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How did someone who doesn’t like sports still make a good sports video game?

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Jesting ‘Kickmen’ still makes very good points in its gameplay

Behold the Kickmen - player and cigar-chomping coach Size Five Games

It’s a misnomer that Dan Marshall made a football game (that is, soccer, as we know it) without knowing anything about the sport. He knows plenty enough about football to make a basic game for it. In Behold the Kickmen, Marshall made a football game without caring at all about the sport.

“Satire feels kind of grandiose,” laughed Marshall, the founder and sole staff employee of U.K.-based Size Five Games, which just launched Behold the Kickmen on Steam. “‘Piss-take?’ It’s kind of further down the scale from satire. Football is such a massive thing in this country, I can’t express how difficult it is if you don’t like it. If you’re not into it, it’s a daily annoyance.

“It’s this constant chip, chip, chip away at you,” Marshall said, of encountering football results, football fans and football talk, and being expected to participate in it. “This game is my response to that.”

Behold the Kickmen launched on July 20 for $3.99. It makes a lot of digs at the culture of professional sports in general, doing so with deliberately idiotic dialogue that affects a naif trying to speak in sports jargon. (In Behold the Kickmen, one “does a goal,” instead of scoring it.)

But the game action doesn’t make a slapstick perversion of football like, for example, Mutant Football League. It’s still two teams (of nine, not 11) trying to maintain control of the ball (possession statistics are shown at the end of a match, which indicates some familiarity with the sport) and kick it into a goal. They’re just doing it on a round pitch that has no touch-line.

Behold the Kickmen - round pitch with ‘please don’t be racist’ boards
Behold the Kickmen has no touch-line, and is played on a round pitch.
Size Five Games

Behold the Kickmen has two gameplay features that I would find useful in a serious soccer game, even. Players may charge up a shot, as they have done for years in FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer and their variants. In Kickmen, though, the strength of the shot corresponds to a vector that widens underneath the player. The stronger the shot, the more likely it will go off line left or right.

“That was one of the first things that went in,” Marshall said. “Honestly, in the early days [of development], that’s just how I assumed football games worked, more than anything else. I think that was a blank assumption that I made. ‘OK, I can do a really big kick, but there’s a chance it will go wide of the goal; or I can do a nice little one, and risk it going short.’ It’s just one of those really simple mechanics that went in very early on.”

Another tool simply exposes the game’s passing AI to the player by drawing a white line between him and the player who will receive the pass if he presses that button. In some cases this player can even be off the visible part of the screen.

This seems so utterly basic, but again, in more sophisticated soccer games that are trying to account for AI players getting open, or for passing to a part of the field instead of directly to a player’s position, players can still run into situations where a pass goes somewhere unintended.

“That just seemed like a sensible thing to do,” Marshall said. “Just show the player exactly where the football will go if they press a certain button. I don’t think there’s any massive technical design reason behind that. One of the things that is a struggle, making games like this, is getting the computer to predict what the player is thinking. As much as possible, I think it’s a sensible thing to show the player what the computer is thinking, so that they don’t get frustrated."

Behold the Kickmen - slide tackle
Every tackle in Kickmen is a rather violent slide tackle.
Size Five Games

“There’s nothing worse than pressing the pass button and having it go to a different player than the one you wanted it to go to,” Marshall continued. “By just drawing that line, that cleared up that whole problem, very, very quickly.” Marshall credited Mike Cook, a well-known artificial intelligence researcher, for designing Behold the Kickmen’s team AI system. “He said, ‘The secret to AI isn’t so much making the AI very, very intelligent; it’s about telling the player what the AI is thinking.’ That inspired the passing system,” Marshall said.

“I never played FIFA, and I never played PES. I just assumed that would have been standard process, show they player where they are going to pass to,” Marshall said.

Behold the Kickmen began life in April 2016 as a one-week game jam project, Marshall said. “It was going to be a kick-the-ball-against-the-wall simulator” that he likened to a Super Hexagon-type ongoing gameplay-only challenge. (This is where the round wall of the pitch comes from, as the deflections would be more interesting.)

It evolved into a soccer game, and then Marshall put the project down for about four months, returning to it recently in what seemed like a never-ending series of conversations with beta testers until he finally saw them responding to it positively.

All of this raises the question of why Marshall would sink so much time into a video game that’s about a sport he doesn’t care for, much less extend its development well past the weeklong expectation he originally set.

“My back catalog of games does tend to be in genres that I don’t really get on with,” Marshall noted. “Sports games, I never had an interest in them. The last I game I made, The Swindle, was sort of born out of the fact I was very frustrated with stealth games, getting very bored with triple-A mechanics.

“I was getting frustrated with crouching, following along very slowly and waiting to throttle someone from behind,” Marshall said. “I like to be challenged in that way. I like to take on something I don’t know much about, or ‘I don’t like that, but how would I do that in a way that I do [like it]?’

“It’s a really slow and complicated way of venting my frustration,” Marshall said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of players per side. It has since been revised.

Roster File is Polygon’s column on sports and video games.