Making a high-end, graphically impressive sports simulation game is tough, and for a solo developer perhaps even verging on the impossible. In a world where FIFA and Forza already exist, competing from your bedroom would be a fruitless task. But if your interest is less in making shiny looking games that look the part, and more on the numbers… maybe there’s a way.
Everyone knows Football Manager, the sports stats simulator par excellence, which is basically a spreadsheet management games about floating above the on-pitch action and parsing the lovely data. Christian West certainly understands its appeal because, after years in the games industry in Guildford, he decided to make his own data management sim: except in this case, focusing on racing.
Every few months or so, I'll look at my phone and get the urge to fire up some cricket. Sometimes it's action based, but every now and again I keep wondering whether there's a good management sim around.
Now in his early thirties, West leads the team developing Motorsport Manager, a data management sim where players work behind-the-scenes for racing teams, swapping out their gear and tweaking their strategies to try and get every ounce of performance possible out of driver and car.
“I’ve been in the games industry for I think thirteen years now,” says West. “I originally grew up in Essex, and I came to Guildford because of the game development scene here.”
“Playsport is a company that I founded back in 2013, and it started as a rented bedroom and a desk I was working from with the aim of creating something that’s as big as it is now. Honestly at this point it’s way bigger than I ever expected it to be. We’re a studio of about 16 people, and we make Motorsport Manager. It originally started on mobile, then it got picked up by Sega for the PC version, and now we’re developing it on mobile again.”
Motorsport Manager puts you in charge of your own racing team: you hire the drivers, you develop the cars, and you invest in technology. Rather than driving the cars yourself, you’re the strategy guy in the pit, making the decisions that could win races and eventually championships.
While Motorsport Manager doesn’t have the financial backing to deal in real-world tracks and players, West sees this as a strength for the game’s design, in that it allows him a bit more creative freedom than he might feel working within the constraints of a product that needs licensor approval.
“When I started working on Motorsport Manager, it was an unlicensed game, so without any real people represented that gave me the freedom to give the game a lot of character. I could push the boundaries of what characters talk about, and present the sport in what felt like a more realistic way that wasn’t just a marketing piece for the sport itself.”
“It’s authentic in its tone, and what you do as a player. We have a fake social media feed in-game where people respond to your race results, and it’s not always pleasant to read. We’re trying to take parts of the sport like that and show them as they really are. Building up the characters with traits we really see in the sport.”
West didn’t hit upon the subject matter by accident: he’s loved motorsport every since he was a kid.
“Motorsport was probably my first ever passion, even before games. I remember when I was really little, watching it on TV, and being a big fan of the sport particularly around the early 90’s. I later got into games with PlayStation and the N64 in the mid 90’s, eventually getting into game development through Counter Strike mods and maps. Eventually, the two just sort of lined up.”
West is very aware of the audience he’s creating for: a niche of players as enthusiastic about the topic as he is. It’s a genre desired by enough people to make it worth developing, but not such a large audience that you have huge competition.
“I know it’s quite niche. Racing games are quite niche anyway, and this is a strategy management game within that genre, so it’s a niche within a niche. It’s such a specific market that developers and publishers for years have just sort of left it alone. I think it was around twenty years between the last motorsport management game and mine releasing.”
“My desire to create a management-driven game was born a little out of love for the stats, and a little out of technical scope. I’ve always been a bit nerdy, I’ve always loved the stats. In motorsport, everything is measured in split seconds, and I’ve just always loved analysing those differences in data and formulating strategies from that.”
However, while creating a game for a niche audience has obvious upsides, it also limits the ceiling on the kind of product you can make. As West himself freely acknowledges, there’s only so much money in his idea, and only so far development on it can take the studio.
“The limiting factor when trying to act on community requested features is always budget. As I said our game is a niche within a niche, the audience for it is big enough for it to be successful with the studio size we have, but the flip side is we can’t make that perfect game we might want to. We keep iterating and building on the franchise, but there’s only a set audience size we will ever have, which does dictate our scope. It’s something that I love, and hope to still be making in ten years time, I’ll just keep chipping away at it.”
Even with that financial ceiling, West still has a clear vision for the future of the series. He knows exactly where the team wants to grow it, and how they can do so within their limits.
“For me, the scope of this, the name of the game is Motorsport Manager. We’re not trying to be just Formula 1, there’s a whole world of motorsports out there we would like to one day include, things like Endurance Racing and GT racing. Opening up the game to that has been really important to me, and I would one day love to see more real-world licenses involved in the game. I want more real world courses in the game, and I want to see the series grow into a true world of Motorsport, this single player, multiplayer, competitive game.”
“The community around our game is hardcore, they’re truly passionate about what we’re doing. We’ve got some players who know the game probably as well as the development team who wrote the code. Being developed in Unity the tools are there for players to dig around, there’s an active modding scene, and we do keep an eye on what that community is up to. We really do want to act and provide the experiences that our Community is passionate about seeing”.
While West started development on Motorsport Manager as a bedroom coder, he’s now in charge of a team, working with a publisher. While that has allowed him to aim for some of those loftier goals with the game, it came with challenges. West had no experience being anything more than a coder, and was caught off-guard by aspects of being a studio head.
“I’m a programmer, really, but I’ve over time found myself becoming a studio head, PR person, but at heart I’m still a programmer, just that maths-obsessed little boy.”
“The first Motorsport Manager game was made alone in that bedroom, but then Sega got involved to bring it to PC, which is where those multiple roles started. I wanted to make a PC game from the start, I wanted to emulate games like Football Manager, and was lucky enough to be introduced to Sega, but that’s where all the business side of my job started to creep in.”
“Sega wanted budgets and predictions and number plans,” chuckles West. “They wanted a proper producer. They wanted charts of what the project was going to be over the next two-and-a-half years. They wanted to know what our hiring plan was going to be. I’d never really considered any of this developing alone by myself.”
“Even then, once we have everything signed with Sega, I had to teach myself marketing skills. It has all been a learning experience, finding out all the business things I never bothered doing before.”
West went head-first into the new tasks placed in front of him, but learned the hard way that it’s tough to move from managing your own time to scheduling the work of a small team around a project with fixed deadlines and budgets.
“My first predictions and estimates given to Sega were terrible: we missed every deadline. We had to go back and ask for more money, more time, it was very embarrassing. I’ve learned a lot over time, I’ve learned to double every estimate I think makes sense, and to become comfortable asking for more money than I perhaps feel comfortable managing. I think to some degree I undervalued the studio and the team, realising later that it requires a lot of talented people, time, and work to get this right.”
West has some advice for anyone that might find themselves navigating similar circumstances: a lot of mistakes are, with hindsight, obvious.
“I didn’t realise when growing our studio size how much time and money would be taken up managing office space and budgets, even just ordering in food for everyone. Making sure there’s milk in the fridge, ordering computers, talking to marketing, creating key art.”
“Sometimes it’s really simple things. I used to be a programmer, I put myself down as a programmer on our budget, but I wasn’t finding the time, so I hadn’t budgeted for us being a programmer down most days. Programmer wasn’t actually my day-to-day job, so I was a person down on my estimates before I had even begun.”
Motorsport Manager is certainly a game with a niche, but one of the great things about these titles is seeing the passion West has for his game, and how it has grabbed the attention of others like him. It’s a numbers game for kids who grew up watching cars go fast, where incrementally different numbers are a hugely exciting prospect.
Growing this passion project into its new publisher-backed form is the kind of indie story that doesn’t make the headlines, because it’s not spectacular enough. Motorsport Manager won’t be selling ten million copies anytime soon, either. But in some ways, Playsport is the dream: or it certainly is for West. The studio’s growth may have been rocky at times, but Playsport now looks and works like its own passion: a well-oiled machine.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.