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After stepping on a landmine, Mutant Football League is still rallying

You can't kill this team, and not because they're undead.

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Five days into the Kickstarter, Michael Mendheim knew it was not going to succeed. Even with its ties to a classic video game of the 16-bit era, even with deep gamer affection for the name, even with himself, the creator of the original, aboard, there was no way Mutant Football League would get $750,000 in crowd funding. Not in 30 days, not in 300.

"I could have pulled the plug and run away," Mendheim recalled, "but I didn't, and for 30 days I took all the punches."

Two years later, Mutant Football League — a reimagining of the original Mutant League Football that Mendheim made for Electronic Arts in 1993 — still has a pulse, and without a crowdfunded cent behind its development. He took a pre-alpha build to PAX Prime last weekend and saw people's faces light up with recognition as an undead running back shoved a defender into a landmine, showering the field with body parts.

Much like the original Mutant League, in which you're never out of it no matter the score, Mutant Football League has hung in even after the blowout loss on Kickstarter. Mendheim admits his original pitch went in the dirt. The concept art didn't emphasize the hard-edged mayhem for which Mutant League was known, and when the pitch talked up a release on mobile devices before consoles, dedicated fans felt like this wasn't something they recognized or could even take seriously.

In the end, however, Mendheim still tapped the deep goodwill and generosity of the community that loves his game. It's just the support he's received isn't monetary.

"After I licked my wounds, I had a lot of people in the community say, 'Hey, we can help you out,'" Mendheim said. "People who were animators, musicians, designers." They seeded his inbox with ideas and contributions, gratis as Mendheim's studio, Digital Dreams Entertainment, reoriented itself.

"I could have pulled the plug and run away."

"My partner in Kiev (where Digital Dreams' coding is done) put a couple of engineers together, we decided to put the game on Unity (the game engine) and see how that goes," Mendheim said. "With a team of four dedicated guys including myself on it, plus a lot of help from my community, it slowly started to take shape."

Mendheim knew he had to redraw something for the community that touched nearly every sentiment they had about the original Mutant League Football, including all of the violence, blood and gory outcomes. It also had to be recognizably a console video game. Not only was it the original Mutant League's home, those platforms are practically mandatory for any sports video game that isn't a management simulation.

The original Mutant League Football, for Sega Genesis, was a riot for sports fans and non-sports fans alike. You could win even without any functioning knowledge of American football, because the option always was there to kill enough players on the other team and win through a forfeit. You could even bribe the referee into calling phony penalties on the other team, or kill him if he called them on you (he'd be replaced with an even tougher ref, though).

The field was littered with hazards like mines, fire pits and toxic waste. The ball could be detonated — a particularly nasty surprise for the intercepting team. Though, obviously, Mutant League Football is a copyrighted work owned by Electronic Arts, these types of things are not off limits to Mendheim or Mutant Football League, so long as it doesn't present the game from the same perspective, or with the three passing windows distinct to the old John Madden Football '93 engine upon which the game was built. Given two decades of advancement in game development, there's no need for any of that.

The problem is the 2013 Kickstarter didn't showcase enough of the rollicking undead demolition derby people remembered and loved from 20 years ago. So Mendheim, his partner Maxim Novikov, and their developers set out to do just that. They get a different reaction now, even for pre-alpha gameplay that carries the expected glitches and camera bugs.

Bribing the ref in the original Mutant League Football, on Sega Genesis in 1993.

"Everyone's telling me to go back on Kickstarter now, but we're OK," Mendheim said. Some publishers, he won't say who (other than that they're smaller ones) have sent in contracts, but Mendheim spotted fine print about derivative rights and sequel ownership that they hadn't discussed and sent back the deals unsigned. "We're not opposed to that idea, but it has to make sense," he notes.

To answer the question: Yes, Mendheim went back to Electronic Arts to propose rebooting the whole thing under its original name. He says the publisher cordially declined his offer, but the people he talked to did give him some encouragement and advice.

I've heard over the years of EA Sports developers constantly bothering their bosses to resurrect the series, but the scuttlebutt is the NFL doesn't want its exclusive licensee doing any unlicensed football video game, even one as comically different as Mutant League. EA developers' inclusion of a Mutant League logo on a novelty team's jersey in 2012's NFL Blitz was, by my understanding, a poke at that, if not a way to rile up support for the idea. (A secret achievement for creating a player named "Bones Jackson" in Madden NFL 09 was likely borne of the same spirit.)

"Everyone's telling me to go back on Kickstarter now."

"They have the best football game in the history of football games," Mendheim mused. "My God, it looks like a broadcast. Which is why they killed [Mutant League] in the first place. I believe they wanted to make the finest and most realistic [sports] games in the industry. That was their focus after Trip [Hawkins, the EA founder] left. 'We're gonna do real sports,' and Mutant League didn't fit into that strategy. But their strategy was brilliant, and the company became huge because of it."

Digital Dreams can get by on money it makes off other games (the dinosaur-hunting game Carnivores is one) and contracted work for other studios. Mendheim also points out that among the contractors he's hired for Mutant Football League, "most of those guys love the project, and they've cut me really great deals."

And then there's the community. "Other guys are sending me music and writing and other content and helping just for the love of the game," Mendheim said. "They've all signed releases, they'll get design credits — yes, we'll give them the game for free — but they're part of this, too."

Mutant Football League is eyeing a 2016 release on Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — simultaneously, Mendheim says. "I need every marketing dollar we spend promoting the game across all its platforms," he notes. The game will have a full season mode and online multiplayer. People already ask if Mutant Hockey League would follow (as Mutant League Hockey did in 1994). Mendheim instead talks about expanding the game with deeper customization options.

That said, Mendheim acknowledges that the present course of development alone is not sufficient to get the game completed. Mutant Football League needs either a publisher or another round of cash, and Kickstarter can complicate a publisher's interest. So he's playing wait-and-see as long as he can.

A launch on Steam Early Access is different, and Mendheim says visitors to his booth at PAX almost universally suggested it. That appears to be in the works once the game reaches a more consistently playable state. If there's one thing Mendheim learned from the Kickstarter experience, it's that a disappointing first impression can be almost insurmountable.

In the end, it wasn't for Mutant Football League. While Blood Bowl is out there, it's better as a turn-based game, where Mutant League excelled at real-time zaniness and grindhouse violence. Mendheim knows fans want that back, especially on consoles, but they want the feeling of playing it to be as good as the first time.

"It's that feeling when you're breaking through the line, but all these guys are coming to tackle you, and the next guy you punch falls into a landmine and explodes," Mendheim says. "Then your guy runs through a fire and comes through with barely any health, gets hit and dies, the ball comes out and there's a scramble for it in the end zone, and a touchdown. That's awesome. I don't think any other sports game does that.

"After 20 years, that people remember their players' names — K.T. Slayer and Bones Jackson, that's crazy. These are just guys on a team in a silly fantasy monster football game," Mendheim says. "But they still care."

That's why Mutant Football League is still driving, even on a field strewn with body parts, and a ball that could explode at any time.

Roster File is Polygon's news and opinion column on the intersection of sports and video games.

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