New Star Soccer’s unlikely success
Simon Read is having quite a month. His iPhone football game, New Star Soccer, is rocketing up the Top Grossing chart on the App Store; at the time of writing, it's at number 23, having recently overtaken Minecraft: Pocket Edition, Sega's own football sim, Football Manager, and the likes of FIFA 12 and Draw Something. It's been a meteoric rise for a game Read has been working on alone, in his own time, for years.
A decade, in fact: this is actually New Star Soccer 5, the latest in a series stretching back to 2002 when Read put together a PC game "inspired by Footballer Of The Year on the ZX Spectrum. I made World Cup Manager for the 2002 World Cup, and after that went straight into trying to do this kind of David Beckham simulator, where you just had all these crazy incidents."
Football has changed greatly since the Spectrum days, of course, and Read's game reflects that. Players start out as a teenager in the lower leagues, tasked with working their way up through the ranks to international stardom. The matches themselves are a mix of text-based highlights and, in charmingly basic 2D, opportunities for passes, shots on goal and interceptions. Off the pitch there are skills to build up, items to buy – from designer suits to SUVs, apartments to private islands – and relationships to manage. Sign a lucrative sponsorship deal with a cosmetics company and your team-mates, manager and fans will instantly think less of you; take a bribe to lose a match and the resulting tabloid sting will see you consigned you to the bench for a few matches.
It was a one-man project, run entirely from his bedroom, and by 2005 it had built up enough of a fanbase for Read to quit his job. "When New Star Soccer 3 came out, sales were really good – it was more than I was getting from my job on an IT helpdesk," he tells us. "I just felt I should put all my efforts into it." He admits feature creep became a problem in NSS4, but it was the rise of mobile platforms – and more specifically, their technical limitations – that helped him focus on what was best about the concept.
"Stripping it back was a no-brainer, really," he says. "You can't do too much on phones. You have to cram it into less memory – the database is pretty big. I was just led down that path by the device itself."
The game was doing well enough on the App Store, and then the New Star Soccer reviews started coming in from gaming websites. "They didn't actually affect sales that much," Read admits. "It was doing well enough on its own – top five in the Sports chart – and then last week The Sun's review came out."
Sales tripled overnight. Revenue on the day after The Sun's review was published was double the game's previous best. New Star Soccer is a free download, with players asked to pay 69p after ten games of career mode. Like the street corner pusher, Read gives the first taste away for free, and his sales figures make a mockery of the industry consensus on free-to-play which dictates that just two to three per cent of players pay up. Of 6,000 downloads last Friday, 2,500 bought the full game; add in in-app purchases and the figure is nearer 3,000. Just how well is he doing now?
"I could buy a Ferrari if I wanted to, but that'd be foolish," he says. "The money obviously goes into the business and I need to be sensible, need to make sure I've got a year ahead of me of not worrying about funding the next game or paying myself wages. That's the priority.
"My wife and I just had a baby about a month ago, and we'd really like to move to a house with a nice garden. We need to see where we are in maybe six months, and see how much we can actually afford."
It's a lovely story, and all the more so given that Read is entirely self-taught. He hasn't tired of crunch at, or been laid off from a big studio and set up on his own looking to make the next Angry Birds; he just loves football, and has spent a decade making the football game he wanted to play.
But what's next? He admits there's been interest from big studios over the years, none of which went anywhere – he describes an interview with EA Sports as "a complete disaster, a real 'don't call us, we'll call you' thing" – and there have been more offers since his game began its rise up the App Store charts. All have been turned down.
"I'd much rather just be totally in control of my own game," he says. "This is the first real success I've had, but I'm just focused on making [my own] games. I think that's absolutely key for me – working on something I'm passionate about.
"I'm happy where I am at the moment. Obviously I'd like to move to a bigger place – and have a proper office for a start – but we'll see where we go."
Upwards, one assumes: Read points out that Apple has yet to list New Star Soccer in its Featured section, and that "there can't be too many games that are in the 25 Top Grossing and number one in their category that can boast that."
It shows that passion and hard work pay off in the end. Rovio famously made 50 games before it hit the big time with Angry Birds; Read has made just the one, almost entirely on his own, finessing and tweaking it for a decade. He's no petrodollar-backed Premiership outfit, but the plucky underdog, overcoming the monied elite one by one on an unlikely cup run, turning down transfer requests from the big clubs as he goes.