While Wrestling Empire is no critical darling, sole developer Mat Dickie is used to that reception, having been making his own professional wrestling games since 2000. Despite unusual visuals and unpredictable gameplay, these titles have achieved a cult following – it's not a huge leap from the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy wrestling to the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy Wrestling Empire.
Englishman Dickie himself has a rather unusual reputation in the world of video gaming. He's been described as "the best worst game developer" and has even been called gaming's answer to The Room's Tommy Wiseau.
Nintendo Life caught up with Mat and cut a promo on Switch development, the changing wrestling audience, and the inherent contradiction of a real game based on a fake sport.
Nintendo Life: What draws you to professional wrestling? What's your history with the sport?
Mat Dickie: Jerry Seinfeld joked that if wrestling didn't already exist, who would think to invent it?! And yet the 20th century gradually gave us less of a sport and more of a spectacle, with its own rules and traditions that millions of people quietly accept. I like the idea of it being lightning in a bottle in that sense. Games about it just stir the pot even more, because you're reverse-engineering something that's "fake" and turning it into a real competition! It's the only genre I can think of where a game changes the nature of its subject that much. As a developer, it's fascinating to walk that line.
Did you grow up watching wrestling? Do you still follow it?
Yes, I had one phase of enjoying it in the early '90s as a credulous child and then again in the late '90s as a discerning adult. The latter is when I become more interested in the backstage politics of why they're choosing to depict certain things. Regardless of what happens in the ring, that has always been very real! Even when I'm not watching the TV show religiously, I'm always following the news about it. It's no coincidence that backstage gossip became an integral part of my career mode.
You've been making wrestling games for a while; how did you get started?
Before I even owned a computer, I was making my own card games about wrestling as a child – with all the same stats and mechanics that live on in my work today. When I finally got my hands on a PC as a teenager, that just became a natural outlet for the same desire to make my own entertainment. I hit the ground running and never looked back. At first, I could only make text games that described the action. Then I could only make 2D games that recalled the 16-bit era, until I eventually found myself making primitive 3D games. I just embraced the limitations of each period and turned any weaknesses into strengths – such as being able to depict more characters that load quicker. By the time mobile gaming took off in 2012, I was perfectly suited to making those compromises.
What challenges has developing for the Switch presented? Conversely, what are the benefits of working with the system?
As a PC or mobile developer, this was the first time I could really lean into the idea of people using a controller as standard – and possibly up to four of them for multiplayer. It was certainly a challenge to accommodate any given combination of Switch controllers at any moment! I had to re-imagine the match setup and character selection screens, which is more "what you see is what you get" than anything we had previously seen in wrestling. Even while a match is taking place, I'm quite happy with how versatile the system is at allowing players to check in or check out. I've had more problems with mainstream games when somebody walks out of the room!
What are the major inspirations behind Wrestling Empire?
If my 2D wrestling games were inspired by the Super Nintendo then my 3D wrestling games are inspired by the Nintendo 64 – which is held up as a golden era of gameplay over graphics. The technical limitations of that era forced people to get their priorities straight and put the fun first, whereas complacency crept in once we had photo-realistic visuals. It's definitely something I can identify with as an independent developer, because we're the ones who have to make those compromises today. It means all the more to be doing it on an actual Nintendo console, where that spirit can be kept alive for nostalgic retro-gamers as well as a new generation.
If my 2D wrestling games were inspired by the Super Nintendo then my 3D wrestling games are inspired by the Nintendo 64 – which is held up as a golden era of gameplay over graphics.
Do you play the contemporary wrestling games such as the 2K series, Battlegrounds, etc? How do you find them?
The truth is that I rarely have time to play games while I'm busy making them. Every hour I spend in front of a screen doing one thing would take away from the other. Even when I do play a wrestling game in particular, it's difficult for me because my mind turns to what I would have done differently. It can be especially frustrating because WWE's games tend to get the difficult things right and the easy things wrong! It's extraordinarily difficult to make a game look like that, with all the customization on top. Making it fun to play is supposed to be the easy part. All that requires is passion, but that's the one thing you can't fake. It certainly seems to be harder to keep it alive in a team environment.
We think it's fair to say there's a distance between critics' appraisal of your work and the reception the game has received from wrestling fans. Do you have any thoughts on that?
There has always been that friction with professional critics because my games hit the eye like a train wreck for anyone who has spent hours in front of Breath Of The Wild or Red Dead! It's an acquired taste, where you almost have to rewire your brain to accept the absurdities I'm going to lay out in front of you. I know because I've had to do it myself. If I haven't been developing in my own world for a while, or when I switch from 2D to 3D, the weaknesses of the modelling and animation offend my eyes until I accept it as normal – as many others have learned to do. But if you can get past the compromises I've made, I give people the freedom to have a magical experience that they can't find anywhere else. People see what they want to see in that sense.
Your mention of rewiring the brain to accept the game's absurdity sounds pretty similar to the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy pro wrestling in the first place. Would you say Wrestling Empire captures the spirit of pro wrestling, in that respect?
Yes, it's a similar mentality where you're presented with a series of compromises that you're challenged to see the good in. Independent games wouldn't be anything without independent thinkers to give them a chance, so I'm fortunate to have attracted so many of them. Wrestling even crept into the way I would market the games in the early years, playing "heel" because any reaction is better than no reaction! These independent games also mirror how independent wrestling has risen to the forefront, with lighter performers taking risks that you can't see anywhere else. Being predictable and heavy is weighing down both professions.
independent games also mirror how independent wrestling has risen to the forefront, with lighter performers taking risks that you can't see anywhere else. Being predictable and heavy is weighing down both professions.
Have emerging promotions like AEW and the rising popularity of New Japan Pro Wrestling had any impact on your work?
I call myself a "fan" of Japanese wrestling, but I've never actually consumed it on a weekly basis or understood what they're fighting about. All I know is I liked the hard-hitting style they had which seemed to take it seriously. It definitely inspires my games, where I make you feel the exhaustion of a drawn out match and you're not sure how it will end. The American style is more like playing Street Fighter, where you automatically win just because your opponent has no health. I was onboard for more of a "sports-based" product in the West when AEW claimed to be one, but they've yet to deliver on that in my opinion.
How has your own audience changed as the wrestling audience has changed, if at all?
I feel I've actually benefited from it quite a lot, as my audience has only ever grown even when the sport itself has been in a lull. My theory is that people are tired of the televised product, but they're not tired of the concept or what it meant to them in the past – and that's where people turn to games to engage with it on their own terms. You can also see that in the popularity of podcasts that revisit the past. The Nintendo release has been a pivotal moment for me, as I've heard from people who were playing my games twenty years ago as well as new players who never even knew these games existed. In many cases, we're literally talking about people who have become parents in the intervening years and are now playing with their children. That means a lot.
What do you rate as the best examples of pro-wrestling games? Besides your own, naturally.
My fondest memories are of discovering WCW/nWo Revenge on the N64 back in 1998, because I went into that with no expectations and was suddenly presented with unparalleled depth and customization, whereas the WWF games that followed were more of the same by comparison. I've always admired the customization in WWE's recent games. Most genres don't have to worry about that at all, so wrestling games don't get enough credit for allowing you to change every aspect of a character's model and costume.
You've promised ongoing updates for Wrestling Empire; could you tell us what sort of features and additions to expect?
There's a whole other management side of the career mode to look forward to, which will challenge you to run your own company. That's actually what the "Empire" in the title is supposed to refer to! I'd also like to introduce some free-roaming elements to make this an even deeper simulation of life as a wrestler. Along the way, there'll always be plenty of new moves in the ring as well.
Can you expand at all on the free-roaming elements you'd like to add, and the more in-depth management side you're planning to introduce?
My wrestling games have always tried to make every step as interactive as possible – from making your entrance at the curtain to walking back through it when you're done. I'd like to go one step further and literally follow them backstage, where they can have meetings in real-time and make their own way home. Choosing how to spend your energy is an important part of being a wrestler, so you'd have to decide what to eat, what stats to train, and when to sleep, etc. Roaming could always back-fire and become just as much of a chore as real life, but I'd like to find out for a fact! It's better to regret the things you do than the things you don't do.
Finally, what's your favourite wrestling match of all time?
Bret Hart vs. Roddy Piper at Wrestlemania 8 stands out for me. I just remember being so invested in the idea that these guys were family friends who had to fight over the Intercontinental and really walk that line, which they did right through to one of the most creative finishes I had seen. Bret Hart was indeed the best there ever will be. I took a lot of inspiration from his style when coming up with all the different ways of combining wrestling moves.
We'd like to thank Mat for his time. Wrestling Empire is available on the Switch eShop now, and you can read our review to find out more.