A selection of key moments in the development of the football simulation
International Soccer, 1983
If computer games can be considered an art form then the games developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s are the equivalent of prehistoric cave paintings. With processors on most home computers at the time barely strong enough to power a modern day microwave, game developers had to make significant sacrifices with graphics and gameplay to ensure their titles worked properly and didn’t accidentally immolate the console (or, in some cases, the tape deck) playing it.
And for early football games, things were no different. The initial batch of football games were so simplistic that they barely represented the sport printed on the box. The first game commercially marketed as an interpretation of the sport was Binatone Football. A plug-in TV game made for a dedicated console in the late 70s, the game was simply Pong with the word “Football” appended; an unimpressive start to the genre.
But in the 1980s, games began to appear that really could be recognised by gamers as a genuine representation of football. One of the first to achieve that was the 1983 title International Soccer which debuted on the Commodore 64. Developed by Andrew Spence in his bedroom (the natural habitat of a British game developer in the 1980s) players could choose from six different team colours and play a rudimentary game of seven-a-side football against the computer or a friend.
And I really do mean rudimentary. Despite sporting the alternative title Cup Final, what International Soccer really resembled was a low-grade kickabout down the park. With no offside rule, fouls or set pieces, you were left with what appeared to be two teams of obese men kicking a ball around in front of a white noise generator that was programmed to blare whenever a goal went in.
So International Soccer was far from the hyper-realistic footballing package we’ve come to expect today. Nevertheless, it is recognisably a football game. Even with the basic graphics and game-play simplicity, International Soccer offered gamers the chance to play football and it wasn’t long before it began inspiring a legion of successors throughout the 1980s that sought to expand on the formula.
The Match Day series, fondly remembered despite being utterly rubbish, arrived on the Spectrum in 1984 and boasted ball deflections to add randomness to the gameplay. In 1988, the successor to International Soccer, Emlyn Hughes International Soccer, introduced lobs, backheels, tournaments and a basic management sim to the gaming mix (as well as branded endorsements). And in 1989, the Kick Off series brought order to the anarchy of football games by adding fouls, cards and set pieces to the virtual pitch for the first time.
So while International Soccer may not look like much now, it sits at the top of the football sim family tree as the game that kicked off the genre. And, despite its simplicity, there hasn’t been a game since which allows you to seal-dribble the ball into the goal Kerlon-style. Not bad for a 30 year old.
Footballer of the Year, 1986
While International Soccer was all about playing as a team, in 1986 Gremlin Graphics launched one of the first games that tried to capture the narcissistic thrill of being a professional player: Footballer of the Year.
Starting life as a board game, the makers decided to shift it onto the ZX Spectrum and brought the footballer’s life to video gamers instead. On the first boot up, you started out as a lowly lad who has £5000 in his pocket and 10 “goal cards” that could be used to turn the tide of the match in your favour. After signing for a lower-league side, your aim is to get to the top of the footballing tree on the pitch and be a commercial hit off it with a number of business sidelines.
Unfortunately, in most senses Footballer of the Year was a terrible game. On a fundamental level, the attempt to shoehorn the mechanics of board game into a computer game doomed it to failure. With no effort being made to remove the bizarre card system in favour of a more natural fit for a games platform, reviewers laid mercilessly into it as ill-conceived and disconcertingly random.
Crash magazine gave the game a lowly 54%, lambasting it for being both too easy in the arcade simulation section and lacking depth on a strategic front. Meanwhile, World of Spectrum gave Footballer of the Year a pitiful one out of five after the reviewer’s character earned a measly £75 a week despite banging in 30 goals for Juventus in a single season (though a profitable gambling addiction kept food on his family’s table, thankfully).
Despite all that negativity, Footballer of the Year has remained an influential game simply because it was one of the first to thrust the player into the shoes of a budding pro. While the execution was flawed, the dream of rising from nobody to footballing hero remains an intoxicating idea that other developers have capitalised on more successfully. A prime example of this was the 2013 Bafta Award winning app New Star Soccer, another game which gets you progressing from hero to zero, whose developer Simon Read cited Footballer of the Year as a key influence on the development of his game.
So while it may have been a stinker in terms of execution, Footballer of the Year laid out the blueprint 27 years ago for a genre of football game that is still going strong today.
Championship Manager, 1992
With developers getting gamers playing football as a team or working their way up as a pro, the last area left was the world of football management and the associated challenges that came with creating the football equivalent of the God sim.
As usual, it was 1980s hobbyists who came up with the first stab at a football management sim. The Football Manager series created by Kevin Tom for the ZX Spectrum provided the basis of all the sims to follow by giving players spread sheets to analyse, control over team sheets and the ability to make transfers as well as a match engine that meant the player could control little of what was happening on the pitch.
But it was the Championship Manager series, which launched in 1992, that transformed the genre from game to, for some players at least, full time occupation. Initially, things got off to a slow start. With established rivals Premier Manager and The Manager already on the market, Championship Manager’s text based match engine, Microsoft Excel gameplay, handful of leagues and fake player names made a limited impression in the broader management sim market.
The driving force behind the game wasn’t a desire to make money but a passion for the game that put quality and fun top of the priority list and that proved its salvation. The developers Paul and Oliver Collyer, looking back at the series during an interview with Eurogamer in 2001, said that they simply wanted to make something they were proud to play: “We didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘I know, let’s make some money out of computer games.’ It was more like, ‘We like footie, so let’s make a game that we’d want to play.’ We’re just continuing the same philosophy really.”
It was that approach which led to the defining feature of the series: tangible yearly updates from the developers that clearly improved the core game play. From purchasing licences to scouting more players and deepening the game-play options, Sports Interactive dedicated their time to slowly and steadily evolving the game. Early updates built on the game engine and tinkered with the idea of playing in foreign leagues (such as in the calcio-themed Championship Manager Italia) ensuring that the game evolved significantly over the coming years, slowly establishing a growing base of hardcore fans to tap into.
That meant that by 1995 and the launch of the next generation of the game, Championship Manager 2, the series had reached a point at which its level of detail, player control and flexibility had the gaming press enraptured by the completeness of its offering. With that success and a strong sales base to mobilise from, Sports Interactive established their series as the best management sim on the market and, like a development version of Sir Alex Ferguson, dedicated themselves to a philosophy of constant evolution to improve the game and drive on to new levels of success.
Sensible Soccer, 1992
Most of the games on this list were dreamt up by developers who had football on the brain and a football game as the clear ending to their thought processes. So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that legendary arcade classic Sensible Soccer owes its creation to something outside of the world of football: a strategy game called Mega Lo Mania.
Inspired by the game Civilization, Mega Lo Mania had players battling across various technological epochs. However, after building the game, the team realised that the 2D engine would be perfectly suited to creating a top-down football sim in the style of Kick Off and set about making one with the tools they had assembled.
The result was Sensible Soccer (or Sensi to its adoring fans), an utterly frantic and accessible game. With a single button for shooting, passing and tackling and a control stick to guide your players and the flight of the ball, anybody could get a good game going and, more importantly, add a stupid amount of curve to their shots to bamboozle goalkeepers from 30 yards out.
Under the surface, though, was a game that was well ahead of the time. On a gameplay front, Sensi was one of the first football sims to reward passing. With the game played at a lightning pace, circulating the ball accurately from front to back was crucial to actually getting yourself in a decent shooting position. The result of that possession-based approach to the genre, along with an enormous roster of teams and players spanning the world, was the base for one of the most solidly built football sims of the 90s: offering depth and fun in equal measure despite technical limitations.
From 1992 until 1998, Sensible Software released new versions of the game to ensnare newer fans including giving the series a new name to reflect the significant upgrades made to the gameplay. Sensible World of Soccer boasted a management sim and career mode, creating a simple hook to drag you further into the arcadey brilliance. Whether you were transforming Cambridge United into Premiership champions or leading Rosenborg to European glory, the management aspect allowed players to turn their skill into unrealistic (but entertainingly won) prizes.
It wasn’t to last. As consoles developed rapidly in the 90s, with graphics improving considerably and gameplay options growing for hardcore players, the simplicity of Sensi couldn’t survive. From 1999 no new top-down Sensible games were released; with the series living on only in arcade form on the Xbox 360 (an unsuccessful 2006 reboot aside).
But, even now, whenever I see a player bury a 40-yard piledriver past a despairing keeper, I like to imagine that somewhere a nine-year-old kid is slamming the control stick to guide the ball into the back of the net.
International Superstar Soccer 64, 1997
Until now, the games we’ve looked at have been British interpretations of football. But football is, of course, an international game and that means international variants. So, while British developers ensconced themselves in bedrooms, developers abroad were doing things a little differently.
This included Konami, the Japanese developer behind the International Superstar Soccer (ISS) series. Originally appearing for the NES in 1991 under the Winning Eleven series name, ISS moved west, first in 1994 for the Super Nintendo, before really entering the western consciousness with the 1997 N64 game, ISS 64.
It made a huge impression because it took serious steps forwards in both graphics and gameplay within football titles. In terms of appearance, ISS’s motion-captured character models produced what was, at the time, a startling level of realism. As the internet reviewer Mr N64 said, “There’s an astonishing attention to detail in ISS 64. From the ref writing in his notebook as he issues a red card, to the coin toss, to slipping on wet turf during the rain, to the victory dances... It’s all extremely detailed.”
As for the gameplay, ISS was able to leverage the increased graphics powers of the new 64-bit console to offer an experience with greater depth and realism. With the game boasting lob-passes, through-balls and a selection of tricks you could perform to beat your man, ISS allowed the player to exploit space more intelligently while moving the ball around the ground and through the air more convincingly.
However, despite all the positives, there were areas where the game betrayed the slight cultural differences between Japanese developers and other parts of the world. The instruction manual and in game options were often baffling, particularly the bit where you could select the number of players per team and eleven was defined as “many”. And the commentary was downright terrible with the announcer yelling and whispering phrases like “Northern Ireland... ARE ON THE SCORESHEET AGAIN” with all the coherence of a badly programmed rail-announcement system.
But the most jarring part of ISS was the alternative player names. While many games decided to circumvent licensing issues by going for completely made-up names, ISS took the route of slightly misnaming famous players instead. The results were memorably bad with players like Revemalli, Kleimann, Belbiero, Griggs, Laurup and Zaundes (Dean Saunders, in case you missed it) all lining up for your pleasure. While certainly not a deal-breaker, in the age when football really began to grow into a commercially recognisable global offering, the fake names stood out like a sore thumb.
Nonetheless, even with these slight problems, ISS 64 was the making of the series in the west, with the emphasis on high-quality controls and generally decent presentation making the series a hit. While ISS 2000 flopped slightly due to its release coming late in the N64 era (as well as featuring a curate’s egg of an RPG mode), its initial successor ISS 98 sold well and paved the way for the excellent Pro Evolution Soccer series to arrive on the original Xbox and PS2; a move that turned Konami from international rivals to a dominant development power.
Football Manager 2005, 2004-2005
If the Collyer brothers’ dedication to quality made them Ferguson-like paragons of renewed excellence, then their split from Eidos in the build-up to the 2004-05 season had all the hallmarks of a classic Fergie falling out.
It all happened two years after their biggest success. Championship Manager 4, which was released for the 2002-03 season, became the fastest selling PC game in history as the text engine was finally replaced by a 2D top-down, offering both the most accessible and most detailed version of the game. With the game’s scouting network identifying players like Kaká, Wayne Rooney, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Rafael Van der Vaart and, err, Lenny Pidgeley as wonderkids, CM 4 was backed up by a level of research that dripped with authenticity.
But internal tensions between Sports Interactive and Eidos led to conflict between the two former partners within three years. While details of the exact reason behind the falling out remain hazy and shrouded in legal secrecy. SI walked away in February 2004, taking the source code for the game with them. But, with Eidos retaining the name, it meant the SI team were forced to find a new publisher and a new name for the series, leading to the emergence of the Football Manager series (unrelated to Kevin Tom’s 1980s games) which were published by the newly software-only Sega.
Football Manager won the battle against Eidos’s new Championship Manager series (created by Beautiful Games Studio) fairly easily when they went toe to toe in 2004-05. While Eidos were forced to start from scratch, the team behind Football Manager released another excellently refined management sim featuring a plethora of new features such as managerial mind games, pre- and post-match summaries and coach reports to help analyse a team’s strengths to heighten the brand. So, when the average reviews came in for the new Championship Manager title, Football Manager 2005 waltzed away with enough sales to become the fifth fastest selling PC game in history, blowing Championship Manager to pieces.
Since then, Football Manager has established itself as the leading management sim worldwide. By adding greater depth to managerial communication, adding player roles and duties to give tactics infinite levels of customisation, a 3D-match engine, the development of a scouting network so good it has apparently been used by Everton and mobile versions of the game, Football Manager has become so detailed and adaptable that it eats away the hours of millions of players across the world every day.
Fifa 2012, 2011-2012
The Fifa franchise may be successful and sport a worldwide fan base, but it certainly hasn’t been universally loved due to its commercial partnership with Electronic Arts and, historically, an attachment to production values over balanced gameplay that meant individualism was privileged over teamwork. But from 2006 onwards, the Fifa style changed dramatically. While production values remained at the forefront of EA’s mind as, from 2003, they set about creating a “televisual” footballing experience, the arrival of Xbox 360 and PS3 and the increased power on show allowed the development team to switch focus from eking power out of the graphics card towards evolving the gameplay. And the result of these evolutions to the series would eventually make it the most convincing simulation of football ever made.
Even before 2012 a number of changes had been made to give the game more tactical depth. The greater development emphasis on team chemistry from 2006, improved passing accuracy in the 2008 game and better off the ball pressing in 2009 edition slowly transformed the game. From rewarding players who put a big guy at top with tricky wingers to slalom through the defence, Fifa evolved in a way that suited players who wanted to keep possession or build up play.
But this approach reached its peak in Fifa 2012, which radically altered the foundations of the football sim in general and the expectations of players by introducing a proper defensive system. Until 2012, football games had tended to lack depth on the defensive side. With the dual ‘hard’ slide tackling and a ‘soft’ lighter tackling forming the basis of the game play, you were essentially forced to defend in an ‘English’ style; pick a defender, employ a thunderous tackle to grab the ball and boot it clear.
What Fifa 2012 did was to introduce the idea of pressing to computer game defending. With the help of the shoulder buttons and your own intellect, Fifa 2012 encouraged you to keep your defensive shape and look to nick the ball before attempting either to break or build your own counter. As the possession-based aspect of gameplay improved with the introduction of 12-way passing (which took advantage of improved control stick technology), any player ignoring those options and sliding in recklessly was likely to be punished as a result of the more incisive passing options available.
The result of this shift was profound. Until that move, Fifa games (as was true of the majority of the genre) tended to be little more than end-to-end affairs with multiple goal scorelines the norm but, after 2012, they produced matches with realistic final scores, which possessed a natural ebb and flow all over the pitch as established styles (from a Barcelona-like pressing and possession style to disciplined counter-attacking approaches) flourished over individualism.
So after Fifa had spent the best part of 20 years trying to create the most realistic football experience they could through the addition of context-driven commentary, flashy graphics and player-controlled celebrations (introduced in Fifa 2007), they made more progress in a single edition simply by making defending as a unit an art worth mastering.
Score! Classic Goals, 2012
Since the first football games came out, developers have worked to make their games more involving and more complicated. With games like Fifa, Football Manager and Pro Evolution Soccer improving their gameplay, databases and production values, football games have become both higher quality and, at the same time, more difficult for non-gamers because of the myriad buttons needed to play the average sim properly.
But with the arrival of gaming on smartphones and tablets, developers have been forced to design games with simplicity at their core. With apps accessible to billions of players across the world, game studios have had to create experiences that fit with newly dominant and simplistic gesture-driven touch screen interface to ensnare users. And that has meant new types of football games to fit with that reality.
Score! Classic Goals was one of the first to adapt properly to the platform. Rather than being a traditional sim, Score! challenges you to recreate classic goals in history by accurately drawing with your finger the path of the ball into the back of the net. Crucially, each goal only takes about 30 seconds to complete. So whether you’re recreating Gascoigne in 1996 or Van Basten in 1988, on completion you’re awarded up to three stars and rapidly moved on to the next goal.
The result was a brisk window into football’s back catalogue. By reversing the trend for complexity and difficulty in most modern games, Score! tapped into the new mobile market by reinventing the football game as a puzzle accessible to the casual gaming audience. While retaining a hardcore commitment to football more broadly by offering an experience rooted in the history of the game, Score! opened the genre up to a mass market that would not necessarily have come to a hardcore game like Fifa.
And that is forcing developers to confront a new reality: that they have to make their games appeal to a newly broadened audience. Already, Football Manager 2013 has embedded a Classic Mode into the game to accommodate players who can’t make the game a full-time job. So in the coming years more developers, particularly those working in mobile formats, will have to come up with innovative new types of games that are accessible not just to hardened football gamers but to football fans in general.