Behold the Kickmen: how a game designer who hates football made the ultimate football sim

Dan Marshall insists there is no such thing as a football referee. “Umpires officiate over sport,” he argues. There’s a lot about football that annoys Marshall – he really doesn’t get it. And yet this experienced game designer has just spent a year-and-a-half of his life creating a football simulation. Why?

Behold the Kickmen is in part a joke written in code, as well as a playful jibe at the predilection of football fans for taking the details of their adored sport too seriously. It deliberately – even obstinately – contradicts many of football’s rules, and yet plays loving homage to a long lost era of home computer sports sims. Despite Marshall’s joyful indifference to its subject matter, Kickmen is rather superb.

Behold the Kickmen. Photograph: Size Five Games

Glance at a screenshot and Behold the Kickmen is immediately comparable to Sensible Software’s classic 2D release Sensible Soccer. Peer a little closer, though, and the details aren’t quite right. Tutorials describe rivals as ‘enemy men’, and goals are celebrated with the message ‘you done a goal!’. Throw-ins have seemingly been left out, and throughout, snarky dismissals of both the real world sport and Behold the Kickmen itself spring up. In an early development video, Marshall even recommends setting match duration to short times because, he reminds us, football is ‘just kicking and goals’.

Indeed, his good game presented as a daft joke about how a famously ‘beautiful’ game isn’t really interesting, was never due to be finished. Marshall was busy working on another bigger project, feeling bogged down in his work, and needing to rekindle his enthusiasm and energy.

“I watched a trailer for Super Arcade Football, and it looked ace,” says Marshall. “It reminded me of playing Sensible Soccer and Speedball and things like that as a kid, and really enjoying them, despite the fact that I didn’t like football then. They were tight, excellent little games. So for a game jam-type thing, I thought I’d make a silly football game. The plan was just to spend a few days on it, and that was it.”
Marshall started work on a game based on the popular schoolyard of, well, kicking a ball against a wall, adding a dose of influence from turbo-charged mobile phone puzzler Super Hexagon. By the end of the week, something weird and interesting was emerging.

“I put a tweet up with a couple of gifs when the game started to take shape, and that did better than any bit of promo I’ve ever done in my entire life,” Marshall admits. “For The Swindle – or anything else I’ve ever made – I’d put up gifs and people would say ‘yeah, that’s alright’. That’s all I’d hear. I’d maybe get 10 retweets and that would be the lot of it. Kickmen, though, went wild.”

Such was the interest that Marshall committed to fleshing out his game. But as weeks turned into months, he couldn’t quite find the experience he wanted to deliver. Friends tested new builds, and the titular Kickmen experienced different versions of what football shouldn’t be. Then the anniversary came and went, motivating Marshall to get his arcade-influenced creation completed. Work progressed, with other coders hopping onboard to help out – the player behaviours are partially written by Michael Cook, a PhD researcher in artificial intelligence.

After 15 months, Behold the Kickmen turned from a joke, into a commercially released game for PC and Mac. Its arrival on Steam has been greeted with a rush of positive user reviews. While Marshall’s own review describes ‘a solid 6-or-7 out of 10 game’, over on Valve’s game store, glowing criticism enthusiastically apes the tone of his creation. ‘You can’t turn the umpire into a dog though which is a little disappointing. He does give you a kiss for doing a goal though and the dog in ISS Deluxe did nothing of a sort’ reads one otherwise positive critique. Another asserts: “You can tell that there are men and a ball and a field and they don’t really look much like anything but what they’re supposed to be. 10/10.”

Behold the Kickmen. Photograph: Size Five Games

For Marshall, though, success and acclaim were not really the driving factors. “I guess I’m a very silly person,” he offers. “That’s largely it. That silliness is where the traction came from. That was where the story was. The reason people were coming to me was because I’m not the kind of person to make football games. It’s not interesting if a football game designer is making a football game. The thing that was funny – and the reason I got interest from the BBC and Twitter early on – was that I didn’t know the rules. That was the angle, so I was sensible enough not to do any more research.”

The early attention, however, was based on an intangible – an incomplete sketch of a game. The end result of the development process is something different, both as refined as it is bewildering. The pitch is round and surrounded by walls, tackles are governed by bullet-time manoeuvres, players get strafe-like “dash” commands to jink right and left, and the offside rule works like the arbitrary zonal shutdowns in the Hunger Games novels. Behind all of Behold the Kickmen’s devotion to misunderstanding, though, is a great deal of thought. The action is snappy, tight and fluid, delivering something of a supercharged Subbuteo feel. Meanwhile, the narrative of the career mode adds plenty of snarky wit, and a wider game of keeping your team profitable means there actually is more strategy and depth to Behold the Kickmen than “just kicking and goals”.

“I have got a fairly rudimentary understanding of football. I’m not so clueless. I’m 37-years old. I’ve had 37 years of it being put in front of me. I have picked up on the basics. But from a game design perspective, the hardest stuff was being deliberately facetious, and getting things wrong on purpose.

“So I’d look at it differently. I’d look at something like penalty kicks, and ask myself ‘how can I get that wrong?’. That was the first approach to everything that came up. I’d ask myself what else football has in it. Kick offs? Then how do I do them wrong, in and engaging way?.”

Games have long demonstrated an ability to be funny, but so often it is through jokes told in ways other media already has covered. Beloved examples like The Secret of Monkey Island are hilarious, but most of the gags therein are delivered in the written form. In Behold the Kickmen, meanwhile, the gameplay mechanics are the jokes. It is a comedy sketch about football delivered as a video game, and it is funniest when the interactions blow a raspberry at serious sport.

“Kickmen feels like the kind of thing you can only do with video games,” Marshall says. “This is the sort of joke that you can’t do on TV.”

That’s why you won’t find those throw-ins in Marshall’s creation. Getting them wrong while making them fun and funny didn’t gel with the rest of the game. And there is the crux of why Behold the Kickmen is so good. It gets getting things wrong just right.

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