Small Ball: Can Football Heroes out-Tecmo Tecmo Bowl?


Do you still daydream about Bo Jackson running circles around virtual defenders and Lawrence Taylor blocking cyber kick after cyber kick? Are you the type of person who sees a dunk and has the undeniable urge to shout boom-shackalacka?

Then you’re just the type of gamer Football Heroes is targeting, as the designers hope to bring sports fans back to the old school with a game simple to control, but addictive down to the last punch.

“We wanted to bring people back to the glory days of gaming,” says Michael Marzola, Creative Director and President of Run Games, the design team behind Football Heroes. “We wanted to capture that feeling you had as a little kid, playing games until the early morning, eating chips and Mountain Dew, while playing with your best friends. That was the inspiration for the game. That multi-player, head-to-head, classic sports game.

“The game is very influenced by Tecmo Bowl. People just aren’t making experiences like this anymore.”

Inside Mobile Apps: Why do you feel there’s a market for a classic, arcade-style football game on mobile?

Michael Marzola: When you look at John Madden, and you see how complex it is, and how many buttons you need to remember, yeah it’s a great game, but it’s very layered and you need to know a certain level of football strategy to really get a lot out of the game. So we wanted to strip all of those layers away. What was great about Tecmo Bowl was, it was a two-button game. Even if you didn’t know football, you could just kind of hit buttons and make it work. We try to have that same spirit live on in Football Heroes.

IMA: On top of the simple controls, you added some RPG elements to Football Heroes in order to help gamers build up their teams. What made you head that direction with the game’s design?

MM: The big thing for us is, we play WoW (World of Warcraft), we play different RPGs. And then even when Tecmo brought back Tecmo Bowl, I didn’t think the controls were very good, and I think even if you enjoyed the game on your mobile device, there was something lacking there. The game lacked that stickiness, it lacked that reason to come back. The big thing for us is, every time a player plays our game, we want them to feel like their time is valuable. “Hey, I got some coins,” or “Hey, I got some XP!” To us, our leveling system is a really big part of this because you feel like even if you lose the game, your guys are more powered up now because you were able to level up a little bit. You have ownership of your team, so it was important for us to add something that keeps you coming back. It’s way more fun, and you’re way more invested in continuing with your team when they progress forward with you.

IMA: Football Heroes also features some pretty cool moves where you can actually punch opponents. Why did those get added into the game?

MM: It goes back to Tecmo Bowl and how back in the day, when you were locked in a rumble with another player, people used to jam on the A button. You’d jam on that button, and Tecmo has never even come out and said if that did anything or if jamming on that button makes your chances of winning the rumble more successful, but every person I’ve ever played Tecmo Bowl with always jammed on that button. So that kind of twitch-feel, that arcade spirit is what we wanted to bring forward in Football Heroes. We were doing some prototyping, and we added a tap-tap thing anytime people got locked-up in our game, so when you tapped the button, you could punch your way out of it. But then we were like, that’s cool and all, but what if you could do that all the time? What if you didn’t need to be locked in a rumble before you started throwing punches? So we prototyped that really quick and made it where you could punch all the time, and as soon as we play-tested with people, it was amazing to see the smiles and the laughs that would come out of it. It’s just ridiculous to see these big-headed football guys punching each other.

Another way to look at this is, we don’t have the NFL license, and we want to make this the most brutal, the most over-the-top football game, while at the same time, still making it playable by kids. There’s no blood or guts or anything like that, but we wanted to make this Looney Tunes, over-the-top football game, so once we got the punch in, we realized we had to add uppercuts. From there, we added spinning fists and time bombs, and it all just started layering on top of each other. It’s funny because it all just began with that gem of an idea: “What happens when I can punch all the time?”


IMA: What’s the background of Run Games?

MM: I worked at Activision for a long time, and I’ve worked on a ton of games from Medieval: Total War to Tony Hawk to Pitfall Harry. I then left and joined Pandemic Studios where I shipped the Battlefront games, and I also did the game The Saboteur, and that’s where I met my business partner. We became fast friends and had a lot of the same ideas about game development, and for us, we really wanted to take advantage of getting out of AAA games and working for EA and Activision. These big companies, they take care of you and pay you well, but the influx of direct distribution means that me and my business partner can put a business plan together, gather up a bunch of dudes to make a game, and we can distribute it directly to people. So for us, we like working in games, and if things fall apart and we have to go back to work at these big companies, that would be OK — anytime you’re getting up in the morning and getting paid to make video games, that’s awesome — but we saw this opportunity to do something that’s very unique. By doing our own thing, we’re not beholden to a publisher who might want us to put ads in every other play or might want us to eliminate the punching in favor of adding the NFL license or something like that. By going our own way, we were able to stretch ourselves creatively, and for the first time in our lives, this project is the project the way we want it to be with no restrictions. It’s exactly as we see it and we envision it, and that’s why we jumped ship from AAA game development.

IMA: How difficult was it for you as a small developer to decide whether the game worked best as a free-to-play or premium title?

MM: For us, it was really easy. My take is, I want as many people to play my games as possible. That was the whole incentive from ground zero. It wasn’t about how we can make more money in free-to-play, because there are a lot of horror stories about people making no money. So for me, I love this game, I want as many people to play it, and I want to share it with as many people as possible. I want some little kid with an iPod Touch and no credits to be able to play Football Heroes. I want to be a part of his childhood. I want to be on someone’s phone. One big thing coming up for us, online multi-player isn’t there yet. We just have the Bluetooth and the Wi-Fi, and it’s great that you can grab someone and play anywhere, but for us, we feel that the real life of this game is going to be in the long-term multi-player aspect of it. We are looking to release online this Thanksgiving where you can play against anybody in the world with your custom team, so for us, if you’re going to make an online multi-player game, unless you’re Call of Duty, sometimes when you’re online, it’s hard to get a session. Even in a popular game like FIFA, you might not get a session, so we wanted to make the game free so as many people will download it and enjoy it as possible. Then once the online multi-player aspect switches on, you have all of these people who are potential competitors. Maybe we’re wrong, and maybe this will end up where we’re not making any money, but at least I made something unique that I want to share with as many people as possible. Free-to-play is the best way to do that.


IMA: Are there also plans to bring Football Heroes to Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network in the near future?

MM: Of course. We’re in the process of doing a cross-platform solution, so we’re definitely doing Android first, then the next step is getting the game to a point where it can be deployed on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. All of these things are on the table for us. We feel like we have a game that will work really well with the controller, we just need to do the legwork to get it there. We’re a small team, so this is really heavy lifting for us to both support the game and get the game to go cross-platform, but we are working on it, and it’s our second priority to supporting the game. Right now, Android and supporting the live game is our top priority.