Interviews

Interview With . . . MDickie

MDickie

Self-described as the creator of “the worst games to be enjoyed by millions of people”, MDickie has gained a cult following within both the wrestling and general video gaming communities over the past two decades.

Having developed the likes of Hard Time, Wrestling Revolution 3D, The You Testament, and most recently Wrestling Empire, his games have been downloaded over 200 million times – beating out the likes of WWE, UFC and boxing combined.

Inside The Ropes‘ own Innes McVey got the chance to sit down with MDickie to discuss how his wrestling fandom led to developing wrestling games, embracing criticism from mainstream gaming media, the challenges of developing for mobile and the Nintendo Switch, where he’d like to see the wrestling games industry go from here and much more!

Before we dive into you as a developer, I want to take a step back and ask about you as a wrestling fan in general. How did you first become a wrestling fan? Do you have a specific memory of the first time you saw wrestling?

I can remember the exact day in the playground of school when I was 10 years old in 1990. Somebody pulled out a wrestling card of the Ultimate Warrior and I just thought, ‘What is this? Who is this guy? Why is he dressed like that?’ This larger than life superhero that’s actually a real person and then him and Hulk Hogan got me into checking it out and what it was all about.

Then from there, I developed an appreciation for people like Bret Hart. I fell out of love with it in the middle of the 1990s, pretty much like everybody else, and then I came back in the Attitude Era in 1998 as an adult and I appreciated it for the political reasons. I was really fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes and things like that and that never went away.

Is that where the inspiration for the booking simulation element of your games comes from then?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, even when I was a kid I didn’t realise it, I would book my own shows with the Hasbro WWF figures, I didn’t realise what I was doing at the time. But if you look back on it 30 years later, it’s actually a pretty good preview of what I ended up doing for a living. Now I’m playing with virtual toys but it’s the same spirit. That always subconsciously fascinated me as a child and then as an adult, I thought, ‘OK, what’s going on here?’ That actually interests me more than the actual in-ring product, is how did they come to those decisions in the first place.

So when you were a fan growing up, did you play a lot of the wrestling games when you were younger?

Yeah, I played all of them religiously as and when they came out from 1990 onwards. So starting with WWF WrestleMania for the Super Nintendo, then the Royal Rumble. Then I discovered Fire Pro, which had a little bit more depth, and I discovered Japanese wrestling through that. Then we’re talking about the N64 era and I discovered Virtual Pro Wrestling and even the WWF War Zone, I quite enjoyed that one, and WWF Attitude – I got really excited about that one.

By the time I was making my own games, it kind of became background noise because I was so busy with my own project you can’t possibly indulge it that much and it just quietly disappeared into the background. But it was a good education though, I consider it a good education that set me up to go off on my own.

Totally! There’s clearly a lot of inspiration from those games in your development. So how did that passion for wrestling and passion for games then evolve into you developing games yourself?

So I was always making my own card games and dice games with those wrestling toys and the minute I got my hands on a PC around 1998, that just became a natural extension, a natural outlet, for the same creativity. All the mathematics stayed the same but it was now through programming. I just started getting creative in whatever I could get my hands on, even if it meant taking a PowerPoint presentation and pulling it out of context so that when you click on things, other things happen like a point and click adventure.

Even just text games, if that was the first thing I could make in a programming language or even 2D games, and then 2D games evolved into 3D games and then 3D games evolved into better 3D games. So it’s just never taking no for an answer and always doing the best I can with what little I had access to.

So when I was looking through your early development history, when you were making games like Hardy Boyz Stunt Challenge and The Rock’s Promo Cutter, something you continually mention is that you couldn’t make a proper wrestling simulator at the time. Was that always your goal early on, to make that full-on wrestling simulator?

It was a distant goal and, as I said, it was just a coping mechanism. If I can’t make a full wrestling game, I’ll go as close as I can and I’ll make a game all about the stunts, and then I’ll make a game all about the promos, and I’ll make a game about one match and that evolved gradually into a full wrestling simulator. So nowadays when people come to me and they say, ‘I’m going to make a full wrestling simulator straight away’, I’m taken aback because I know how difficult that is. I know it took me about 12 evolutionary steps to get that far and I do worry about people that are trying to hit a home run first time.

What are some of the challenges involved in developing wrestling simulators? You mentioned there how difficult they can be to make, so what’s the challenges behind the scenes in that?

There are lots of different strands that all go further than any normal game would go. The character customisation, hundreds upon hundreds of characters and the audience expects to customise them to an astonishing extent. If you compare the WWE games to Tekken or something, the character customisation is not something that Bandai Namco are even worried about whereas WWE has to get it perfect.

Then from the characters, you move on to the animations: You’ve got hundreds of synchronised move animations and again, a normal game isn’t worried about any of this. And then from there, you’re worried about the AI of a match involving dozens of wrestlers and dozens of rules trying to make sense of it. Again, a normal game doesn’t have to worry about any of that. From my own experience, I can tell you when I make a game like Hard Time – the prison game – it’s four times easier than making a wrestling game and that is no exaggeration.

You mentioned Hard Time there and I think that’s actually the first game of yours I heard about. Games like that and The You Testament, I always heard about them in general gaming circles as being not very well-received. When did that reputation for you start coming about? Was that hard to overcome early on?

It was day one. The first published game I ever made in 2002 was always going to have those novice flaws. What I do is easy to criticise. It looks easy. It walks that line where it’s difficult enough that you can respect it but it also looks primitive enough that you think, ‘Oh, I could do that. I could do that, he’s exaggerating, it’s not that difficult’. I walk that line where it looks like you could do it but it really is a lot more difficult than it looks.

So I’m easy to criticise. I’m an easy target. It just feels natural for people to criticise me. I’ve just never gotten out of that groove. To this day, people… there’s no polite way of saying that this is not as easy as it looks and a lot of people are going to find that out the hard way.

Is that something you just learn to embrace then or is it always something that’s in the back of your head?

Yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me from my perspective. I know for a fact when I go to sleep at night how hard I’ve worked that day and I know everybody else is guessing and they’re guessing wrong. So I have the confidence of knowing for a fact that what I did has value. I lean into it, I own it, I embrace it and take away its sting, but I’m also mocking people who genuinely believe that because I know for a fact they couldn’t shadow me for a single morning.

You were an indie developer before the big indie game boom of around 2011 and 2012 with games like Minecraft and such blowing up. How has indie game development changed from the 2000’s into the 2010s when those games really started to boom?

The biggest change has been the Internet and being able to distribute software digitally, instantly because I used to have to distribute CD-ROMs and you have to send it to California and wait a couple of weeks for it to be printed off and now that’s all a thing of the past. The result is that things have become a lot more open. That was a big key to my mobile success is Google Play became this very open store and it became very meritocratic. I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do anything. It was all about the audience reaction, all about the user reviews, because for 12 years prior to that, I was at the mercy of journalists and the games industry itself and publishers. I had to have everyone’s approval to take each individual step and then that all disappeared overnight and I haven’t looked back since.

You mentioned there about moving to mobile and the freedoms of mobile. I saw you took a break in 2010 from PC game development and then moved to mobile games. What other reasons were there behind that move to mobile, other than the freedoms that you mentioned?

Well, I’ll tell you what is one thing I’ve missed during the pandemic is walking around and seeing people play my games because I’ve released a game on a handheld console, the Nintendo Switch, and I’ve yet to see anybody playing it because of lockdowns and various restrictions. I really miss that because at the height of the mobile era, I would get on a tube and sit next to someone playing the wrestling game and there’d be a girl here playing the school game and that was a good litmus test for genuine cultural impact that you can’t buy, you can’t fake.

So when I was being told every day that I’m talentless, I’m deluded, I make the worst games ever, all I had to do is step outside the house and the opposite evidence was there. The ultimate antidote was there. So I missed that before the mobile era and I’ve missed it during lockdown. But I’m looking forward to getting back into the airports because I promise this time next year, I will have walked through an airport and I will have walked past two brothers playing a tag team match on the Nintendo Switch and then I’ll sit down at a bar next to someone booking a main event on his iPad.

That will be a good seal of approval for me. If I can’t have critical acclaim or the acceptance of the industry, I can have a genuine relationship with my players.

What’re the main challenges of developing for mobile versus PC, particularly when you’re importing your games from PC over to mobile?

There was a lot of limitations at first. I mean, Wrestling Resolution 3D had a shocking 50 frames per second frame rate which is almost unplayable. It was unplayable at the time, to be honest. But it was a sacrifice that had to be made to get any characters in the ring, let alone a dozen. So you’re constantly making sacrifices like that, compromises like tha to get a game over the finish line.

Even on the Nintendo Switch, I have to compromise a lot to deliver a game that can load up to 30 wrestlers in the ring instantly. It’s a big accomplishment and that circles back to the criticism. I know for a fact what I had to do to get this over the finish line and I know my critics are mistaken when they say otherwise. That’s the best way I can sum it up.

When you were developing Wrestling Empire and you decided to take your first foray into console game development, why was the Switch your choice over the Xbox or PlayStation or another higher-end console?

Well, I completely retired by the end of 2018 and I didn’t intend to come back at all. Then I spent the whole of 2019 playing games for the first time for entertainment and I just found myself playing Super Mario Odyssey on an aeroplane at the time and it did rekindle my love for just games for their own sake. Then the opportunity to develop for that particular console and bring back a low tech wrestling game at the exact moment people were clamouring for one – that was just too much of a setup to miss out.

I did apply to all of them at the same time, Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation, I’ve been accepted into all programmes. But I favoured the Nintendo Switch because handheld, a touchscreen handheld that needed a low tech retro game, that was a perfect fit for me. Whereas all that’s waiting for me on a next-gen console is a lot of criticism about graphics and framerates which I’d rather not have that conversation.

So now I’m happy to lean into this idea that I’m a handheld developer, a mobile developer, because even on Steam we’re going to see the Steam Deck by this time next year. I’ll have carved a nice little niche out for myself as this guy that makes low tech games. The gaming that goes with you is something I’m happy to focus on.

I suppose on Nintendo Switch too, there’s not really a huge amount of competition in the wrestling space. There’s really only WWE 2K18 which had a very rough port…

Yeah, it was a bit shakey. That’s what I was talking about, It’s so difficult to squeeze 3D wrestling onto a Nintendo Switch because it does have its limitations and WWE struggled on that platform and I don’t think any of the other studios want to go anywhere near it. So yeah, I was very excited about coming in there and providing an alternative, a low tech alternative.

You mentioned WWE there and alongside them, there’s obviously various developers now involved in pro wrestling games. Was there ever a moment over the last 20 years where you were contacted by a larger developer about your work around joining their team or something along those lines?

No, that’s never come up. I’ve talked to friends of friends who have spoken to these companies, but to be honest, they don’t want me because I’m a liability who’s going to give them a lot of explaining to do with the graphics and everything. If I show up for an AEW game or a WWE game, they’d have a lot of explaining to do about why it looks like this and why it works like that. They don’t want me and I also don’t want to lose my freedom to them. So we’ve both got things that we value and there’s no real overlap between the two.

Over the last twenty years, we’ve seen a big shift in wrestling game development as a whole and obviously, now we’ve got things like The Wrestling Code, AEW’s console game, WWE 2K22 all coming down the pipeline. How much is the landscape in your mind changed over the last twenty years?

Over the last 20 years? It’s definitely become more accessible because when I was coming up, it was inconceivable that you would make a wrestling game in a small team, let alone on your own. Now there’s a handful of projects by solo developers, let alone on small teams. I take pride in being a small part of making that palatable, acceptable, conceivable, because people have reached out to me themselves and said I was part of that journey. So I’m proud to have been a small part of that and I’m excited to see where they take it.

I saw you posted fairly recently that Wrestling Revolution 3D is the most downloaded sports combat game on mobile. Does that success feed into the idea you mentioned earlier of validation against people who are critical of your development?

Yeah, that was a huge milestone for me! A hundred million downloads on Google Play alone which, quite frankly, is more wrestling fans than there are in the world; there’s probably multiple accounts or something like that. But yeah, the story behind that is that I’ve got a huge audience in countries all over the world so that’s a huge international following. Whereas when you focus on North America and the UK, you can’t even conceive of those numbers.

But part of that is that I deliberately make games that are low tech. You have to understand that the average person is walking around with a mediocre Android phone and for them, my games were the best ones I could get to work. So this Western elitism we have where we think we’re talking about framerates and I’m talking about next-gen consoles, for millions of people, that is not an accessible reality. My mobile success came from just making games accessible for everybody.

Was YouTube a big part of your success? Because you hear a lot back in the day about various YouTubers and content creators helping to boost the sales of indie games. Was that something you found?

Recently a lot of streamers have been playing the games and that’s usually good exposure, although the content is usually negative, the result is usually positive because once you start talking about a game that’s it, it’s free publicity. It’s interesting because YouTube used to be this bane of my existence and it used to be this big red arrow. In my mind, it was this red, ‘Danger, danger, danger’, this painful arrow that was always stabbing me with criticism.

Then I slowly embraced it and turned it around and turned into one of the biggest weapons in my arsenal where I could build up a following of a hundred thousand subscribers and turn that into a silver bullet that works for my company. Now it’s one of the most valuable tools in my arsenal, is having a hundred thousand subscribers that I can rely on to set the right tone and to get excited about projects and about developments without relying on everybody else.

As a fan and developer right now in the industry, where do you want to see wrestling games in general go this year and beyond?

Where I want them to go is… I want them to become less graphics-heavy because that’s the reason we’re not seeing them on the Nintendo Switch. Because if you think about it, the Nintendo Switch is the most popular console in the world right now. It’s the spiritual successor to the Nintendo 64, which everyone says was the golden age of wrestling games, and yet, none of the major studios are developing for it. That’s a big red flag, in my opinion, and the only reason you would come to that conclusion is that you are prioritising graphics over gameplay.

There is no other logical reason why you would avoid that platform, not jump onto that platform. That’s also the reason these games are taking so long to make, which is why they’re becoming so expensive, is a graphics-heavy focus. The minute we step back from that and embrace more of a low-tech style, I think games will become more lightweight and they’ll be all the better for it. The content will come back into focus.

To cap us off, You’ve got Wrestling Empire and there are various updates still to come for it. What are some of your future goals in games development, both in wrestling and just in general?

I think the biggest goal for this game was to… The ultimate aim for this game is to see free roam, so for the first time in 3D, we’ll see some free-roaming adventures because we’ve seen it in 2D and that was very successful. Now all I have to do is transplant that to 3D and hopefully be an even more engrossing experience and the possibility to sidestep and bring that into wrestling for the first time in my games. It’s also an exciting opportunity that I’m looking forward to exploring.

Although thus far the game hasn’t quite been successful enough for that to make financial sense. There’s not enough financial support for me to work on it beyond this year, but ideally, that would have been a good goal.

Huge thank you to Mat for taking the time out to speak to us!

You can download almost every game he’s ever made from his website, check out his Twitter for his latest development updates and get his latest game Wrestling Empire on Nintendo Switch, Steam, Android and iOS!