++Exclusive: Mike Mendheim on Mutant Football League

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Bones Jackson, back for more… FINALLY!

Four days ago, team at ++GG talked with Mike Mendheim for an interview regarding his new Kickstarter project, Mutant Football League (thanks go out to Ryan Moody for setting it up). In an extremely gracious offer, Mike offered to follow up with an e-mail correspondence Q&A, so he could touch on a few topics he didn’t get to while on the air. Of course we jumped at the chance!

The Mutant League games (three in total: Football, Hockey, and Basketball – Basketball was shelved before entering development) have firmly entrenched themselves in the fond memories of any gamer who had a SEGA Genesis when they were young. Running plays, dodging obstacles, and killing the ref (an actual play you can call… because, let’s face it, the jerk was a home team supporter, and he was being unfair!) were paired with colorful characters (the majority of which were spoofs on real world athletes), tight controls, and a bloody spectacle on the field. So successful was the title, it spawned a cartoon series, and toy line. So fondly remembered was this game, that all the way up until the day before the Kickstarter launched, Mr. Mendheim was receiving letter after letter asking him when, if ever, the concept would return.

Well, it has returned, but the community needs to act! At 20 days to go, MFL has acquired only 7% of the funding needed to make it a reality. Now, don’t get me wrong, 20 days is a decent amount of time, but getting the base funding in early means mental and emotional relief (for both the development team, and the backers), a guarantee we’ll see the game created, and the possibility of stretch goals.

Without further adieu, here’re bone-cracking facts, Jack.

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James Bacon: Mr. Mendheim, if you would, please take a moment to tell us about yourself. What companies have you worked for, and what games have you helped develop?

Mike Mendheim: I graduated from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and love all things pop-culture. I started out as illustrator, became a game designer and ended up a producer. Weird, huh? Some of the products I’ve worked on include Tazmania (SNES), Mutant League Football & Hockey (Sega Genesis), BattleTanx (N64), Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes (N64), Def Jam: Icon (XBox / PS3), Robocalypse (NDS) and CrimeCraft (PC). I’ve worked for a variety of different companies including Activision and EA. Last year my first graphic novel was released, a 3 book trilogy called The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It’s illustrated by Eisner Award winning artist Simon Bisley. I currently run a casual game company called Digital Dreams Entertainment LLC, and we’re about to release our first title called Hip Hop Trivia starring the rapper, Murs.

JB: Very prolific! How did the idea for Mutant League Football (the Genesis game) come about?

MM: When I was a little kid I used to carry around little plastic monster figurines in my pockets. I would pretend they were alive and take them everywhere including school. When it was time to play, I’d take them out, spread them across the table and have them battle it out in imaginary epic monster wars. That’s the basic idea behind, Mutant League – only these little monsters play football and take on my favorite (and most hated) sports personalities. The idea was originally bounced off my friend, Richard Robbins, who was a Producer at EA (he did the Desert Strike series, as well as Crue Ball). Richard asked me to pitch the concept to Trip Hawkins, which I did. Trip gave it the green light, and Richard resolved all the business aspects of getting a project up and running. Without Richard and Trip, there was no Mutant League.

JB: Trip Hawkins! We know that guy! Hard to believe that a company like EA was so small back then, the founder was getting hands-on with project approvals. Moving on, when did you begin considering a brand new game down the Mutant Sports path? When did going to Kickstarter become an option?

MM: Fans of the original game have kept the idea alive through blogs, reviews, articles, and online surveys – some fans even wrote and asked me to do a Kickstarter Campaign. After enough prodding, and after I realized it’s the 20th Anniversary of the original, the timing just felt right. So, here we go. Little did I know, by going through Kickstarter, the game stays independent, which allows us to have full creative control over the original storyline, characters, and environments that we’re designing; so players can enjoy the absurdly grotesque humor we’re going to dish out, along with the brutal but funny tongue-through-cheek violence, which is the hallmark of the Mutant Football League experience. That’s the main reason.

We’ve launched the game on Kickstarter, and now it’s up to the gamers! If they want us to develop it, they will need to help us get the word out and back us. If we can hit our funding, I’ll give everything I have to deliver the backers an insane play experience. Right now, it’s not looking so good. We’ve had a ton of press coverage but people are slow to jump on the band wagon. Maybe we have too much press! Maybe the fans are assuming that with all the awesome press we have, we don’t need them. That would be a bad assumption, because without them there will be no game. We’re hoping (and praying) to develop on mobile and PC platforms, and make it successful there. We will port to current systems as quickly as possible. The long term goal is to have Mutant Football League on all of the next generation systems (including XB1 and PS4), but we have to start somewhere. We chose mobile and PC.

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JB: Honestly, PC seems like the best starting point. It’s where indie game developers live, and it’s where the most creative content is being generated. MLF is certainly creative. Speaking of, How difficult (or easy) was it to assemble the all-star team you have on for development? I imagine you said “MFL,” and everyone jumped at the chance be a part of it. Were there any pitfalls or hang-ups?

MM: Actually, everyone was pretty excited to work on Mutant Football League. No one on the team, including myself has received anything for their time and effort. I couldn’t ask for a better creative team, and it’s an honor to work with these guys. Dave Devries, Creator of The Monster Engine, will help us define the look and feel of the game and characters. Comic writing legend Dave Elliott will help us create the Mutant Football League universe for both the game and comics. Jay Lender, writer on both SpongeBob Squarepants and Disney’s Phineas & Ferb, will help drive story and keep things funny and outrageous. Micah Wright, writer for Call of Duty: Black-ops: Zombies, will also help drive story. Robomodo Studios, who have worked on such industry classics as Tony Hawk, Fight Night Round 3, NBA Street, and Mortal Kombat, will help with art direction and production.

JB: That’s a lot of solid, quantifiable talent. The sort of team you’d want on for a franchise, maybe? I don’t want to get too far ahead of anything, as I know promoting a Kickstarter project is a 26 hour a day job; but if I recall correctly, Mutant League Football sparked two sequels: Mutant League Hockey, and then the shelved Mutant League Basketball. When Mutant Football League meets its funding goal, are their plans to move forward with other sports titles in this vein?

MM: Yes, we have big dreams for a franchise that covers more than one sport, but our focus right now is on getting funding for one project: Mutant Football League. We need everyone who wants to play the game, or even just likes the idea, to support us.

JB: That’s the goal, here. Getting the word out, and encouraging potential backers with your quality resume, and the resumes of your teammates. If I could switch tracks for a moment… I know that spoofs abound in the original title, and they were typically based on real world football goings-on. With the opportunity for DLC and online updating, are their any features planned that will keep the MFL up on current events? Players troubles, trades, that sort of thing? Maybe a fake headline or two poking fun at real sports industry headlines?

MM: We plan to parody anything and everything that professional sports and pop-culture holds sacred. In addition to a great playing and fun football game, we’ll parody the world of professional sports much like Family Guy parodies family values. Nothing is safe and nothing is off limits. This is really one of the great upsides of developing the project independently – we can go against the grain. If you take a quick look at some of the top stories over the last couple years you realize there’s an endless supply of mind-boggling content like: Alex Rodriguez and the Biogenesis scandal, Manti Teo and his imaginary girlfriend, Lance Armstrong lying to every living thing under the sun, Tiger Woods’ indiscretions, New Orleans Saints and Bounty Gate, replacement refs and yes, even Tebowing – yikes! And with guys like Dave, Jay and Micah helping me write the gags, here’s hoping we make you spit-take some beer while laughing. Content can be delivered in the game multiple ways, like through character voice over, fake news bulletins, or even scrolling text on the bottom of the screen during slower moments of the game (time-outs, penalties and deaths).

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JB: It sounds like you’ve planned this pretty well, considering you’ve already got details in place regarding headlines, and character updates. How involved will we, the players, be in the process? Can we create our own mutant athletes, and make our own trades online? Can we draft our own teams, or will we fall victim to the current events updating?

MM: You’ll be able to create and name your own players, and then put them on a created team if you so desire (or you can just play with default teams and characters). There are RPG elements for every character; each of them has seven (7) ability ratings like speed, strength, IQ, healing ability, etc. Experience gets added automatically or, if you want, you can assign experience yourself, and spend countless hours tweaking and tuning your players’ ratings. We have a multitude of ideas and plans concerning online drafts, league play, and player trades, but right now we have a few things we need to accomplish first, like geting the game funded and the core built.

JB: That’s… actually, that’s a lot more than I was expecting. I would LOVE to recreate the Midway Monsters! Knowing I’ll get a chance to do that is perfect! Before we wrap this up, are there any exclusives or scoops you could give us? Something you’ve not yet told the community at large? Anything at all?

MM: Yes, there is actually. We are going to announce a team up with Run Games development studio! They’re developing a game called Football Heroes, and they’re about to launch it next month, on iOS. I saw the game several months ago and found it intriguing. I called up Michael A. Marzola, their Creative Director, and introduced myself. Asked if I could play an early version of the game, and after a nice chat about retro football, he agreed! I’ve been playing it ever since. It’s a very fun game. There are a lot of things they’re doing that MFL needs to do as well. I fully understand how hard and expensive it is to build an engine from scratch, so Marzola and I talked about possibly using Run Games technology for MFL. The game’s perspective and camera positioning are close to how I envisioned them in ours. By using Run Games technology, it’ll allow us to shave off development time and focus on other aspects of development, like Enforcers (a character class), and incredible visual effects. Run Games has a sound plan to move to PC, and then next generation systems from there. The company is very smart with how they go about their business, and since those guys are huge fans of the original Mutant League games, it made sense for us to partner with them… assuming we get funding. Don’t get me wrong, though. Even with the engine taken care of, we still have a lot of heavy lifting to do. The game we’re building is more realistic – I know that’s a silly statement considering we have monsters, mutants, and death; but seriously, our mechanics will need to be closer to Madden than to Football Heroes when it comes to AI (how the defense covers, differences in teams, and sheer number of plays). Also our game is more visually complex than Football Heroes. We’re going to have a completely different art style, something much grittier. We have a ton of work to do even with Run Games technology.

JB: OK, one final question. It’s become a sort of signature for me, as I always ask it when taking an interview. Is there a question you really want to answer that you haven’t been asked, yet?

MM: Yes: “You’re asking for a large amount of money, where is all that money going and how will it be spent?” I’m going to be completely transparent and provide a cost overview for the backers so they can see where the money is going and post it in a FAQ. Almost $75k of it goes back to Kickstarter and Amazon (fees), 112k goes to tier-reward fulfillment (those T-Shirts, art books, and posters aren’t free). The remaining costs go to development, and the hairy business of launching the game (legal, licensing, equipment, etc.). This budget does not include any money for marketing, or running game servers. The minimum cost of development is $550k, and we’re doing 5 different sku’s (iOS, Android, XBLA, eShop, and PSN) which breaks down to about 110k per sku, which doesn’t exactly sound like we’re trying to take advantage of anyone. Most seasoned producers in the industry would not feel warm and fuzzy with these tight budgets. But I’m pretty good at squeezing every penny to get the biggest bang for the buck (from all my battle training at 3DO as a game producer, where budgets were tight and schedules were even tighter).

But enough of numbers! If you’re a fan of Mutant League and want to see the game get made, let’s spread the word, share it on your Facebook page, tweet it, shout it out! We need your help because things are looking a bit down, right now. We need a miracle! Let’s make it happen!

JB: I’m proud to be a backer, myself, and like any project I back, I’ll do my best to spread the word about Mutant Football League. Thank you so much, Mr. Mendheim, for offering to give this interview, and also for taking the time to answer my questions. I know, as previously stated, that promotion is a 27 hour a day job, and Neal, Anthony, and myself appreciate your willingness to fit us in to that schedule. Good luck, and god speed!

Follow what’s happening with Mutant Football League on the official website, on Facebook, and via Twitter. Donate on the Kickstarter page!

Follow what’s happening with Run Games and Football Heroes on the official website, on Facebook, and via Twitter.

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