Sensible Software’s hit follow-up to Sensible Soccer is still widely regarded as one of the greatest football games of all time. It built perfectly upon the original game, delivering a blistering fast game of football that’s still insanely exciting to play. Designer, Jon Hare, reveals how it all came about.
The most important game I ever played in my life was Subutteo,” says Jon Hare, becoming enthusiastic at the memory. As a life-long Norwich City fan, football has been in his blood since an early age and, in the absence of videogames, flicking small plastic men around a tiny, felt soccer pitch was, along with actually pulling on a pair of boots, one of the ways he could emulate his heroes.
Despite the tiny visuals, the sprites in Sensible World Of Soccer
are filled with character.
The Sensible Software co-founder recalls creating his own football games, taking the heads of famous people from packs of Shreddies, sticking them to soft toys, grabbing a ping pong ball and some plastic nets and scoring those infamous last-minute cup final goals which infiltrated his dreams. “Growing up in a pre-computer games era, this is not as mad as it sounds,” he laughs.
By the time Jon and his team launched Sensible World Of Soccer in 1994, however, Jon was very much in the videogame era. He had been an instrumental figure in the development of Microprose Soccer and he had created Sensible Soccer in 1992. The latter game had become something of a labour of love for Sensible Software. Having had control of the development, they injected it with everything they felt would make a good football game. For them, Sensible Soccer was their project and they wanted it to stand alone on its miniature feet. This was not about creating the look of a real match but the feel of one.
“After Sensible Soccer came out in 1992, we didn’t stop working on it,” says Jon about Sensible’s hit game. “Our programmer, Chris Chapman, ensured the development process was never broken. So as he carried on working, we were able to inject more features and work on a game that really would become the ultimate football game, in our eyes at least. That’s how Sensible World Of Soccer came into being.”
There are a number of different pitches to play on.
Like a football manager eyeing up the Champions League, Sensible Software wanted to move away from domestic competition and take on the entire world. Much time was taken to include national and international teams. There were more than 27,000 players in more than 1,500 clubs. “We were very thorough,” Jon says, without batting an eyelid. “And that is because of the roots which go back to Subbuteo. That game was international and it had different kits. You had all the different international teams and I think SWOS was an ideal way of just turning our game into a modern Subbuteo on a computer, not in the sense of flicking players around but playing football as realistically as possible, given the constraints. I think that that was probably part of it. Personally, I’m quite attracted to things that are about the world and different countries, and how that works, and it was nice to map the football world out of the game.”
Coder Chris Chapman relished the opportunity to get stuck in. He had played Kick Off to death while he was making Mega Lo Mania and he had always thought he could do a better job. He had turned Sensible Soccer around in nine months of very late nights, completing it in time for the 1992 Euros, but that hadn’t put him off trying to make a sequel. So work continued, with a deadline of the World Cup of 1994 in mind. It proved to be a tough job that led to the Amiga version being delayed (and the PC version seemingly running on Fergie time) but the team felt it was on to something.
Had it decided to just go with a simple update, all would have been well. But the developer thought it would be a good idea to give Sensible World Of Soccer a player-manager element with a 20-year career. Sensible Software wanted to make this light, lowering the level of financial management. Jon felt that there wasn’t a good player-manager game out at the time and he said he was happy to fill the gap but he didn’t want to distract from the actual play too much. It was, he added, a logical step.
It was possible to play as many of the popular teams of the time.
Wimbledon for the win!
“What we wanted with the management part was a change to buying players and selling them so that whatever team you were – whether Rochdale, Aldershot or whatever – then you’d be able to buy players and stick them in your team and see what happened,” he says. “It was fun to have that ability and buy a player from, say, Venezuela and see if he worked.”
For the team, it was an example of thinking big – “I like things which are quite jaw-droppingly big,” says Jon. “I find them quite naturally attractive” – and they believe a project on that scale today would be extremely expensive. “If you imagine the scale of SWOS and imagine doing that on modern consoles with modern players, that’s a big job. Imagine the whole scope of the work, the 3D models of the stadiums, the detail that would be needed. We did that on the technology we had available to us at the time in our own way and it worked so well.”
Suffice to say, they worked hard to match that ambition. The original design document for Sensible World Of Soccer stretches over seven pages of A4, scribbled down, rather quaintly, in biro. Of all of the aspects of the game, however, interfacing the management with the play was most important to Sensible Software. Formations could change and each player could be positioned in any way you wished. It was comprehensive and detailed and with some work, you could have even the worst team performing above their best.
Replays highlight your greatest achievements or most crushing of failures.
The management side proved difficult to implement, though. “I remember the chairman and how he made his decisions was tricky,” confesses Chris. “It was very difficult to keep track of and debug chairman decisions when the overall effect would be seen over several games or seasons. We also had to get our heads around creating and maintaining the team and player database. This was a major job as each player had to have his own set of attributes. We had a very knowledgeable guy working on this so we just had to get the game to work with the numbers to try and make each player play the way he was supposed to but it wasn’t easy.”
The encyclopaedia of data needed for the game was compiled by Mike Hammond, one of the authors of the football stat bible, the Rothman’s Yearbook and it was a monumental effort. Then there was the play on the field itself. Gameplay was refined with the ability to deflect passes, for instance. The team improved the goalkeeper AI and work was carried out on the formations. “The players had to have individual levels in each of the skills but this was mainly for the computer players,” says Chris. “Running speed was the easy one but we also had to make them able to tackle successfully or not based on their individual skill as well as handle their shooting accuracy and so on. Basically we just started with them being as good as they could be and just made them imperfect based on their skill.”
All of this didn’t break the core of Sensible Soccer, however. “Chris always said he didn’t quite know how we’d gotten to that point of getting a good engine but he didn’t want to mess it up, so we were always quite careful to not play around with our magic formula too much,” says Jon. “There was more focus on interfacing the tactics properly with the gameplay so it was well balanced and also well balanced on the AI. The strategy, the AI, and the controls were a triangle and we had to make sure they all balanced with each other.”
The visuals – those tiny sprites that were influenced by Populous, infiltrated Mega Lo Mania, became popular in Cannon Fodder and were Sensible’s trademark – were largely left alone, although stadia was created and crowds appeared around the pitch, adding to the atmosphere. The small players and a bigger viewing area in Sensible Soccer continued, down to the developer’s style at the time. “There was an awful lot of menu work, though” says Jon. “I mean the bulk of the work was menu design and database management for SWOS. But the game itself had already been proven in Sensible Soccer two years earlier. We didn’t want to break it too much. Visually there was very little work done, just some enhancements really.”