Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Sad Day - Rest in Peace NHL EHM

I've had a lot of hobbies over the years.

One of the coolest has been my affiliation with
Sports Interactive, the English gaming company behind the Championship Manager and Football Manager PC soccer titles, literally one of the biggest selling computer games in Europe and the World.

I have been one of the Head Researchers for their fantastic hockey game entitled NHL Eastside Hockey Manager ever since they hired the Finnish developer of the game, Risto Remes about four years ago. I helped Mr. Remes build the database before that time, when the game was a freeware sensation on the net back in the early part of 2001.

It's been a true labour of love for all of us over the years: the developers, the researchers and the testers. It's been a paid position ever since Sports Interactive hired Riz and they brought me on board as well, but I would have done it for nothing.

I enjoyed the work that much. It wasn't too time consuming, maybe an hour or two a night a few days a week but hell - I was working on a COMPUTER GAME!

I wrote a blog post back in October 2005 about my involvement with the company, how I came aboard the project six years ago, and the other great perks of the 'job'. The original post can be found
right here but I'll cut and paste it here as well:

WRITTEN ON OCTOBER 27, 2005 -
I've been busy the last week or so with my research for Eastside Hockey Manager, a computer game for the PC developed by a British gaming company called Sports Interactive.

You've never heard of it? Well, I'm not surprised. The genre this game falls under certainly isn't popular in North America but it's always interested me...

Back in my youth, there was a game for early PC's called Hockey League Simulator. This was essentially a 'Management' game where you are the coach and general manager of an NHL team. You make the signings and trades, set the lines and then simulate the game to see how everything turned out.

No joysticks...no playing out the games...just a simulation.

I loved it! I was probably about 14 years old or so. My buddy Brandon and I would work on rosters for hours upon hours, changing player attributes, updating rookies, etc. I always had an affinity for stats and this game was right up my alley.

It got even better when the second version of the game came out. Hockey League Simulator II worked in conjunction with another popular game at the time, Wayne Gretzky's Hockey. WGH offered the graphics and visual gameplay - you could import all the rosters and stats from HLSII into Gretzky to get the complete hockey game experience. You could now watch your players perform on the ice and actually PLAY with them too! Of course, we even put ourselves into the game, which was something just not available with other games back in the 80's.

I was in geek heaven! Boy did we ever play that game a lot! Unfortunately, there wasn't much of a market for HLSII and the game never got remade.

Fast forward to 2001. I get a call from my buddy Deron, who was doing some internet searches on hockey games (we were interested in designing a game like HLSII ourselves) and found this freeware game called Eastside Hockey Manager. It was essentially a work-in-progress by a hockey-mad Finnish university student named Risto Remes. Since it was just a 'spare time project' for the guy, he made a crude website and put it online for free while he developed it in his spare time.

He had quite the little cult following of guys like me who craved a real management game. He had expanded on the theme of HLSII by including the farm teams of the NHL clubs and also included career play. This meant that you could actually draft players every year and continue to manage until the year 2450 if you so desired. He also brought depth to the experience by having attributes for player's personality - each player would perform differently not only because of differing skill levels but also because they now were rated on their determination, work ethic and leadership abilities.

I was shocked that a 19-year old had come up with all this stuff. Deron was equally amazed - this is the game WE wanted to make!!!

Well, we abandoned thought of doing something ourselves and dove into the game. Deron quickly became disinterested, as he has become more of a joystick jockey in his old age ;) However, I loved how immersive the game was and worked on taking my Buffalo Sabres to the promised land.

I noticed something that could be added though. All of the players were in the game but instead of having actual staff members like the coaches and scouts, it just had generic names in there. So I made my own staff file for the game, going through all 60 AHL and NHL teams in order to add more realism to the experience. I put the file online on the message boards for the other users to download and the response was very positive.

I was rewarded a couple days later when Risto made my staff file an official part of his game. I was listed in the game credits as one of the contributors.

I was in the gaming industry!!!

Well not really! Keep in mind that this was a FREE game, online for anyone to download at no charge. Riz, as he's affectionately known, finished the game about six months later and actually garnered positive reviews from many important gaming publications and websites, who'd heard the positive word of mouth and gone to the site to check out this labour of love.

When asked if he'd be working on a follow-up version, Riz said that he was going to have to concentrate on school and getting an actual paying job. But he did leave a tantalizing nugget of info in his last paragraph, saying something to the effect of "Stay tuned...there's something baking in the oven right now."

That something was the biggest gaming company in England - Sports Interactive. They were the developers of the popular Championship Manager, a soccer management simulation for the PC. One of the bigwigs at SI caught wind of this Finnish whippersnapper and his hockey game and began patrolling the Eastside message boards, offering encouragement. Riz was thrilled, as he based a lot of his game on the components already in the Championship Manager series.

They obviously saw a lot of potential in him and ended up hiring him in late 2002 to develop a professional version of Eastside for sale in the retail market! Riz had gone big time! I emailed him my congratulations and told him I looked forward to buying his game when it hit the shelves.

I joined the Sports Interactive message boards to keep myself abreast of any news on the new game. They reported that the new version of Eastside would include not only the NHL, but leagues from all across the world.

This truly was going to be an immense project!

I was shocked a couple months later when Riz personally emailed me, asking if I'd like to become a Head Researcher for the NHL. It would be a paid position with the company; not a lot of money, mind you, but some money nonetheless. Plus, perks like free versions of all the games the company makes.

I would have done it for nothing! Okay...maybe just the free game!

So here we are! It's now October 2005 and we just released the second version of the retail game to North America earlier this month. I've become 'online friends' with many of the other researchers from across the globe and also got the privilege of meeting up with Riz and Miles Jacobsen, the Managing Partner of Sports Interactive for dinner and drinks last year. They were in Toronto to do some radio and newspaper interviews for the game so I went up to the big city to meet with them.

I highly recommend the game to any hockey nut who's always secretly wanted to run a franchise or who thinks he can do a better job than the current G.M. It truly has been a spectacular experience for me to be involved with such passionate people and to work on a project that brings so much enjoyment to hockey fans.

And damn...it's kind of cool to say I'm part of the development team for a computer game!

Go to the Sports Interactive website to check it out! It's available through online download and it's also available in stores now!

Unfortunately, there won't be another game in the series due to lackluster sales, specifically in the Scandanavian countries. The reason for the lack of success is upsetting.

Here is the email I received from Sports Interactive's Managing Director, Miles Jacobson:

Well, there's good news, bad news, then some good news again. So....

The first bit of good news, is that we are happy to announce and make available the final patch for Eastside Hockey Manager 2007. This includes lots of little improvements and bug fixes, and you can find the patch
here. We hope that this will increase the longevity and enjoyability (ooh, new made up word) for the release of the game.

Now onto the bad news. As you know, the last Eastside release was via digital download. At the time, people complained about this as a distribution method, but it was the only one open to us - the first version of Eastside did very well in Scandinavia, pretty well in Europe and just about OK in the US & Canada. The second also did just about OK in the US and Canada, just about OK in Europe, but despite great review scores and decent pre-orders, the sales in Scandinavia, that had pretty much kept the game going, dropped heavily, from our analysis of the situation, mainly due to the game getting hacked before release, and pirated. Because of this, a retail release wasn't worthwhile with the pre-orders that we were going to get from retail, so we thought we'd go digi download, and encourage people to buy that way, whilst having a lower break even point due to retail not taking their cut.

So the game came out to glowing reviews, and decent online pre-orders, and we sat and waited to see the numbers going up and up. The forums were full of people constructively criticising, and praising (just the way we like it) and we were all pretty buoyant. We had more licenses than any other hockey game in history, it was the best Hockey management game in the history of gaming ever, and Riz and his team had done an amazing job. So, despite Hockey being a bit less popular post the hiatus of the sport in the US in 2004, we still couldn't fail, right?

Wrong. The orders came in a drizzle, rather than a flood. We scratched our heads trying to work out what had gone wrong. And then someone pointed out that the game was being pirated, and was available as a torrent from lots of different pirating sites. Then sat there and watched as the claimed amount of downloads on those sites went up and up, as sales stayed static.

Basically, the game did not bring in enough money to cover the development costs, let alone the license fees on top of that. So we've had to make the decision to stop development on the game for now - it doesn't mean that it'll never come back, but for the foreseeable future, there will not be another version of Eastside Hockey Manager.

The good news is that the amazing talented people on the Eastside team have all decided to stay with Sports Interactive. Riz, Ed & Phil are going to be working on Football Manager moving forward, and Graeme has joined our R&D department to work on developing a new idea forward, which we'll be announcing later in the year.

Thank you to all of you out there who supported the Eastside Hockey Manager project by buying the game, and especially those who helped with testing and research. And to those of you who pirated it, this is what happens when you steal. There are no excuses you can give that are valid for stealing - you have lead to the demise of a game that you enjoyed playing.

Miles Jacobson
Managing Director, Sports Interactive

What a kick in the teeth. The fact that the game is being cut off due to pirating is extremely upsetting.

The fact that we're unable to continue with the evolution of a game that received a 92% rating from the industry's top publication, PC Gamer, in February's issue makes it worse.

I've been lucky to meet and converse with other researchers from all across the globe. Alessandro in Torino, Italy; Vikke in Stockholm, Sweden; Riz, Phil, Marc, Graeme & Miles in London, England; Uros in Slovenia; Woody in Germany; Jeff from Texas; Jeff R. in Calgary; Kelsey from Winnipeg.

We all came together to make the game what it is today. The best hockey game on the market, bar none.

If you're at all interested in proving that you're a better GM than Darcy Regier, John Ferguson Jr. or whoever the guy is in charge of your favourite team, check out the FREE demo version of the game
right here. You can play up to six months of game time with the demo and the amount of leagues to choose from is staggering. If you check it out, you won't be sorry.

It's been a great ride, one I'm sad to see end today.

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