Let's get the obvious lede out of the way: Behold The Kickmen is a football game made by a developer with nothing more than ancillary knowledge of the sport, aided by Twitter followers and friends who contributed everything from rules suggestions to crowd noise in order to create one of the surprise indie gaming hits of the summer.
Originally conceived as a creative exercise that was supposed to take around three weeks, Kickmen is football as seen by a non-football fan, complete with a round pitch, devastating tackles, incomprehensible offside rules, and cutscenes filled with ridiculous characters reciting even more ridiculous dialogue.
In an age when tribal animosity between fans of mega-hit franchises FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer occasionally resembles that of Old Firm supporters, it's refreshing to see a game that manages to avoid taking anything too seriously while perfectly (though perhaps not intentionally) lampooning the sport and its culture.
Developer Dan Marshall of Size Five Games was kind enough to sit down with IBWM via email to answer questions about the game's unexpected reception.
IBWM: It's been about three weeks since Kickmen's release, and it's earned 95% positive reviews on Steam in addition to praise from Polygon, Kotaku, and even the Guardian. Does the overall reaction surprise you?
DAN MARSHALL: Yeah, it does. The game kind of came together in the last three weeks of development to [become] something really quite fun, but still I wasn't really expecting it to get that kind of attention.
It felt like when all was done and dusted it's this silly little experiment in how videogames can tackle something like a dislike of football and make it funny and approachable, and I didn't really think anyone else would 'get' that, certainly not to the degree they did.
IBWM: In your user base, what do you think the split is between football fans and non-fans like yourself?
DM: I'd say the majority are non-football people who can appreciate there's something in a sports game that appeals? If you like the idea of the drama of a sporty title, and the challenge it presents, but hate the 'culture' surrounding it, I think that's where Kickmen comes in.
I've had some really lovely feedback from football fans, either those who can take a joke or also have an active dislike in some of the wider problems surrounding the culture of football, but yeah by-and-large it's probably non-football fans buying it.
IBWM: Do you think you made a game anyone can play/appreciate, or have you accidentally created the ultimate in-joke for football fans?
DM: I think anyone can play, and I think that's the appeal. The stuff that's in there is all stuff us non-football people have had to endure being drip-fed into our lives, so it's that that's lampooned. I'd say anyone who has rolled their eyes at a footballer's salary or sighed when an important News story is interrupted for the Sportsdesk can appreciate what the game's saying.
IBWM: As someone who's avoided football his entire life, did anything in particular surprise you about the sport or its culture during the development process?
DM: Not really. You say I've avoided football my entire life, but I haven't really, have I? It's on the news every hour, the latest scores are right up there with who's launching nukes. It's on the radio, it's talked about in jobs and at meetings and parties as ice breakers.
It's on in the pub, it's in adverts, it's in celebrity culture and retweeted into your social media feeds. I think that's where Kickmen's dry sense of humour comes from - the game is my response to people who love football and yet somehow don't understand there's just absolutely no such thing as 'avoiding' it.
IBWM: Are all of the sly references just from stuff you've absorbed via passive osmosis over the years, or was there at any point a conscious effort to make it as accurate an anti-football football game as possible?
DM: It's a bit of both. Some of it is willful ignorance but if push came to shove I could probably write a 90% correct football game. But that's not the joke, right? The joke was people on Twitter getting involved and they're really the ones that shaped what the game became, because even if I knew what a rule was, I'd have to think of a way of misrepresenting it in order to fulfill what people wanted from the game. It's a tricky balance to get right - making sure it's both funny and good game design that's fun to play.
IBWM: You've mentioned in other interviews that you've never played FIFA or PES, but do you have any thoughts on Football Manager and its gigantic cult following?
DM: Football Manager is an odd beast because it's digging into something unique about football: the business side of it and the training and all that kind of stuff that's a layer above the muddy reality of kicking a ball in the rain. I often thought if someone made a 1:1 clone of Football Manager but replaced Teams and Players with Spaceships and Pilots I'd be well into it. Like, deeply, darkly into it.
IBWM: Are you at all miffed that you're still not listed in Wikipedia's list of association football video games?
DM: It's an outrage, I'll send Jimmy Wales an email right now.
IBWM: What inspired the visual aspect of Kickmen - not only the in-game stuff but also the menus, the cutscenes, etc?
DM: The in-game stuff was how my mind's eye remembers Sensible Soccer, although I've since seen screenshots and I was pretty wrong. The main cutscene was a rip of Saturday Afternoon Sports Things I've seen on telly, again half-remembered and half-wrong.
IBWM: Do you think you'll ever add multiplayer and do incremental yearly releases with slightly better graphics, or would that be too on-brand?
DM: No. Beccause Kickmen started as a GameJam, the code's too dreadful and needs a complete rewrite to even consider adding things like multiplayer, or console ports. Another version with All That was entirely dependent on how this version went down, and while it's sold enough to make its money back it hasn't "taken off" to the degree that would make any additional content worthwhile. It isn't a viral next Indie Game Smash Hit, it's another one of those where it's done okay.
IBWM: Has your appreciation of the sport increased or remained about where it was when you started?
DM: I think I get it a bit more; I get the unbelievable high drama football matches can conjure up when the game's been so close and the opposition gets a penalty in the dying moments and it just misses. I think I understand how the occasional unbelievable high like that can carry an otherwise-boring hour's drab kickabout.
IBWM: The £200 million transfer fee recently paid for Neymar could buy about 71,684,000 copies of Kickmen; which purchase do you think is a better value?
IBWM: What game from your back catalogue would you recommend to people who enjoy Kickmen, whether or not they're football fans?
DM: I think I'd always push people towards Time Gentlemen, Please! While [2015 release] The Swindle is amazing, I'm aware that there's a lot there I'd change or do differently given the opportunity, whereas there's nothing I'd change about TGP.
Interview by Dan Orlowitz, Subculture Editor
Behold The Kickmen is available on Steam (Windows/OSX) for about £2.79 or equivalent in your local currency. Support your friendly local indie devs!
Follow Dan Marshall on Twitter at @danthat