Insert Coin To Continue: Part Four – Rising Overheads, 1979-1994

The rate at which computing technology developed over its first couple of decades or so always meant that the development of video gaming technology was going to be similarly rapid. As the technology has developed and both the physical size and – arguably more importantly – cost of processors has reduced over the years, the possibilities for gaming have increased vastly, from the simplistic tennis of Pong in the early 1970s to the plethora of sophisticated sports games of this century, so new horizons opened for the programmers themselves. Furthermore, since sports tend to not change enormously over time in all bar relatively cosmetic senses, sports games provide a handy barometer for the ways in which gaming sophistication has developed over time.

In order to tell this story, we need to head back to California in 1978. Atari may have been amongst the early leaders in the video games market, but such was the pace of change within the nascent industry that the need to be continually innovating in order to survive. Trackballs – a plastic ball built into the surface of a unit, as used to be found on the underside of a computer mouse – had been in existence for some considerable time, but Atari was keen to push this new technology and their 1978 game Football (referring to American football, of course) was a huge success in this regard, selling more than 10,000 units – as a frame of reference, Atari’s biggest-selling game, Asteroids, sold just over 50,000 units – and even pushed Taito/Midway’s Space Invaders in terms of popularity during that year’s football season in the USA despite the exhaustion and blisters that people ran up playing it, due to the physical exertion required to move the trackball in a fast-moving game. The game was converted into Soccer the following year, again with success, not least on account of it having a four-player mode.

When arcade-style football games started reaching the marketplace in the early years of the 1980s, though, programmers seemed to have taken their cues from elsewhere. Intellivision’s Soccer game of 1979 used a side-on view, and this was adopted by Commodore for their 1983 game International Soccer as well as World Cup Football (which was, as we’ve already seen, repackaged two years after its release as World Cup Carnival) and Match Day, both released the following year. Match Day received very positive reviews and remains perhaps the most fondly remembered ZX Spectrum football game of all apart from the legendary Football Manager, but it had one significant issue – it played glacially slowly. With processing power and memory on home computers still severely limited this was understandable, but it was equally understandable that programmers would be looking at ways of speeding up their football games.

The spiritual heir to Atari’s Soccer arrived in the arcades in 1985 with Tehkan World Cup, a game which adopted its predecessor’s trackball technology into a “cocktail cabinet” (a table with the screen built into it at which two players would sit on opposite sides) style game with a vertical, top down view. The game was fast and fluid enough to feel like something akin to a real sport, but its influence on future games in the same genre was clear even though, in no small part because the cocktail cabinet design took up more space than a stand-up cabinet and because those trackballs were put through punishing use and tended to wear out quite quickly, its own lifespan in arcades tended to be fairly short.

It took three years for the full influence of Tehkan World Cup to become apparent in the home computing market to become clear, with the release of Microprose Soccer in 1988. Released across all major platforms  – it was initially releasd on the C64 before conversions followed, including the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST, considerably more powerful home computers which had both been unveiled in 1985 and were starting to gain traction in Europe – Microprose Soccer took many of its stylistic cues from Tehkan World Cup, the most significant being its top down, vertical view. The game also featured replays of goals scored and the introduction of the “banana kick”, which gave the player the ability to bend their shots or passes by a pre-determined amount after having kicked the ball. Rapturously received in the gaming press, the game sold extremely well, a fact evidently not lost on the then little-known Essex-based company who wrote the game. But more on them shortly.

The following year saw the release of a game which built on previous games to create something truly unique. It’s entirely possible that Anco Software couldn’t have realised the enormous hit that they’d have on their hands when they hired the twenty-three year old Dino Dini to write them a football game for the Amiga and the ST in 1988, but Dini – who had no particular interest in the game himself – came up with Kick Off, a game which would come to define the genre for the next three years following its release in 1989.

Dini pulled the “camera” back, allowing a larger area of the pitch to be viewed at any one time, and also introduced an increased difficulty level thanks to the ball no longer being stuck to the player’s feet when running with it, instead being realistically kicked ahead of players in possession of the ball (one valid criticism of many football games prior to this had been that they over-emphasised dribbling over passing), as well as players with different characteristics, different tactics, fouls, yellow and red cards, injuries, injury-time and even referees with different attributes to create a football game which felt more immersive than anything that had preceded it.

Unsurprisingly, the game was a multiple award-winner and massive seller, and Dini stayed with Anco to release Kick Off 2 and Player Manager in 1990 before leaving the company to work for Virgin in 1992. Kick Off 2 provided further refinements to the original game, whilst Player Manager was also released to a positive reception despite the fact that many clubs were not featured in the game because it featured only ten teams in the top two divisions and twelve in the third and fourth divisions, as well only one domestic cup competition. Dini’s departure from Anco led to the release of Goal! in 1993, whilst Anco persevered with the underwhelming Kick Off 3 the following year. But with diminishing returns setting in for this particular franchise, there was space in the market for a small development company to step up and produce a series of game that remains perhaps the most fondly remembered football video game of all time.

Sensible Software had been formed in 1986, initially writing critically-acclaimed games for the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, including the aforementioned Microprose Soccer and the critically acclaimed Wizball. Microprose Soccer had been an adrenaline shot of a game at a time when home computer football games had a tendency to be somewhat sedate in their pacing and came with all manner of other extras, such as an indoor six-a-side mode and different weather conditions. The game was somewhat overshadowed by the release of Kick Off the following year, but Microprose Soccer had planted the seed of an idea in the heads of the company’s founders, Jon Hare and Chris Yates. Their previous attempt does still stand up as a surprisingly playable arcade game, but it also provided a template upon which Hare and Yates could build something bigger, better, and more comprehensive – Sensible Soccer.

Sensible Soccer had initially been due to be released by Mirrorsoft as part of a three-game deal, but the death of Robert Maxwell at the end of 1991 and the fallout from that collapse of his group of companies led Sensible them having to take it elsewhere, meaning that the game ended up with Renegage Software instead, with a £90,000 advance and a 50/50 split of royalties. Released in the summer of 1992, Sensible Soccer quickly became effectively the killer app for the Commodore Amiga. Reviews were ecstatic and, with a barrage of a publicity behind it (this was, after all, a company that had already released several other highly-rated and games) sales were massive. The sprites for the players were taken from one of their previously released games, Mega lo Mania, the aftertouch was refined to be a little more realistic than the so-called “banana kick” used in Microprose Soccer, and the overall presentation of the game was slick and fluid, with extremely smooth scrolling, background crowd noise, and a large number of teams, all of which had players with different attributes, skill levels and, where appropriate, skin colours. The overall effect was a game which hit the sweet spot between the speed and fluidity of the arcades whilst also giving the impression of being close to a simulation. It felt like football.

Furthermore, Sensible Soccer felt… friendly and light-hearted. A game that its writers wanted you to play. This was in no small part because of a quirky sense of humour, which was apparent throughout the game. Teams were added for players to be able to customise, but these weren’t left blank and instead were made up of things like items from a kebab shop menu, soap opera characters or breakfast foods. Elsewhere, the Sensible team provided pared down versions of the game for cover discs on magazines, including a game between German and British soldiers using a grenade as a ball which would periodically explode, killing any players unfortunate enough to be caught within its range. Sensible Soccer wasn’t without its problems – the quality of the computer-controlled goalkeeping was shaky to start with, for example – but initial problems were patched up with updates and two further editions of the game were also produced before its successor arrived on the scene at the end of 1994.

Sensible World of Soccer was released in December 1994, just in time for the Christmas rush, but a number of in-game bugs meant that an update disc had to be released several months later. It is a testament to the quality of the finished product that even this didn’t seem to matter very much. The gameplay underwent a few minor changes, but the real value in SWoS was its strength in depth. For this iteration of the game, the production team went into overdrive, adding 1,500 clubs and 27,000 players from around the globe, all with their own characteristics. They also added an editable tactics engine and a player-manager mode in which the player had a twenty year career to achieve what they could. A PC version of the game was released the following year, with commentary added for the first time.

By this time, though, the landscape of video gaming was changing again. The Atari ST had been discontinued in 1993, and the Commodore Amiga sold on to a German company called Escom, who in turn declared bankruptcy two years later. On all fronts, though, SWoS was the end of an era. Two-dimensional gaming was slipping out of vogue. In required considerable processing power to render three-dimensional graphics, but from the early 1990s on this was now possible, and Sony’s Playstation, launched at the end of 1994, was plenty capable of this. The Sensible Soccer line of games tried to keep pace (the last edition, Sensible World of Soccer ’96/’97, was released in 1996), but subsequently moving into 3D proved to be a step too far for a team inexperienced in this brave new world of three dimensisons and, with problems mounting elsewhere, Sensible Software was bought by Codemasters in 1999. The new owners tried to keep the franchise alive, but the release of Sensible Soccer 2006 in time for that year’s World Cup finals in Germany was spoiled by the game being so bug-ridden that some suspected that it had been rush-released in an unfinished state, in time for the tournament.

But Sensible World of Soccer had a sting in its tail. In March 2007, Stanford University published a list of ten games which “have a cultural significance and a historical significance”, and SWoS was on that list, alongside – amongst others – Tetris, Civilisation I/II, Super Mario Bros 3, Sim City and Doom. It was the most recent game on the list, and the only sports game to appear on it. And even now, Sensible Soccer has a thriving online community, offering team updates right the way up to the present day. Not bad for a game which, at almost twenty-seven years old, is now older than a lot of players currently making their living from the game. For all of this, though, the future of football video gaming already had its first chapters written by the time of the release of SWoS. The Big Three were coming. All they had to do was swat aside the opposition first.