With more than half a million downloads, New Star Soccer is riding high in the iTunes charts. People can’t get enough of its old school graphics, arcade playability, and cheeky sense of humour.
We chatted to the man who created it to talk about the upcoming PS Vita version, how it was inspired by a drug-running game, and how a distraction from his desk job ended up making him five grand a day.
Glance at the comments devoted fans have left for New Star Soccer, and you’ll see why it passed half a million downloads on iTunes last week. “Do not buy this game if you have a wife, children, or other people dependent on you,” reads one. “Never written a review but such an amazing app deserves more stars than I can give,” says another. And more succinctly: “I would like to bum this game.”
But the app’s creator wasn’t trying to inspire a huge following; he just wanted something to do while bored at work.
“It started as just a hobby really,” says Simon Read, who started the series back in 2003 (the app is a version of New Star Soccer 5).
“I was working nightshifts on an IT helpdesk. After midnight there wasn’t a lot to do, so for about eight hours I was sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, and it never did.
“So I took my laptop in, and spent many a night working on New Star Soccer.”
That’s right, his smash hit started life on company time.
The original inspiration
Read was a huge fan of football games of yesteryear. He played Emlyn Hughes International Soccer “religiously” as well as Kick Off, Kick Off 2, and Sensible Soccer. But the original New Star Soccer was inspired by a game a world away from the digital astroturf.
“The first version was inspired by the game Dope Wars on the PC,” Read says. “It was a cult thing, just a text-based Windows 95 app, and you could buy or sell drugs, going from city to city, charging the best price. And I thought ‘I could make a game like that, but based on football.’
“I guess crime and football seemed like natural bedfellows.”
But it wasn’t until 2005, when the series made the jump from text-only to graphics, that Read could give up the day job. (Or evening job, as he was working nightshifts.) “When New Star Soccer 3 came out, it was a significant success, so I was able to quit my job, and spend my time being a full-time developer.
“It was a bit scary. I kept thinking it would suddenly stop selling and I’d have to go back to the real world, but fortunately that never happened.”
That’s underplaying it somewhat. Since the app version launched in March it’s been by far the most successful of the series; it made the top three in iTunes, and currently sits above Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja and Temple Run in the free games chart. It’s had rave reviews from gaming sites and the mainstream press like The Sun and Telegraph as well. And Read is reaping the rewards.
“On a good day the app version can make £5,000,” Read says. Yeah, not a bad day, certainly. So a good week would yield £35,000, a good month £150,000, and a good year… well we don’t want to think about that.
But this is no overnight success. It’s the result of a decade’s work. And other games in the series were nowhere near as profitable. Getting the game to this stage has been a long learning process.
With New Star Soccer 4, Read says he “tried to throw everything at it,” with a player database, different kinds of training, mini games and all sorts of extras. He also used 3D graphics for the first time, straying from the series’ retro roots, which he thinks was a mistake.
“I went down the 3D route, and I realised that unless you get a really stylised look, people are just going to slate it,” he says. “They’ll say ‘This doesn’t look realistic, it’s not FIFA.’ So I went back to keeping it retro; it keeps it easier for me, and people seem to like it enough.
“I mean I’m not trying to compete with the big games.”
iOS vs Android
The game costs £1.99 on Android, whereas on iOS it’s free (though you have to pay 69p to progress to career mode after 10 matches). This difference in price was also a mistake, Read says.
“It’s purely down to the programming language that I use. At the time there wasn’t an installation for in-app purchases on Android. I probably could’ve spent a few weeks finding a way for it to work, but I just wanted the game out there, and I thought it’d be interesting to see how a paid app did compared to a free app. And actually that was probably a mistake, because the iPhone version is outselling the Android about 10 to one.
“The Android version is suffering from piracy as well, and I think a free version would’ve combatted that. So the next time round I’ll make them both free.”
He also says he got bogged down in the lifestyle side of the game in previous versions. “People can suggest what should be in the next version, and in New Star Soccer 3 the shop was absolutely chockablock, there were about 200 items you could buy. There were guitars in there. But I scaled it back because it was a bit of a headache managing all those icons and things.”
It seems it pays knowing when to ignore your fans. “One of the most common requests is to add the ability to have babies in the game. In New Star Soccer 4 you could actually do that. Again, it’s another element which is just a bit of a hassle to include.
“With the app version I cut the chaff.”
Stripping it back
This was due to the technical limitations of mobiles, but Read thinks it actually made the game better. “I think there’s a big advantage in stripping it back, because it keeps it simple. The app is probably as simple as the version back in 2004, but seems to appeal to people more now than it ever has. So it’s helped me refine the core elements and make it fun, rather than cramming in as many things as possible.
“It’s not the most complex simulation ever, but I think that’s what people love about it.”
The more contentious elements were also ditched. “Previous versions were a bit more controversial. You can gamble in the app, whereas in its predecessors you could buy booze which increased your flair on the pitch. It was alluding to players like George Best. For the mobile version I thought I’d play it safe and leave those elements out. I wanted it to appeal to all ages.”
All this talking in the first person is nothing to do with ego: bar a bit of help here and there, it’s still just Read making the games. “Other people do contribute, with translations and things,” he says. “All of the coding and most of the graphics is me, but anything that looks good is probably done by a different artist.”
(He’s a Spurs fan, if you’re wondering which team he takes to the cup. “People often say Spurs are too strong in the game, but teams rise and fall over the course of a career, it just so happens that Spurs might go up sometimes. It’s just like in the casino, it’s purely random.” That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.)
Read is still updating the app versions (soon you’ll be able to buy and race horses), as well as working on a tennis game for mobiles. But he’s looking to bring New Star Soccer to other consoles too. “I hope to launch the same game on the PS Vita. I haven’t started it yet, but the programming language I use should allow me to do that.
“Someone mentioned a Kinect version the other day too, which I thought could be quite interesting. You could have the ball bouncing across and timing your kicks to shoot and things like that. It sounds quite ambitious, so I’m not sure really.”
The game has certainly come a long way from a hobby to help while away the hours manning an IT helpdesk. “Yeah I guess it has,” Read says. “You know I suppose I owe everything to that job.”