Michael Mendheim has been the mad scientist of sports games since the original Mutant League Football released 26 years ago and shows no signs of slowing down. From Kickstarter failure and eventual success, to creative director of Digital Dreams Entertainment, the Mutant League commissioner for life took some time during GDC 2019 to sit down with us and talk football.
Cliqist: Why Mutant Football League?
Michael Mendheim: It’s my favorite game I developed, I love football and the over the top violence. The community for Mutant Football League was constantly saying to me “Hey man are you ever gonna do another mutant league?” And after 20 years I said let’s try it.
Why a smaller company?
The original publisher for Mutant Football League was EA, and I actually did take the game to them first. They passed on it. When we initially started making a new Mutant Football League, we just couldn’t find any publishers who were interested in the property.
“It’s a risky product, there’s nothing else like it…”
Is it the nature of the game, sort of a throw back with cartoony violence, that made it hard to find a publisher?
Every publisher has a different reason for saying no. EA already has a successful football game going with Madden so why muddy the waters? Additionally, the NFL is very careful about the concussions and violence issues in the league currently, so it doesn’t make any sense for EA to back this kind of product. It’s a risky product, there’s nothing else like it and there’s no real way to quantify for how well Mutant Football League will or won’t do. Fortunately, we had a successful Kickstarter and the rest was history.
Is it a common practice for games to not get funded because there’s no real way to quantify how much they’ll make back?
We did get a publisher [Nighthawk Interactive] who did not fund us but they took the game to retail outlets. They’re happy they did, they made money on the game and it’s selling well. We had a huge Christmas and holiday.
On which console are you selling best?
Nintendo Switch currently but it’s not necessarily a fair comparison. The Switch version came out after the Xbox and PS4, which have both sold more than the Switch, but the Switch is currently selling more compared to other consoles.
Would you ever consider going back and rebooting the franchise?
Our community wants us to do hockey, and we were hoping that Mutant Football League would sell enough units to both pay ourselves back and have something to put towards the development on Mutant Hockey League. Mutant Football League did well enough to pay ourselves back, but not quite enough to fund hockey. However, like with football, where there’s a will there’s a way.
“At the end of the day there’s more pros then cons [to a Kickstarter campaign] because you get more coverage, but you can’t do a Kickstarter campaign without a demo to show people the game exists.”
Would you consider doing another Kickstarter for hockey?
*laughs* Kickstarter is really hard, man. To get it over the hump we sure would, but I’d hope that would be a last resort. At the end of the day there’s more pros then cons [to a Kickstarter campaign] because you get more coverage, but you can’t do a Kickstarter campaign without a demo to show people the game exists. We’ll see, but you would not believe how many people at GDC came and asked about hockey. But I’d love to do hockey, it’s perfect for the mutant league franchise. The last hockey game we did didn’t sell as well as football, though. We’ll see, but I would love to do hockey.
Is there a dream sport you would make a mutant league game about?
A mutant league road warrior racing game from coast to coast.
God I’d love that, Mutant League Cannonball Run. When it comes to Mutant Football League, is there a favorite part of the game for you? Something you look at it when you see it in motion and just feel happy you made it?
The unpredictability of the game. You never know what’s going to happen, and when you watch people play and see multiple gasps and get multiple turnovers during the play and one guy scores and it’s just this amazing bloodbath of turnovers and well executed maneuvers with one guy crying, and one guy screaming and laughing. When you have those types of plays happen, depending on how you play, you know that once a game something outrageous is going to happen [but] you just don’t know when. What’s funny is people always think we’re cheating.
What do you mean?
They think we have rubber band AI to keep games close. But we don’t do that. If you watch our tournaments, you’ll see scores 73-0. You just have to play smart, if your guy is low on health run out of bounds instead of dying and turning the ball over.
I appreciate you keeping it real and telling players to get good.
No seriously, there’s no rubber band AI. No one magically drops the ball or fumbles, good players dominate. I have players that kick my ass all the time.
And you invented Mutant League!
I know, but we just have really good players that play.
Do you prefer being at an indie studio, or do you miss when you worked for triple A?
There’s nothing like being fully funded, where you can actually spend money on high production values and great licensed music. It’s wonderful when you have the ability to do that for your products.
So what separates the little guys from the big boys, in your opinion?
The only way you can compete is with good creative, we can’t beat huge budgets and the graphic quality and 60 man teams when we only have eight people on our team. But when it comes to being creative and doing creative things, it’s an even playing field.
The other thing is it helps keep your focus, how many indie game studios have had potential but never made it across the finish line because that one extra feature that they wanted to do tanked the whole product? When you have big budgets, there’s a tendency to want to add more stuff. If you don’t have a lot of money and you have to stay crystal focused, you just look at the bare minimum for what you have to do. You stay totally focused on your top five features and try to get those up to quality and don’t do anything else.
Is that focus one of the bigger advantages that triple A’s don’t have over indies?
You have the same problem whether you’re triple A or indie, it’s just focus. There are some masterful triple A titles that are completely focused games, like Red Dead Redemption. It has a ton of features, but you know the people on that product knew exactly what they wanted the user to experience, and they nailed it. I think it comes down to the guys running the project more than the budget, but having a high quality budget where you can do everything is certainly awesome.
What can we hope to see in the future from Mutant Football League?
Oh god we’re never done. We’re a community driven product, our community lets us know where they want to take the product. I can give a little bit of an update on the short and long term plan: short term we’re talking for this football season, we’re going to update all the teams so they reflect the 2019 NFL season and roster. [It’s] going to be a big update before the season starts. We’re going to fix a bunch of bugs that we found, nothing earth shattering, [and] we’re going to add some new teams people have requested.
Which new teams are coming down the pipe?
We want to get the Niners in there. People have requested a variety of different features, smaller features. More settings and control over their games, so we’re going to deliver pretty well on those types of things. Teams will be DLC, but all the roster updates will be free. We’re just going to give them that, and hopefully they can continue playing and growing and we can grow our consumer base.
Is there anything else coming for the franchise itself?
We’re working on Mutant Football League 2. We want to make it more sandboxy. We don’t have a features list finalized yet, but obviously the community’s number one request is for people to create their own players and name them, create their own teams and do their own rosters. They’ll be able to create their own plays, build their own arenas, take all that online and set up leagues and tournaments with their friends. So, that’s the direction we’re taking the project in. People can create content so half the game is creative design, and the other half is the fun of playing Mutant Football League. [Additionally] when they create their own teams, every custom team will have the same amount of XP so everything will be perfectly balanced. We’ll have the balanced normal teams, but you can also make your own. We’ll also expand on dynasty a bit.
That’s incredibly exciting news, how do you plan to expand dynasty?
You’ll be able to take your creative team and then play it in dynasty. We want to get more online stuff going. We have to take baby steps to get where we want to go, but it hasn’t really deviated from the original plan. We kind of laid this out from when we first started the new Mutant Football League. There’s a bunch of other features people want, but we think giving people these creative tools is number one. We’ll see what we can do and what we can’t do, but will always follow what the community wants. Mutant Football League 2 is in the design phase right now, but we’re definitely working on it.
When can we plan to see Mutant Football League 2?
I don’t have a date yet, we know it’s not this year, but we’ll see where we’re at nine months from now.
Thank you so much for your time Michael.
Hey no problem, Walker.