By Sanjit Atwal
In the past few weeks we have seen the new batch of mega-releases from EA, Konami and Sports Interactive. These games have combined budgets that could rescue a league club from administration or buy several Mario Balotellis.
It wasn’t always like this…
In 1992, a group of friends (two of whom played in a band together) launched a football game with a top-down view, catchy gameplay and easy to grasp controls. Sensible Soccer (and later Sensible World of Soccer aka SWOS) went on to be played by over 15 million people and named by experts at MIT as one of the 10 most important video games of all time. Not bad for a boy from Ilford, Essex who started coding in a bedroom.
“I’m very proud of the Top 10 award from MIT,” says designer of Sensible Soccer, Jon Hare. “It’s probably the best accolade we’ve ever had.
“When you’re making a game occasionally you know something is good very quickly. When we were making Sensible Soccer we knew within two months we had a great game on our hands.”
Such is the influence of the game and Hare’s own achievements that he is now the BAFTA judge for video games, a role that allows him plenty of time to test other games and compare against SWOS’s own legacy.
But where did the inspiration come from?
“When I was a child I played a lot of Subbuteo. I would set it all up ready for when my dad came back from work and say, ‘Dad, can we play Subbuteo now?’
“To me, SWOS was an electronic version of Subbuteo. But you could play against the computer (so on your own) and, as a child, when I wanted to play with my dad and when he wasn’t there or not home from work I couldn’t play against anyone.”
Building a game in the early 1990s was no easy thing and the team finished Sensible Soccer on a budget less than £150k. “Initially we signed it to Mirrorsoft…” Hare sighed. “Then they went bust because Robert Maxwell jumped off his boat….We re-signed it to Renegade which proved to be majorly good for us. As soon as it hit the charts it really sold well.”
The first ever match played? Norwich vs Sunderland, Hare explains: “I’m a Norwich fan and, well…we wanted to see what a stripy kit looked like…(oh and Jules – lead programmer for Cannon Fodder – was a Sunderland fan).”
The deadpan humour Hare and his colleagues still exhibit is evident in the game itself as well as the development process.
“The office was quite long so we used to get a ball of masking tape and bowl it to an old Amstrad box at the end of the room,” Hare chuckles. “One of us would stand there with an Amstrad keyboard and if you could hit the ball and get a key to fall off the keyboard you would get a four…that was the rule”.
And the humour didn’t stop there. A popular feature of SWOS was the ability to create custom teams and competitions – something that threw up many opportunities for fun.
“We put custom teams in for a bit of fun…Kebab Shop XI…Essex Girls and all these stupid things which where just a bit of a laugh for us.”
The Custom Team option proved to be a stroke of genius. During the summer fans would edit the teams to update the Premier League and thus organically extended the shelf life of the game.
However, Custom Teams were not the only boundary pushing aspect of the game as Hare went on to reveal.
“We were the first game to have black players in it,” Jon says earnestly. “I remember playing another game and it had John Barnes in it as white. That’s not John Barnes! It doesn’t look like John Barnes!
“So we put guys with dark skin and guys with blonde hair in their so you could at least identify players – and by also using the number above their heads when in possession – anyone with any knowledge of football would know that this black guy in the Liverpool kit with No.7 above his head was John Barnes.”
Arguably it is this attention to detail that lay at the heart of Sensible Soccer’s innovative nature. The team studiously inputted each player, team and kit to be as accurate as possible to give fans a realistic experience.
“I think the fact we really paid a lot of attention to the detail of football impacted the game,” explained Hare. “We had a guy called John Hammond who used to write for Rothmans football year book and he was the one that did all the data.
“We did a lot of research so that wherever you lived in the World you would see your team in the right kit, the right physical appearance, the right position…I guess sometimes the transfer values and the skills we didn’t get exactly right but where we could we did. We tried to replicate real life in the data.”
My own memories of playing are mostly multiplayer with my cousins in a cramped Nottingham bedroom. We would spend the entire summer competing against each other, something that made going back to school particularly galling. Hare agreed the incredibly social nature of SWOS was a unique factor in the games success.
“There are many reasons I’m proud of the game. Most people that speak to me played it in groups…they played it with their brother or with some mates…2,3,4 is the normal number people played it in.
“In the sense of a multi-player game it worked incredibly well. Proper social gaming…you were sat in a room with your mates,” laughed Hare.
Beyond the detail, the motives and the social functions of the game another aspect of the story begins to surface as we discuss SWOS.
“Every type of game and every type of art has its own evolution. What we did with SWOS was a natural progression from what had come before. What we did was we internationalized football games.”
We move on to the current crop of ‘triple A’ football games. How many of them does Hare himself play?
“I’ve not been a great fan of FIFA,” he admits. “In a sense they stole the crown from Sensible Soccer. It took me at least 10 years to forgive it.
“I think that when you play as a single player, FIFA is a really good game now but I’ve always felt that it struggles with transferring of control from player to player, it was never fast enough for me.”
“I love Football Manager. Sometimes it irritates me because it’s too slow between matches.”
It is a point of contention amongst retro football gamers if SWOS has been the biggest single influence upon its modern cousins. In the sense of the different aspects of management & playing it certainly brought new ideas to the fore.
“Well, more than anyone we acknowledged it was a global game. The way that we blended the management side with the paying side, we gave a variety of approaches to play the game.
“(SWOS) had a lot of stuff in there but it presented it in a digestible fashion. A lot of work went into things like the menu structure. It was a very sophisticated game in terms of its structure.
“We upped the bar not just for other football games but for all sports games.”
The SWOS story hits every football fan squarely in the heart and perhaps goes some way to help explain why it resonated so well with football fans. A small group of artists with a deep knowledge and passion for, not only football, but also the values of family, friendship and camaraderie crafted it with love. And it shows.
Every year in Berlin a group of SWOS enthusiasts hold the ‘Sensible Soccer World Cup’ in which fans of the game compete against each other.
“There’s guys from 20 different countries wearing their national shirts!” exclaimed Hare. “It’s amazing…utterly amazing…I love this about SWOS.”