A Sensible Progression: Jon Hare Explains the Thinking Behind ‘Sociable Soccer’

'Sensible Soccer' was the best football game of the 1990s, perhaps of all time, and now a spiritual successor to the 16bit classic is finally on the cards.

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22 November 2015, 10:14am

Concept art for 'Sociable Soccer'

I don't know if you'd call it an obsession exactly, but in the early 1990s only one video game truly dominated my play time in front of our family AmigaSensible Soccer. Released in 1992 for home computers, and subsequently ported to all manner of other platforms, it was a delightfully simple, impressively speedy top-down action sim that took the basic joys of the beautiful game – scoring more goals than the opposition while also kicking the kit off them – and produced a kind of interactive, fiercely competitive poetry. Sensi revolutionised rainy days off school and summer holiday laze-abouts alike. It was – it remains – as great to play on your own against the AI as it was to get a mate over and send their Inter Milan packing with your Real Madrid, which you could do (and so much more) when the global club game-encompassing Sensible World of Soccer came out in 1994.

Sensi was the creation of Sensible Software, an Essex-based studio that began in 1986 as a two-man team, Jon Hare and Chris Yates. 1987's Wizball on the Commodore 64 was the pair's first palpable hit, but the company really came into its own once it expanded (a bit) and began developing for the Amiga. Mega Lo Mania and Wizkid preceded the first Sensi, which in turn paved the way for the glorious Cannon Fodder. All classics, that might just mean nothing to readers under 30. But Sensible Software's most enduring achievement, and one that everyone needs to have played, will always be Sensi and its expansions. It staggers the mind to consider that the original game was created by just six people. Today, that might not get you a title screen.

Sensible World of Soccer is regularly cited as one of the most important video games of all time. Just get on Google for the evidence. The licence has been owned by Codemasters since Sensible Software sold up in 1999, and they put out an HD version of SWOS for the Xbox 360 in 2007. That was the last time we saw a Sensi game in the wild – but now one of its architects, Jon Hare, is reviving that familiarly frantic gameplay, that never-bettered immediacy and depth of detail. Alongside a small team with plenty of triple-A experience, he's making Sociable Soccer, which looks for all the world like a new Sensi. This is a very good thing, so I got straight on the phone to Jon to find out more about what should prove a worthy alternative to the FIFA and PES duopoly.

A work-in-progress screenshot of 'Sociable Soccer'

VICE: I've been after a "new Sensi" for ages, and have been known to go on about that to anyone who'll listen. So, are you some kind of mind reader, or have others been banging on about a revival, too?

Jon Hare: People have been asking me about Sensible Soccer forever, but a new football game is easier to do, right now, than a return to the Sensible series. I've not made a football game for a while, and I'm a massive football fan, so I thought: why not?

The actual game, the structure of Sociable Soccer, is something I've been planning for about seven or eight years. But I met this really great Finnish development team, so the timing of this is simply down to that, having the right people involved in the project. All the pieces are in place to make this happen, now. I've worked with many teams in the years since we sold Sensible Software, and I've not worked with many like this one. These are absolutely the right people.

The game's on Kickstarter right now. What made you take the crowd-funding route? Did you sound out any publishers prior to asking for public cash?

To be honest, from my perspective, be it crowd funding or a "traditional" publisher, however we do this, it makes no difference. The main focus is on making a new football game. It's been quite hard over the years to sell new licenses to publishers, in general, but that's not to say it's impossible. But Kickstarter is our way of getting this game up and running – it doesn't rule out us working with publishers in the future. It just means we can get the game to a stage where perhaps a company will want to publish it – or, we may choose to self-publish. Self-publishing has become harder, though, in recent years. Most developers playing as publishers as well, they'll tell you that.

Getting games onto consoles was a nightmare for a while. Between 2002 and 2008 or 2009, I must have gone into meetings to try to sell games – either my own or made by other people – some four or five times, and I couldn't get a deal. Nobody was signing original products to consoles. That was the pre-digital era, you just couldn't get anyone to say, "yeah". So, the mobile market was a reaction to that – mobile became somewhere you could make original games, and that was really good. If you released a mobile game in 2009, maybe 2010, it was a good time. Today though, the deluge of mobile games is overwhelming, and the needle's swung back to consoles being more viable. The digital side of console gaming has matured, and you've Steam as well, which sits somewhere between console and mobile. Now, for people like me, game designers, the obvious thing to do is focus on the downloadable, digital side of console gaming, certainly to start with. For Sociable Soccer, consoles are exactly the right platform.

I'd make games for mobile again, but the deal has to be right. I'd love the challenge of putting a really good football game on mobile, but I won't do it with the market as it is. One day, I'll do it. But right now, I could spend a lot of money making it, and I might not be able to sell it. But I want to get an action football game onto mobile, and I'm confident I could – just not in the environment that we're in, right now.

Article continues after the video below

Looking at the Sociable Soccer gameplay, there are some quite clear parallels to be drawn with the Sensible games. I mean, barring some avatar differences, the games look pretty identical. Which is okay by me.

Well, it's important for me to say right now that all of the graphics are just placeholders. When we were putting together the Kickstarter video, the two lead artists were simultaneously in hospital, for different reasons, so we couldn't replace the art in there. We've spent about a month on the gameplay so far, and it's playing really well – the passing is zippy, the sliding tackles are working. I think you can tell from the video that we're going for a fast pace, much like Sensible Soccer was. The game is made in Unity and is all 3D, so we can support other camera angles as well as the top-down view, and we will be doing that. Our plan, while getting the gameplay working correctly, is to focus on the camera angle we've shown, and make sure it plays properly that way. Once that's tuned, we can build the animation around it.

The game's playing well enough right now that the lead programmer and me, we're spending ages actually playing it, rather than working on it. We keep finding excuses to have one more game. So that's a good sign – it's already a game that you want to beat the other person at.

A work-in-progress screenshot of 'Sociable Soccer'

I was out playing Sensi the other night, at a tournament in London. When I was describing the appeal of the game to guys who'd never touched it, the best word I could come up with was "elegant". It's a more elegant game than most football sims: fast, with loads of teams and tournaments, but also very streamlined and stripped-back of play. It's super easy to pick up, with just the single button to use, and I suppose that all adds up to "elegant", for me. What do you put the game's lasting appeal down to?

I think what's kept people playing Sensible Soccer is that immediacy. A lot of people don't appreciate the difference between just one and two buttons. It's about moving your thumb. Okay, when you're writing, the pen is in your hand at all times, and you never really move your fingers that much. Or, let's say when you're playing darts – you only have one thing to do, you throw the dart. So, with Sensible Soccer-style controls, your left hand is doing the directions, and your right hand is just pressing the button. What we're saying is your right hand is only concerned with timing, really – it has no other function beyond when you press the button and how long for. The positioning is irrelevant to your right hand. Think about how your brain processes stuff – already, we're taking away a whole load of distractions from the game's main function, which is just timing. Focus on that and nothing else, and you're going to be better at performing than if you had loads of buttons to press.

I always say that you play games through your body – they come into your eyes, get processed in your brain, and you feedback through your hands. The more the controls are not so natural, the worse it is. You need to not really be aware that you're holding this plastic thing with buttons all over it – if you can forget that part, brilliant. A game controller is like a musical instrument, and when you're playing something like a guitar, you don't think about where your hands are when you're playing the chords, once you've done it for several years. You don't need to think, and the same thing applies to a controller. The barrier to entry for games like the FIFA and PES series is all of those buttons, and I'm sure that after six months you stop thinking, but many of us aren't so patient. Sensible Soccer had immediacy. It was always easy to learn but hard to master. And I think that's what people liked. That, and its speed – it's fast, and the matches are short. I don't like long match times where you can end up with unrealistic scores. I hate football games where you can end a match with a 10-8 score line.

I think what Sensible Soccer did better than other football games was that it made defending fun. It was always fun to tackle, and you spend half the time defending in a football game, so it's important that you're still having fun when doing that. And I think defending is genuinely fun in Sensible Soccer, with the slide tackles, and the hacking of people down. I think the evenness of the controls is such that the player always feels connected, that they're only ever to blame if they lose. And, honestly, I think the finishing is better on Sensible Soccer than it is most football games, because you really can curl the ball into the corner of the net.

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There's a lot of play modes in Sociable Soccer – no fear that too many modes will spoil things?

I don't think so. It can seem quite complex, I suppose, but there's really three basic types of gameplay. There's single-player; "hot-seat" multiplayer, which is basically your old Sensi-style multiplayer with up to eight people around the same machine playing competitions; and then there's online multiplayer, which is the exciting bit. I'll get to that in a moment.

In terms of the "hot-seat" multiplayer, there are friendlies, 30 different pre-set competitions including leagues from across the world, and cup competitions, obviously with mangled names (due to licensing). We've got about 200 national sides and 400 club sides, to begin with. There will be DIY tournaments for you to create your own cup or league, to accommodate as many player or AI teams as you want – pretty standard fare for anyone who played Sensible Soccer. You can edit your own, fun teams and all that stuff. That's all in there.

And then, the innovative bit, the bit that I'm really excited about, is the online side of the game. The online side of Sociable Soccer will work in a really new way. Right, what team do you support?

Southampton.

Okay, so, you go into the game and when you set up your profile, you add that you're a Southampton fan, and you're from England – assuming you are from England, as you can select whatever country fits. It'll then ask you to create a little 3D avatar of yourself, and invite you to join an online "clan". When you join this clan, you can see within it loads of other players, all of their avatars. You can then play online for your clan, against other clans; and others in that same clan play as the same team when they play. And there will be leagues, where these clans can earn promotion or get relegated. Also, because you're Southampton, you'll be able to play as them against, I don't know, Torquay, or Bayern Munich, instead of the clan team. And when you play as Southampton, with the "real" squad, albeit with rearranged names, every other Southampton fan is doing the same, pushing them up in separate online leagues, or sending them down. The club leagues are sorted by average points per game, based on who's playing as which team. That means that the number of fans doesn't matter, as you'd no doubt get many more Manchester United fans playing as their team than you will Southampton fans. The average points system means that you can play for a team with a very small fanbase in the same league as a team with a huge following. At the end of every week, the top ten teams in a league of 50 get promoted, and the bottom ten go down. So every week, you're playing for your team.

Concept art for 'Sociable Soccer'

But there's more, because better than that, you can represent your club team if you're playing as them really well. Your player avatar will be invited into the proper squad, and then other online players can control you, just as they would any of the squad members proper. You can pick yourself – obviously you're probably going to put yourself up front. Perform badly and you'll be dropped. But continue to do well, and you'll stay in the team. And if your avatar is doing exceptionally well, for Southampton, they might get a call up to the England squad. So there's this meta-game, where you're building up stats for your in-game avatar – how many caps they've earned, how many goals they've scored.

For those people who aren't particularly football fans, because I know Sensible Soccer had players who weren't really into the real sport, they can focus more on the clans, and push those teams up the table. So there's great depth to the online side of Sociable Soccer. But what we can't have is the detail that Sensible World of Soccer did, at least not at launch, which will hopefully be in late 2016. That game took three years to make, and there's no way to achieve that while making this game for three different formats and getting the online side working inside a year, so we're not going to try it. Obviously, if Sociable Soccer is successful, we'll do a version every year and try to get the career mode out there as soon as possible.

Jon, it's been a pleasure.

Well, if that all sounds good, and you're into it, please go and back it. We've a way to go to hit our target, so the more support we get, the better. I think it'll be a real celebration of football's ability to unite people.


If you want to know more about Sociable Soccer, or back it with actual money, you can visit its Kickstarter campaign here. The game is destined for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC, with a release date roughly set for late 2016.

@MikeDiver

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