Interview: Football! Mutants! Michael Mendheim Returns With 'Mutant Football League!'

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Today marked the launch of the "Mutant Football League" Kickstarter, a spiritual successor to EA's 16-bit classic "Mutant League Football" from series creator Michael Mendheim. The Kickstarter campaign, which is seeking $750,000 to complete the game for iOS and Android devices--with stretch goals potentially bringing it to other platforms--resurrects a property that's been out of the public eye for some time now, albeit with a very vocal following.

But why go it alone without EA? And isn't Mendheim courting conflict with the publisher by using a concept (and name) so similar to the original?

First, a little background: EA's "Mutant League Football" was released 20 years ago this month on the Genesis, during the "Mortal Kombat"-era of development. This is when studios, capitalizing on the success of Midway's bloody fighter, began building games around carnage and gore--usually with a sense of humor to soften the impact. Enter "Mutant League Football," which took the American football concept and added, well, mutants. And mines, and toxic waste, and on-field obstacles that you'd expect on a post-apocalyptic football field.

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Image source: Cover Galaxy

"Mutant League Football" spawned a sequel, "Mutant League Hockey," which was released the following year, along with a line of toys and two seasons of an animated series on Fox. But after announcing a basketball game based on the IP, EA seemed done with mutants playing sports.

"There were a number of reasons why Electronic Arts killed it," Mendheim says, adding that at the time, it was the right decision for the publisher.

But Mendheim says that over the years, he continued to notice a dedicated fanbase for the original game. "Fans kept asking, 'Will there be another Mutant League Football?'" He says as far back as a decade ago, he approached EA with proposals to bring "MLF" back, and that although he and EA were in negotiations for the project "for whatever reason, [EA] wasn't interested in pursuing the brand anymore." When the trademark on "MLF" lapsed, Mendheim, instead of snatching it up, trademarked his own "Mutant Football League" ("MFL" works better as a direct parody of the NFL, he explains).

Mendheim wants to be clear that this isn't a sequel to the 1993 game, and that "MFL" is paying homage to its predecessor. When I ask if he's concerned about EA coming after him (and the project) for copyright infringement, Mendheim allows that although he's consulted with his lawyers and he intends no disrespect to his former employers, there's always the chance that EA might decide to sue. "It's not like EA holds the license on mutants and it's not like EA holds the license on football." He says he "has concerns," but he's more concerned with addressing fan excitement about making a new "Mutant" football game.

With that in mind, the in-game view and visuals will be different from those of the original ("MFL" will not be top-down vertical like its Genesis counterpart). The game will include a single-player story campaign, taking the player through a full season, playoffs, and a world championship game. As with the original, "MFL" will include the kind of in-game combat and obstacles on the field that fans expect from the concept.

"We're not gonna be building this project for millions of dollars," Mendheim tells me, saying that the small team--which has been in pre-production for six months--is focused solely on "Mutant Football League," which has a projected release of July 2015. Backers will have a voice in the project, however, naming teams and being able to provide feedback during the development process as "MFL" provides updates.

The Kickstarter brings together Mendheim as Creative Director for the game along with "Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD" developer Robomodo and artist Dave Devries handling production and art respectively. Mendheim has also enlisted comics creators Dave Elliott, Micah Wright, and animator Jay Lender to create story content for the "MFL" campaign which will skewer modern football announcers and athletes with mutated, blood-thirsty counterparts. "Mutant League has to be funny," Mendheim says, with the trio of writers acting as his "insurance" to guarantee that it's the best parody of football possible. This will involve gag commercials, announcers based on real NFL announcers.

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One interesting aspect of the campaign is that some of the staffing is being handled as a stretch goal in the same way that new platforms would be in other Kickstarter efforts. Three currently undisclosed names will potentially be serving as Technical Director, Character Designer, and a currently unrevealed third role if the project hits its target over the next month. "Based on the pedigree of the talent, some of these people are going to cost some money," Mendheim explains. These three unnamed contributors have agreed to commit their work to the game if they know that "MFL" can afford to have them on staff, essentially.

But it's a football game--what about a multiplayer component? Mendheim has two engineers currently planning out the multiplayer element, shooting for a 2-4 player game with online play offering team and head-to-head play. But again, Mendheim is trying to keep the goals of "MFL" focused--he'd rather underpromise and over deliver. "We don't want to go crazy on this iteration," he warns.

He's even approaching a potential follow-up with the same ambitions. When I ask if a successful "MFL" would spawn a "Mutant Hockey League," Mendheim says that he'd rather his team iterate on "Mutant League Football." He'd like to "take the football engine and make it better," and implement suggestions from fans of the first game for a sequel.

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