There have been a bunch of football video games released over the last couple years, and each has tried to bring a unique style and gameplay to the virtual gridiron. Several of these football games have come from “the little guy” and have resonated with me. I now think we can add 26K’s arcade-style football video game to that list. Sure, it might still be in Early Access, but there’s enough at the core of Sunday Rivals‘ gameplay to be excited.
Last month, Bob gave his impressions of Sunday Rivals where he echoed my excitement. We will have even more news and information on 26K’s football game as release approaches. But for now, enjoy this Sunday Rivals Q&A with the creative mind behind the game, Ryan Kamins.
How did you get into making video games? Tell me about your journey.
Ryan Kamins: I had a fascination with computers at a really early age. We had an Atari XL that came with BASIC and a book with some simple code examples you could try out and I remember that being pretty significant in opening my eyes to the idea that the computer was more than just a game machine or a word processor. When I was 14, we got a PC and I was enamored with trying to figure out how everything worked inside of it. I forget which DOS exe it was (DOS Shell?), but one of them gave you a hex editor and I started nosing around in the files for all my games. Occasionally, you’d find an actual word in a jumble of characters and numbers and I wondered what would happen if I changed that word. The game that opened up that door was Cinemaware’s TV Sports Basketball, which had all the players’ names listed in the code. So I started swapping out their names with real players and that was fun, and then I started wondering what all the other bits of code in there did and started messing with them. Eventually, I figured out that the code between the players’ names controlled their abilities and that kinda lit a spark in me to dig even deeper. DOS had QBASIC built into it and I wanted to make my own basketball game in it, which eventually turned into a little text-based basketball “game” that exists on a floppy disk somewhere out there…
I messed around with more little game ideas and worked on a few internet projects over the years that all fizzled out, but during that time I was mainly focused on my job and improving as an artist. One day, a friend of mine introduced me to a game engine called Blitz3D, which was a full 3-D engine that ran BASIC so I was able to jump right into and started learning to make stuff again. One of the first things I tried to make was actually a football game, but skill-wise I wasn’t even close to being able to make anything playable, let alone fun. Over the next 15 years or so I just kept at it, trying and learning new things along the way and slowly becoming more proficient. In the middle of that around 2008, I started working in AAA games and being able to see how games were built on a larger scale helped me better understand game design and project scope. Eventually, with a lot of time and hard work, I released my first full game Mini Hockey Champ! the year I turned 40.
According to the official Steam website, Sunday Rivals is a fresh take on the hard-hitting, action-packed football games of the past. Which begs the question, what games inspired you the most when creating Sunday Rivals?
Kamins: Obviously, Tecmo Bowl was a huge inspiration, especially from the point of accessibility. People who didn’t understand the game of football generally ‘got’ Tecmo Bowl, so pick up and play is something I’ve been trying to weave into Sunday Rivals from the start. A similar game in that vein for me was Joe Montana Football on the Genesis, which was really bare bones but just felt great to play. In a broader sense, I’ve always loved how older games were presented, the over the top animations in Baseball Stars 2, the cutscenes in Bad New Baseball (wholly underrated game by the way), and the ridiculous action in Midway games (Jam/Blitz/Hitz), I’m still really trying to capture that kind of energy in this game.
It is well documented that you single-handedly created Sunday Rivals. What has been the most difficult challenge in creating a football video game from the ground up? Have you leaned on anyone to help push you through?
Kamins: I think the most difficult thing has been exactly what you just mentioned, building a football game from the ground up. Mini Hockey Champ! was built from a collection of “things I wouldn’t do again” so I really started from scratch on this game. I spent a lot of time trying to establish how the game felt early on and luckily I was able to get some confirmation on my direction when I released the prototype version back in January.
One aspect that’s been a big challenge for me is tuning the AI, just because that means so many different things. There are the obvious ones like, do the AI runners run into their blocker’s backs instead of hitting open holes (yes, they sure do) plus more complex issues like trying to balance out just how good an AI opponent should be to play against and what that even means to different types of players. I try to listen and watch the community play the game and better understand what’s working and where I need to focus my energy.
I have to say that I’ve had some really supportive conversations with other folks making indie football games right now, folks like Javo and Shawn Wignall, and that has been incredible to be a part of. I think we all probably started making our games for similar reasons so there’s definitely a tangible, concerted effort in the various approaches we’re taking and I think that resonates.
What does a “day-in-the-life” of a video game creator look like? What does a busy day look like in the development process? Do you have any advice for inspiring young video game creators?
Kamins: It’s funny because it’s definitely changed since we’ve been stuck at home for the last six months. Prior to quarantine, I had a really regimented schedule. I’d get up at 6 a.m. and work on Rivals for a few hours before work — and maybe if I was feeling up to it after a full day, put in another hour or so when everyone was asleep. It was all about squeezing out time from a busy schedule. Now with everyone home and me also working from home, my schedule is maybe an hour before work, plus a bit during lunch break, an hour after work before dinner, maybe an hour when the kids are asleep. It’s really split up now and can be challenging to get into a rhythm.
Having a full-time job means this will forever be a thing I do in my spare time, so it’s about finding ways to be as efficient as possible in those hours and developing strong work habits. When you get older, staying up until 3 a.m. becomes untenable, so you have to make life adjustments and fully understand your capabilities. You need to be able to adapt your plans to capitalize on your strengths. My games look the way they do because it’s a style I’ve been using for the last 20 years and I can rapidly create anything I need in it without much friction. That frees me up to focus on the areas I’m weaker in and try and get them up to par.
We joked in private about whether or not Miami’s QB would be left-handed in Rivals, and you said it would be incredibly difficult to do so this cycle. What other obstacles have you faced in developing a video game? And what might we see added in future updates, sequels, etc.
Kamins: I have literal pages of notes and ideas for things I’d love to add to the game. Some are going to make it in and others will either stay on the back burner or end up on the cutting room floor. One of the things I’ve battled with during development is managing the expectations of what’s possible as a solo developer and all those things everyone is hoping for (myself included). Early on, I made a conscious decision to prioritize development speed over everything else, so a lot of what’s in the game really is unfinished and first-pass work. On the plus side, I’ve made a football game in 6 months — that’s pretty good! On the other hand, it leads to a lot of questions like “will this game have a crowd?” which is expected because it’s definitely a turnoff to folks who can’t quite see the final version of the game in their head yet like I can. Yes, there will eventually be a crowd, but I don’t think it’s worth my time right now when the gameplay needs so much and I’m trying to bring new modes to the game. Unfortunately, I make that decision at the expense of attracting new players who aren’t willing to invest in the game yet and that’s totally fair.
Speaking of new modes, I’m currently working on adding one into the game, something that wasn’t previously planned either. I got the feeling that exhibition games alone would start to wear thin on Early Access players so I came up with an idea that I thought would be fun and also serve as a bridge between major releases. So, it’s not season mode, but a lot of the systems I’m making should directly fold into my plans for seasons, which feels like a win-win. I haven’t named it yet, but the idea is a single-elimination tournament with increasing difficulty and a special scoring system. I’m hoping to reveal more about it soon!
What are you most proud of with Sunday Rivals? And what is something you’re still struggling to tune?
Kamins: Honestly, I’m most proud of the reaction from players who’ve tried it out and genuinely enjoy playing it. That’s a cliche as hell answer, but it’s the truth. I made this game because I felt like I wasn’t enjoying football games anymore and realized that feeling was definitely something other folks were experiencing. So to go from “screw it, I’ll make my own football game!” after a couple of late-night bourbons to actually having that game exist right now has been incredible. When I hear people tell me about their experiences in the game, and they echo back some of my own sentiments and how they’ve missed playing something like this over the years — that’s just an indescribable feeling.
Could we see a multi-season franchise mode later down the road?
Kamins: I hope so. I know that’s an incredibly desirable feature for a lot of players out there. I worry about saying yes when I’m not really sure what it would entail and whether or not I could build the type of experience people want. When I think about franchise mode, it feels like a separate simulation game built on top of an existing football game, so I imagine there’s a fair amount of work involved in making that both a reality and a compelling experience people actually want to invest time into. I’m not interested in building something for the sake of a bullet point — I don’t think that’s fair to players. When Early Access is complete, I’m going to spend some time planning where the game is going post-v1.0 and franchise will definitely be part of that discussion.
You made a hockey video game back in 2017 called Mini Hockey Champ. What are some things you may have learned going from one sport to another, specifically how it pertains to video games?
Kamins: Much of Sunday Rivals was birthed from the ashes of the Mini Hockey Champ! development and launch. I consider MHC a success in the fact that it exists and it is pretty much what I hoped to build. However, the reality of that game’s development and post-release life essentially forged a roadmap of mistakes to avoid going forward. Putting Rivals into Early Access so quickly stems from how long I spent on MHC without getting any real feedback about where that game was and where it was headed. The strong focus on customization is a direct result of how many players wished they could edit rosters in MHC. Spending way more time tuning difficulty and accessibility came from hard lessons learned when people complained about how unfair MHC’s AI could be. I had to come to the realization that not everyone was as good at NHL 94 as I was and there were a whole bunch of similar assumptions I made that didn’t pan out. Likewise, not everyone knows football inside out and there’s room there to make concessions for folks who just want to mess around and have fun. So far Sunday Rivals seems to be doing a pretty good job straddling that line between challenge and fun on most accounts.
How important has the community been for you and Sunday Rivals?
Kamins: The community has been incredible and I’ve leaned on them to give me as much raw feedback as they can to help build something we can all enjoy together. I created a Discord channel after the prototype came out and a few folks (mostly readers from OS) stopped by to hang out and stuck around. The Discord has grown a lot since then as more folks have found the game and wanted to share their love and non-love for what they were seeing and eventually playing. I try and share what I’m working on a daily basis, and it’s great to get real-time feedback on what’s working in a new update and what people are frustrated with. I’ve been able to fix a handful of bugs so far with the support of players who are able to provide video or write-up their steps on the game locking up. Plus it’s great to just hear people’s ideas and see where their heads are at with everything. Looking ahead, I can’t wait for the community to get their hands on the new mode and start competing for scores!
Which do you prefer, NFL Street or Blitz?
Kamins: As much as I love Blitz, I think Street is actually kind of amazing even though I’ve only ever played it a tiny bit way back when. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos of folks playing it before I made the prototype and was blown away by how fluid that game plays so many years later. It really rivals and even surpasses modern games in that aspect.
Could we see a basketball or baseball game from you? Tell us, what’s next after this?
Kamins: I have an incredible idea for a basketball game I’d love to make. It’s way, way out of scope for something I could pull off unless I was able to devote full-time work to it. I try not to think about it too much because I find myself getting distracted with how much I like the idea.
I would love to make a baseball game, but I’d take it in the opposite direction and just make something super, super simple — like 8-bit simplicity and do the whole thing in 90 days.
Honestly, I don’t know what’s next. I’m just getting started with Sunday Rivals. I don’t want to make Sunday Rivals 21 or anything like that. I want this game to be the game you buy once and play forever, so there’s a lot of work to be done before that’s a reality.
Lastly, please tell our loyal readers where they can follow your work and what we can expect from Sunday Rivals in the coming weeks.
Yup, so the new game mode is 100% of my focus right now and there’s a fair amount of additional tweaks and adjustments that will come along with that update. I hope to put out a video at some point kind of outlining what I’m adding, so, a good place to get in on that information early would be to follow me at:
And you can always jump on the Steam forums, I’m constantly checking in on those too!