Few within the video game industry understand the professional ups-and-downs that it can bring like Michael Mendheim. In his early years, Mendheim created the iconic Mutant League franchise for Electronic Arts. And to this day, the founder/owner of Digital Dreams Entertainment and developer for Hip Hop Trivia: Starring Murs says that his love for art is what led to his storied career. “As soon as I could hold a crayon, I was into drawing, creating characters and stories,” the Chicago native added. "So it’s always been a part of what I loved to do. Video games were a cool extension to that.”
Inspired by comic book legend Jack Kirby and fine art icons like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali, Mendheim started drawing illustrations after graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. Mendheim started off illustrating beer ads, college posters and “a whole bunch of other stuff,” but a chance to design video game cover art would slowly pull him into the industry. Mendheim says he designed around 15 different video game covers; one being a home port of Atari’s futuristic football game, Cyberball. Eventually, he was asked to assist in character design for Fester’s Quest before moving up to level design. According to Mendheim, his transformation from artist to creative designer was complete once the Addams Family licensed game (a project he was heavily involved with) sold over a million units.
Later, a producer at Electronic Arts and friend of Mendheim linked him with then-president Trip Hawkins to pitch Mutant League Football. “They liked it, took a chance on it, and Mutant League Football ended up being a big hit for the company,” said Mendheim. The franchise was so successful for EA that it spawned an animated television series, as well as a spin-off/sequel entitled Mutant League Hockey. Around that time, Hawkins left EA to form 3DO. But after the company’s only console became one of the biggest hardware flops in gaming history, 3DO made the wise decision to maintain themselves through software. Personally called by Hawkins to join their team, Mendheim would help develop Nintendo 64 exclusive Battle Tanx as well as early games in the Army Men franchise.
Hawkins would later ask Mendheim to develop a game based around his idea for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Then slated for release on PS2, Gamecube, Xbox and PC, the game was wildly ambitious. Outside of getting famed special effects supervisor Stan Wilson (Aliens and Jurassic Park) as a producer, Lance Hanrikson (Aliens), Traci Lords (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) and Tim Lords (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) were also slated to provide voiceover work. Though heavily hyped in many video game publications, 3DO would scrap The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse after filing for bankruptcy and going out of business. Heading back to EA, Mendheim worked as a producer for the publisher’s studio in Chicago (formerly NuFX) headed by the eccentric Kudo Tsunoda. The studio went on to release Fight Night Round 3 and Def Jam Icon before shutting down.
After working with Vogster Entertainment, Mendheim stepped out on his own by starting Digital Dreams Entertainment. One of the first releases from the studio was the iOS quiz game Hip Hop Trivia: Starring Murs. Between the time at Vogster and the release of his first app through Digital Dreams, he also managed to release a three-part graphic novel series based on The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse through Heavy Metal. Working to revive the Mutant League Football franchise, Digital Dreams plans to release more apps in the future, and recently struck a comic deal with Titan Comics.
Speaking with us, Mendheim talks Murs, everything that went right and wrong with Def Jam Icon, and Mutant Football League.
Interview by Ural Garrett (@UralG)
How did you end up linking with Murs for Hip Hop Trivia?
I met Murs through Josh Blaylock over at Devil’s Due. Those guys did a graphic novel together entitled Yumiko: Curse of the Merch Girl. Josh is from the Chicago area as well. Me and Murs linked up at San Diego Comic Con and we talked about doing a trivia game. My company was working on a couple of different apps at that point that would lend themselves very well to a trivia game technology-wise. We had never done an iOS project, which is something we wanted to do just to see the learning curve and difficulty. Then we did it.
What was cool is that Murs wrote all the questions himself and was really super involved with the whole project. He’s the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet and totally down to earth. Murs came to Chicago for a concert out here and we recorded him. Then we figured we’d run the trivia game like a hip-hop game show with Murs as the host. The goal was to make a game for those who like hip-hop but want to learn more about it on both a major and independent scope. It’s a simple but fun app.
Any plans for a release on Android or Windows mobile?
So what we do is put it out and see how it performs. If the sales justify it, we’ll for sure put it on Android. Right now, we’re kind of on the line. We’re going to give it a little more, let Murs do some pitching on it, promote it a little bit more, and we’ll see. We’d love to do it on Android but we see it as a great Facebook game as well. Unfortunately, everything sort of comes down to sales, and you want to work on products that will pay for themselves. Right now, I have my fingers crossed because I would like to see it there.
This isn’t your first game based around hip-hop. You were at EA Chicago for Def Jam Icon. What specific role did you play in its development? And why were the reviews for it so polarized?
I was the producer of that title. There were a lot of extremely talented people involved with that project. Kudo Tsunoda—a super talented and bright guy—was running EA Chicago. We had the opportunity to do the next Def Jam game and this was obviously after the success of Fight Night Round 3. The reviews were definitely mixed and I think the biggest problem with that title was that we didn’t stay true to the previous titles. We let down some of the fans of Def Jam Vendetta and Def Jam: Fight for New York.
Let me talk about what went right and what went wrong. Why? Because when we did that title, the overall art-direction was absolutely beautiful. It was art-directed by a guy named Darren Bennett who’s also super talented. Visuals on Def Jam Icon were incredible. The core concept and hook of the game was something we called “Buildings With Bass.” What it was is how buildings would react to the beat of the songs. It was a feature that was better on paper than through the implementation. When we had it up and running, everything looked quite cool and extremely innovative. EA Chicago was a development group that prided itself on innovation. They took a boxing game like Fight Night and infused it with innovation; we tried to do the same on Def Jam Icon. The other thing that went really well was the story mode. I am still proud of what we did there.
Here was our problem: we tried to innovate too much. It was an existing brand with an existing fanbase that was in love with the previous games. If you look at something like Mortal Kombat, they don’t really change the mechanics of that game. They keep it the same game but change the story, add new technology and new moves, but Mortal Kombat fans know exactly what to expect when they make their purchase. Most importantly, they’re always delivered what they want.
Unfortunately we didn’t do that on Def Jam Icon. The other problem was that while the positives with “Buildings With Bass” and art direction were very fantastic, they didn’t lend themselves well to the core gameplay mechanics. What happened is that the fighting became sluggish. When you have these super realistic characters and animations—which worked great for Fight Night as a boxing-sim—it doesn't work for a fighting game because it isn't fast enough. One of the biggest knocks on the product were the sluggish fighting controls. And the fans were correct.
That was the biggest problem with the game unfortunately. Part of that was trying to get all the innovations. If I could do it all over again, it would be all about the fighting mechanics no. 1 and the graphics no. 2. I was a producer on it and I take full responsibility for it. I apologize to the fans for it, but I learned a wealth from it.
Whose idea was it to get rid of Blazin’ moves?
It wasn't so much that we looked at the old title and saw what we could get rid of. Everything was more of creating this “Buildings With Bass” and we had a limited timeline to get the product out. Hindsight, maybe we lose “Buildings With Bass” to put in all those cool finishing moves. It probably would've been a better call, but we put all our chips behind that innovation. Sometimes those bets work really well like in Fight Night and sometimes they don’t. For Def Jam Icon, I’m proud of the team and what was accomplished, but we didn’t deliver the core fighting mechanics and it disappointed a lot of the original fans.
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I was in high-school when the hype around The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse was building. Of course, I was ultimately disappointed after 3DO collapsed. From your opinion, what happened to 3DO?
That’s a great question. The story is long enough to write a book about. The original idea for The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse was Trip’s. Trip always has these ideas that he bounces around to people. Sometimes it was a name. For example, Army Men was a name. The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse was a name but it wasn’t a copy-written name. It was just a name everyone knew was associated with a certain thing. That’s a lot of how Trip created brands. As soon as I heard that, I was like, "Oh my gosh, I’m in." I was fortunate enough to where he gave me a small team and told me to go work on it. We had a lot of time to develop the concepts for it. But as I started adding more people to the project, there were already other titles Trip wanted done.
I think the problems of 3DO were two-fold. I think the company tried to grow too fast because it had so much success initially. You can only grow so fast and with the success of games like Army Men, and Trip wanted to make a lot of those games because they were very profitable. The problem is that we made too many Army Men games instead of nurturing the franchise. Instead of doing something where we released a game in the franchise once a year, we released four in one year. The franchise cannibalized itself. They were getting pumped out pretty quick and the quality went down tremendously. It was a problem. You have to remember that 3DO had some pretty good AAA games on the market like High Heat Baseball, which was the best baseball game on the market at the time.
That had Sammy Sosa as the cover athlete correct?
Yes. 3DO had a lot of good titles and they were definitely a publisher on the rise, but I think we just grew too fast. As I was trying to get The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse up, they started pulling people off my team to help with other projects that were under the gun. So that really slowed our development down and then the company started to have problems.
We all knew about it. There were rounds of lay-offs which took place around the company. However, we had a press day where we showed what we had. The press really received it well and were super excited for it. Then Trip put some guys on my team to get the game built. Unfortunately, in video game development, you just can’t just throw a bunch a people on a project like that. But we got a demo done for that year’s E3 and it was well-received there. Shortly after that, the doors closed on 3DO and all the company assets and brands went into bankruptcy.
I put a bid on The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse and it took over a year-and-a-half for me to get those assets back. I did get them so I was trying to find a publishing deal but I could not get one to go through. We had a lot of terrific art and I totally believed in the concept. So I figured I’d do a graphic novel for people to see the story and so that those who worked so hard on it could see something. I did that, hoping that the graphic novel would get me a deal for a video game. It did with Vogster until they pulled the plug.
Where did the relationship with Heavy Metal come from?
I’m a huge fan of Kevin Eastman, co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s one of the nicest guys and most talented guys on the planet. Eastman was always interested in the title. I had a few other comic book publishers interested in the title as well. Heavy Metal just felt right because we had Simon Bisley doing all the art work, and Eastman really cared about the title. They were on their 25th anniversary and they hadn’t done a graphic novel in over a decade. They wanted to do something really special and I thought that they did a really good job on the title. We had reasonable marketing and it did reasonably well. The only problem I had was the lack of distribution muscle. Heavy Metal doesn’t have as much distribution muscle as a Marvel or a Dark Horse so we released all three volumes of Horsemen and then our deal was done.
Other publishers started to talk to me about doing an omnibus version with exclusive content, so I ended up signing a deal with Titan Comics/Random House. We’ve been working on this for awhile. We had some time to rethink the story and some significant changes all for the better. That’s what I love; you get some time away from the project then get to come back. It’s kind of like a director’s version. Then we put a ton of concept art that no one has seen before—including some from the video game—and it will be released in the summer of this year. The first copies that will be sold will be at San Diego Comic Con. Hopefully, you’ll be able to walk into any bookstore and get a copy.
The Mutant League Sports franchise came during a time when zany ideas even lent themselves to sports. What was the idea about the original and plans for its return?
The thing is that Mutant League was always just a selfish title. Sometimes you do the game that you want to play and I love football. I’m a football fanatic. I love playing Madden but I also love comic characters, mutants, and monsters. I just mixed my two loves. I also knew I wanted a game that was easy to play and had a certain sense of humor about it. I also wanted there to be a violent aspect so that it was just as important deciding what you’re going to do on 3rd-and-10 as it was what mutant was on the field.
That feature was something Mutant League delivered that Madden couldn’t because you can lose your guys through death. Having to manage that aspect along with football strategy was just a cool thing. Then I made the superstar players like superheroes that were extremely valuable. If you lost them then you were going to feel the pain. Mutant League was a fun title that has a hardcore fanbase and I’m super excited about bringing it back. EA dropped the trademark a decade ago and I changed the name from Mutant League Football to Mutant Football League because I’m the creator of the original. Mutant Football League is its own game but the things you found awesome about the first game, you’ll find in this one.
How far along are you with Mutant Football League?
We’re working on a demo or prototype. I can pass the ball and run the ball. There's also a kick-ass play editor. I have a small team of about eight people and everyone is working on the title. I’m hoping to have something done for a demo late summer where we’ll launch another Kickstarter campaign and get enough funding to finish it. We’ll initially release it on PC and Steam then hopefully Playstation Network and Xbox Live.
You have a huge history with major AAA publishers. Is it a staggering difference being independent now considering how big indie games have become?
For me it’s bittersweet and there are a lot of pluses and minuses. Working with a big publisher where you have resources and you’re well-financed is fantastic. I would love to do that again if the terms were right. There’s nothing like having the support of a big publisher and all that comes with it. From marketing and sales to library groups and the sharing of technology. Even the brilliant minds a publisher has that you can tap into. Going back to doing independent games where you’re working with a fraction of a major’s budget, it’s full circle for me. That’s how I started.
My first early titles weren’t done with big budgets or teams and it really came down to the core essence of the design over everything else. The play mechanics and fun-factor came first. As graphics started to get big and innovative, they took a much more important role than what they used to. Indies now are a mix of both. It allows you to do the games you want and allows you to work with a bunch of cool people who are doing it out of the passion in their hearts. With its rapid development, a lot of my experience at 3DO comes very much in handy as an indie developer. You just learn how to squeeze every penny and how every penny has to do something. I think we’re going to be able to do things we weren’t able to do with a major publisher. We’re going to be able to take more risks.
Before we wrap up, do you have any thoughts on next-gen consoles?
I’m super excited about it and I don’t think this generation was as big of a jump as the PS3. What I really like is how Sony has paid careful attention to indie developers. I think that was something they had neglected in the past. Both Sony and Microsoft have opened the door for that to take place. You’re going to have your huge, mega-hit titles and smaller, indie titles that could be just as popular. That’s really exciting about the next-gen.