One Chicago gaming veteran has a plan to make sports games weird again – Built In Chicago

Multi-billion dollar franchises like FIFA and Madden NFL have made sports simulators a cornerstone of the console gaming industry, with hundreds of millions of copies sold and fans lining up for the newest version year after year.

But before the industry settled on realistic, league-endorsed blockbusters, sports games took some weird turns, introducing cyborg baseball players and heavily armed basketball players.

Launched in 1993, the post-apocalyptic, ultra-violent Mutant League Football was one of the most notable entrants in this alternative sports genre. The game inspired a hockey spinoff and an animated television series that ran from 1994 to 1996. But the franchise was shut down in the mid 1990s as its publisher, Electronic Arts, decided to double down on its blockbuster Madden NFL series.

“They shifted their focus to be the ‘real sports’ company, which was absolutely the right call — EA makes the finest sports games in the industry,” said Mutant League Football lead designer Michael Mendheim. “But out of all the games I’ve made in my career, it was always my favorite and it was always the one I wanted to come back to and revisit.”

More than 20 years later, the Chicago-based game designer is working on its spiritual successor. With just under a week to go in its Kickstarter campaign, the project has already raised more than $110,000, and landed a coveted slot pitching publishers and investors at the Game Developers Conference — one of the industry’s largest annual gatherings.

“When we started this game, it was predominantly for fans of the original Mutant League Football game, who have been screaming for a new game for 20 years,” he said. “But as I take the game to shows like PAX, GenCon and GDC, younger players who’ve never even heard of the game are really digging it.”

One of Mendheim’s most important strategies to build hype around his game has been to give Kickstarter pledgers early access to a pre-alpha version of Mutant Football League — even if they only pledged a dollar. Doing so also has the added benefit of instilling confidence in potential pledgers that the studio will be able to ship the final game.

A visual designer by training, Mendheim has been making video games since the late 1980s. After graduating from college in 1985, he worked as production artist in the advertising industry and landed a few assignments designing Transformers packaging, then video game packaging, before getting into character design. Soon, Mendheim got a chance to start designing a game from scratch.

“One of the first games I ever did was a game for the Nintendo Entertainment System called Fester’s Quest,” he said. “It did very well, although I made a lot of mistakes, design-wise, on that.”

The gaming industry has changed a lot since the days when a handful of developers and designers could design a major title. But Mendheim said there’s still opportunities out there if you’re willing to put in your time as a quality assurance tester.

Mendheim said the best way to persuade someone to give you a QA job is to accompany your job application with a well-crafted, short analysis of popular game on the market.

“Just looking at a game that everybody has played, pointing out where the game is is doing well, where it has problems, and how it can be fixed — that stands out because it shows your analytical skills,” said Mendheim. “A lot of executive producers, and people who are now running studios, that’s how they got their start in the industry.”

Images via Mendheim Productions.

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