Today's Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to Michael Mendheim, creator and co-designer of EA's Mutant League series of sports games.
After working as a freelance graphic designer within the advertising industry through his self-founded New Wave Graphics, Mendheim began working as an illustrator and designer of video game boxes. Though this change in focus saw "the illustration side of the business" put on the backburner, it was through this that he started receiving work as a character and level designer.
Around this time he met Joe Robbins, a designer with Sunsoft, who opened Mendheim's eyes to a love of storytelling in the medium. "I had the good fortune of working with Joe Robbins early in my career," he says. "He helped guide me and also gave me opportunities. The process of making games, particularly story telling through an interactive medium, was fascinating to me."
Mendheim's first title as designer was the 1989 Sunsoft NES shooter Fester's Quest, based on the Addams Family license. Though it would be two years before the movie hit cinemas and revitalized the franchise, the game still managed to sell around a million units.
Pitching Mutant League Football
Mendheim's growing status in the industry saw his connections grow as well. Based on a love of American football and EA's John Madden Football series of games, he contacted a producer at the company, and pitched an idea he had for a twist on the sport.
"I loved Madden Football," he enthuses, "it was and still is my favorite game. Football, science fiction, violence, and a touch of dark humor all seemed like a natural fit. Mix these elements up with the right amount of strategy and you end up with a blood and guts football game that makes people laugh and think."
After creating a visual presentation, Mutant League Football was shown to EA CEO Trip Hawkins and a number of other executives, who approved the idea. The company set up an internal team to develop the game, but unfortunately Mendheim's producer contact - who had been put in charge of the project - left not long after, leaving the game without an internal producer. Despite living in another state and being nothing more than a consultant and independent contractor, Mendheim took on the role, living in EA's for out of town guests, which they referred to as the "crash pad".
"I worked with the artists and engineers to build the game and keep it moving forward," Mendheim notes. "I was working and living in California to get the game completed even though my company was based in Chicago. Had I not stepped in to perform the role of an internal producer, the product would have been killed."
The "medium sized" team worked on the game for around a year and a half, with Mendheim seeking advice and support from Madden creators Scott Orr and Richard Hilleman, who he describes affectionately as being like "Gods" to him. As the project grew toward the Alpha stage of development, EA decided to put another internal producer on the game - a "really solid producer with an intimidating presence" named Sam Nelson, an Activision veteran who had previously produced titles like Little Computer People and Grand Prix Unlimited.
"I thought he was going to kill me at least a dozen times as he taught me how to final a product the EA way," laughs Mendheim.
The game went to number one upon its release in 1993, and was runner up for best sports game of the year with a number of publications. Mendheim notes that the game had "respectable sales" over the long term, and was regarded by its audience as "great fun".
"It was a roll of the dice for EA that paid off," he comments.
Controversy & The Mutant League TV Show
The game also attracted its fair share of negative publicity. Though the mainstream press was obsessing over Mortal Kombat and Night Trap, an overt-the-top violent football game wasn't about to escape their attention, and the game was soon "on everyone's Top 10 list for the most violent game - right under Mortal Kombat". Despite this, however, the Mutant League concept was quickly picked up as a children's television show.
Mendheim was involved in the pre-production for the show, working to define the characters and the universe. Unfortunately, even though "most of that [content] was ready to go when the deal was secured", a good deal of the "really good content was omitted from the cartoon", leaving Mendheim sadly disappointed with the results.
"I wasn't a big fan of the artistic style of the show, but that wasn't the shows problem. The show failed because it didn't have the humor or sarcasm of the game," he explains. "It didn't poke fun at the business of televised sports. It needed The Simpsons' style of wit and sarcasm and it was devoid of it."
Still, the show proved mostly successful with its audience, running for a total of 39 episodes over the period of around two years, and spawning a line of toys. The time was ripe for another game, which Mendheim notes he approached "with the attitude that we were going to give the characters more personality and definition, hire comedic writers to add smarter humor and satire, improve frame rate, visual graphics, and game mechanics to build a solid brand for the future".
Making Mutant League Hockey
The team also took note of the controversy that the first game had stirred up. "We listened to the feedback and when we started Mutant League Hockey, our first response was to give the players chainsaws and use an electric chair for the penalty box," Mendheim chuckles.
The development of Mutant League Hockey didn't quite run to plan, though, with Mendheim noting that the schedule was "cut in half". Even when the game was released, in 1994, the marketing budget was "limited", leaving, in Mendheim's opinion, the franchise "DOA six months into development".
"It didn't stand a chance," he laments. "You have to remember, Madden put EA on the map and it was the company's prized franchise - and deservedly so. Madden was and is the goldmine of EA. Mutant League was like the crazy uncle who was told to stay in the basement when the important guests arrived. It had a die-hard cult following but was nothing compared to the numbers that Madden was generating."
"EA made a smart decision to put all their focus and talent on making the best realistic sports games in the industry, in lieu of splitting resources to make a violent sci-fi themed sports game," Mendheim continues. "From a business standpoint, it was the only practical decision to make."
This left a planned basketball spin-off undeveloped beyond pre-production, however. Mendheim reveals that there was a "simple prototype running and a preliminary design", which he describes as "NBA Jam meets Mortal Kombat".
Making New Games At New Wave
Mendheim's relationship with EA ended at that point, and since he was still working as an independent contractor through his own company - by that time known as New Wave Entertainment - he decided to "move on to other things". Since its inception, New Wave had taken on two other partners - [Arcticfox developer] Richard Hicks and fellow EA alumni Richard Robbins - and had "transitioned into a full development
studio" with licenses with Nintendo and Sony. "We came up with numerous game concepts and pitched them with knock-out visual presentations," Mendheim notes.
Amongst the titles developed was HyperBlade, a "battlesport" game described as a mix of hockey and Doom. It was well received upon its release on PC in 1996, but a port for Sega's waning Saturn console was cancelled just months prior to its intended release date.
When Mendheim received a call from Trip Hawkins, whose own 3DO Interactive Mulitplayer console had been discontinued around the same time, he decided to join Hawkins, based on what he perceived as a "wonderful opportunity and learning experience".
"He was taking the company into software publishing and was building development teams," Mendheim says. "Trip is a visionary who I admire greatly. I'm a huge Trip Hawkins fan - always have been and always will be. He gave me a wealth of information and knowledge. Trip breathed new life into the company [after the discontinuation of the console] and had a solid plan for achieving success. He laid out his vision, shared it with studio and described his plan to get there. Trip has an amazing talent to inspire and motivate. It was an exciting time at 3DO."
Tripping Onwards To 3DO
Mendheim began working as design director for 3DO, and his first title for the company was the Nintendo 64 game Battletanx. He notes that the development time was necessarily quick, and involved a "limited budget and a small core team", due to the need for the title to simply "make money", though adds that there was still "real technical innovation" in the game.
"We came up with the idea of creating a multi-player tank game for the N64," he explains. "At that time, Multiplayer was not a focus of many games. The hook of the game was the totally destructible environments. Essentially, the users were playing a game of hide and seek within major cities using tanks."
The game shipped in 1998, and was the company's first top ten hit. Mendheim's next title was another N64 game, Army Men: Sarge's Heroes; a spin-off of the company's successful toy soldier franchise. This particular title was envisioned by Hawkins as a "character based" experience, which would use "names and recognizable faces for the characters" to further establish a successful property for 3DO. "In addition to producing and design, my job was to give the Army Men franchise a personality," explains Mendheim. "We worked with Hollywood talent like Jim Cummings - the voice of Winnie the Pooh and numerous other characters - to define the character's voices and attitudes. We researched classic war movies and worked with several Hollywood writers, defining the characters and story. Eventually we had created a cast of cool and sometimes comedic characters that appealed to our core market: 13 year old boys."
The game sold close to a million units on its release in 1999, and, combined with the success of the other games in the franchise that had come before it, saw a "meteoric rise" in the company's stock price. However, Mendheim notes that this success impaired the company's "better judgement", and lead to the "inevitable downfall of the product line".
"We over-saturated the market and neglected to nurture the brand for the long term," he candidly admits. "The quality of the sequels was never high enough to attract the hard core gamer. 3DO was fully capable of making high quality games but the allotted time and budget were insufficient for what was needed to make a groundbreaking Army Men game."
Ramping Up To Four Horseman
With the company's image tarnished by the Army Men games to a degree, Hawkins wanted to release a game that would be "recognized as a high quality title by both consumers and reviewers" so as to circumvent this crisis. Mendheim's answer was Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a game intended for release on all major platforms which went into pre-production in 2001 with a small team of people "dividing their time between Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the other needs of the company". Soon, artists and engineers were added to the team, as well as Stan Winston, who had previously worked on the special effects of films like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, and Aliens, and was added as the title's producer.
"Four Horsemen had all the makings of a blockbuster title; a great conceptual hook; an innovative fighting mechanic; compelling characters that our audience would care about; a dark gritty hyper-realistic look that set it apart from other titles, and an entertaining storyline with enough depth to expand the brand to other mediums - movies, comics, toys, etc.," enthuses Mendheim. "The game was just starting to show its potential: it had the right mix of horror and action to really pull a player into the game and then scare the Hell out of them when least expected."
"Four Horsemen is based on the book of Revelations, which is a terrifying yet fascinating vision, and while the game had biblical overtones it wasn't preachy or cheesy, it was cool and bad ass but provided a positive theme of hope and choice," he continues. "We had some incredible talent associated with the property including visual effects master Stan Winston and world famous comic book artist, Simon Bisley. Stan and Simon helped to insure great character design and a gritty visual tone."
Unfortunately, considering Mendheim's obvious passion for the project, 3DO's financial situation continued to worsen until they finally went bankrupt in May 2003. Thinking quickly, Mendheim purchased the assets and rights from the bankruptcy court, and formed Four Horsemen Entertainment, LLC as a holding company for the property, with the intention of finding a publisher to further develop the project. During that time, however, he was approached by EA Chicago general manager Kudo Tsunoda to join the studio as a full time employee, and the project has fallen by the wayside. He does note that "people are still intrigued with the Four Horsemen concept", revealing that he is sent "fan mail all the time asking if the game is ever going to be developed". At this point, Mendheim states, the project is not dead - simply "on hold".
To EA Chicago And Def Jam: Icon
"EA is a great company to work for," he says enthusiastically. "They have bright, talented people leading the company and a solid process for making and marketing games. When Kudo Tsunoda asked me to join EA Chicago, I welcomed the opportunity. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him. He is a dynamic leader with a clear vision of where he wants to take the studio. He is a hard worker who leads by example and walks his talk each and every day. We don't agree on everything, but that's part of our dynamic."
Since returning to the company two years ago, Mendheim has been "immersed in the world of hip hop" as producer on Def Jam: Icon, which he describes as an "innovative fighting game like no other".
"The people at Def Jam are great partners to work with and contributed to the design and authenticity of the game," he comments. "Mainstream gamers and people who like hip hop are going to love this title."
The game was released for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 earlier this month, and has so far received solid reviews. As for the future, Mendheim adds that the online petition calling for a Mutant League sequel hasn't escaped his attention - though he does refer to it as "crazy".
"The game came out over 14 years ago," he laughs. "Maybe some day there will be a sequel. I would love to develop that game with today's graphical capabilities on next-gen hardware."
While he is unable to reveal specifics about what's next in his career, he does note that he has "high hopes for continued opportunity and success".
"I feel like I'm just getting started and the best is yet to come," he grins.