Interview: Sensible Software’s Jon Hare on Sociable Soccer and a changing industry

Sociable Soccer is coming to console (pic: Tower Studios)

Video games legend Jon Hare talks us through his new football game Sociable Soccer and charts how the industry has changed over the decades.

In the 1980s, Britain emerged as a powerhouse in the world of video games development, and Jon Hare was a leading figure in that movement. As co-founder of Sensible Software, he oversaw a number of smash hits, most notably Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder, and Mega-Lo-Mania.

Many of the British games development scene’s founding fathers have effectively retired, but Hare is still busy crafting games. After Codemasters bought Sensible Software in 1999 he set up a company called Tower Studios, which has developed and consulted on a huge array of recent titles.

Hare granted GameCentral an audience because he has big news: a project he conceived of in 2008 and has worked on since 2015 is poised to come to full fruition. That project is a game called Sociable Soccer, which combines Hare’s 30-odd years of experience in creating football games (his first was 1988’s MicroProse Soccer) with his keenly observed knowledge of modern gaming tastes.

Hare has signed a deal with UK outfit Kiss Publishing to finally bring Sociable Soccer to consoles and the PC. So, on April 17 2022, Sociable Soccer ’22 will be released on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, Switch and PC. Although he refuses to call it that, console and PC gamers will then be able to play what is effectively the spiritual successor to Sensible Soccer, constructed using modern technology.

Mobile gamers may be aware that it has actually been possible to play Sociable Soccer since 2019, via Apple Arcade. But Hare is excited by the possibilities that the move to consoles will bring: ‘Now we’re able to activate all that PC/console stuff that we couldn’t do on mobile – especially with Apple, as Apple tend to restrict stuff quite a lot. Obviously graphically, we can push things further, and also there is a whole bunch of new features we want to put into the game.’

The spirit of Sensible Software lives on (pic: Tower Studios)

Hare is adamant that Sociable Soccer ’22 won’t be some sort of nostalgia exercise: ‘Obviously, my history and heritage is with Sensible Soccer. But some people mistake that for the desire to make a retro game. That’s clearly not what Sensible Soccer was when it came out: it was a market-leading game. But it wasn’t an extremely high-budget market-leading one. We need to strike that balance between being groundbreaking, but within a budget that is realistic for normal development teams. So, it takes inspiration from games like Fortnite, Clash Royale, Rocket League and BrawlStars – wrapping structure inspired by those games around a Sensible Soccer style world of football detail.’

If you play Sociable Soccer on Apple Arcade, you will find that while its frenetically fast on-field action is reminiscent of Sensible Soccer it also has elements that are more in keeping with the games Hare has name-checked. But its origins go further back than those games, to 2008: ‘I’d done a little bit of work on Football Superstars as a consultant – a Real Madrid game. And we’d done the Sensible Soccer update in 2006, so I had some ideas about a football game and I wanted to base it around the concept of clans, the concept that, as football supporters, we all actually know which clan we gravitate to in the football world.’

Hare explains how the clan and league systems work in Sociable Soccer: ‘You have a fixture list with your league games. When you unlock a win streak, which you do at level 5, and when you unlock the clan clash stuff at level 10, those drop in as extended fixtures in the fixture list. At the end of a selected number of games, we will then determine whether you get promoted to the next league, go down to the league below or stay where you are.’

A whole new world of soccer (pic: Tower Studios)

Like many aspects of Sociable Soccer, Hare and his development team, Helsinki-based Combo Breaker, are working hard to effect major changes for the console and PC release: ‘We are reconstructing our seasons, so that the seasons and the way you transition between the league systems takes place more at the pace you’re playing the game, rather than in a weekly preset fixture list. We’re making little fixture lists with rewards embedded in them, to drive the player forward: this is a more modern way of structuring the game.’

Hare gives a glimpse of what the move from mobile to console will bring, the most obvious aspect being improved graphics: ‘We want to transition the focus more over to the physical players you’ll be buying. They will still be cards, but we’re adding a view of your team standing there, and when you level up, you’ll see your player characters, and we want to have some customisation of those – how much we can put in by April, we don’t know yet.

‘There’s a bunch of other technical stuff that will be done under the bonnet. We’ll upgrade our animation engine. We’ll change something with the game’s state machine, which allows us to have better use of the camera in the game, and better use of the transitions between what the players are doing. There are improvements we can make to the game mechanics, and the ball mechanics. So effectively, we’re almost branching development into the next generation of engine.’

Sociable Soccer ’22 will also have a FIFA Ultimate Team style system that will introduce legendary players. Hare says: ‘We have got a bespoke list of legends for every single club in the world. As your clan wins games, you will unlock legends, which will develop into something like a Panini sticker book. Then every match, random legends will be added to your team for one match. We mixed the club legends in with world legends like the Maradonas and the Pelés, so that you get a nice spread.”

Hare, a Norwich fan, explains that those world legends will balance things out so as not to disadvantage those who play as lesser teams: ‘If you support Norwich, our legends are going to be in the middle bracket of quality, so there will be a few more of the world legends – players which we’ve never had in real life. The lowest level legend that has been put in there by the development team is me. We’ve got a couple of joke players towards the bottom, to even it out.’

Hare and his team have their work cut out in the run-up to next April, but another way in which Sociable Soccer demonstrates its credentials as very much a modern game is via regular major updates. Already, since going up on Apple Arcade in 2019, Tower Studios has supplanted the original version with two iterations: Sociable Soccer 2020 and ’21. Hare says: ‘We’re in the rolling feast of the development world these days. There will be more features added as we go along, rolling out every six months or so.

‘Obviously, the World Cup is in the winter next year, so we’ll have another version come November. We do a full data update every six months, anyway: when the transfer window shuts. And we do a major update annually, that’s the kind of pattern we want to settle down into.’ 2022’s anomalous winter World Cup, Hare confirms, will allow Sociable Soccer to catch up in terms of annual nomenclature, so it will be branded as Sociable Soccer ’23, coming out just before the start of 2023.

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Hare is uniquely placed to observe how the games industry has changed as it has reached maturity, as when he first joined it, it was very much still in its infancy. ‘When we started in the 80s and 90s -Sensible Soccer ran from 86 to 99 – we learned from making tons of mistakes with companies like Ocean and BT Wireplay. We learned to run an intellectual property licensing business, and licensing IP is at the heart of what my company does. So, we make a game and find development partners. We then find publishing partners – currently, we have three, and the deal with Kiss is now the biggest. But it’s managing that IP and understanding, from a developer’s perspective, that you own it. You don’t need to give all of it to one party unless they are going to exploit all of it.

‘When we got to the early 90s and you had teams like ourselves and the Bitmap Brothers, Probe, Lionhead, and so on, we got very experienced at negotiating contracts with publishers and setting it up in a certain way so that it was good for them and good for us. I would even argue that in the 90s it got too good for us.’

But then came a period which Hare characterises as disastrous for UK developers, and particularly those operating as small teams: ‘Going from the mid-90s to 2005, all of us British companies sold out to mostly American guys. Publishers and developers, we just all sold everything and lost control. We ended up in a world where no-one wanted original games. Suddenly the bigger retail chains weren’t buying original games, they wanted film tie-ins and licence-related stuff. That meant the role of the original developer – as Sensible Software was – became hard, because we sold things based on our reputation as an artist, but people didn’t want us as an artist anymore.’

Games, in other words, became perceived more as a commodity than art. Sadly, that became inevitable once video games claimed a place in popular culture and thereby became big business. But at least Jon Hare is still pursuing his artistic vision, and on April 17 next year, with Sociable Soccer ’22, we’ll all be able to find out where it has led him.

By Steve Boxer

John Hare is still Sensible at heart (pic: Tower Studios)

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