By rights, I should probably hate Kevin Toms, not be inducting him as a Gaming Hero. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s a great bloke, but over the years, his games have taken up so much of my time that it’s almost criminal!
I’ve already written about how good Football Manager on the Commodore 64 was when it featured in my list of Top 10 C64 games. Looking back it’s frightening to think how much time a friend and I spent playing this, discussing (read: “arguing”) which players should make our starting XI and blaming each other for poor decisions when things went wrong (don’t worry: we’re still friends today!). Every night for several months, my friend would come round to my house after school, we’d load up the game and not switch it off until my mum called time on our managerial careers saying it was bedtime (there’s a problem Sam Allardyce never had). Not for nothing was Toms’ company called Addictive Games!
After I (and Toms) moved away from the C64, I thought I was safe. For me, Toms’ Football Manager games were the only ones that counted. Later football management games became stats heavy juggernauts that (for me at least) lost the accessibility and playability that made Football Manager (and its sequel) so much fun to play.
Then without warning, after 30 years of safety, Toms struck back and released Kevin Toms’ Football on iOS in 2015. A spiritual update to the original, it proved just as addictive and started to take up hours of my time again.
As if that wasn’t enough, the man’s now had the audacity to develop Kevin Toms’ Football Star Manager (currently in beta for iOS and Android). Given how much I’d enjoyed his previous football management games, I volunteered to help with the beta testing. Oops. There goes all my spare time again.
All joking aside, Kevin Toms has proved a master of game design. Although his games sit most closely in the “simulation/management” camp, they appeal to a much wider audience. I’m a good example of that. As you might have noticed from my blog, I tend to more action-orientated genres like racing games and shoot em ups, but Toms’ football management games have always sucked me in. Partly because they now hold that nostalgia element of long evenings spent with my best mate, but mostly because they are just so damn good.
How does he do it? I’m tempted to say “magic”, but the truth is more straightforward: he pays a lot of attention to game design.
The games I’ve played have a few things in common. First of all, they are very, very simple – and that’s a strength, not a criticism. They are intuitive and surprisingly accessible, even for non-sim fans. The graphics and sound are often on the basic side but they ooze gameplay from every pixel. I’m pretty certain that you could sit almost anyone in front of one of his games and within a couple of minutes, they would be up and running. And here’s the rub: to start with, you actually do pretty well. Take the Football Manager games as an example. You’ll probably start off winning your first couple of matches reasonably comfortably and start to think there’s nothing really to this football lark.
After a while, though, you realise those first impressions are deceiving: the game is simple, but far from simplistic. In fact, it’s actually pretty complex. As you progress, injuries start to bite and you have to make key decisions: do you play a star (but unfit) player for a crucial match or use a less skilled (but fully fit) replacement? Do you buy a player to cover a short term injury crisis, knowing you don’t really want him in the long term or save your money up for a better player, risking a dip in form as injuries weaken your team? How much should you bid for a transfer listed player – always a source of argument between me and my friend. Offer too little and your bid will be rejected and the asking price increased; offer too much and you risk placing yourself in a situation where you can’t afford any new players or have to sell star players to make ends meet.
The more you play, the more you realise that this supposedly simple game has massive amounts of hidden depth. Everything you do impacts for better or worse on the success or failure of your team. By the time the game’s complexities start to dawn on you, though, you’re totally hooked. The initial simplicity draws you in, but the hidden depths keep you playing. Before you know I – like me and my friend all those years ago – you’ve lost hours and hours of your life!
Kevin Toms deserves to be in any retro gaming hall of fame just for the fact that he effectively invented the football management genre. That’s not why he’s going into RetroReactiv8’s Gaming Heroes Hall of Fame, though. He earns that accolade because he made me love and play to death a type of game that normally I wouldn’t give a second look. He gave me and my friend hours and hours of fun, and he’s done it repeatedly with different takes on his original game across different hardware platforms. If that doesn’t make him a Gaming Hero, I don’t know what does.