Known as the Father of the 1992 classic, Sensible Soccer, Jon Hare is a game designer who has enjoyed a career spanning nearly 40 years within the games industry. Currently the CEO of Tower Studios, Jon Hare has been hard at work on Sociable Soccer 24, an iterative football game that features FIFPRO licensed players and which also aims to bring the same sense of fast-paced, arcade-style gameplay that Sensible Soccer was renowned for.

In a career spanning interview, Jon Hare opens up about his time within the games industry and talks about how he was inspired to create Sociable Soccer at a time when the football game genre is dominated by EA Sports FC (the new name for the series formerly known as FIFA). The famed game creator also explains as to he was able to bury the hatchet with his arch-rival, Dino Dino (creator of Kick Off 2), and whether their newfound relationship could yield a football game creating collaboration in future. Amongst other things, he also talks about some of the positives and negatives that he’s seen and experienced during his time within the games industry, and how these have impacted games development. All this and so much more below…

I know that you are associated with Mike Montgomery of the Bitmap Brothers, and I know that you started something up with him at Tower Studios. Do you still keep in contact with him?

Tower Studios is still my company. So what happened is myself and Mike and John Phillips from the Bitmap Brothers set up Tower Studios in 2004, very near to the Tower of London on the banks of the River Thames, hence the name Tower Studios. And we ran that for about 2 years, the three of us, and made a few games. We were working on the old mobiles at the time, like the Nokia S40s and those kinds of things. And we made a version of Sensible Soccer, a very good one on mobile actually, which went to number one. Cannon Fodder also, which I think went to number one as well. We made a rugby game… This was all pre-touch phones, so this is pre-Angry Birds opening up the rest of the mobile phones.

So it was like Snake?

Yeah, and in my opinion, this was the very worst time for game publishing and for game designers and for game developers, because the respect that we had from mobile platform holders at the time was very limited. I mean, we were 2-3% of their turnover. They were using this as a loss leader to get people to buy phones by putting our games on them, and they had no respect at all for any of us and for what we’d done in the past or how good or bad we were at designing games. So we started looking at that, and after about 2 years we kind of realized that we were all doing bits of consulting, and Mike would be programming, and John and I would be doing game design and business development for smaller companies, and we were making more money doing that than doing the games. So we kind of let Tower go to sleep for about 2.5-3 years, and then I did various different jobs in different places in Ukraine and Turkey at the time, and then I was working for Jagex for a while, and then I built my consulting business up. I had three really good gigs, I wasn’t with Jagex at this point, in Ukraine and Turkey and several others in the UK. And then in December 2008 when the stock market crashed, I basically lost all of my consulting business in one week. All three companies I was working with, I’d spent like two years building this business up, and it all died in a week. And so after that I did some work with Jagex for a while, and then that didn’t really work out, and so I decided to pick up Tower Studios again. So I contacted Mike and John and asked “do you mind if I still use the company?” and they said “no, you have it”. It was literally asleep, it was kind of like in a stasis, and so Tower then started to do various different games. I did a messaging app with 3D heads with a sort of photo detection thing from the New York police which you can make a 3D picture of someone’s head from the flat one. So we did that, but that was put out by an American publisher that didn’t really know how to operate in the market. And then we did Mike’s game, Speedball 2. So although Mike Montgomery wasn’t working with us, he gave us Speedball 2 to do, and it did okay. It got to number one for a while, but I realized at the time that publishing was hard, so I decided to go for a model of selling games. I did a game called Word Explorer with a couple of different companies on PC and mobile. I worked with this Polish company who I made games with for 5 years, so we did Speedball 2, Word Explorer, a game called Shoot to Kill, another small game on a one of those Nintendo handheld systems. And then after that time period, since 2008, when I’d been working with Mev Dinc, who’s from Vivid Image… So Mev’s a good old friend of mine, like Mike, and you asked about Mike… Yeah, Mike’s a very close friend of mine.

He’s retired, hasn’t he?

He’s still doing bits of work. He’s been working with Patrick Buckland and his company, Stainless Games in the Isle of White for a while, the guys that he can’t forget. The last time I spoke to him and I spoke to Patrick, he was working with him. I mean, Mike can retire now if he wants to. He’s the right age to retire. But he also likes to keep busy. I know him quite well…

Have you ever thought about forming a super development company… like a powerhouse?

I mean, we tried it with Tower at the start. It was really just Sensible Software and the Bitmap Brothers merged together. It depends on the platforms and the era of publishing and the way things are…

I mean, the indie market is so much more buoyant now than it was 20 years ago…

It is, but when you start making games, like what we did after Word Explorer in 2014… At the end of 2015… I’d been thinking about making a new football game since 2008, when I was working with Mev Dink, because he made a football game called I Can Football, which is all very well in Turkey, but not outside of Turkey… And that was on the PC, and that was one of those games where you get 11 guys versus 11 guys all online playing like this. And it gave me some inspiration for making a new football game, and in 2015, I met a Finnish company called Combo Breaker, and they came from various different successful Finnish studios, and we embarked upon making Sociable Soccer.

I remember when Sociable Soccer was in development and I think you even started a Kickstarter campaign or something…

Yeah, it had a very long journey… So we started off deciding to make a totally cross-platform football game to use what the engine could offer, and we started off focusing on PC and PlayStation and XBox, and we launched the Kickstarter, but we did it in a hurry. Now, I’m someone who likes to get moving when I move, and we decided that rather than having a long drawn-out story about it, we’d launch it, and in retrospect it wasn’t a good idea. We asked for £300,000, which is not a lot in game development, but it’s quite a lot for Kickstarter, and so we weren’t able to raise that money. We knew after 2 weeks that we weren’t going to get the money and so we pulled it. We kept on making the game, and we kept on making it through the money we had. They got some investment from their side, and a little bit of help from the government in Finland, and I just had some savings anyway. And we got to a point where the game was kind of ready to put out in some kind of Early Access form. It was a little bit early, again in retrospect, but we needed to put something out there. At the end of 2017 it had been 2 years and we wanted to put something out. And then we kept on going, and we were actually living on fumes for a while. And then in 2018 we got a deal with a Chinese company called Crazy Sports to do a mobile version of the game in China, which is now taking the game in a very different, very aggressive, free-to-play model with card packs and two currencies and the usual things which make up the ecosystem of games in China. That version of the game was developed but never got fully released. The guys, for different reasons, they kept on going forwards and backwards with it. It didn’t come out. But then they got us focusing back on the mobile side because we’ve always gone PC console and mobile on this. And then 1 year later I got approached by an American company who I met in GDC a couple of years beforehand, and they said “we’re about to set up a new publisher and if you’ve still got that football game you showed us, like 2 years ago, we think we might be able to find a home for you.” And this is a company called Rogue, who are based in California. And so we basically said yes and we worked very hard on the game to push it into an Apple Arcade game. Now Apple Arcade, there’s obviously no free-to-play on it, it’s the opposite of Chinese mobile. So we stayed with the iOS version. We had a good football game anyway for touch screens. So we modified the economy around what Apple Arcade needed because that’s the opposite of what the Chinese guys needed. We also needed to support the tvOS and Mac for Apple TV. So luckily because we’d done all the PC stuff, we had all the necessary support for the Mac stuff. And so we put out the Apple Arcade version. And with Apple Arcade, you then kind of like have an exclusive period. If you’re on Apple Arcade, you can’t go out on regular mobile. So we launched that in November 2019 and it did very well. It went to number one and the sales were really really good. I mean we put updates out every year, and it’s tailed off a bit since then. But nonetheless, the sales have been very successful for us, and it’s made us quite a lot of money actually, and that gave us enough money to then focus back on the PC and console side, especially because we knew that we couldn’t do regular mobile because of Apple. So we then went back to PC and console… Sociable Soccer 24, so it’s going up every year. So we started off with Sociable Soccer in 2019, then we did Sociable Soccer 2020, then 21 etc, now we’re on 24, so yeah…

The latest edition of Electronic Art’s wildly successful football series that was once known as FIFA, EA Sports FC 24 is often criticised for being more of the same.

So you’re going to go up against the likes of EA Sports FC?

Yeah, we’re up against EA Sports FC and eFootball, basically. So from my perspective, having had a very long-term perspective on this, Sensible Soccer, which was our game back in the 90s, and then FIFA came in and just dominated for 34 years. And this is the first year that FIFA has not existed for 30 years. So for me, it’s really great to be launching a title when FIFA has stopped. So of course, EA Sports FC is very much like FIFA, and I don’t want to be too critical of it. It’s very very good at what it does. It’s a very good simulation. People know what they’re going to get. And what we’ve done, with Sociable Soccer, the playability of it, is that it’s very much from the Sensible Soccer stable of very fast gameplay.

Can I ask… we’ve spoken about EA Sports FC and e-football, but they’re both football games that are done by studios that number into the hundreds of thousands. Now if we were to consider the heyday of the 16-bit era, when games like Kick Off 2 were done by one or two people, and Sensible Soccer was done by something like five people…

It was two programmers, me as an artist and designer, sound guy… I could say four people, maybe five…

In an age where we have so many indie games that are being created by one or two people, why do you think that we’re not getting a plethora of football games in this day and age, even though the opportunity is there?

I mean, we’ve been on this for 8 years… it’s hard. I mean, we are kind of like a new bracket called “Triple I”. It’s like Triple A, but it’s actually Triple Indie. I think that’s where we are with this game. It’s a new invention, but actually it’s pretty much where Sensible Software has always been, in that it was always a Triple I studio.

So in our team, the size has varied over time. But the core team has been mostly three artists, three programmers, a designer, producer, someone dealing with the data research… And then we’ve got a QA guy internally, and then we’ve got a back-end company that does the back-end server stuff. Our main development has been in Finland on this, but half of our core team are also in the UK, and then we’ve got the back-end server stuff which has been done in France by a company there, there’s a couple of guys there…

So about fifteen people?

Yeah, we’ve had a publisher in China, a publisher in California, and a publisher in the UK, so we’ve been very world-wide in terms of what we’ve done. But the team size is between twelve and fifteen, and not everyone’s full-time, because it fluctuates on what we need to do, but twelve and fifteen people… And that’s bigger than a small two-man studio. And football games are hard, because you’ve got all the controls to do, you’ve got all the management of the players and stuff to do, you’ve got the graphics to do, you’ve got the research into the players and the teams, you’ve got multiplayer and offline, all the different game modes and stuff, and all the different platforms. I mean, it’s not simple… And then you’ve got the server stuff to manage, as well as a whole gamut of other stuff to manage… So yeah, we’re kind of like a mid-sized team, and the market isn’t so focused on mid-sized games in general.

Sociable Soccer is being made by a core team of twelve to fifteen people… But your “competitor” from the Amiga and Atari ST days, Dino Dini, and I don’t want to refer to him as your competitor in a bad way, I refer to Dino Dino as your competitor in a nice way, obviously. He made that Kick Off Revival game for the PlayStation 4, and he made it himself. I don’t know as to what the state of the game is right now, but I think he went back to teaching and quit games development…

He was working in teaching… I know because I met him actually. I went to speak to the university he was teaching in and he was there…

Even today, there exists fierce debate as to which football sports game was better between Sensible Soccer and Kick Off 2.

How did that go?

At that time he was a little bit awkward with it… I had a very interesting chance encounter with Dino, so I can explain that. I play (music) like once a year, and there’s a big retro games festival called Pixel Heaven that’s held in Warsaw. Me and some of my friends play music there, so we play the old Sensible Soccer tunes on stage, which is great with the band…

Does the guy from The Damned turn up as well?

Captain Sensible? No, he’s not been there. We’ve met him, obviously, when we did Sensible Soccer initially. But anyway, we do that gig once a year, and we get invited out there…

I think Dino Dini is also a musician…

He’s a musician, yeah, exactly. So what happened was we’re sitting in this hotel lobby, and Andrew Barnabas who is also a game composer, and we were playing as a two-piece band at the time. And we were talking, and Dino was over there, and he said, “oh, Dino plays a guitar”. So he talked to Dino about coming to speak to us about playing guitar on stage with us. Which we did, yeah. So Dino came up… Obviously not all the songs, because he didn’t have time to learn them, but he played like one or two songs with us, which was a great thing to do that… And in that conversation, Dino came to sit with us, and I had a three hour long conversation with him. And Dino told me how much he’d struggled with me and with Sensible Soccer for it deposing Kick Off 2 from its place at the top. And I hadn’t realized that he’d struggled with it so much. Like, I’d seen him as being awkward with me before when I saw him at this university. And I didn’t fully appreciate how much he’d taken it personally. And for me it goes like this… We made Microprose Soccer in 1988, and that was the best football game in the world at the time. And the Kick Off came along and knocked us off our perch. And then Sensible Soccer came along and knocked Dino off of his perch where he was, and then FIFA came along and knocked us off our perch again. And so it works like that, where it goes in a cycle. It’s like a football team, where you can’t just stay at the top of the world forever.

It’s like that guy who used to manage Myspace. He had to tip his hat off to Mark Zuckerberg…

You have to acknowledge when people are better than you… So it’s like with Sociable Soccer for me now, I’m likening it at the moment to FIFA‘s beautiful football with beautiful graphics and blah blah, but it’s a bit slow and pedestrian, predictable, boring, and you know what you’re going to get. And we’re more like a game that’s compressing in your face, very fast gameplay, really good multiplayer, exhilarating, exciting, different style… And it’s not realistic to say that we’re going to wipe the floor with FIFA, because we’re not. Our plan is to just let people know that we’re there, to say that there are alternative ways to make football games. As said, not many people do it because it’s really hard and expensive to do, but we’ve managed to get our way to this point. And to let people know that there’s an alternative, and even that games can co-exist to be honest, you know. I know that a lot of people say that they’re bored with FIFA, so we’re just offering an alternative, which is more like from the Sensible Soccer school of gameplay, and hopefully a percentage of the FIFA players will go, “okay, I like this game”. What we have found is that because it’s so easy to pick up and play, and some kids have only grown up knowing FIFA, what you hear is that a lot is those young kids find it hard to play. They find it technically difficult. Even people that played it a few years ago, and have then come back to it, they find it hard. Like the amount of bottom presses that you need to do… Our game is more simple, it’s using only a few of the buttons, like pass and shoot and chip and stuff.

The Amiga only had one button…

Yeah, but we’re now using three or four. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken the different nuances of what you can do in Sensible Soccer. We’ve added a sprint button because that’s a good thing. There’s a couple of other things that I’d like to add, but we’ve not yet actually, because this is an evolving series. We’ve kind of mapped where we can. Some of the buttons controls are familiar to people who play FIFA so they can pick up Sociable Soccer a bit more easily. But it doesn’t have all the fancy complicated stuff. And what we’ve found is that not only do the older people enjoy it, because it’s fast and it’s reminiscent of old games and it’s more immediate, but younger kids are also finding it much more accessible. So that’s where we are. We’re just a more accessible fun football game with some slightly comic referee characters. And we’ve just taken a slightly lighter approach, because FIFA is very… I watch people playing FIFA, and I never see anyone smiling when they’re playing the game. It’s a very serious game. Our game is more fun. It’s the kind of game where you stare at the other person when they score against you and go “fuck you”. It’s that kind of game, you know. Because it brings out the fun in you and the competitiveness. The games are really fast. They’re three minutes per match, and then you’re on to the next one. Which is also good for online actually, because it’s less time to have to be connected. So yeah, I mean it’s just fun.

Do you think that there’s a possibility for you to collaborate with Dino Dini and ask him to help you make a version of Sociable Soccer in future?

No, I don’t think that’s going to work. I don’t think you can do that. I think that’s kind of like maybe a developer’s fantasy to get collaborations, but it doesn’t happen that often in music, and it’s unlikely here. Dino is very individualistic about what he does. He likes to do things himself, and obviously these days that’s hard because there’s a lot of things to do, and that’s really the problem. The machines have moved on, and we can’t work like we used to in the old days. They don’t let us, and I don’t think that would happen. I’m happy that we had this music session together. You can find it online, where you had me and Dino playing some of the songs, like the one from Cannon Fodder, together. And I’m happy that we spoke about it. I’m happy that Dino understands that I’ve never held anything against him. To me it’s just, you know, it’s sport. I’m a competitive sports kind of person, but you don’t hold a grudge against someone. It’s just like, this is our sport, making games, right? FIFA has been beating me down for 30 years, so that’s my view of it. But it’s quite nice to have… when you know what the taste of success is, you still remember it.

What about Mike Montgomery from the Bitmap Brothers? Is he going to come back?

I don’t know what Mike’s doing. I spoke to him a few months ago. He seemed okay, but I don’t know what his plans are. I mean, he’s obviously got one foot in retirement.

Last question… You’ve been in the industry for nearly 40 years, and you’ve seen how the industry has changed. From your perspective, what have been some of the positives, and what do you think are some of the negatives that the industry has gone through that you’ve seen and have not necessarily liked?

What is being good about the industry is that we are accessing more people, and more people are playing games. There’s a broader variety of games, however a lot of them are on the negative side. 95% of the games don’t deserve to exist as they’re just bad copies of something that has existed previously. In my mind there’s only two types of games that are worth existing. Original games, and games that take something that was done by someone else but have improved upon it. So I’ll give two good examples, Bejeweled and Candy Crush. Bejeweled was great, and it was very near to original for me as a match-3 game. And Candy Crush… brilliant, brilliant, almost perfect execution of a game like that.

Why do we need more games like this? I just don’t get it. Personally, why? Just give me something new. But I come from the 80s when we were just making new game genres, Megalomania was the first game to have a tech tree. We were just making stuff. So we used to be genre defining, that’s how I think and like to do, but that’s becoming harder. So I think that it’s great that more people are involved but it should be more selective. There’s far too little curation, both in the quality of the games and the quality of the people entering the industry. Just because you’re enthusiastic about something doesn’t mean that you should be doing it on a professional level. And that’s come from the platform holders using games as a way to get people to use their platforms, buy their hardware, big themselves up, play this global game they’re playing when they want hundreds of millions of staff. So it gives us hundreds of millions of average products, and I would say that the quality of the average program has been diluted year upon year upon year upon year, because as more people come into it, they’ve got less quality which dilutes the average down. And that’s one of the biggest problems. You can only make good games with a full team of really experienced programmers who know what they’re doing. Weak programmers are a big minus to any team. And it’s not even weak programmers… Programmers who are good in one area of programming and others who take on too many areas can sometimes fall down as well. That’s happening a lot at the moment, so technically it’s getting very difficult.

Jon Hare… Thank you so much.

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