While PC remains the platform of choice for its die-hard fans, there's now plenty of competition in the football management genre on mobile.
With Nordeus' Top Eleven established in the free-to-play space since 2011, and granddaddy of the genre Football Manager having the premium side locked down for a number of years, it would take a brave company to try and muscle in.
However, in 2013 Square Enix decided to do exactly that, reviving its Championship Manager brand - now adopting the commonly-used abbreviation Champ Man - for mobile.
Rather than developing the game in-house, the publisher reached out to the Sheffield, UK-based studio Distinctive Developments.
The choice was an understandable one, with Distinctive not only having worked in mobile development since the early 2000s, but also being a studio best known for sports games.
“We had previously worked on other titles with Eidos/Square Enix, so they were aware of our capabilities,” recalls Matthew Hawley, Champ Man Project Manager at Distinctive Games.
“They approached us back in 2012 to discuss working on a reboot of the Championship Manager brand as a free-to-play game. We have since worked on all three iterations of Champ Man.”
Despite a chequered and slightly confusing history, the Champ Man brand name is one that's certainly worth trading on.
Around since 1992 and originally developed by Sports Interactive, the name remained with Eidos (now part of Square Enix) when a rift between the publisher and original team in 2004 led to Sega snapping up an extremely similar yet legally-distinct new series called Football Manager.
We're massive Championship Manager fans and it was an amazing privilege to be offered the opportunity.Matthew Hawley
This left Championship Manager in a tough spot, maintaining the famous name but with most knowing the original team had jumped ship. Sales dwindled, and its last mainline PC iteration came in 2009.
Same name, new platform
Surely being entrusted with the revival of such a high-profile franchise is intimidating?
“Exciting is a better way to describe it,” Hawley returns.
“We’re massive fans of the Championship Manager series and it was an amazing privilege to be offered the chance to create a new game that not only retained what made the original games so special but also to take it into entirely new territory: free-to-play.”
Rather than intimidating, Hawley notes that having such expectations on one's shoulders - considerations of the franchise's legacy and existing fanbase in mind at every turn - is “more of a motivating factor to do the right thing.”
And clearly, as Champ Man 16 marks the third entry into the Distinctive-developed rebooted series, the approach is paying off.
But just what is that approach, and how has Champ Man differ from a slew of other football management games on the App Store?
For Hawley, it's the Goldilocks-style balance of tactical play and accessible F2P design.
“We felt that some of Champ Man’s competitors had lost sight of what most people want from a football management game on mobile,” he says.
The plan was to focus on what Square Enix called 'The Three Ts': “Transfers, Team selection and Tactics,” explains Des O'Connor, Producer, Championship Manager Franchise at Square Enix.
“That is, and should be, the core of any football management game. Anything that added unnecessary repetition got left out - I’m looking at you, press conferences.”
O'Connor goes on to say that “our lives are more hectic than they were 10 years ago,” and that this simplicity is designed to better support dip-in, dip-out gameplay as opposed to the old style of late nights in front of the monitor.
The Three Ts: Transfers, Team selection and Tactics.Des O'Connor
On this note, Hawley is very much on the same page:
“By keeping training and tactics simple, and removing the need for some day-to-day management such as finances, media, and fan opinion, we were able to keep the core loop between matches to a minimum in order to fit in with mobile game play patterns while still encouraging that 'one more game' feeling.”
And of course, any football management lives or dies by its database, with Hawley commenting that Distinctive's “dedicated team of researchers” provide a depth and breadth that “other free-to-play management games simply cannot match.”
One season at a time
The benefit of working on a yearly football management sim is that it's an iterative process, with Hawley revealing that while the underlying codebase has been in development “well over 3 years,” Champ Man 16 itself was developed by just 12 people over 5 months.
Indeed, he continues by saying that the biggest difficulties came during development of the match engine, the core basis of which “we achieved with the original Champ Man, and as mobile devices continue to grow in processing power is something we can continue to push forward.”
Iteration, not revolution, is clearly the order of the day here. However, that's not to say that there have been no significant changes for this 2015/2016 edition.
“In previous iterations of Champ Man, the user could play for 12 seasons before they needed to reset the game. In Champ Man 16 this has been extended to 20 seasons,” explains Hawley when we quiz him on the game's lifespan.
“We have also introduced a new job offers system this time around, so if you feel you have accomplished everything you can with a club, or you are unfortunate enough to get sacked, you can move on to manage another club without having to reset your game world.”
He adds that the number of trophies up for grabs has also expanded, now sitting at “44 in total.”
Hard graft pays off
However, while paring back the experience for mobile was crucial, it was arguably more important to strike the right balance in monetisation.
None of us at Square Enix are fans of aggressive monetisation in F2P games.Des O'Connor
“[Monetisation was certainly an area where the reputation of the franchise could have been damaged if it was seen as too aggressive or pay-to-win,” Hawley reflects.
“This was a collaborative effort,” O'Connor adds. “It is tricky in football management, as the user sets the difficulty of their challenge when they select which team to manage. Starting at Barcelona is always going to be a bit different to starting with Dagenham & Redbridge.”
For those who want to manage the likes of Barcelona immediately, a durable Coaching Badge IAP is required. However, such a position can also be earned by starting low and clawing your way through the rankings, or as a reward for inviting friends to the game.
“None of us at Square Enix are fans of aggressive monetisation in F2P games, so everything in Champ Man is available for free if you work at it,” says O'Connor.
Football = big business
As for Board Investment, the name given to consumable IAPs, there's inspiration taken from the real-world economy of modern football.
“If a Russian oligarch bought into a lower league club, where would the money go and how would that affect the club?” These are the questions Hawley and his team would ask themselves during IAP implementation.
The reality would be that, no matter how large the investment, there are still limitations. And indeed, that is reflected in the game by “limitations placed on the transfer market.”
“A user can’t just go out and buy unlimited amounts of transfer funds and sign the world’s best players for their League One team,” says Hawley. “They still have to work their way up over time.”
Lease of life
According to O'Connor, this considered approach to mobile football management - and especially the new features in Champ Man 16 - appear have resonated strongly with the community.
“The response has been great. Good reviews and an audience around the world that is growing year-on-year,” he says.
“And whilst I cannot give you specifics, I can tell you that retention is really good and significantly above the industry benchmarks for F2P sports games.”
“[New features] have helped raise the retention from where we were on CM 15, whilst also increasing the average daily sessions. People are playing for longer, and more frequently, than ever before.”
The message from Distinctive, Square Enix, and the community is clear: Championship Manager is not dead. It just lives on mobile now.