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Michael Mendheim: From Million Dollar Marketing Budget to Indie Release
In our second developer interview of the year, we were able to talk toÂ Michael Mendheim, developer ofÂ Mutant Football League. Michael shared what it was like going from developing Mutant League Football on Sega Genesis to realizing his vision for MFL.
January 31, 2019
11 Min Read
In our second developer interview of the year, we were able to talk to Michael Mendheim, developer of Mutant Football League. Michael shared what it was like going from developing Mutant League Football on Sega Genesis to realizing his vision for that title with MFL.
I’m Michael Mendheim, I made Mutant Football League.
I’m also the guy who pitched Mutant League Football to Trip Hawkins at EA.
I used to be an illustrator and graphic designer, I first got started in the industry by doing box covers for video games. I was doing a bunch of box covers for different games: everything from Spy Hunter to Cyberball.
Back then, development teams were really small, it was normal to have 3 man development teams, which rarely included an artist.
Sometimes, when I would do a box cover, guys in the studio would ask if I could do character design as well. That’s how I got my start in the games industry.
The first game I ever did was a game for the NES called Fester’s Quest, which was an Adam’s Family license, and over time, I worked on a variety of different titles.
Through all these different projects, I always had one game I wanted to do: this mish-mash of football and monsters and a whole lot of violence.
I pitched that idea to a friend of mine who was a producer at EA, and who got me in to the studio to talk to the executives.
This was back in 1992, EA was doing a big transition from PC to console and Sega Genesis was the big console at that time. Madden was just getting its legs on the Genesis, and it was one of their biggest titles.
I pitched the idea for the game in front of all the EA executives, and Trip Hawkins, the CEO of the company at the time, thought the idea was cool.
They gave us a small team and they let us do our thing. We had about 7 or 8 people that started it, and we released Mutant League Football a year later in 1993.
Mutant League Football was really popular after it came out. It had a cartoon show on television and all these toys. People loved this product, it’s considered a classic.
So after all this time, why make Mutant Football League?
25 years passed, and the whole time, I was still getting letters and stuff from people who enjoyed the game and wanted to see a remake.
When I first made that game, it was a labor of love, it was a hard development cycle with a lot of ups and downs.
I still had an incredible amount of fun designing the game, and 25 years later, looking back on all the different products I’ve been involved in, that one was still really close to my heart.
Back then, we faced different technological limitations. I thought, if we could do the game the way I wanted to do it back then, with next generation technology, we could have something really special.
The first Kickstarter we did was a complete disaster.
We had this idea to do a new version of the game. We called it Mutant Football League and put it out on Kickstarter.
We didn’t have a demo and we hadn’t started any technology. We just wanted to see how much support there would be.
In our own minds, we thought that we were going to hit a slam dunk with our Kickstarter. We didn’t.
This was around the time where a number of products on Kickstarter were funded and didn’t deliver.
A lot of people thought we were trying to pull a fast one, which we weren’t, but the design of the campaign and not having a proper demo so people could see what the vision of the product was, was just a fatal error.
Initially when we did the Kickstarter, we didn’t think we could do console, so we were trying to do a mobile version of the game.
The fans of the original absolutely hated that idea, and it was one of the big reasons why the Kickstarter just didn’t work.
I didn’t pull the campaign, I took my lumps for 30 days. I spent the whole month communicating with the people who were angry at me for even considering putting it on mobile, and with other people just thought we were trying to screw them out of their money because we didn’t have a demo.
After 30 days, the Kickstarter failed, and I rolled up into an embryonic ball for about 2 weeks.
I have a business partner who is in Kiev who was going to help build the mobile game. After our failed crowdfunding campaign, he said he was going to try to get a demo made in Unity and see if we can do a PC version of Mutant Football League.
So, I said okay, then I talked to all of the Kickstarter community members who were upset, and I did a deep dive to find out what they wanted in the game.
They wanted the new game to be next generation, on console, to retain everything they loved about the original game, but also to innovate on it.
We spent about 9 months creating a tech demo.
We always focus on fun factor first before graphics and everything else, and we thought that for something pre-alpha, that the gameplay was working, and that it was interesting and fun.
We started getting some art in it, and then we decided to try another Kickstarter.
For the second Kickstarter, we had a video. We also did one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my career, which was making our demo available to anyone who wanted to play it during our campaign.
It wasn’t a tested demo, but it was fun, it looked alright, and we put it out there. People could tell it wasn’t done, but it had multiplayer and they were having fun playing it.
We hit our Kickstarter goal on Super Bowl Sunday, when the game went into overtime and Tom Brady had that miraculous comeback against the Atlanta Falcons, just four days after we launched our second campaign.
Up until then it was all our own money keeping us going, and that Kickstarter funding got us the extra money that allowed us to release the PC version of the game, then finally the console versions.
We released the base game about a year ago, then we released the Switch version and our Dynasty Edition this past October.
The community thinks I captured the spirit of the original, but made it much faster, much rowdier, much more violent than it was previously, as well as just adding a lot of new stuff. Obviously the 1993 version didn’t have online multiplayer or the same amount of content.
What’s it like to have a marketing budget of a million dollars and all of a sudden you don’t have that budget?
Obviously we don’t have the kind of money as the bigger publishers, we’re just a game studio putting out games, but you can get creative about how you approach your marketing.
We do work with a PR agency who has most of the contact with the bigger outlets and influencers, and they do a lot of heavy lifting when we get close to a launch.
The rest of the time, we’re doing a whole variety of different marketing on our own.
We use social media and put out videos, so we take videos of NFL games and we do similar match-ups, then put videos out.
We also do some ads across Facebook, YouTube, and we have a lot of influencers play our game.
One of the really cool marketing strategies we came across was, strangely enough, Indie Boost.
For a really nominal fee, you can put together a campaign, you can include some videos, and design it exactly the way you want. It’s totally affordable, there’s really no indie developer that cannot afford this.
You get a lot of control over your campaign: you select the dates you want it to run, you can target influencers from YouTube, Twitch, or media, or you can have all of the above, and then you hit that launch button and then boom, it goes out. Then people people can come and ask for keys and you give them keys.
Marketing as an indie studio is a whole variety of things, and having a PR agency really alleviates a lot of stress pre and post-launch, but services like Indie Boost.
Even though we have a PR agency, we still use Indie Boost and we still try to send our videos and keys to influencers to help the game get seen.
“Marketing today is so different than it was 10 years ago, and even now it’s changing.”
In our marketing, we try to find ways to be different and get creative.
Marketing today is so different than it was 10 years ago, and even now it’s changing. Social media is just such a big aspect of it.
One pretty funny thing we did is that, in our game we parody real NFL stars. Instead of Tom Brady, we’ve got a skeleton character named Bomb Shady, and we gave him his own Twitter account.
We have a couple characters we have and they have their own Twitter accounts where they they tweet back and forth.
They all have followings, they’ve done it for a while. We’ve got different people doing different characters. One of the writers for the game, Rebecca Rothschild, does a character.
The guy who does all the voiceover work for our game, Tim Kitzrow (who did NBA Jam, and is super talented and just the funniest, nicest guy you’d want to meet) also has a character that he does on Twitter and it’s hilarious.
Marketing is so hard and this was just a very inexpensive, fun way. I don’t know if it broke through, but there’s a lot of people enjoying it.
Gearing up for the Super Bowl, we’re going to be running tournaments starting February 2nd starting on Esports Showdown.
We’ve got Mayhem Bowl, in honor of the big game on Sunday, tournaments. We’ve also got a Dynasty tournament, which is our franchise mode where people build up their teams and try to win Mayhem Bowls over a span of 3 to 5 seasons.
That tournament will run for a month. We’ve put a $1,500 prize pool and we’ve got bounties on some of our players who are the best players in the game, like a guy named Gatling Nuke. So if anyone can take him down during the tournament, they get a bonus bounty.
Then today we released our LA Power Pack DLC which has the Los Scandalous Damned which is our parody of the L.A. Rams, and then we’ve got the Los Scandalous Volts along with our new character, a cyber-human mutant guy who is really cool.
In honor of the big game, we’ve also got the game on sale 35% off across all platforms.
We take any good idea we can get and if it’s good we try to implement it.
What’s next for Mutant Football League and Digital Dreams Entertainment?
There’s a little hole in the genre, there’s not a lot of arcade sports games out there. Obviously Rocket League is king of the hill, but once you get past that, it’s kind of a wasteland.
We hope that people who have never played these type of arcade sports games will give it a try, it’s not like it takes 30 minutes to set up a game before you can even play, they’re very pick-up-and-go type of games, but they have a lot of depth.
They’re just fun, you’ll never have more fun playing Mutant Football League with a few buddies on the couch drinking some beer. Then online, you can play against strangers or friends.
We hope to continue doing this, obviously if the product isn’t successful, you can’t keep doing it. The more success the product has, the better it is.
So far, the product has done well, it’s not this smash hit, but it’s got legs and its community is growing.
I hope it does really well and we can keep making these mutant sports type of games.
Mutant Football League is available on Indie Boost!
If you’re interested in participating in the Mayhem Bowl tournament on Esports Showdown or to stay up-to-date with Mutant Football League, check out:
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