For a sports video game to have any sort of life even a couple of years after release is rare nowadays. But when I meet Jon Hare, the genial, garrulous co-founder of Britsoft powerhouse Sensible Software (and one of Norwich City’s biggest fans) at Bafta in London, he invites me to a forthcoming event where enthusiasts will gather to play and celebrate his game Sensible Soccer – which was originally released for the Commodore Amiga in 1992.
Sensible Soccer exerted tremendous influence at that time, helping to put football games on the map in an age before Fifa, and it has demonstrated unfeasible longevity. But Hare, now head of Tower Studios, is initially keen to talk about something else: the imminent release of his newest game, Sociable Soccer 24, out this week on PC and a little later on consoles.
Hare is comfortable with the idea that Sociable Soccer is a modern-day spiritual successor to Sensible Soccer. “On PC and console, if you want arcade-style gameplay and full licences for players, you can only come to us,” he says. “If EA Sports FC [the new name for the series formerly known as Fifa] is the equivalent of Call of Duty, then Sociable Soccer is Fortnite. It has the same kind of content, but it’s easier to pick up and play.”
Sociable Soccer 24 possesses the essence of Sensible Soccer. It has that manic speed – as Hare says, “it plays a bit more at the pace of a fighting game, in terms of how much you’re hitting the controls, and it gives you an adrenaline kick, because of its momentum”. The licence from Fifpro (the worldwide professional footballers’ union) brings real player names and photos, swerving the need for deliberate misspellings, though I felt they actually added to Sensible Soccer’s charm back in the day – my favourite was the former Arsenal and England central defender Tony Edams.
But don’t assume Sociable Soccer is an exercise in retro nostalgia. It has a modern look and modern systems, including as a career mode with a 10-league ladder inspired by League of Legends, and Fifa Ultimate Team-style player cards – though here, you don’t have to pay extra for them. Jon has made no secret of his opinion of EA’s approach to football games, calling them “overpriced, overhyped simulations full of loot boxes and all manner of money traps”. (Ironically, EA now owns the Sensible Soccer name: Codemasters bought Sensible Software in 1999, and EA bought Codemasters in 2021.)
Classic “Sensi” attributes, including aftertouch, enable an outrageous amount of ball-bending on passes and shots. “The engine is new, but it has an ostensibly similar speed, pace and structure to Sensible Soccer,” explains Hare. And competitive couch multiplayer is still Hare’s favourite game mode – the pinnacle of the game, he reckons. “It’s old Sensible Soccer-style play against your friend or your brother, with a pizza and a can of Coke or a beer. The games are only three or four minutes long, but you end up playing loads because you just want to keep on going back.”
It doesn’t take much to coax Hare into reminiscing about the Sensible Soccer days, when Sensible Software was one of the hottest developers in the world. They had already had a hit football game with 1988’s MicroProse Soccer for the Commodore 64, essentially a reworking of the arcade game Tehkan World Cup: “We actually wanted to call the game Sensible Soccer in 1988,” he says. “MicroProse offered us the most money, £30,000, but they wanted to call it MicroProse Soccer. We liked the idea of 30 grand, so we conceded the name.”
But the roots of Sensible Soccer emerged when Sensible Software was making Mega-Lo-Mania, one of the first “god games”. “It was the first game ever to have a tech tree in it and, I think, the second game ever to have mining,” reckons Hare. In the boring periods waiting for new builds to compile, Hare and his team whiled away the time playing Kick Off, which had deposed MicroProse Soccer as the top football game, and Kick Off 2.
“As much as we liked Kick Off, there were things we thought we could improve in it, so we decided we wanted to make a new football game, and I started to draw little footballers in Norwich kits,” he recalls. “Using the perspective that we had for the Mega-Lo-Mania world, we made a football pitch that the little Norwich men could now run around on. The perspective was amazing – we were like: ‘Wow: you can see so much of the pitch, compared to Kick Off,’ where you couldn’t see who you were passing to. We realised that, by fluke, we’d landed on a great perspective. Then we set about creating a football engine. And within two months, the game just played like a dream: it was like magic. I don’t know how we made this amazing thing, but we did. I’ve never done that before or since in my career, and I’ve been doing this for 35 years.”
Hare knew they had a hit on their hands, and he was right. Sensible Soccer was a chart-topper, and set out blueprints not just for modern football games but for sports games in general. “Sensible Soccer was the first game to have players of different races in a sports team. Previous to that, all the lazy development teams used one sprite, so in most sports games, everyone was white,” says Jon. “I remember seeing Liverpool with a white John Barnes in someone else’s game … we had this little guy with about four brown pixels for a face, a number seven above his head and a red kit: now he was John Barnes. It meant we were the first game to depict multiracial sports – which for a sports fan is a must.”
Amazingly, Hare doesn’t see Sensible Soccer as his best game. Instead, that accolade goes to Sensible World of Soccer, known by all and sundry as SWOS, released two years after Sensible Soccer in 1994. Hare explains: “When we went to SWOS, we put in full leagues from countries like Argentina that had never got a look-in before, or Yugoslavia, or South Africa. That their team existed in the game was something people cared about.”
This international-friendly approach had an unexpected consequence, however: it was good for sales, but even better for piracy. “The Sensible Soccer series, in total, sold about two million copies. But piracy [to sales] was 20 or 30 to one.” says Hare. “So conservatively, it has been played by 40 million people. I worked in Poland for a long time, I’ve got a lot of Polish friends and I love the community out there. I’ve not met a single person there who didn’t play Sensible Soccer, and I’ve not met a single person there who paid for it!”
Does Hare resent the loss of earnings? If everybody who had played Sensi back in the day had paid for it, he would be a significantly richer person. “There’s a point where you think, yeah, it would be nice to have the money, but it’s nicer to have had something which was big,” he says. “SWOS was voted one of the 10 most influential games of all time by Stanford University in 2007, and is the only European-developed game in that list, which includes the likes of Spacewar! and Mario. That’s by far the biggest accolade I’ll get in my life, for anything that I do.
“To have done that when I was 27, 30 years ago, is also great, because it means your legacy is sealed at a young age: you don’t get the impostor syndrome some creative people suffer from.”
Sociable Soccer 24 is out on 16 November on PC