From gif to game: The making of Dan Marshall's Behold the Kickmen

From gif to game: The making of Dan Marshall's Behold the Kickmen

In April 2016, indie developer Dan Marshall from Size Five Games tweeted a gif of a little football project that he – someone who didn’t know much about football – had thrown together.

This intrigued Twitter, and the idea exploded in popularity, so he decided to make this into a full game.

That went on to be Behold the Kickmen, which launched on July 20th. 

So, how did Behold the Kickmen start out?

It was weird. One of the things I have learnt over the last few years about promoting games, especially on Twitter, is that getting any traction for your stuff is like getting blood from a stone. So, I'd put up a gif of [Marshall's 2015 release] The Swindle looking gorgeous and it gets 20 retweets and likes and that's it. You're desperately trying to get people to share what you are doing.

I put this one stupid gif of Kickmen up and it was nothing, it was a shit hand-drawn Sensible Soccer character running on some green and it just went mental, so I put another of them kicking the ball about. The more I put up, the more it got shared. The reason I turned Behold the Kickmen into a game is that –  getting anyone interested in a game is extremely hard work and that just immediately took off over time.

My son was born just before The Swindle came out, so I didn't get much of anything done for a very long time. I messed about making some stuff, I did some prototyping and ideas stuff but I was getting too bogged down with the thing I was working on, it wasn't going well in a lot of ways so I thought I should break out and do something else. I watched the trailer for Super Arcade Football and thought that a football game seemed quite manageable little thing. Originally it was going to be a game about kicking a ball against a wall; Sensible Soccer meets Super Hexagon about doing keepy uppy stuff, simple but hard. Then it took off and people were asking if it was going to have teams in it, whether it would have the World Cup. Everyone massively misunderstood what I was making but they were obviously much more interested in making that game rather than this thing that I am doing. So it took off from there.

At what point did it stop being a joke and start being something you actually wanted to commit to?

When Twitter featured it and my notifications just went wild. Kotaku did a piece, it was on the BBC. It was all over. Normally if I want someone to cover my game I email them saying: 'Hey, here is my game, please cover it'. This was the first time I had people coming to me asking if we could talk about it. When my Twitter notifications were going mad, I thought there was something in this that I should sort out.

I spoke to someone a while ago who said they couldn't stand football but they loved playing Sensible Soccer. That's something we can identify with. There are people of a certain age who loved Sensible Soccer, even I did. I sometimes look at football games having this infinite replayability. If you have ten minutes to play a game, you can't sit down with Metal Gear Solid, but you can sit down for ten minutes of football. I was always quite jealous there wasn't a game like that that existed for me. It appeals to a certain type of gamer who fancies playing a sports game but doesn't have any interest in actual FIFA stats nonsense.

Do you think that gifs are an effective way of pitching games or concepts?

Gifs are a very good way of diluting information on certain things. There's one developer called Mike Black making this incredible game about driving cars. It's a top-down action game in a wasteland and it looks astonishing. It has a really tight colour palette. I saw one gif of a car swirling dust around and I really want to play that game. I have no idea what the rest of it is – is it procedurally generated, is it an adventure game? But it doesn't really matter as that one gif is shit hot. Maybe there is something in making sure your game is definable quickly. Gifs are like a lift pitch.

Given the community focus on Kickmen, was Early Access ever something you considered for Kickmen?

I was lucky to get into the indie games scene quite early on, I've got a few games under my belt now and I'm still making money. I'm financially comfortable enough that I don't need to go into Early Access. It's a great idea for community-driven stuff but I have noticed that you can talk to any developer who has done Early Access and they'll tell you there's so much blow back from the people who have supported it – fans who become super demanding. I don't need that, and because I don't need the cash, I don't want that agro from people who don't understand that if I tweet a picture of myself at the beach or having a pint, they're not entitled to my free time. I have an army of beta testers, people who recorded some of the crowd noises and in return, I gave them a beta key. There are so many people feeding back to me but doing it out of the goodness of their hearts rather than because they've given me a fiver. Early Access took off and did really well with a select few games but very quickly it soured because so many people took advantage of it. You have to be so careful putting a game in Early Access. The thing is it's a funding model as well as a marketing model.

Getting that balance between funding and marketing right is astonishingly difficult. You need the money and you need to promote it but it's an odd thing. I don't need the cash so I've never seen it as a thing for me. I want to be able to go to the seaside, I don't want to feel beholden to 30,000 people who have given me a fiver.

Early Access might have served well for Kickmen, it might have got it out sooner and it might have got that feedback and it might have made the game tighter earlier, which would have been great. I've also enjoyed myself making it. I'm not interested in making myself miserable for the sake of making video games. I want to enjoy what I'm doing, and doing it in a relaxed, over the course of a year way instead of scrabbling around and doing it in Early Access in the space of five months.

After the gif went crazy, how was the actual process of developing Behold the Kickmen? 

It was a struggle for the longest time because I made it in about four months last year, but it wasn't engaging, it wasn't brilliantly good fun to play. I stopped making it at the end of last summer and just kept going back to it, trying it on people and getting feedback from people. Oddly enough, someone asked me a few months before it came out what happened to it. So I figured I should probably just release it, I'll put it up on Steam just so it's done and out of my life. I made a trailer for it and then realised that the Steam Sale was about to start.

I'm not going to launch a new game in the middle of a Steam Sale. So I decided to leave it a few weeks so I could give it a decent splash. So I spent that month polishing it up and finishing it nicely, putting some bells and whistles on it, just putting that bit of effort in and it's now really good. I started off polishing it up and putting little bits and pieces in and fun stuff, but the more I played it, the more I realised what problems it had. Some of the systems were a bit complicated and didn't play to the game's strengths. I also made some big tweaks to the AI and made them a lot harder a lot earlier. There's a really steep curve to the difficulty now. It used to be a straight line where teams just got harder but now they start quite easy then ramps up. That made the game way more interesting. I'm really grateful that the Steam Sale got in my way because it took me three weeks to take the game from being kind of okay to being great.

Who would you say Kickmen is for?

It's weird. I have no idea who this game is really for. It's definitely not for people who like football because they'll be really angry about how rude it is about their hobby and how genuinely dismissive it is about the entire culture. And people who don't like football won't like it because it's basically football. The Venn diagram there is a very narrow market.

I guess it's for people who like silly indie games and like the idea of playing a little sports thing. That said, people who played Sensible Soccer and want something like that will enjoy it. 

This is a minor release; this isn't the next big title from Size Five Games. I'm not planning on this making enough money for me to go live in the Seychelles, this is a silly little thing that took off wider than I expected.

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PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.