Aug 28

Data Capture: An effective development tool for FML or an intrusion of privacy?


The advances of information technology in the 21st century has allowed unprecedented access into the everyday lives of the general public. Websites, iPods, cell phones, PDAs, social networking tools, e-mail, credit card transactions, all electronic devices and services you can think of are more or less collecting precise data on the habits of it’s users. This data, after compiled together over a large cross-section of users, is one the most highly sought after pieces of information for consumer-based businesses.

“This system… collects information about your computer hardware specification. It doesn’t ask for, or store, any personal information at all – just information about the computer that is being used’s processor, graphics card, default screen resolution for playing the game in, OS language and operating system.” – Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive

In a recently released blog on the Sports Interactive website, Miles Jacobson shares with us the company’s data capture techniques for Football Manager 2009 – from what exact information they gather to how it eventually gets used. This type of transparency from a game developer is quite rare in the industry, so this disclosure of facts is refreshing to see. It definitely creates less of a rift between company and consumer while allowing a productive debate on the issue. (or a flame war as you can read on the forum thread)

“For those who installed the game using [the STEAM system] the only stats that they have collected and provided to me are stats on how many minutes people have played the game for and the amount of people playing the game via this system split down in total and per month.” – Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive

Although we don’t cover the “normal” FMxx series on this website, user privacy is still a heated issue and we can assume that there’s similar data capture in Football Manager Live. Much of the vitriol expressed from some game playing consumers concerns the fact that the standalone FMxx version is primarily played on a user’s private computer without any need for an internet connection. Capturing this information in this regard can seem much more intrusive and “sneaky” since there’s no general awareness that it’s taking place.

I know you must be thinking “but Football Manager Live is conducted on private Sega / SI server and played entirely online – shouldn’t we expect that pertinent information is being gathered about our usage?

It’s the correct assumption indeed and I believe most, if not all of the FML subscribers are much more willing to have their usage data captured – IP addresses, playing times, transactions, chat logs, etc. than our FMxx playing brethren. This question remains though – just because we’re utilizing a service from an outside source, does that still make it right? Is this information even that accurate or useful for the future development of the game?

“If we’re able to see what areas of the game are proving popular, and which areas are ignored, it makes it a lot easier for us to make informed decisions and what areas need improvement or not, over and beyond that of the pubs and forums.” – Miles Jacobson, Sports Interactive

PRO #1: Data capture gives a more accurate view to the state of the product.

Although many of the readers of this site and countless others often participate in discussion on the official forums, it only represents a small fraction of the amount of people playing FM Live. As Ov Collyer said on a recent podcast, “we rarely hear anything from people that are enjoying the game.” Since the more traditional avenues of feedback interaction are typically inhabited by “hardcore” types and sometimes a haven for negativity, it’s vital that Sports Interactive gets a wider cross-section of users to fill in the rest of the puzzle.

PRO #2: Data capture allows the developers to highlight problem areas and then improve the product based on the findings.

It’s very common that of all surveys sent to departing users, many go unanswered. Finding the source reason for cancelled subscriptions is extremely useful for the developers to answer the question “what went wrong?” Far from the popular opinion on the official forums, it’s been stated several times that the primary sentiment of ex-customers is that FML involves too much time commitment on their part to play the game effectively. Through data capturing techniques, Sports Interactive can have the ability to accurately assess it’s merit. This is why many of the latest features in Football Manager Live have been geared to a more casual-playing user.

PRO #3: Data capture can open the doors for secondary funding through ads.

“I would welcome advertising in FML if that could make the game cheaper and attract more subscribers” - @fmlblog via Twitter

Of course, we all can admit that we don’t enjoy obtrusive ads attacking our visual range at every juncture – so how then would this be considered a positive aspect of data collection? Well, my friends, producing a game of this magnitude is a quite expensive endeavor (in the millions of dollars), especially considering that over two years alone were spent without receiving a single dollar of income for Sports Interactive. Given the option, I believe the FML user base would tolerate well-placed relevant ads (such as on stadium hoardings) in exchange for the further, speedier development of new features for the game.

Marketing companies rely on subscriber demographics in their decision-making process and need detailed data on the back-end in order to properly assess the ROI (return on investment) and effectiveness of placed advertisements. Data capture techniques employed by Sports Interactive would satisfy these requirements.

CON #1: Data capture is a violation of privacy & doesn’t allow users a choice to opt-out.

Virtually all sensitive information about your identity (address, phone, credit card, e-mail, even real name!) is hidden from the public, viewable only by you and Sports Interactive. It’s quite likely that the EULA (end user license agreement) for Football Manager Live gives the company permission to use any pertinent data collected on your usage as they see fit. While most FML users can accept this and believe that the developers only have our best interest at heart, what if you just don’t want to be a guinea pig?

Giving the user at least an option to not partake in data capture studies, even if only accepted by written request, is the best way to resolve any issues one might have with their privacy. This minority group who do so may only represent a very small fraction of the playing public anyways, so the developer’s statistical set of data will still be large enough to analyze accurately.

CON #2: Data capture only shows dry facts with no indication of emotional factors or anomalous influences.

Have you ever stopped playing FML for a period of time due to school, personal issues, etc. Have you ever sold all your players for under market value in one fell swoop because of a bad day at work? Have you ever chose to pick an entire squad of Bolivians just because you’re dating one? Have you ever ended up unable to manage your team due to a multi-day internet outage in your area? Have you ever just left the FML client running in the background for hours on end? (like our most known offender of this – “Rb” Robson Brown)

I hope you’re getting the point. These occurrences may seem exaggerated to many, but they’ve all actually happened in the course of FML’s lifespan. I’m sure less drastic examples of unconventional usage have occurred often enough in your own game play as well with many of your fellow managers. Average time spent online, average time in-between logins, average financial state, average squad strength, etc… even if you chop off the extreme 10% of the spectrum, do you think these figures will be reasonably accurate?

With the total Football Manager Live user base hovering around 20k subscribers, it may seem like a large enough statistical set. Unfortunately, the standard deviation is so high on many of these variables that it may still not present a wholly reliable collection of data. Basing the future development of the game on the analysis of flawed information can be very detrimental to Sports Interactive and the majority of users.

CON #3: Data capture alienates the product’s fan base and undermines their trust.

After the overwhelmingly negative feedback last year to DRM (digital rights management) incorporated into Football Manager 2009, it’s probably still a long road ahead for Sports Interactive to win back trust fully in customers’ minds. Although some of the problems with the last release were due to outside interference, it has left many people still sensitive to the issue of privacy and user rights. I’m sure this is one of the reasons Miles has chosen to transparently discuss this topic in his recent blog post.

It may be a very loud minority, but in the age of social networking, word-of-mouth can definitely make or break a product in today’s environment. Any perception that there is background tracking and/or nefarious collection of user information can spread like wildfire, turning off prospective customers and eventually putting a scarlet letter on a brand. (for game industry aficionados – think EA Sports)

Is there a middle ground that will satisfy both the end-user and the company?

Obviously, we’d be naive to think that all forms of gathering relevant information on users will go by the wayside. If compiled and analyzed correctly, it’s been shown to be vital in assessing a product’s state, highlight means of improvement and generally benefiting the future development as a whole. While the overwhelming majority of customers will not care about or even be aware of data capture, offering users the ability to opt-out of this collection can calm privacy fears and secure more trust in their minds. All things remaining the same, it’s likely in the company’s best interest to address the inevitable issues related to its use in the most transparent way possible. As the recent blog post shows – Sports Interactive has definitely done just that.

Do you think data capture is an effective development tool for FML or an intrusion of your privacy?

Let us know your answer below – share your opinion with other readers!

Written By Jordan Cooper
A moderator on GW Fowler and a co-founder of Gameworld One.Com, he has hosted/produced the Get Sacked! podcast for nearly two years providing humor and strategical insight to all about the FM series.
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  • Chris, I'm sure that 99% of FML users have the same overall attitude towards data capture as yourself. I applaud the fact that SI has allowed managers to hide their recent activity as well as their profile information (unless you're an approved friend) so they at least understand the concerns managers have about privacy. Unfortunately, there is still a small minority of people who will cause an uproar whenever their "rights" are being stepped on - although they typically fail to react the same way to this exact issue in other aspects of their life.

  • Guest

    I don't know about data gathering, but I'm interested to hear more about mind-altering Bolivian women.

  • chris stokes

    i couldnt realy care less about them gathering data about my playing activities.
    some data they collect could benifit the games development and some of the data captured can stop cheats eg chat logs and ip address.
    but an opt out on some elements may be useful for thos paranoid people who think SI might be reporting their findings to MI5

  • Mark Burton

     "Have you ever chose to pick an entire squad of Bolivians just because you’re dating one? "    
    Wow, are Bolivian women that good :) - Don't think i know any, but we are on the look out now !   
    Seriously though, it's an interesting (and sensitive) issue to raise, and on a number of levels. I'll admit at this point i have perused the FM Forum thread you've linked, but have glanced at Miles post.    
    First up i think FML is a slightly different kettle if fish to FM, largely because a certain amount of data capture is required for practical moderation of any online game. In fact there are times when complaints through the forums suggest not enough is captured (or not made available to moderators).    
    So i don't think too many in FML will be that surprised by the kinds of information captured and it's usage.    
    "We use the data to help us develop our games, and use the information to help us make decisions in a more informed manner." (Miles Jacobsen)    
    Here's the crux of the issue for the difference between FML and FM to me. On the whole i think the vast ajority of FML players recognise the 'constant development' model, and the FML forums reflect that in terms of useful discussion. On the other hand the FM forums appear to be more antagonistic toward development, expecting the game to be more "complete" at time of purchase.    
    It's a subtle difference certainly, but an important one. Although people expect each carnation of FM to have developed from the last, they expect that development to happen largely devoid of their input. However FML is quite the opposite, where people have a greater expectation the game develop in accordance with their wishes - and not just to the plan of the developers.    
    With all that in mind, i don't see data collection being a major drama for the FML set, as long as it's kept in line with Miles' post ~ advertising on the other hand is another issue.

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