Who is Kevin Toms? The story of Football Manager
Kevin Toms is a British games designer and developer who founded Addictive Games in the early 1980s when he created the original 'Football Manager' video game. Its novel concept as a football management strategy game, rather than copying arcade games of that time, made it an instant classic that spawned a genre. 40 years later some version of the Football Manager strategy game concept is available on almost every games platform past and present. This is his story.
Kevin Toms was there at the start of the video games industry in the 1980s. Back then video games for personal computers were delivered on cassette tape, a format more commonly used for music albums at the time. Despite video games being much simpler back then, they were very slow to load and you had time to go off and do something else while you waited. Grab a meal perhaps or do some homework. There was still no such thing as video game shops, neither online nor on the high street. Games were sold by mail order through ads placed in magazines aimed at computer enthusiasts. To launch his game, Kevin also had to launch his own company Addictive Games and do his own marketing. It was an exciting time of genuine innovation and it was all very ‘punk rock’. Kevin compares those times to an even earlier more seismic innovation in music, when the electric guitar was invented.
Kevin is from the seaside town of Paignton in Devon but now resides in Amsterdam. In the 1970s he was a professional computer programmer who was interested in creating games in his spare time. Initially he wanted to create board games and when he first came up with the idea of Football Manager, he was in fact considering how to create a table-top version. With the arrival of domestic personal computers, Kevin realised that computer programming could solve many of the problems surrounding the board game format that until then he had been unable to resolve.
“Originally I was playing around with it (Football Manager) as a teenager as a board game idea, and I was still trying to make it right when I became a computer programmer. At first it was mainframes but eventually the first home computers started to appear. That was when I could put the two together, put my programming knowledge together with my football game idea, which was one of the reasons why it was so novel at the time.”
“I already had a pre-formed idea, I wasn’t trying to copy arcade games and do a Pacman or Space Invaders. Mine was a strategy game. Once I got it on a computer, a lot of the problems with the board game idea disappeared, like how to calculate the league tables, fixture lists and things like that. These things were difficult to do in a board game, but the computer could do them well, and that helped the game to be more complete.”
His first attempt at programming a game was on a Texas Instruments programmable calculator (yes you heard that correctly) . On this he created a Battleships style game which allowed him to see how games could work on a computer. His first version of Football Manager was created on a Video Genie (TRS80 clone). It played well and friends would not stop playing once they started. Kevin made what proved to be a wise decision and ported the game also to the Sinclair ZX81, before the first public launch of the game. In the 1980s it was easy to publish and distribute your own video game creations. Kevin placed adverts in computer magazines and sold the game by mail order using the name Addictive Games. The first advert was place in Computer and Video Games magazine in January 1982.
“Right from the beginning I included customising and I still do that today. I had in mind that if the league changed or the players changed, you could edit it. It wasn’t based on a database, it was based on algorithms, so it’s a different kind of game.”
The game was a great success, especially after being ported to the ZX Spectrum and crossed over to High Street stores who ordered thousands of copies. The Spectrum version included football match highlights which was a big innovation at the time.
“It seems like nothing now but that was a revolution in itself because the game already worked as a text-based strategy game. In late summer and autumn of 1982, it was that long ago, I was writing the Spectrum graphics, I can still remember doing it now, with the little stick men graphics. The thing about that was I tried to make it unpredictable. Although people said they knew what was going to happen, that wasn’t true. I made it so the calculations were done on the fly. That made it always interesting.”
The success of Football Manager on ZX Spectrum enabled Kevin to quit his day job and run Addictive Games full time. Despite this, Football Manager did not need a sequel for 6 years until 1988 when Football Manager 2 was released with what we would call today ‘lifestyle improvements’. However it still included the fast and addictive gameplay of the original, a concept unmatched in the imitators that began to appear such as Sports Interactive’s Championship Manager and Gary Lineker’s Super Star Soccer.
Kevin was not involved in writing Football Manager 3, a game not considered as good as the first two, but Addictive Games itself published many games including 16 versions of Football Manager as well as titles by other programmers and new kinds of sim games from Kevin Toms himself. – Software Star was about being a game developer and President was about being the dictator of a banana republic.
“The basic Football Manager game idea is the one I created. I could reasonably claim every other was derivative of the game concept at least. I definitely founded the genre of games and the concept as well.
Very much with an eye to documenting the early days of the UK video games industry and the part he played in it, Kevin has written a book which is currently at the editing stage and should be published soon. He also likes to attend retro games events, often as a panel guest, and continues to develop games for mobile platforms. In particular, Kevin created Kevin Toms Football * Manager, which is a highly rated renewal of his original Football Manager game, adapted to mobile platforms, and available in the app stores.