Realistic simulations of football have their place, but there’ll always be room in our hearts for the stripped-down, more arcade-like renditions of the sport: the top-down delights of Sensible Soccer, for instance, or the snappy, cartoon styling of Super Mario Strikers. All of which explains why Guts ‘N Goals immediately caught our eye: it’s a multiplayer football game with the top-down perspective of Sensible Soccer, a touch of Super Mario Strikers’ cartooniness, plus a big helping of violence akin to nineties sci-fi sports game, Speedball.
So, imagine our surprise when we confidently listed some of these games to Guts ‘N Goals developer Manuel Bolaños, and discovered that he’d never played any of them (“I played a lot of Red Card Soccer for PS2 when I was a kid, though,” he says). In fact, neither Bolaños nor his two collaborators – Gabriel García on graphics and Jacob García Fernández on music – are particularly into football at all.
“The game’s first prototype was made in 2016, and we actually aren’t the biggest football fans,” Bolaños says. “We wanted to make something like an online massive .io game, and we thought it’d be fun to experiment with a football game where you have to score goals while fighting other people.”
Like Dan Marshall’s wonderful Behold The Kickmen before it, Guts ‘N Goals is a sports game created without the burden of sporting knowledge – which explains why the footballers here lumber onto the pitch holding baseball bats, and spend as much time beating each other up as they do scoring goals. The typical Guts ‘N Goals bout unfolds in a dervish of swinging bats and explosive events, with each of the game’s 20-or-so characters equipped with a unique ability: there’s a wrestler named El Ganso, for example, who can grab his teammates and throw them like projectiles. It’s a frantic game – and, according to Bolaños, was almost unplayably anarchic in its early stages.
“We end up discarding the ‘massive .io’ game idea because it was actually crazy when we first tested it with people,” Bolaños says. “At some point, we had 16-ish people playing it at the same time, and it was chaos. We then cycled through three-versus-three, four-versus-four, and five-versus-five while pre-alpha testing, and finally decided that three-versus-three would be the most optimal way to do it.”
Currently residing in Cádiz, southern Spain, Bolaños got into programming when he was eleven. “I told my father I’d like to start making games,” Bolaños tells us, “and he got me Maneesh Sethi’s book, Game Programming for Teens. It taught me a lot about programming fundamentals, and I spent some time making (really bad) games in Blitz Basic 2D. I quickly moved into Game Maker – version five at the time – and I’ve been using it since then.”
True to form, Guts ‘N Goals is being developed in Game Maker Studio 2, with pixel art drawn in the ubiquitous Aseprite, while the sound is created in FL Studio. Bolaños and his collaborators also use Juice FX for animation – it’s one of two applications that Bolaños works on in his day job. “I’m currently working on two game design apps, Pixel FX Designer and Juice FX,” he says. “They require a lot of attention, mostly on the user assistance side of development, but you have to know how to handle your time around game dev, or it will literally consume you.”
Now that the framework for Guts ‘N Goals is in place, though, much of the work has focused on balance – everything from the strength of characters’ abilities to the speed of the ball has to be considered in order to make the game both fair and fun to play.
“We faced a lot of challenges during development,” Bolaños says, “but the biggest that concerned both Gabriel and me was making the game feel good and juicy to play, while conserving clarity and making the gameplay as smooth as possible. Most of the character ideas come from Gabriel, but we always want to make sure that the character is fun to play, as we focus on the game being fun rather than being competitive.”
Given how unusual Guts ‘N Goals is – there aren’t too many football games featuring super-powered athletes wielding baseball bats – testing and balancing the game has, Bolaños says, been a case of trial and error. “We keep a record of all matches, with character selections, MVPs [most valuable players], and win rates,” he says. “It helps a lot to see which characters might be better or more popular.”
The game has gradually become better optimised and more refined over its testing phases, too. “We had some players that could barely run the game when the beta started, and they could play it without any problem when it ended,” says Bolaños.
And with Guts ‘N Goals set to enter Early Access at some point this year, Bolaños and his small team have further plans for the game’s future. “We have lots of plans for new characters, mutators, and stadiums,” he reveals. “We want to support local game modes in the future, and we plan to port it to consoles, too.”
Bolaños may be too young to have sampled the likes of Sensible Soccer or Speedball, but Guts ‘N Goals is shaping up to be a modern entry in a rarefied genre – a hectic, entertaining sports game for people who don’t necessarily like sports games.
Given that Guts ’N Goals characters have such a big impact on the game and the outcomes of matches, how were they conceived? According to Bolaños, the abilities come before the designs themselves. “Our process is pretty simple,” he tells us. “We came up with a character skill idea, I program it, and we playtest it a bit. If it looks fun to us, we then show it to our friends, play some matches, and gather some feedback. Then, if we get positive feedback about the character, Gabriel goes and makes the character’s art design.” Bolaños’ favourite character so far? The team-mate-lobbing El Ganso. “He can use them as weapons and throw them away,” Bolaños enthuses. “I mean, can it get any better than that?”