There’s one question I’ve been asking myself over and over during my time with Football Manager; one overwhelming conundrum that I’ve been kicking back and forth over the twelve hours I’ve spent with it now: is Football Manager a game?
Calling it a game would suggest there’s some element of skill involved, that my actions are having some material effect on the outcome of Dover Athletic’s campaign to top the Blue Square Bet South league rankings, but I’m honestly not so sure. My working knowledge of football is zero; I watch the occasional World Cup match every four years and I know who Wayne Rooney and Alex Ferguson are, and that’s about it. A monkey screaming at the top of his lungs while randomly hammering at the keyboard would be liable to give roughly the same level of managerial performance as I do. I have twenty-six first team players. I have six strikers and only one left back, who is currently serving a three match suspension for beating up the opposition. My contract negotiation strategy basically consists of “Fine, take all the money.” And yet, somehow, Dover is winning. Halfway through the season and they’re in pole position, with a comfortable ten point gap separating them and rivals Eastleigh from the rest of the pack. There are two possibilities here: either I am a hitherto-unsuspected Football Managing wunderkind, or else the final match results are largely independent of my inept meanderings around the managing interface.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Football Manager has some sort of elaborate system behind it. I’m sure that if I took the time to learn this system I could extend what little influence I had over the games and do something ludicrous like taking Dover into the Premier League. Unfortunately the time investment involved would be far, far too high for what Football Manager is: a thinly camouflaged collection of spreadsheets that cannot conceal the confusing brutalist design reminiscent of all Excel documents. There is a lot of information here, and FM makes absolutely no attempt to triage that information or even ease you into things slowly. It assumes a background level of knowledge that, to me, appears stunningly esoteric, and since the in-game tutorials consist of a guided tour of the eleventy-million buttons in the UI that I instantly forgot because it has all the wit and charm of a bad Powerpoint presentation, starting my first campaign in Football Manager was an experience akin to being cornered by Clive Tyldesley at a party and subsequently being forced to listen to him go on and on and on about transfer lists and fitness reports and attending press conferences and team talks and formations and touchline tactics and I have no idea what any of this means.
I’m sure a lot of people would wonder why I’m playing Football Manager when I know nothing about football. It knows what its target audience is (hardcore football fans) and it makes no attempt to accommodate anyone outside that demographic (i.e. me). This is normally an approach that would doom the series to the same obscure niche occupied by war games and flight simulators, and the only reason it works here is because football is so heavily ingrained into European culture that there’s a large pre-existing pool of people with the requisite knowledge. But that doesn’t excuse Football Manager failing to explain the basic process of playing the game. Civilization doesn’t automatically assume I know what settlers do, or the benefits of researching Animal Husbandry; why does Football Manager assume I’m a football obsessive? It’s a fundamental duty of all games to make themselves accessible to anyone with a certain baseline level of intelligence and not play to a pre-determined audience, not least because the latter approach will eventually lead to stagnation (which, judging by the fan response to the “improvements” that are announced with each yearly release of FM, is exactly what has happened).
There’s a cynical part of me, though, that suspects that this is intentional. The developers don’t want to explain how Football Manager is played, because if they did people would work out that they’re not playing it at all. They’re simply pressing a series of buttons in response to external stimuli (managing the team) and then watching the outcome of a random number generator (watching a match). While watching the trials and tribulations of your chosen team is kind of engaging in a bizarrely emergent, Dwarf Fortress-y kind of way, I can’t really get away from the fact that I’m not really doing anything when I play Football Manager. I’m choosing a series of formations for my team to train, but the game doesn’t tell me their drawbacks and advantages so they end up being picked essentially at random. Before a match, I rearrange my team members inside this formation until all the dots next to them are green, not really caring who I’m putting in a certain position. Then I pick a strategy to start the game with, except this appears to have absolutely sod-all impact on how the match actually plays out, with player attitude and morale (which are things you don’t really have any way of manipulating immediately prior to and during a game) seeming to have far more of an effect.
If Football Manager has one great strength, it is its ability to tell a story. Only the starting distribution of teams and leagues is fixed – I suppose according to their real-life situation – and from that position everything is left to play out entirely independently. This gives it the same ahistorical appeal as, say, a Europa Universalis campaign; for a game that so diligently models the various minutiae of the footballing world it’s ironic that the main draw is in achieving victories that would otherwise be all but impossible, like winning the Champion’s League with Gateshead. However, while Football Manager’s metagame may be interestingly dynamic, the actual process of playing it is utterly formulaic. It doesn’t help that a full season consists of forty-odd identical games, all of which have exactly the same autogenerated build-up and aftermath, but while cup matches provide some relief from this drudgery (as well as some much-needed cash) the end result is that they all tend to blur into each other to the point where I was actually screaming “NOT ANOTHER F****** YELLOW TEAM F***” after seeing the opposing team in that strip one too many times. It takes bloody ages to get through them all too; after twelve hours I’m barely halfway through Dover’s first season, and I doubt I’ll ever finish it thanks to the incredibly tedious contract negotiation system raising its ugly head for the first time.
Football Manager could have been a good game. Certainly there’s the bones of one present; the database and system making up the metagame world are an impressive achievement upon which you could probably hang an absolute stonker if you were willing to put some time and effort in. Unfortunately Sports Interactive appear content to have just left it at that, and no matter how much you gussy it up a big spreadsheet of teams and leagues isn’t a game. It’s just a big spreadsheet of teams and leagues, and while I’m aware this is perhaps an unoriginal criticism of the game it’s because it’s one that’s all too true. If Football Manager were done in Excel, the “gameplay” would consist of changing the value of one cell and seeing how that changed all the values in the other cells, and then doing it again. And again. And again. While I found this a somewhat diverting activity when I was analysing experimental results for my doctoral thesis, it’s not something I’d particularly choose to do for fun, and so the decision to package that spreadsheet up and sell it as a game as a yearly basis is one that baffles me somewhat. I might find it a more interesting concept if Sports Interactive showed any intention of taking it forward at all, but as things stand that’s the last thing they’ll ever do. And so Football Manager remains merely a curious aberration; a bunch of numbers and a crude 3D match system that inexplicably sells by the million every year like clockwork while genuinely innovative developers like Obsidian get screwed over by their publishers and go to the wall. Like the sport it tries so very hard to simulate, Football Manager ends up being nothing more than a tawdry example of capitalism run amok. This is what Western society has wrought. Hope you enjoy it.