EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Miles Jacobson and Risto Remes

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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Miles Jacobson and Risto Remes

Post by archibalduk » Thu Mar 26, 2015 12:35 pm

The guys at Sports Interactive very kindly offered me an exclusive interview with Miles and Riz in advance of the release of Eastside Hockey Manager: Early Access. The interview offers a great deal of insight into how the game has been developed and what is in store over the coming months.

Before we get to the interview questions, here is a little about Miles and Riz:

Miles Jacobson OBE: Miles is Studio Director of Sports Interactive and has been with the studio since 1994. Under Miles’ management, the studio has grown from a small start-up employing five people to one of the best-known names in UK game development with a staff of roughly 100 people. In 2011 Miles was awarded the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for services to the gaming industry.

Risto ‘Riz’ Remes: Riz has been a Developer at Sports Interactive since 2002. As we all know, he is creator of the freeware Eastside Hockey Manager and joined the studio to develop the game as a commercial product. Since EHM’s hiatus, Riz has been working on the Football Manager series.


Miles Jacobson

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Photo credit: David Vintiner

1. First off, allow me to say a big thank you on behalf of The Blue Line community to Sports Interactive and SEGA for reviving the EHM series! There are many users on sites such as The Blue Line, The Breakaway and HFBoards who have been patiently waiting and hoping for a new release of EHM over the past eight years. What makes now the right time for the game to make a return?

A few of the team at SI were keeping it maintained in their spare time at different times. Everyone on the original EHM team is still at SI – either working on Football Manager or Football Manager Online – and Riz and I have been talking about it on and off for a couple of years. But the main conversations about bringing it back started late last year. It was (and is) a great game, but the timing was bad first time round.

When we originally stopped working on the game it was, as we said at the time, due to the distribution problems we had and how people had turned to finding other ways to get the game. Those distribution problems are now solved with the wonders of Steam. Any issues that are normally brought about by reviving cult, but niche, games and the business cases around them when you are part of a large company as we are, are negated by Early Access. We think there’s a market for the game, as do some people at SEGA and Steam, so we want to prove it to everyone else and bring the series back bigger and better for the long term.

2. The game is being released exclusively on Steam Early Access. Can you explain what this is and why you have chosen this platform?

Early Access is used by different developers in different ways. It’s essentially a way for developers to release ‘early’ versions of games (Alpha or Beta as we know them in development). Sometimes they do this to get feedback, sometimes it’s to get funding, sometimes it’s to get extra QA capacity and sometimes it’s treated as a ‘special’ thing for people who are fans of a developer’s work to get an early sneak peak.

In the case of EHM, it’s really to find out if people want it or not. We have a game that is being worked on for ourselves to play, that when it was out before had a small cult following, and we want to see if there is a wider market for it.

If the feedback is good, people enjoy it, and we reach a certain number of players, it means we can get a proper budget together for the game, build a small team around it (rather than the team having ‘day jobs’ working on FM) and go back to having an annualised version with full licenses from leagues around the world. That’s the end goal; to have the budget for people to be able to work on it full-time whilst taking on extra people to come onto the FM team to take over their work.

But we also want to get more people playing it to give us feedback on what they want to see in the game and to help us track down more obscure bugs. The game hasn’t crashed for us for a while internally, but there has only been a dozen or so of us playing it. The more people who are playing on a wider range of computers, the more likely it is that we will find issues.

3. Is there an estimated time frame as to when the Early Access period will cease? Will the game continue to be developed afterwards?

It will be months rather than years, but we haven’t set anything concrete. As for post ‘release’ development? That depends on the situation we find ourselves in. If it does well, then it becomes a fully licensed annual release. If it doesn’t, then that depends on whether Riz and the other members of the team have time to add to it in their spare time.

4. At what price will the game be sold during the Early Access period? Is the sale price likely to change once the Early Access period ceases?

At the time of writing, I don’t have exact pricing for every territory around the world, but it’ll be cheaper than our games normally are. And the price will change upwards when the Early Access period ceases. This is both a thank you to people for supporting the game early and a thank you for people for helping us find issues to fix.

5. Subject to the success of the new game, is there a chance that the EHM series may return for good? Is there anything the EHM community can do to increase the game's chances of success?

We’d love that to be the case and is the reason that we’re doing this when we feel we’ve got the best chance. As for the community? Spread the word. The more people who join in with Early Access, the more chance there is to bring it back as a full series.


Risto ‘Riz’ Remes

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Photo credit: Okwaeze Otusi

1. You must be thrilled to have the opportunity to release a new version of the game! There are many people who have continued to play and mod EHM 2007 (and of course the original freeware version). Did you ever expect the 2007 game to continue be so popular over eight years following its release?

I always maintained that Eastside would come back one day, so I’m thrilled that we are finally here. I never really expected the last EHM to hold its own so well over all these years. We knew we had a great game back in the day and it has been great to see the community keep the old game alive all through these years, but it was still surprising to see how well the game has aged.

2. You have been working on the Football Manager series since EHM's cancellation in January 2007. What aspects of Football Manager have you been working on during this time?

I’ve been working on quite a few different areas on FM. I started working on the game finances and with newgens and player progression and retirements. Someone else has now taken over the financial side, but along the way I’ve picked up some other areas like team talks, training, attendances and some elements of the match analysis and feedback.

3. Have you been working on the game by yourself or have you been helped by any colleagues at Sports Interactive? I remember Graeme Kelly and Ter played a major part in the development of the previous games.

Over the years I had a few occasions when I did some improvements to the 2D engine and trade AI and other smaller fixes and additions, but I never really had the inspiration to start a major overhaul of the game code that was something that needed to be done if we were to ever bring the game back. Graeme was kind enough to keep the project alive thru the early years after 2007, so that we could keep on working with the old codebase with our latest dev tools. It was back in December 2013 during my Christmas holiday as I was watching the World Junior Championships that I felt it was time to finally take on the challenge and start working on rewriting the database at the core of the game. Since the project was nothing official back then, I used to work on it at weekends and in the evenings and Graeme chipped in with some technical help every now and then on his own time as well. Once we had the database rewritten with new and updated league structures, it was just a matter of showing it to Miles and telling him we could have something ready quite soon as he had also been thinking about bringing back Eastside. Later on in the project, we have had even more members of the old Eastside team at SI chip in on their part, with Ter doing an amazing job with the new skin and other new graphical ideas, Graeme helping out again with some of the more technical aspects of the project, Philip Rolfe rewriting the manual and doing some text changes for the game, Phillip Foose helping out with the Steam integration and Grant Appleyard helping out on the production side of things. The whole team at SI has been very supportive of the project and I’m very happy that we’ve been given this chance to bring Eastside back.

4. How has the game's user interface and in-game 2D view changed?

The user interface was redesigned to concentrate all the key managerial elements and actions into the main toolbar at the top of the screen and the contextual title bar right below it. This meant moving the section and action menus from the old left-hand side menu bar to the title bar and this allowed us to open up the main game panel to span the whole width of the screen. With more space for the main panel, Ter came up with the idea of doing a new bigger rink for the 2D engine and so we were able to add a new zoomed-in mode, where you can now watch the action with a screen-wide rink. Ter also re-designed the player and non-player profile screens for us and we’ve added some all-new screens as well, like the nation overview screen where you can see all the top leagues, clubs and players from a specific nation at one glance.

5. EHM 2007 had a lot of hardcoded data which meant that users could not edit certain aspects of the game (such as league and team names). How has this changed for the new game?

All of the leagues were hardcoded in the old games, meaning that any changes to league rules had to be changed in code. So every year, when some leagues changed their structure or rules, we had to ditch the old code that modelled the old structure and rules and write code for the new ones. This also meant that users who wanted to edit their databases couldn’t really change too much with regards to league and team names either, as the old database needed to identify leagues and teams by their names. With the new rewritten database, we no longer rely on league or team names for identification and all the league structures and rules are now defined in the database. This means the game just needs to read in the data to figure out what kind of leagues to create and updating league structures and rules will be much easier in the future for the development team. This also means we can have better editing capabilities in the future.

6. The game sees the introduction of Player Roles which can be set via the database. Can you tell us a bit about this and how it will help those who develop roster updates?

We’ve redesigned the way player attributes work in the game, which has meant the introduction of different types of player roles. Each role has some key and essential attributes linked to it, as well as some non-essential and/or irrelevant attributes. These define the strong/weak areas of the game for each player role. If the database has a player defined with all his attributes already set, then we can just deduct his player role from his attributes and it can be then used by the game when progressing the player through the years. However, it can be hard to rate all the attributes of a player in the database, especially with younger players, so here the player role comes in handy. Anyone with a player role set in the database and some attributes left blank can now get their attributes created more realistically based on the role he has been given.

7. Sometimes in EHM 2007 regen players and player attribute development could be a little hit and miss. How has this changed for the new game? Do you have any further plans in this respect?

Along with changes related to player roles, we’ve also rewritten the player progression module. Players will now develop and age more realistically, with some aspects of their game (like some physical attributes) developing early on whilst others (mainly mental attributes) usually start developing more when the player gets older and more experienced. Once they have gone past their peak age, some areas of their game will gradually start declining, but this has also been remodelled to take into account some athletes that maintain their level of play for much longer than average. And throughout the years the player develops and gains experience towards their full potential, we now use the player roles to distribute the gained ability between the attributes. We are planning on refining and polishing these aspects of the long term gameplay throughout the Early Access stage.

8. The financial side of hockey has changed dramatically over the past eight years. The 2014/15 salary cap is more than 55% higher than back in 2006/07. Also, the highest paid players are today earning nearly double than the highest paid players in 2006/07. How have you adjusted the financial modelling in the game and will it accommodate the current salary cap and floor?

Like the leagues in the old game, the finances of different nations used to be hardcoded into the game and had to be changed annually, depending on real life changes. With the new database, we have added financial models for nations and/or leagues, so key elements of the financial side such as expected wage and budget levels and minimum/maximum wages can be set in the database itself and can be adjusted to suit the salary cap levels.

9. In EHM 2007 the AI managers could be persuaded to trade away star players by stacking a trade offer. Has the trading engine/AI been tweaked for the new game?

The trade AI has already seen some improvements over these past years based on the feedback from the old games and as one of the key modules of the game, we will continue fine tuning and polishing the AI during Early Access.

10. In the past the game over-emphasised offensive defencemen and taller/heavier players. Have these issues been resolved? What other changes have you made to the in-game engine?

The 2D engine has had some changes made to the physics engine related to player collisions for example, with more emphasis now given to players being able to control their bodies instead of relying on just sheer physical size. With the game ratings, more aspects of the defensive side of the game are now taken into account so getting a good rating is no longer as reliant on offensive production as before. We’ve also fine-tuned other aspects of the 2D engine, such as adding in better deflections and improved puck physics. Again, as this is one of the key areas of the game we will continue polishing the 2D during Early Access.

11. EHM 2005 continues to this day to be extremely popular with online leagues. Do you have any plans for the multiplayer side of the new game? Might it be possible to have 30 human GMs in one game?

We are going to look at the network game mode later on during Early Access, but for ‘hot-seat’ play the game already supports up to 30 human managers.

12. Retro databases have become increasingly popular over recent years (such as 1974/75, 1979/80 and 1998/99 rosters). Have you made any changes to the game in order to accommodate retro rosters?

The new database format allows users to create historical starting databases by importing rosters created for EHM 2007. For historical databases, you can set the wanted start year and select from either the 2006 or 2014 league structure and rules set.

13. Will an in-game 2015/16 start date be possible later this year?

Early Access will see the game start with 2014/15 season rules and start date, but we are planning on doing an updated database with support for 2015/16 league structures, rules and start date later on.

14. What other features and improvements do you have planned during the Early Access period?

We are going to add a graphical play-off tree view fairly soon and do some further improvements to the player role/progression module as well as improving the non-player development. Obviously we are going to listen to the community for ideas and if they are technically achievable, we can look into implementing them. There are also some new playable leagues in plans to be added, as well as a few more new features we’ve designed lately.

15. Finally, many users have a favourite moment in EHM such as developing a youth player or bringing glory to their team (my favourite game was establishing Forssan Palloseura as an SM-Liiga team). What has been your favourite moment in the game?

There are too many to mention really. I tend to enjoy the little things, like watching a beautiful play unfold in the 2D and result in a dramatic overtime winner, or simply browsing through the draft logs of past years in a long-term game, checking out what kind of careers players have had. The beauty of the game is that different people can find many different ways of enjoying it and you can play the game in so many different ways.


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cv81
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Re: EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Miles Jacobson and Risto Remes

Post by cv81 » Thu Mar 26, 2015 1:06 pm

Great piece.

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