Back when Jon Hare was working on his first football game, ‘Sensible Soccer’, there weren’t enough people involved to fill a five-a-side team.
A quarter of a decade on, he has scaled up for new release Sociable Soccer, but kept some of the components that made ‘Sensi’ such an integral part of so many British gamers’ upbringing, not least an intention to recreate that arcade-style experience which gives pangs of nostalgia to those who got involved in the early Amiga and Atari days.
Back in 1992, when the first iteration was brought to life, the world of gaming looked nothing like the behemoth it is today. However, just as importantly, the sport on which the game is based did not quite have its 2017 profile: the Premier League and Champions League were just coming into being, while the United States was still two years from the World Cup which would bring the sport new fans, and this has been reflected in the reception Sociable Soccer has received in contrast to its predecessor.
“[The appetite] is very similar from some countries, predominantly the UK. Germany and Spain, but we’re also more from Turkey and the US than before,” Hare tells me.“It’s a new game, and so it’s appealing to new markets who maybe wouldn’t have liked Sensi – we originally sold almost nothing in the US, for example.”
The original was followed by a number of iterations throughout the 1990s – one every year, for a period, with Hare serving as lead designer and lead artist throughout.
And while the intervening period has brought about the rise of games like FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer, the man behind many people’s first ever football game believes he has the tools to find an audience in a world where gaming means esports on a world stage and not just private multiplayer action for fun.
One of the more important factors, he argues, is the importance of ensuring Sociable Soccer is “cross-platform all the way”, rather than a console game ported onto other platforms and devices.
He is reluctant to predict exactly what the split will be, but sees FIFA’s almost equal divide between PC, console and mobile as a useful early benchmark.
Understanding what works for games like FIFA is one thing, but figuring out how to put a dent in its user base is another altogether. The solution, Hare feels, comes from appealing to those who are less keen on – or even put off by – the hyperrealism of the EA Sports game.
He has previously suggested he’d be happy to see his game become something more along the lines of “Rocket League with boots” – adopting more of an arcade sensibility (pun intended) to proceedings – and that shines through in the similarities to and differences from other games on the market.
“It’s different gameplay from FIFA and PES, but those are meant to be simulations, this is an arcade game,” Hare says.“The lack of TV realism can be a good thing for non-[football] fans. You don’t want to alienate people with a [realistic] close up of Ronaldo’s hair when that’s not what a lot of people will want.”
He argues rhythm is far more valuable than what he sees as comparatively unnecessary hyperrealism, pushing for the double-whammy of believable scorelines and short games to keep the action ticking along without boredom or impatience setting in.
“It’s set up well for esports play and that’s where we can grow too,” he says. “Our [matches] are not so long that there are dropouts, and we can get realistic scores – something like 4-2 or 5-2 in a high-scoring game”. This, he will surely hope, will bring an audience well versed in esports but with enough of a grounding in football to want a reasonable level of semblance to the real-life sport on which the game is modelled.
While Sociable Soccer might be approaching football games from a different angle than some other players in the space, it has the unique benefit of nostalgia.
Hare describes the Steam Early Access release as “the start of a long journey for us,” but it’s a journey which might have started a couple of years ago were it not for a failure to raise sufficient funds on Kickstarter.
The crowdfunding attempt was aborted in short order after it was clear the £300,000 target would not be met, but the designer is taking the positives from the situation.
“Normally [on Kickstarter] you’ll get a target of £50-100k and we couldn’t have produced the game we would have liked for that,” he says. “We needed a lot more than that budget, but in some ways it’s a blessing, it’s been good to wait as it has allowed us to try a lot of new things.” Those new things include launching on Switch, which wasn’t even part of the equation in November 2015, as well as support for VR, and the inclusion of Boss Mode (where you push for success as a manager) and Card Collection Mode (which is more self-explanatory) on the finalised game.
There are, perhaps inevitably, one or two kinks that still need to be ironed out, with Hare referencing the AI goalkeepers as “something which needs fine-tuning”, while the team behind Sociable Soccer are accounting for changes in player habits – a movement more towards online multiplayer from the local multiplayer more popular in the early and mid-90s, for one.
There are also, as ever, a number of intangibles, but Hare speaks with confidence about a game that will continue to evolve with input from its players.
“We had an adrenaline rush from playing it and that’s hard to get across without actually trying the game, so go and play it!”