Between madness and desire lies obsession. Between addiction and dependence sits compulsion. Off to the rear side of eternity, and a little to the left of fate, sprawls immersion.

All of which is a fancy European perfume advert type of way of saying I’m hooked on a new MMO. I’ve mentioned it once or twice around these parts – Football Manager Live. Now, if you’re not British/European and/or have no interest in non-American sports (or sports in general), you’re probably not going to find much for you in these next few paragraphs. Sorry about that. But if you ever wondered if it was possible to turn Microsoft Excel into an MMO, baby have I got a game for you!

It’s not apparent here, but forty-three minutes have passed since I wrote the preceding paragraph and this one, during which time I was playing the game. That’s the kind of thing that happens with FML, you keep thinking about it so much so that you end up breaking off from what you’re doing to just try tweaking… hold on a sec…

Right! Sorry, back again. Just had a thought about my line-up and how best to deploy my attacking midfielder, Alessandro del Piero, to maximise my attacking potential in a forthcoming cup match. Ahem, anyway.

I’m in a sort of public/stress beta right now, a few weeks before the actual live release (I think – pinning down an actual release date is tricky) so everyone playing is doing so with an air of joviality, secure in the knowledge that whatever boneheaded tactics they employ, or out-of-form ex-superstars they pay a fortune for won’t count for long as the servers get reset. But it’s no less competitive an experience for all its currently temporary lifespan.

Teams are chosen, formations and tactics mulled over, tweaked and re-tweaked, skills are trained in real-time (a la EVE Online), opening further tactical, player scouting, managerial and many, many more gameplay mechanics. It seems a little strange at first but you quickly get into the swing of things when your first few matches are under your belt and before long you’re suffering heart-rending pain as your team goes three down in the first ten minutes, agonising… agony when the ref gives away a penalty that was clearly a dive, and sublime joy when your newly-signed Brazilian dynamo scores a screamer from forty-yards in the dying minutes.

The best thing about it is that despite the intensity of the actual game, it has a very casual air to everything, very dip-in/dip-out. Matches can be played mano-a-mano, or you can just set up your team and tactics and let the computer AI play it out while you’re offline. You’re never really under any pressure to be one for hours and hours to get things done as most leagues and tournaments can take place over a number of days and you’re free to play your scheduled matches in any order, as and when your opponents are online. Consequently you spend plenty of time working on strategies and team setups, playing random on-the-spot ‘friendlies’ to try things out and then egt everything ready for the competitive matches.

It’s one of the few MMOs I’ve encountered that really makes use of the ‘offline’ aspect of the genre really well – perhaps a necessity given the subject matter and the way Sports Interactive has chosen to model its world’s mechanics, but I can’t help but feel that there are many lessons to be learnt for MMO designers of all flavours from FML.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, my back four needs sorting out and I’ve got a cup match due. Come on the reds…

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