It's that time of year again.
That time where we're not leaving our own homes because of a pandemic, you mean? Well, yes; those of us living in England are currently in a second nationwide lockdown in the space of a few months. But it's also that time of year where the newest edition of the Football Manager series drops, which is much more exciting.
Football Manager 2021 releases on November 24 and 90min have been lucky enough to be handed a first look at the alpha version of the game, to take a few first impressions of how it's going to feel and play.
We've also been afforded the opportunity to speak to Football Manager director Miles Jacobson, who talked through the new features you can expect to see and what's it's been like creating a game while the team have been working from home.
On Making a Game During a Pandemic
"We spoke to a lot of people during the pandemic who said 'thank you for helping me get through it'," Jacobson told 90min. "Speaking about it has made me realise, and it's going to sound a bit wanky, just how important the game is to a lot of people, how it's a hobby, and how it's an escape. We're not just a game."
It's true. Record numbers of players have driven to the previous instalment, FM20, over the last year, seeing a combined 985m goals scored over 470m matches by 1.8m players. And these numbers were correct as of August. It's going to be a lot more than that by the time for transition to FM21.
But while last year's edition helped people pass the time through the last lockdown, the gaffer was also keen to ensure that making FM21 was not an added source of stress during what was an already difficult time.
"We really care about our team," Jacobson added. "The pandemic has been hard on everyone - working from home has not been as much fun as people thought it might be. We've been really concerned about our team's mental health and ensuring that nobody was having to do overtime - that things were very sensible so that people weren't getting more stressed than they were getting from the real world situation."
Football Manager even managed to hire 40 people during lockdown, and have had an additional 20 positions open to be filled over the coming weeks and months. It'll certainly give them a head start on next year's edition.
On Optimising Football Manager 2021
New hires have also helped with various aspects of this year's game, but a huge win can be chalked up for how quickly you can progress.
"The proudest thing for me is that I believe when you play the game, you wouldn't know that we've been in the midst of a pandemic," Jacobson added. "There's so much new stuff in the game, it's faster than it's ever been, it's better than it's ever been and I'm delighted with what we've been able to deliver."
We've put speed to the test ourselves and it's pretty remarkable. I'll put my games on a weekly autosave and have used that moment in past editions to come up for air, check my phone, perhaps have a real life conversation like a normal person. But it'll be a lot more difficult to do this year because it saves too quickly.
The numbers really don't lie...so long as you've got a computer strong enough to deal it.
What's your favourite thing about Football Manager?
Signing that new player who'll make a difference for your team has to be up there? Perhaps more accurately in my case, it's turfing out half a squad of players in one summer and seeing your incomings read '26' in the transfer window roundup that follows - only to then wonder why things aren't clicking straight away.
Nothing quite gets my nerd going like finding a player myself that screams future profit. But it's always been a lengthy, as-pain-staking-as-you-want-to-make-it process to find a player you want and assign scouts to get a cost expectation, only to find out his club doesn't want to sell him.
The introduction of conversations with agents changes that this year, and you should use it.
Now, you can go direct to a player's representative and find out what he would require to sign with your team. It'll tell you his expected wages, what price it would take to get him out of his current club, and what your club would need to achieve if joining was not an option at present.
"It's an important feature for people who play long-term games," Jacobson added. "If you're managing in the Championship and you want to sign a player who is too good, you want to know what you need to do to be able to get that player to join.
"It's kind of a hints and tips of what you need to do to sign that particular player, but each player is going to have different feedback."
The Pandemic's Impact In-Game
The agent feature was introduced to work with a revamped transfer system which needed to reflect the situation we've been living in since March. Coronavirus has made a huge impact on football in general, as anyone reading this will know, but the trick was where to draw the line between realism and escape.
"The financial modelling and transfer system changes that have been made because of the pandemic, and also partly because of Brexit, are brilliant," added Jacobson. "We've basically ripped up a system that's worked well for 20 years and gone 'no, it doesn't work well any more because of the situation that's going on'."
Fans are in stadia, but real-life transfer window changes and financial situations of clubs at all levels are reflected. It was an important one to get right - something that they will ultimately leave up to the public to decide - but it feels like the right blend.
"There was a point during the cycle where we were going to mimic everything absolutely, and talking about a random chance of when people were going to be allowed back into stadia, and it just felt like the wrong thing to do. And with no money in the game, it makes it really not fun - so that was part of it as well."
One of the biggest changes to Football Manager 2021 is in your interactions. Now, gestures and body language are a thing, and you'll really have to think about how you're delivering your messages, instead of just what you're delivering.
In chats with your players one to one, your dressing room team talks, even with journalists at press conferences, you can't ignore this new feature.
"The changes to the way we're doing press conferences is going to make people want to do them again, and that's a really good thing because we see every year that that drops off and people use the ask assistant button," said Miles. "It's really important, as in any job that you do.
"If you [as an interviewer] were sitting here with a face like you'd just been punched and you don't have any questions, I'm going to react in the same way. Other players will react to other players' body language, other players will react differently to you based on their body language and they might make worse decisions based on their body language.
"They might also be more determined or determined to prove you wrong based on body language - it's as important as morale has been over the years."
Thinking about what you're saying and how you're saying it will shape your personality and relationships, so it's something to think about - but you'll also have to get your head around the layout of the conversations. Team talks and press conferences are now set out in a room on the screen, with the conversation jumping all over the place to reflect where the players or journalists are sitting.
You can never tell me that being able to throw a water bottle in anger won't be a worthy addition to the FM series, though.
A real effort has been made this year to make the match experience as immersive as possible, with that word experience in mind.
Managers will be handed the chance to make pre-match tactical tweaks and are given last minute analysis from their backroom staff that could swing the game in their favour. You can even make alterations having seen the team sheets, which now appear before kick off.
You'll also get analysis and advice through the game, and can really see how your team is faring with the much-debated new feature of expected goals (xG) integrated. Smarter defenders and more intelligent AI means a significant upgrade on the actual match itself, and players will still be making decisions every quarter of a second - able to change their mind mid-decision.
There is a lot to think about in game now, a lot to look at and consider. But there's a number of convenient changes that'll make it easier for you to adjust on the go. Jacobson admits that it's the combination of every feature - normally a thousand are added every year, with around 5,000 still sitting in a pool - that makes the game work as well as it does.
"For me the key thing is always the sum of all the parts. I'm the director of the game, a film director might have a particularly favourite line of the script, but if it doesn't all work together then they've failed. It's the way the game hangs together."
So what can you expect, then?
From our side, it's as important an addition as the team have ever put out, given the world we've been living in this year and the number of people who've driven back to the series - with more people having had the time to do so, of course. Don't be surprised if big numbers drag through to '21.
"We're trying to get people to escape from the shitty world that we currently live in and into a parallel universe," Jacobson added, and it's still important for someone like me - who has already ploughed 30+ hours in since being given alpha access. "Having the suspension of disbelief being right and you feeling that you are part of that universe is always a really important thing, and I think this year that is stronger than ever."
Tie this in with the new features, which as ever are added in seamlessly and give you something extra to consider as you go down the rabbit hole - a large chunk of this has done from home, remember - and you're onto a winner.
The good news is we're getting closer to release, and saving the best for last? Newgens look human!
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