Review Fix chats with Jeff Riddolls, FHM 4 Producer, who discusses this year’s game, breaking down its development cycle and why it may be the best game in the series yet.
Review Fix: What makes this game special?
Jeff Riddolls: It’s a strategy game for hockey fans, and a hockey game for strategy fans. You don’t need to have the reflexes of a teenager to do well, and you don’t need a bleeding-edge computer to play it. It’s an approach to sports games that isn’t the typical one you see from, say, EA. Not so much eye candy or fast-paced action, but solid gameplay that requires some thinking and planning to succeed.
Review Fix: What kind of hockey fans will get the most out of it?
Riddolls: Anyone with an interest in the team-building side of the sport: making trades, scouting young players, drafting, signing free agents, and helping your players develop. If you listen to sports radio, you’ll probably enjoy the game.
Review Fix: How is it different from your other titles?
Riddolls: Out of the Park Baseball, our biggest title, is a little more closely-focused on the top level of baseball – understandably, since the baseball world revolves around Major League Baseball. Hockey’s talent pool is distributed a little more widely, so the European leagues, particularly in the major hockey countries like Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic, are a big part of our game. That’s influenced the direction of development – we’re not quite as flexible as OOTP when it comes to customizing the game, because we’ve concentrated on getting the real leagues working as they should, which isn’t always friendly to customization. But we’re reaching the point now where we can start incorporating more of the great features you can find in OOTP.
Review Fix: What was development like?
Riddolls: Sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating. We had plans for a major redevelopment of some of the internal systems related to player contracts, but ran into a lot of issues and had to scrap most of that, although we did salvage some useful stuff and will probably be able to repurpose more of those plans in the future. Fortunately, we knew that was going to be a risky proposition, so we had also planned a long list of new features and were simultaneously working to get those in place. So, when the contract stuff went south, we still had a ton of things done, and were able to use the remaining time to add even more. Features like player chemistry made it into the game that’d been languishing at the planning stage for two or three years; getting that stuff out the door will open up a lot of flexibility for us next year.
Review Fix: What did fans say about previous versions and how have you addressed them in this year’s game?
Riddolls: We had a rough start with our first version of the game; we tried to do a little too much too soon, and the game suffered for it. Later versions have pared things back a bit to focus on the most important aspects of the game, while still adding new features to the gameplay. Last year, we may have gone a little too far with that, which made for an overly-restrictive experience if you wanted to take advantage of all of the new features. We’ve walked that back a bit this year, allowing access to the “fun” stuff in all game modes, and added quite a few specific features people had been requesting for a while, like freeform league design for custom leagues and the ability to shop players around the league to get offers from multiple teams.
Review Fix: What have you learned about yourself through the development of this game?
Riddolls: Well, one thing I’ve learned this year is that a little time off can be useful. I hadn’t taken a vacation in about a year and a half, since just after the release of FHM2. But I’m a big professional wrestling fan and have a lot of friends in Central Florida, so with Wrestlemania in Orlando this year I couldn’t not go. I was still stuck in “get-it-done” work mode for the first couple of days down there, running around and seeing people and checking off stuff I needed to do. It wasn’t until going to Wrestlecon on the third day that I slowed down – seeing a lot of the older guys I’d watched growing up turned me into a big kid for an afternoon, and I was able to settle down and really recharge after that, and get back to work refreshed. So you can thank Mean Gene Okerlund, Tommy Dreamer, and Jim Ross for indirectly helping get a few extra features into FHM4.
Review Fix: What are your goals for this year’s game? Have they changed from previous years?
Riddolls: No, they’re still pretty much what we originally set out to do: build a realistic hockey management game that appeals to serious hockey fans, but is also enjoyable enough as a strategy game that people who aren’t into hockey can enjoy it as well. We’re doing better and better with the former – we’re starting to hear from people in NHL front offices who enjoy the game and like the realism – and we’ve made some strides in the latter area, too. Still lots of room for improvement, but we’re on a good path now.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Riddolls: Several months of continuing to improve FHM4, then, in the spring, onto FHM5 development. We have a pretty good idea already of where we want to go next year, so we should be able to hit the ground running. And there are a few other new things we, and the company, are looking at doing in the near future.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Riddolls: Sports management games have a pretty big following in most of the world, but for some reason have never really taken off in North America. The developers of Football Manager, the biggest title in the genre, pretty much threw up their hands last year and said there was “not really a huge market in the US for thinking games.” I’d very much like to prove that wrong.