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Refactor's gameplan for taking on Madden without an NFL license

Indie start-up's Nathan Burba has been thinking about the mod-friendly physics-based Football Simulator for 17 years

When Electronic Arts secured an exclusive NFL license for its Madden franchise in 2005, fans of rival football games like the NFL 2K series were understandably upset.

Most of them likely groused about the loss of a series they enjoyed and moved on. Refactor Games co-founder Nathan Burba was not one of those people.

"I was a really, really avid NFL 2K player," Burba tells "It was my game, the thing I looked forward to every single year, being a football junkie. When that ended because of corporations being corporations with an exclusive license which had never been done before, it was a big blow to me. I even wrote Game Informer back then and they published my angry letter about it.

"That was always in the back of my head, and as I developed as a game developer, I always thought, 'When I get the opportunity, I'm going to make my own football game.'"

Burba co-founded Survios in 2013 and served as CEO for its first five years, but the football game he had in mind wasn't necessarily an obvious fit for the VR developer. Shortly after parting ways with the company, he got an itch to finally act on that idea in the back of his head.

"I was semi-retired for a little but, but the problem was I had so much success early on with VR that I hadn't really gotten the chance to do regular video games, in particular indie games," Burba says. "So I saw an opportunity to create a new indie studio that could focus more on indie sports titles and things that are a little bit different than what I was doing at Survios."

That game is Football Simulator, a physics-based take on the sport that launches into Early Access today.

Burba describes it as "kinda like Gang Beasts meets NFL 2K," but without the fun of the former undermining the authenticity of the latter.

Football Simulator aims to satisfy gridiron purists and party game fans alike

"These are goofy party games, but they are also very exciting, competitive sports simulations," Burba says. "There's no reason why they can't be both."

As one example, Burba says the game will let players "rampage around the stadium" after the play if that's what they want. He looks at entertaining highlight reel clips as inspiration, things like players diving into the fans to make a play and then coming up eating their snacks, or plowing through a bench full of Gatorade containers on the sidelines.

"The idea is to take all of those things that are possible and make them interactive, so they're actually mechanics," he says. "The large crowd dynamic physical simulation of it is very important, and that alone ends up being fun on top of the actual gameplay itself being fun."

Football Simulator is also looking to stand out from the crowd with its RPG mode, where multiple players can take the role of coaches and wander the arena complex, talking to players, holding press briefings and team meetings, and going on quests with players to increase their stats.

"Because Madden has been so stagnant because of a lack of competition, there's just an opportunity there"

"What we're doing is building the foundation so gamers can have a much more rich experience when they're playing a game," Burba says. "It's not just menu surfing and watching cinematics and some gameplay that's not very fun; everything is incredibly interactive. We're constantly striving for that.

"Because Madden has been so stagnant because of a lack of competition, there's just an opportunity there. And generally speaking, there's an opportunity in sports video games for this, because of a lack of innovation over the last 10 years."

Football Simulator's RPG mode will focus on gameplay more than menus

Burba's frustration with Madden and the state of sports video games in general is palpable. It's bad enough that so many AAA sports titles have boiled down to "menu surfing" in his eyes, but that's made worse when those menus have slowdown issues.

"Things that are inexcusable from a development standpoint -- from my perspective -- are just allowed to happen every day in some of these larger titles, and no one bats an eye," he says.

"We're striving to be more nimble and to provide a better core experience, even if we can't provide all the features like an NFL license or a brand tie-in, that sort of thing."

While it won't have an official license, enterprising players will likely be able to get around that thanks to the game's heavy emphasis on modability.

"[We want] to make something heavily modable, with heavy community involvement. Something that's inexpensive, that's evergreen, that has tons of features and is moving past that idea of a yearly game"

Considering the online communities that regularly turn out hacked versions of decades-old installments of dormant football franchises like NFL 2K, Tecmo Bowl, and NCAA Football, Burba believes there's a hole in the market for something that actually invites that kind of tampering from players.

"There's been a general abandonment of good sports video games, in my opinion," Burba says. "The last NBA Jam game was 10 years ago. The fact that there's not another game that comes out like that, or comes out every year, to me it's disrespectful to sports gamers.

"[We want] to make something heavily modable, with heavy community involvement. Something that's inexpensive, that's evergreen, that has tons of features and is moving past that idea of a yearly game."

He was inspired by the creator communities that sprang up around Battlefield 1942 and Doom, and says the game's data is stored in readily accessible .png, .csv, and .json files that players can edit as they see fit.

Right now it's a simple matter for players to replace backgrounds and logos, and Burba says eventually they'll be able to do the same with audio and 3D models.

While the obvious application would be for fans to mod in their favorite NFL teams, Burba wants to see kids recreating their high school team and people making similar total conversions. And because there's no closed ecosystem as with many contemporary user-generated content-driven titles like Dreams, players will be able to distribute their work themselves, which Burba calls "more of an old school approach."

Cultivating a community of modders will also help keep the game fresh for a small development team working on an ambitious game in Early Access.

"We're literally four employees and then some contractors and interns," Burba says. "That's the entire company right now, so we're incredibly, incredibly lean. That will allow us to make the game we want to make and not have to worry about pandering to one group or another to bring in cash. This is much more of a passion project and we can respond directly to customers and implement exactly what they want."

The Refactor Games team

In addition to Burba, the other three Refactor employees are co-founder and lead artist Arman Megurditchian, engineer Nicholas Gathany, and UI/UX designer Christopher Morabito.

We ask about the company's plan for diversity and shaping the studio culture, and Burba is blunt in his response.

"We have no plan for diversity," he says. "We want people who are good developers. And we like diverse opinions and perspectives, but if someone walks in the door and they're a brilliant developer and they look and talk exactly like me, I'm not holding that against them."

As for studio culture, Burba describes it as intentionally "incredibly laid back."

"This is a studio where the whole point is to be able to hang out with your friends and make cool games, and we want to keep it that way, frankly," he says. "It's about as anti-corporate as you can get."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.