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Front Office Football (PC) Review

Publisher: Solecismic

Background Info

For most of us computer sports gamers, Jim Gindin is living our dream. A part-time reviewer for Computer Gaming World (and full-time corporate programmer), Jim wasn't satisfied in only playing just-another-clone commercial sports sims. He wanted to show the industry that in this post-DOS, post-Action! PC Football world there's an audience for an American football management simulation—one that doesn't require the gamer to control a player in the heat of the action.

After all, there's been quite a thriving market for non-American football—a.k.a.,"soccer"—management simulations for years. (Football Masters, Championship Manager, to name a few.) Too, the success of Diamond Mind Baseball and Baseball Mogul has  indicated that the market is not exclusively European, although the amount of detail doesn't approach what's found in the soccer management sims.

Ah, but what about good old American-as-apple-pie football? A sport where individual effort, although glamorized and idolized, secretly takes a backseat to teamwork. Yes, Brett Favre is an outstanding quarterback and MVP, but take away his supporting ground game, and what happens? A glance at the last three Green Bay boxscores, and Favre's string of interceptions, tells that tale. (At least for the moment. The great ones will find a way to rebound.)

After all, it's easier to simulate a one-on-one activity, like a pitcher-batter struggle, than an 11-on-11 ballet. Looking around, there aren't that many basketball and hockey league simulations either.

So with the support of his wife Angela, Jim quit his day job in February to design, program and publish Front Office Football (FOF). A title that goes against the grain in football simulations. A title that begs to be played again and again.

So begging my editor's permission, (Ed. Note: Permission granted; eschew away!) I'll eschew the normal SGN review model and start talking about....

Gameplay : 91
That's the key anyway, correct? FOF's a single-player pro football league (no NFL or NFLPA license) simulator. No fancy graphics, just spreadsheet-like rows of names, numbers and figures.

You are the owner/GM of a franchise. As the only source of control, you set ticket prices and lobby your local government on a yearly basis for stadium renovation and construction.

On a more team-oriented level, you hire coaches & scouts, draft & trade players, adjust offensive & defensive rosters, and you maintain your team's gameplan.

Your bottom line is the bottom line. Pure profit. Profit comes from winning, which attracts advertising and fans. Profit is maximized from those fans by having the nicest stadium you can afford. (It helps to have a strong local economy, but some things are beyond even your control.)

You start a game of FOF by choosing which franchise you want to control at the start of the 1998 pre-season. Note that cities and franchise names can be changed at will, but once you've taken the helm of a franchise, you cannot jump ship to another.

You take some time to acquaint yourself with your team's roster, and with your coaches' and players' strengths and weaknesses. Then you're expected to set up your team's gameplan, which consists of a grid of down-and-distance run/pass percentages, a "where on the line do we run?" list of percentages, and a "how far down the field do we throw?" list as well. There's two other variables involved; how often you go for it on fourth down, and how often do you run from inside the opponent's 20 yard line. That's it. Your coaching staff will make all in-game calls from there.

That's right, there's no playcalling, no play creation, no setting substitution levels (although you can control a three-deep depth chart), no deciding when to go for two points, involved. FOF is all about management (hence the name, Front Office Football). The lack of a coach mode is arguably FOF's weakest draw, but with a strong coaching AI (including great clock management for a change!), it's something that works.

Back to the game. Once you're ready to hit the field, you can choose to simulate a single game, a week's worth of games, the entire preseason, the season up until the playoffs, or the entire year. You can watch as the simulations occur, play-by-play on a simulated scoreboard, or just sit back and watch the final scores appear.

If you want to monitor what your players are doing, to tell who's earning their keep, you can call up lists of seasonal statistics, or you can set FOF to save the boxscores and play-by-play logs for review at your leisure.

After a season is concluded, some of your players may retire, and it's after you've assessed any holes in next year's roster that the real work begins with free agent signings and salary cap balancing.

Player contracts are dealt with more realistically in FOF than in any other football simulation I've seen. You can sign any player up to seven years, although you'd better be ready to start coughing up megabucks each year if you plan on keeping a well-performing veteran around longer than two years at a stretch. Not only do you have to calculate a salary, but most players will demand a sizable signing bonus to play for you—that's upfront, non-refundable cash on the barrelhead.

There's really not much finesse to the negotiations, and they're all done on a "you call them, they won't call you" basis. What happens is players have their demands, and you try to lowball them as far as they'll go. Players want a steady income, so don't try to offer too much up front, and get them on the cheap later on, nor try the reverse (which is termed "backloading a contract"), because they'll call you on it. And if you're playing the patched version of FOF, you can no longer trick a player who is asking the league minimum salary for one or two years into accepting a long-term contract at that rate.

If you can't afford a player's demands, you've got one choice: cut 'em and hope for the best. Afraid that star QB you're releasing may come back to haunt you? You'll learn next time to lock them up early in the season, or deal him to another team before the trading deadline arrives. (Preferably to a non-divisional opponent.)

Speaking of trading, FOF also deals with this function more realistically than other sims as well. One or two players per team (and/or next season's draft choices), can be put on the table in a balanced or unbalanced deal. The trading AI is also pretty tough. Your silicon GM counterparts will offer deals from time to time, but you're usually better off looking for a team with a surplus of what you need, and then offering them what you can afford to surrender.

All the money doesn't go on your veterans though. You'll have to keep some dough in the kitty each year for your draftees. Each spring, a full seven round draft occurs, and here you can wheel and deal a bit more freely as you spot fresh talent you want to jockey positions for.

Talk about detail, there's even supplemental drafts for expansion teams, where each existing team has to expose ten players from which the new team can be stocked. This is key to an new team's growth, as I've seen expansion teams go on to win the FOF Bowl in their first season after a particularly well stocked supplemental draft.

It's too bad that you can't take over one of those expansion teams though. As I'll relate in Options below, FOF's second fault is that the number of options available to gamers is limited. That's not a knock against FOF itself, just an acknowledgement that one man can only do so much in such a short development time.

There's an atmosphere to FOF, with a Hall of Fame—created from all-star players who have been retired for at least five years—and lists of Career, Seasonal and Franchise records. And although these are simple text lists, with no billowing logos or fanfare in the background, the sense that the simulation engine behind it all is a very realistic one gives these lists a small sense of authority.

I must honor the obvious by stating that as fine a stat engine this is, all is not perfect. For example, there are a few things you'll see in the game logs which appear hard to believe, like the following:

Beginning of Second Quarter.
1-10-CIN46 (15:00) MIN 22 Palmer ran up the middle for 7 yards. Tackled by CIN 31 Myers.
2-03-CIN39 (14:28) MIN 21 Williams ran off left guard for 0 yards. Tackled by CIN 40 Bell.
3-03-CIN39 (13:44) MIN 7 Cunningham sacked by CIN 67 Von Oelhoffen for a loss of 7 yards.
Ball was fumbled and recovered by MIN 7 Cunningham for 46 yards and a touchdown!

Well, at least it was the ancient one, Randall Cunningham, and not someone like Gus Frerotte.

You get the idea though. I've simulated leagues well into the mid-21st century, and I still have one or two records that date back to 1999. (Ryan Leaf, most passing yards in a game, 479, SD vs. KC; Pete Stoyanovich, most field goals in a season, 40.)

If you can accept the postulates that football games should go into overtime more often than NFL games do, that starting around the year 2005 star players will begin making eight-figure signing bonus demands, and that league championships are often nervewracking games and not as humdrum as some real ones have been, then you'll enjoy the FOF universe. Truth should be more boring than fiction.

Finally at the end of each season, you're graded on your performance in several areas: the quality of your team's roster, the team's performance both onfield and on the books, and your franchise's performance vis-a-vis other teams. These grades are used to evaluate you, with an allowance for difficulty owing to how much an advantage your franchise had going into first season. Needless to say, it's easier to take a San Francisco, with a strong local economy, a well stocked roster, strong local support, and new stadium construction already underway, to the top of the heap than it is to take an Atlanta or Arizona or Chicago.

Presentation/Graphics : N/A
FOF uses standard Microsoft® Windows fonts, forms and controls for every display but the scoreboard. The screens appear designed for a 640x480 display, and do not scale to accommodate larger resolutions. Aside from some colored symbols and bar graphs that indicate player position, status and skill attributes, text is the only graphic element used.

Trust me, the addictive and realistic nature of the simulation more than makes up for the visual jollies you're forgoing. For that reason, no review score would be adequate.

As with Graphics, no score can summarize this area.

Interface : 80
With no onfield action to worry about, of course there's no joystick or pad called for. It's possible to play FOF just with a keyboard, but to be reasonable, a mouse is your GM's best friend.

The interface is effective, but it's also a bit spartan and awkward in places. For example, to get from the screen which displays your team's roster to the trading screen takes a mouse click and a menu choice. Offering a right-click menu on the roster with a shortcut to other screens like the trading screen would have cut down on the sheer number of clicks needed.

Likewise, you can halt the annual draft at any time. However, once you've began simulating an entire season, you've committed yourself to watching week by week go by with no chance of stopping the action to see just why your team started out 5-and-0 and settled into a eleven-game losing streak. (The moral? Only simulate a week at a time.)

Sorting, filtering and display choices are also limited. There's no way to view the scouting reports of multiple players at once, so if you're weighing which tight end to cut to make room for that free agent tackle with the awesome blocking ability that you just "found," you are forced to go back and forth between all of players and compare them.

These aren't painful things that gamers have to work around though, so I don't allow my low score in this are to affect my overall score at all. For a first effort, there's a surprising lack of bugs in the program altogether. None were found in the first month of publication that were "showstoppers," and Jim has been very active in discussions on Usenet, answering questions and offering insights.

Presentation/Audio : N/A
Unless you've assigned sounds to Windows menu events, the only sounds you'll hear are the clicking of your mouse. Think of it as a concession that allows you to not disturb your bed partner at 3 a.m. when you decide to go "just one more season."

There's not many options to choose from: only three levels of financial difficulty to start with, whether or not to allow expansion teams into your league, and the option to give your scouts/coaches veto-free power to make all roster moves that they see fit.

Be wary of allowing your minions too much free reign over your empire. Just because your star quarterback has led your team to two consecutive bowl wins and has one more year remaining on his contract doesn't mean that some knucklehead in accounting won't get the bright idea to make some cap room to sign four or five scrubs by cutting your hero loose into free-agent hell. (And then imagine facing his agent's anger when you try to re-sign him!)

Not to endorse something that's illegal in most states (sorry, Tennessee!), but gambling is alive and well in FOF. Each week, "power ratings" are generated for each team, and a betting line is calculated for each game. You can wager $10,000 to $100,000 on each contest, and your won-loss totals remains on your GM log for eternity, either mocking your poor judgement, or enticing you further into perdition and wealth.

Difficulty : 95
Unless you are already a general manager in training, the premise behind FOF may seem strange—a football simulation that only tangentially involves the game of football itself. Don't worry. A good knowledge of professional football aids success here, but it's not essential.

FOF has some innovative items, probably the most important being the lack of attributes that are available for the gamer to peruse. Jim argues (convincingly, I add) that there's little fun in a game if you know a certain player will develop into superstar status, just by reading the entrails of the player's attribute list.

So your "scouts" do it for you. They take the 34 attributes each player possesses and churn them into small four-to-eight bar-graph lists that sum up each player's apparent talents. Yes, letter grades may have been preferable for display, and some method to track a player's growth and aging would help chart performance changes, so I'd have to say that this is another area that could stand some reworking.

Other items such as a touch of randomness in player attributes at the beginning of each game, keeps the replay value high. This idea is implemented here by having long-term veterans begin each game at roughly the same skill level each time, but have rookies start out with variable performance levels. So, Peyton Manning and Randy Moss may vie for 1998 Rookie of the Year one time you play, and the next time, Randy might be alone atop the balloting, whereas Payton may be headed for a quick retirement. Or vice versa the third time. And Ryan Leaf may shock you on your fourth go-around.

Random off-field player suspensions, new stadium technologies, and...odd e-mails will surface from time to time, just to add some flavor to what could have been a dry experience. FOF isn't that, and is prepared to give an awful lot of enjoyment.

My final nitpick will be to point out that allowing stats and awards to be exported or retained for real long-term career play would also assist in judging aging, and to flesh out the atmosphere.

Overall : 93
It's always fun to go to work when your job is something you enjoy. That's doubly true for game reviewers. Not only do we get to spend our spare time playing games, but to come across something that's so fun we give up sleep night after night and avoid our webmasters is... well... it's disturbing isn't it?

It would be too easy to simply label FOF as the "thinking footballer's game," or as "the anti-Madden." With Madden NFL 99 showing signs of finally leading that franchise out from videogame puberty however, such a generalization becomes weakened. After the loss of the Monday Night Football series, I was afraid that the market for serious football simulations would start to wither. I am glad that it has not.

Yet, there are still video football games adorned with a retro-AI (GameDay, VR Football). They would do well to come running to the doors of Solecismic Software, checkbook in hand, to give their games a much needed brain boost. (And if you don't think that some of the big boys aren't already playing FOF, you're badly mistaken.) If your idea of football doesn't require a stick or pad, I unabashedly recommend that you join them. If none of the reviews convinces, I urge you to download the demo which gives you five games worth of time to experiment with.

Solecismic doesn't have the muscle (read, "money") to push FOF into retail outlets, and as of this writing the only place you can buy the sim from is via a toll-free order line, or directly from their website. Don't assume that speaks ill of the quality of FOF; far from it. None of the review points that I deducted were because of a lack of performance; only a lack of time and manpower to fully realize a perfect football simulation.

Front Office Football is a fine first step towards that end. My father taught me early and often that, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." Jim Gindin should be commended by every computer football fan for having the ultimate faith in himself in trying to do something that's right.

By: Fenric 10/21/98

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