that football games have become rather stale. “The feel of the game of football is being lost,” he laments.
He is determined not to see true innovation in football videogames “do a Norwich” and become relegated, lost amid gloss and hype. He believes he made a truly great football game back in the day and he drew inspiration from the titles around at the time. In some cases, he looked at football games and dismissed them out of hand but even in doing that, he helped to shape what became Sensi. And here he tells us how…
“Who was it who produced those iconic management games? Kevin Toms, yes, that’s it. When this game came out in 1982, it was really big. It really did start a whole new genre of games and it was very highly regarded. You may think that the management elements of Sensible World Of Soccer were influenced by this game in some way but the truth is that I didn’t really play management games at the time. I did try Kevin Toms’ game and I liked the basic principles, but that’s as far as it went in terms of influence.
When we put a management aspect into Sensible World Of Soccer, I was using my own instinct, looking at what I thought would be fundamental to replicating management in a videogame and leaving out anything too complicated or fiddly. So while I know Kevin Toms made some brilliant football management simulation games and that the series ran for more than a decade, my influence was really the real-time strategy elements of Mega Lo Mania.
Sensible World Of Soccer was a light management videogame, but at the same time I don’t think there has ever been a better player/manager game than SWOS. I’ve been a football fan all of my life and like most supporters there is that feeling that you’re more of an expert than you perhaps really are. However, I feel what went into management in the level of interactivity that we wanted with Sensible World Of Soccer worked extremely well, made the game fast, accessible and deep and reviewers and players loved it.”
Artic World Cup Football
“It may sound like I am going through a bunch of games and slagging them off, but Artic Soccer…? It was like a tech demo. I played it, I thought hmmm, that’s interesting and then I thought, well, you know, what’s next? Because for me, that was it. Artic Soccer was nothing more than a game I could play once and quite happily never try again.
It was this game which made me think about how a football game actually plays out in reality for videogame players. You essentially play a football computer game for up to ten minutes. It’s a short experience, you win, lose or draw and either feel ecstatic, despondent or blasé and then you do it all over again. But this can become very dull if there’s nothing intrinsically in that game to keep you coming back for more.
And what did this game have? It fell short on tactics, it had six players on each side and while there were extras associated with the game like a penalty shoot-out in the training mode, it didn’t appear to have any use in the actual game because in the game there
were no fouls.
If there is one thing the game had going for it, it was tournaments. It is essential for a videogame to have tournaments because you want to have a feeling of progression. You can’t just play these games in isolation like friendlies as one-offs, because you ultimately want some depth and a longer challenge – a feeling of accomplishment.”
“Before we started to work on Sensible Soccer, I hadn’t extensively played many other football games. I know Match Day was a prominent game during the Eighties and its sequel was also well received, but I only played it a bit. And again, it was a side-on game that didn’t capture football for me.
I like to compare good games to their psychological equivalents in real life. For example a fighting game should feel like suddenly finding yourself in a fight in a pub. If a guy walks up to you and is looking for a confrontation, then your mind begins to work overtime. You are thinking lots of things at once – how to deal with the situation, how to get out of it, what to do if he throws a punch, when you need to be ready for that. And all the time your adrenaline is pumping. But have you ever played a fighting game and felt like that? Maybe in Fight Night, but it’s rare.
So likewise, have you ever played a football videogame and felt like you do when you’ve been on a soccer pitch? With games like Match Day, you definitely don’t get that feel. There’s no spatial awareness and, like Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, it’s too slow. We looked at this aspect and thought, right, we’ve got to produce a game with greater speed. Players have got to be able to use instinct. They just can’t have this long on the ball. And so that’s what we did with Microprose Soccer, our first football game. We created a system that was faster paced and put you under pressure to act fast. Of course, this game still feels pretty pedestrian compared to Sensible Soccer, but that came later.”
Emlyn Hughes International Soccer
“If I’m being totally honest, I thought Emlyn Hughes International Soccer was slow, blocky and uncontrollable. I didn’t like it at all. I just found it uninspiring, It was games like this that made me realise that side-on action in a football videogame just doesn’t work. You simply cannot aim a shot properly when you’re viewing a game from the side in this way.
When you think about it, aiming the ball and shooting, smashing that ball into the back of the net and being able to do so with some level of precision and skill, is a key component in football. So it figures that it has to be a key skill in football videogames. What we did first with Microprose Soccer and then with Sensible Soccer was take a top-down view so that players could angle the ball and see where they were going to aim.
We wanted to get away from this feeling that you were sitting in the stand or on the touchline and kind of viewing the action. That’s how you watch football, not play it. And while I agree that you don’t play a game from above either, what that did was give you a chance to play tactically and get a feel for the overall play. Actually, you know, what makes a good striker and what makes a bad striker? In many ways it’s the ability to squeeze that ball in between the post and, for me, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer is a bad centre forward because it didn’t give you that ability.”
“By the time Kick Off came out, we had already created Microprose Soccer two years previously. Both games made use of a more top-down view and up-and-down scrolling from goal to goal, which I’ve always favoured, as you can tell. I liked Kick Off. It was a good game, but it did have its flaws, particularly the inability to see the positions of your team-mates due to the directly overhead camera angle. What I admired was the scale of Kick Off since it used a big pitch. It has a very quirky way of controlling the ball, some elements of which are good and some slightly irritating. But Kick Off did open up the public’s minds to the concept of new control systems in football games, which we continued to develop with Sensible Soccer.
The reason we also had small sprites and a bigger viewing area in Sensible Soccer was down to our style at the time. We first stumbled upon tiny characters and a bigger semi-overhead view of your environment when making Mega Lo Mania and once we discovered they worked we used them in Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder and Sensible Golf as well.
Mega Lo Mania was the pivotal game in Sensible’s history as a company. We worked very late nights, developed a new game look and structure and we played a lot of Kick Off as we were making it. The very first Sensible Soccer characters were actually Mega Lo Mania characters dressed in football kits running around Mega Lo Mania landscapes. We thought it was a good look after we did that, we kept exactly the same viewpoint and perspective and scaled the pitch around it. The next thing to get right was the basic running speed. I spent quite a while timing how long it would take to run these characters up the pitch, adjusting it so that it wouldn’t be too slow but it wouldn’t be too fast either. That was crucial for the pace and flow of the game, we had to get it just right.
I’d like to think both ourselves and Dino Dini learned from each other and we both went on to better our original games with great sequels. They were times of great innovation in football videogames when you look back, and it was good to have these two top-down games vying for people’s attention.”