Every Autumn a new iteration of the Football Manager series takes its seat in the upper tier of the sales charts and remains there, pie in hand, chanting "We shall not be moved!" well into the following year. FM2009 was Sports Interactive's biggest success to date, managing 22 weeks at number one in the UK PC charts and a million sales, but some players felt that on release FM2009 had rather spilt gravy all over its nice, new shirt.
After a calamitous launch of disc authentication oversights and oppressive DRM, those who hadn't already torn up their season tickets laid into the game's new features. Through a series of documentary-esque videos and daily blogs, Miles Jacobsen and Sports Interactive heralded new features like the 3D match engine and managerial press conferences as revolutionary for the series; and yet these were the features that bore the brunt of the fans' attacks.
The developers themselves would later admit that even they weren't happy with the game until the release of its third patch, nearly four months after the game had hit the shelves. Perhaps then it's no surprise that the FM2010 feature list reads a lot like patch documentation.
Miles has once again entered the blogosphere this year to write about what we'll be seeing in the new game. He tells us that the developers have listened to fan feedback more than ever before, and it shows. With a month to spare before FM2010's release SI have already announced improvements to most of the areas that let down last year's otherwise decent release.
Last year's headline feature was the addition of 3D matches after 16 years of watching our teams through text commentary or, more recently, the top-down 2D view. The 3D view once again gets high billing this year after the addition of 100 brand new player animations to supplement FM2009's Virtua Striker hand-me-downs and significant improvements to last year's lifeless stadium models. Now your stands will be populated by thousands of scarf-waving bundles of pixels to match the attendance figures calculated by the game and the size and style of your stands will more accurately represent the stature of your club and advancement of your facilities.
In addition to the visual overhaul, the AI of your players has once again been improved and Sports Interactive have provided new tools to help you to convey your instructions to them. With its raft of indecipherable slider settings, FM2009's tactic screen would probably have turned me right off the Football Manager series had I not been gradually introduced to their functions through a lifetime of playing SI's games. More players than ever before found themselves so flummoxed that they had to rely on tactics downloaded from the internet in order to get their teams to string a few of passes together.
In FM2010 this vital area of the game has been demystified with the addition of an all-new tactic creation wizard. Step by step you can now instruct individual players and the team as a whole using real footballing terms, with the option of, for instance, urging your team to be "more expressive" in their play as opposed to setting their creative freedom slider to the 14th notch. For the armchair Wengers and Fergusons the old sliders are still available for any fine tuning but the tactics creator looks like a fantastic feature for the rest of us.
On top of this, our tactical options during matches have been enhanced with touchline shouts. Without stopping to pause the match we can now, in just a couple of clicks, alter our tactical approach by giving the players an earful. Touchline shouts include commands like "Shoot on sight," "Play narrower," and "Get stuck in."
With our tactics now described in words rather than numbers it should be easier than ever to see if our actions are having the desired effect on the pitch but if there's any doubt at all we can now arrange meetings with our backroom staff to hear their feedback on the advantages and disadvantages of our setup. Your staff will also make suggestions on styles of play that your individual players could be encouraged to adopt or recommendations for training schedules. If you decide that you'd like to implement the proposed actions then you can do so with a single confirmatory click.
In recent iterations of the Football Manager series they've really pushed the media side of the game. FM2009 introduced press conferences, which were fun for all of ten minutes. The pool of potential questions was woefully small and it quickly became apparent which answers would produce a positive or negative influence on your squad, at which point it became more of a mini-game puzzle than a simulation of football management. SI have reluctantly acknowledged that, even though our frustrations probably mirrored those of real football managers who answer the same questions every week, press conferences as they were presented last year detracted from the fun of the game. They promise that the depth of the feature has now been increased with the number of available questions surpassing 500 and your choice of answers more aptly matching each individual question. Now there are also more situation-specific conferences such as when a new player is signed.
Another common media-related complaint last year was that the separation of general news articles from our personal inboxes made players feel detached from the game world. In long-term games lasting many seasons it was easy to lose track of who exactly were the movers and shakers in your league and important events such as major player transfers and managerial changeovers often only became apparent when they started mouthing off at you in the press or banged three goals past your underprepared defence. FM2010 will allow you to hand-pick types of news to subscribe to which will be delivered to you the second a story breaks. If you're managing a team in the lower leagues but would still like to be kept in the loop about goings on in the Champions League then you can subscribe to that news feed and read all about the adventures of the financial elite while you're on the minibus to an away fixture at Bishop's Stortford in the Blue Square South division.
Though it appears that Sports Interactive have adopted the recession-busting policy of "make do and mend" with a list of revisions rather than extravagant new features, there is one development that's caused a stir in the slightly shadier parts of the Football Manager community. For years there has been a collective of FM players who have slaved over a hot database in order to fiddle with the attributes and finances of their players and clubs to "mod" the game. Some have gone the extra mile and published new databases updated with all of the latest transfers to keep their game on the cutting edge of world football.
This year Sports Interactive have unlocked parts of the database that had until now been hardcoded and untouchable. With the new edition of the editor it will now be possible to create entirely new leagues from scratch and make them playable in the game. It is even possible to add new leagues and cups to existing nations, allowing the community to extend the football pyramid right down to the Sunday leagues if they so wish.
Football Manager is notorious for meddling with the time-space continuum to mysteriously steal hundreds of hours from our lives without us even noticing but the improvements and additions to FM2010 could see its longevity surpass even FM2009's reported average play time of 240 hours per player. Expect to see it topping the charts soon after its physical and digital release on October 30th.