The Den Of Geek interview: Kevin Toms

Interview Simon Brew 18 Jun 2008 - 08:02
Kevin Toms' Football Manager

The legendary programmer who gave the world Football Manager - the original one! - talks to Den Of Geek about his career, and what he's up to next...

Kevin Toms was responsible for many Dads taking over their offspring's computers for just one more go of the smash hit strategy game Football Manager. Since then, across games such as Software Star, Football Manager 2 and President, he's built up quite a reputation for strategy gaming. So what's he up to now, and how did Football Manager come about? On a long distance phone call to New Zealand, we found out...

What was your first computer, and where did you get the programming bug from?

I was a professional programmer. Mainframes were the first computers I worked with. The very first one, a long time ago, was an IBM mainframe.

When you saw the avalanche of home computers…

That was it! I’d always been inventing games as a hobby when I was quite young. Certainly from about ten years old I was doing a lot. Board games, ball games and things. And I the idea of playing around with the mainframe stuff, but it was really the micros and it was a TRS-80 clone, that was the first one. And then the ZX81.

What fuelled your passion for games then, even before you came to computing?

I always liked games. I like inventing them as well. It was create your own entertainment really. There was something about inventing them that had a lot of enjoyment.

Was it always destined that your skill as a programmer and your love of the games would meet?

Yeah, they did meet with Football Manager, actually. I was already a programmer, I had already been inventing games, and I love football. The three things came together.

What team?

It’s too painful. It was Torquay United, I grew up with them. They’re non-league at the moment. I was at the match where Torquay went out the league.

Football Manager clearly created a genre, and many programmers at the time were doing similar things, or at the least making things we’d not seen much of before. Was that always the game that as soon as you saw the potential there, you were going to do?

Yeah. Basically I started writing it and friends played it, and they seemed to be very gripped by it. And I couldn’t get them off. Which was the source of the company name Addictive Games. What happened there was I’d got to the stage where I decided I was going to launch it as a commercial product and start selling it. And at the time you could only start selling it by hobbyist magazines and mail order. That was all there was. So I needed a name for the company, and I remember lying in bed on a Saturday morning and I remember thinking that it was very addictive, people seemed to find it addictive. That’s what gave me the name Addictive Games.

And how long did it take you to program the first version?

It was over about a year, the original one. Part time.

Was that as much learning the technology, pushing it, finding out what it could do?

Yes. It was evolving the game. I’d dabbled around with other games before, and I had written board games based on football. I always found them deficient particularly on things like calculating the league table. I realised when I started to play with computers that it did a lot of that annoying stuff for me. The scenario could be run by the computer, so it was a really good tool for the job.

Your friends were playing it, you launched it commercially. When did you realise that you were onto something really quite special?

I’d say that was when I got a large order from Smiths. They said to me on the phone at work that they wanted an order for 100 games. Then “No, no, 1000 games”. That’s it! Fantastic! I’m giving up work!

And did you quit straight away?

Pretty quickly, because when I got home, it was 10,000!

In the course of one day it went up tenfold?

It was misreading of the numbers! Which was the first order from them – no, the second order actually. They’d ordered 2000 before, and that had almost got me there. But this order was at the time worth four times what I was earning in a year as a professional programmer. It was an easy decision!

And how long after the game was released did all this happen?

I think it was six months from the very first release. It was quieter at first, because it was only selling by mail order. Then the transition to a few specialist shops. By the middle of the year, that’s when the chain stores realised that there was a market and called me down.

I actually got called down by a buyer to Smiths in London at the time, and he said “I’m interested in your game, and I’d like to stock it”. I went down and took some advice first from a business adviser, because I thought I don’t know what to do. He’s obviously going to ask for a discount, but I don’t know what to charge, because I’m usually only selling to people direct. This guy who advised me said I don’t know, because you’re a new industry. It’s not established what the discounts are. He said that he came from the confectionary industry, Mars I think he worked for, and he said typically it’s between 50 and 70 percent. And I said okay, well I’ve got something to go on. If I get 70% discount I’m not doing well, and if I get 50% I’m doing well. I’d decided that I’d try and get no more than 60% discount.

I went down to see the guy, expecting it all to be quite difficult. But it was very friendly, and the guy said okay I like your game, I want to stock it. It’s a two-colour inlay, we’ve got to have full colour printing. I want a new inlay for it, to look good. And he said I want 2000 units, and I want 55% discount. That pretty much became the norm for others as well.

Was it a snap-your-arm-off moment?

It was okay! But that was my negotiating ploy!

My memories of the game are that it seemed to ride the wave at just the right time. At the point where a lot of the chain stores woke up to the potential of computer gaming, and yours was one of the best-selling games out there.

Yeah. One of the things about it is that it kept selling for such a long time. It was not a fashion item like so many were. I think it was still selling ten years later from when I first launched it. It was high in the charts for a long time. It was a different kind of game, and it appealed to people in different ways.

One thing that struck me about it, I played it on the Spectrum where it included graphical highlights. And these highlights were really ambitious, if anything shown by the fact that even ten or fifteen years later, the leading titles at the time still hadn’t wrapped their heads around it. And yet you had it in game one.

Yep, I remember writing that! I’d done the ZX81 and the Spectrum one was about the July or August of 1982. The game was launched in January 1982. I got my hands on a Spectrum, and I spent a couple of months adding in the graphics and expanding the game. I decided I wanted to do those graphics. And I remember that I did that without assembler, I did it in BASIC, used some Boolean logic for the Spectrum combined with the design of the stick men graphics, which worked very well.

Obviously it was to do with what happened in the action. There was a bit of gameplay design going on there. Made it that you were never sure what was going to happen. That would be boring.

And I didn’t know what was going to happen. I could figure out the algorithms, but I couldn’t say by looking at a part of a sequence that I know what happens now. It was part of why it worked so well. There was nothing pre-programmed in that, it intelligently, you might say, worked out what it was doing. And I think it worked really well, and it fitted into the game. Other machines I did the game for there wasn’t enough memory for that.

Were you aware that you were pathfinding at the time, or was it a case of this is new, so I’m just going to try it? Because it strikes me as the kind of thing that if people had done it before, they might have said it’s impossible and put you off?

At the time I think my decision on doing that was that it was what the game needed to add to it. And there more memory on the Spectrum as I had on the ZX81, so I could do a bit more, and so I decided that that was what was needed. I spent a lot of time on the dining room table with my Spectrum, working out how to make it work. At the same time I was writing business software on an Osborne computer to run the business as well!

It seemed like a game that took over your life for a couple of years, what with the conversion to pretty much every format on the planet?

Yeah. I think what happened there was that because the game had such longevity it continued to sell, so when new formats came out it was a good idea to do them, because they would sell too. It wasn’t like it would be “oh, that’s last year’s now”.

It was a real pain, in that every new format had to be converted for. I did start employing programmers to help with the conversion.

Some of it was interesting. One of the things I was really proud of was designing the graphics on the BBC in teletext-style two by three pixels and making it actually look like footballers running round. There were good parts to it, and solving technical problems like how to fit things into memory and bits like that. But the most fun was writing the original, really. And marketing is interesting, it was creative in itself. Writing the ads, designing them and stuff.

And which format holds the version of the game you’re most proud of?

The Spectrum, definitely. The other one I’d liked if I remember rightly was the Amstrad CPC. I thought that was a good version too.

Can we move onto the game Software Star, a software company management game that got lost a little bit in the huge success of Football Manager. But presumably that was reflective of what you were going through?

Yeah, it was. It’s an interesting point. My son is 15 years old and in the last twelve months we dug out Software Star on an emulator and played it, and found it great fun actually. I hadn’t played it for years.

The one thing that came through on it, and I noticed reading on your blog, there seemed to be a little bit of cynicism under the cover of it in the shape of the hype mechanic. That you could successful hype even the worst games and they’d be a success?

That was a true story I put in the blog! Somebody had complained that it is wrong, you should not write a game where hype is more successful than honesty, because that teaches people that being dishonest is good [laughs] Oh my God, it’s just a game! The thing was it wasn’t quite true what he was saying, because there was a balance in it. Hype wasn’t actually always more successful. It was high risk, but what I was reflecting there is that people do use hype. There was lots of hype or ambitious advertising, and still today it’s happening all the time. Sometimes it works, sometimes people just don’t believe it.

It’s a bit like Football Manager, in that there are a range of strategies, and there’s more than one that can work. There’s no guaranteed success strategy. People dug really deep. On Football Manager I can remember a guy came up to me at a show complaining, because he was playing on level seven. He said he came up against a team, and he described the attributes they had for defence, midfield and attack, as there is no way that I could have scores that high, so it’s unfair! They were 20, 19 and 20 or something. People probed the edges!

One of the things about your games obviously was that your face was on the front of the packaging for them. Why did you do it?

It was very simple, actually. I used to do the shows, and there were a number of them at the time, the micro fairs, and the computer fairs and things. What you would see happen was that people would be playing the game, and sometimes people would sit there and play for ages, which was really good because members of the public would come in, go round and say that guy’s still playing the game! They were sales people for us!

The other thing was that I would talk to them about the game, and at some point they would realise that I actually wrote it, and wasn’t a sales guy on the stand. That meant a lot to them and it clicked at some point. It was this is a bit like being a book author, or musician or something. People are interested, and the thing I really thought was they were interested because there was a style involved, a design style. I thought surely this business is just like books. Books is probably the best analogy, in that you like to know who the author is, because you like the way they write. And I thought it’s not corporate, when I buy music I don’t care for EMI putting out a record, I care if it’s U2 or something like that. I don’t care who published the damn thing. And I still believe that.

That’s what started it. And the other side to it was that I realised that as soon as I did it, that I was vouching for the game. I wasn’t hiding, I was saying you know what, I believe this is good enough so I’ll put my face out there, I’ll put my name to it, not hide behind it in case it flops. It was credibility as well, but that was the key driver.

This is about style, and my plan was to produce more games, but what happened was it stayed as Football Manager for longer than I intended, because the business was taking over, and I wasn’t able to write as much as I wanted to - although I did produce Software Star and President. That was where the plan didn’t work out as intended. Because I thought people will get to recognise the style.

Your face to be fair was on tens of thousands of copies of games that were in our homes. Were you recognised much as a result of that?

Yes. It did happen.

And what kind of things would people come up and say to you?

Well, they’d shake my hand or something, or buy me a drink in a bar. They’d come up to me in odd places, like I was on holiday in Italy, and recognise me there. It did happen. At fairs they would ask for autographs.

The association of programmers with games has waned a lot afterwards. Does that disappoint you in a way?

I think it’s bound to happen, and it depends on who is in control. There’s not a lot of vested interest. You see it in the music business all the time. Unless they’ve got somebody locked down, they’re not really keen on promoting the creative people behind it, because they’re businesses, and they’re saying this guy is going to go and work for someone else and take all we’ve built up. So the deals aren’t right for it, really. Isn’t that why United Artists was formed? George Michael had a famous case where he took on Sony, too.

In the movie business though, it’s generally 100 to 200 people to make a movie. Yet a lot of people though could name the director of a film. But games aren’t like that. Yet we see from the numbers of something like Grand Theft Auto 4 that games is in many ways a bigger businesses. And yet programmers are hidden away?

I think there’s no need, I think it’s human. People who are writing the stuff, and people are interested in business software, they’re the ones who want to know who writes stuff. If you look in the open source sector, there’s a lot of engagement about the writers, and their personalities, and what’s going on between them.

Do you have an interest in politics that drove you to write President?

When you do strategy games, certain things are going to come to mind, and it is a football strategy game, about decisions and management. The political thing has some other dynamics that are interesting as well, the trying to do the right thing and all the conflicting things you have to deal with. And yeah, that did interest me. That was really the core of President. And that was combined with a business game as well about oil exploration, which was something I was interested in doing.

I played President quite a lot, and I think it’s the most difficult game that you wrote. Was that a conscious thing, or was it the amount that you were trying to cram in there?

I think it was the amount that I was trying to cram in was probably the reason actually, it sounds right. I think I was ambitious, probably, with what I was trying to do. But you tend to do that, you tend to push yourself a bit further each time. Sometimes you probably shouldn’t, I don’t need to go that far. You end up with feature-itus!

And at what point did you bite the bullet and decide to a second one?

Well that happened because the business side took over, and I was getting very little time to write at all. It was a real major conflict. I was quite good at some of the business aspects, the marketing side I was quite good at. So I had employees looking after all this stuff, and we started selling other people’s games, and some of them were successful…

… like Headcoach?

Yeah, that was a good example. There were a few of them. Some were, some weren’t. I realised that still it was the games that I wrote that were the bread and butter of the company, but I wasn’t writing any more, I didn’t have time. I took some business advice, some consultancy, and had a number of problems I was trying to solve at the time. And this guy was very sharp, and said to me you know what, we don’t need to solve these problems, you’ve just got to work out what you want to do. Forget writing and become a business man, or do you want to go back to writing software? Make that decision and we’ll work out how to do it.

Writing more games was more attractive to me.

Was that something you were missing at the time?

Yeah, I wasn’t doing it. It was part time and it was really difficult. Because if you imagine that was a really hard way to do it. When it was more and more competitive, you really need to be dedicated to it. It’s just ridiculous. So I kind of made that decision, and at the same time I was talking to Prism, who bought Addictive. I was having dinner with them, and we were doing some other stuff, some other business. And they said we’re going to go public and we’re looking for an acquisition of a games company. And I’m sitting there thinking to myself shall I say something or not? Because I’d only just got to that decision, and this was an opportunity. And I did, and that’s how that came about, they happened to say that at the time when I was thinking of selling.

That’s what freed me up to go and write Football Manager 2.

Was that something you always thought you’d do, or was always in your mind?

It was always in the background to do so, more and more over time. But I wanted to do a decent job of it. It wasn’t the easiest of projects, there were some difficulties with it. But it was okay, it came out alright. I think I could have done a better game, but I think what I did was good. It was certainly successful. It was three months at number one or something.

Was it more pressured? You said that the market had changed, but it was all new when you wrote the first game.

It was more pressured, because it wasn’t set up in the most ideal way. I had six developers working with me on some graphics routines for the multiple formats. So the workload on me was enormous. When I look back on it I don’t know how I was doing it. Co-ordinating it with these guys around the country, we didn’t have the Internet, we had bulletin boards to work with. It was very tough in some ways.

Then there came the World Cup Edition, which was the last one you were involved with?

That was even more difficult!

What was the difficulty?

We lost a key guy who was managing things, and he wasn’t replaced. It made it really exacerbated. It was a very tough project, very exhausting.

I don’t think it was complete to be honest.

Is it the one you were least satisfied with?

Absolutely.

I remember one of the promotional things surrounding it was a competition where somebody could have their face with yours on the box of Football Manager 3

That was done afterwards I think..

… but you were nowhere near Football Manager 3? I’m curious about the parting of the ways?

The working relationship wasn’t working, really. What is it they say? ‘Artistic differences’.

Do you regret selling the company in the end?

[Pause] In some ways.

What did you think when Sports Interactive revived the Football Manager name all that time later. Do you take that as a pat on the back?

It has two sides to it, yes. It is a pat on the back, and it surprised me that it still has that credibility. On the other hand there’s a certain loss to me with it going away. I met those guys when I was in England last year, and we had dinner and talked about it.

Are you a fan of how they’ve taken the genre?

I’m certainly a fan of some of the things they do. I’m a big fan of how they’ve cultivated their community.

Obviously Football Manager today generates so much fondness, nearly three decades on. Does that still surprise you?

Yes, of course it surprises me. It’s gratifying, and I guess one of the things that’s very attractive about it is you’re creating something that’s enjoyable for people. They get a lot out of it, they experience a lot doing it. It’s not like a mechanical, cold thing. It’s running on a cold computer, but the idea is that you’re supposed to be creating emotions, make people feel emotional. You talk to someone later about how you were one point from promotion in the last game, and in the last minute the other team scored a goal. Or you saved yourself from relegation. All that stuff was what I wanted to create.

The last few years you’ve been back involved in the Football Manager genre, with Footymax, an online football management game…

I did complete that, but unfortunately the marketing didn’t really take off. It was kind of a frozen project, or a project that stalled you might say. At the moment I’m in New Zealand and sorting out a lot of things here, but very much thinking about what I do next.

And do you miss being slap bang in the middle of the games industry?

Yeah, I want to do that. That is an interest, and I think there’s more!

What should we be looking for from you next?

I’ll think online before anything else, because I’ve been working on online software and web development for a long time, and I like in particular the model that you basically have a game on a server that’s serving up to people, and when you enhance it they get it right away. There’s no client to install.

That was the model I created with the Footymax project, where you don’t need to install anything on your machine, you just need a web browser. I find that very attractive as a way of being able to continually develop a game, and for people to get the benefit of it, rather than having launched 50,000, 100,000 or 500,000 copies of something and thinking that, you know what, if I’d just done this bit there it would be so good. That makes a big difference, and it’s really attractive. Obviously if you have a client download you can do so many more things with it, against that limitation you’ve got the advantage of being able to evolve it.

All this time later you’ve not lost the thirst for all the brave new worlds out there?

No, I haven’t, no!

Kevin Toms, thank you very much!

Kevin Toms was is one of the many faces featured in the new book, Celebrate The 80s, which is on sale now.

He also has a blog, which you can find here.

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