Old School Gamer Magazine chats with indie game development icon Mat Dickie, who discusses his newest game, Wrestling Empire, on the Nintendo Switch. With millions of downloads for his mobile and PC work, Wrestle Empire marks Dickie’s first console release.

About Wrestling Empire:

Recalling the genre’s 64-bit heyday, this is wrestling that puts the fun first – filling the ring with as many wrestlers as you can handle and letting them loose with freestyle animation where anything could happen at any moment. Design matches before your very eyes with the intuitive setup process, and tag in up to 4 controllers at ANY time for old school multiplayer!

Or create your own star and embark on a career to encounter up to 350 opponents across 10 different rosters in an endless schedule of possibilities. Make the right moves backstage as well as in the ring to fight for your worth and retire with a career worth remembering. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you can even save your changes to each character to make the world your own and never get bored of wrestling again!

Old School Gamer Magazine:
How was this game born?

MD: I considered myself to be retired in 2019, but I ended up playing games for fun for the first time in a while. I especially enjoyed Mario Odyssey, which got me excited about the possibility of developing for the Switch. I thought I had done it all in wrestling over the past 20 years, but bringing a game to Nintendo was one last title I wanted a shot at! Especially if I could hit the 20th anniversary of No Mercy and tap into that desire to put gameplay over graphics again. It required me to spend the rest of 2019 learning Unity and getting to grips with the hardware, but I was excited to discover what would be possible in 2020.

Old School Gamer Magazine: The Switch is starved for wrestling games, what do you think your game adds to the console’s library?

MD: Switch is the Afghanistan of wrestling games. A billion-dollar company failed to conquer it twice, and nobody else even wants that smoke! I felt I could slide into that gap and present people with an affordable, creative alternative – which is lightweight enough to load instantly and put the fun back into wrestling again. My vision was No Mercy with no limits. Nintendo has a proud history of hosting some of the more playable wrestling games, so it’s an honour to step into that arena for a new generation.

Old School Gamer Magazine: What was development like?

MD: I already had my hands full before the pandemic changed all of our plans, because this was my 1st project in a new engine for a new platform (Nintendo no less!). Despite the apparent similarity, everything had to be re-programmed from scratch in C# while incorporating higher quality versions of every asset – from textures to sound. Due to the lockdowns in the UK, this all happened against a backdrop of home-schooling 2 children and fending off related health issues. I only accomplished a third of what I otherwise would, but I was genuinely happy to get to the end of 2020 with anything worth playing at all! I at least had the bare bones of a career mode and exhibitions, but all of my other ambitions would have to wait.

Old School Gamer Magazine: What makes this game special?

MD: After 20 years of compromising, this is the highest resolution and smoothest frame rate I’ve ever been able to deliver. And yet it also loads quicker than any wrestling game we’ve seen before, and can still handle up to 30 characters in the ring. All of which would mean nothing if it wasn’t worth playing, so I’m also proud to have introduced plenty of other innovations that haven’t been seen before or since. Door-to-door interactivity trusts you to make your own entrance AND walk back through the curtain when you’re ready. There’s a new “move melding” system where any move can blend into any other at any moment, along with new lying grapples that increase your chances of doing so deliberately. I believe this is also the first wrestling game to offer dual wield, where you can hold a weapon in each hand! The backstage details are also getting deeper than ever, as there’s even a podcast segment now where you can express yourself and legitimately push forward storylines. If it’s part of the culture in real life, I like to find a place for it in my games!

Old School Gamer Magazine: What games influenced this one the most?

MD: WCW/nWo Revenge actually meant the most to me, because I went into that one with no expectations in 1998 and was blown away by the unparalleled depth and customization. No Mercy was a welcome addition, but more of the same by comparison. Either way, I don’t think any of us ever lost the faith AKI gave us in gameplay over graphics. Back when we were squeezing games onto cartridges, it forced developers to get their priorities straight. Now indie developers are the ones that have to hustle to that extent, so I’ve always been inspired by the “less is more” outlook. If a fake crowd outside the ring puts a bigger crowd inside the ring, that’s what I get excited about! 

Old School Gamer Magazine: Any fun stories or wild moments during development?

MD: You wouldn’t believe how much of this game was made in the passenger seat of a hospital car park with 2 kids playing Mario Kart in the back! We’ll look back at it and laugh one day, but I’m not quite there yet. A happier moment was when I realized I had been testing the Nintendo Switch version in “debug” mode all year. I had been down about how limited everything would have to be, with no more than a tag team match and free roam looking unlikely. A couple of weeks before submission, I tested it in “release” mode and was amazed that it could handle up to 30 characters with the brakes off! That was literally a game changer.

Old School Gamer Magazine: What were the major lessons learned?

MD: Working with Nintendo actually taught me to be Zen because I was in a rush to do everything, whereas they take their sweet time whether you like it or not. I thought I had done enough to release the game in November 2020, but they were more like “see you in January.” It was frustrating at first – especially missing the sheer romance of Christmas. But it turns out I had a more relaxed December than I otherwise would, and used the extra time to put together a series of trailers that were very effective (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikhskNr5dQs). I had a more successful launch week because of that hype. I’d say my work-flow has changed forever now, focusing on one game per year instead of my old scatter-gun approach.

Old School Gamer Magazine: Do you think preserving older gameplay mechanics in new games is important?

MD: I think it’s important to keep what works while improving what didn’t, so I don’t slavishly replicate those older games. They were more sluggish than I would like and tamer in the the risks they took, so I’m just as inspired to take things in my own direction. The perfect compromise for me has been old assets running wild on modern hardware. I’d be happy if games never progressed beyond GTA IV or Street Fighter IV – but worked perfectly. As I said, No Mercy with no limits. I feel the same way about computers themselves, as I’m always waiting for things to load no matter how much technology progresses! I’m sure it’s the name of some “Law” how we grow into any space we’re given. I’d be happier if I had Windows XP running at the speed of light.

Old School Gamer Magazine: How have your previous experiences in the industry helped this game?

MD: I’ve been mocked for my commitment to retro graphics over the years, but when mobiles took off I was perfectly positioned to sidestep into that space and put a wrestling game in your pocket. The Nintendo Switch is yet another example of that, as I was better suited to it than the attempts to squeeze realistic wrestling onto the console. It actually goes even deeper, because the Nintendo Switch uses the same “NVidia Tegra” chipset as the ill-fated OUYA console – which I was mocked for developing on in 2013 (https://twitter.com/Gen_Ironicus/status/363310562911854592). And yet my experience in getting the best out of it actually got me through the door at the biggest videogame company in the world! No effort is ever wasted. You just can’t predict how it will come back to serve you.

Old School Gamer Magazine: How do you want this game to ultimately be remembered?

MD: The reviews have been as short-sighted as ever, but I think history will favour me again here. Nobody made a success of 3D wrestling on the console before, and I don’t see anybody on the horizon who even wants to attempt it (AEW have ruled their new game out). So I’ll certainly have the place to myself for at least the next couple of years – over which time the project promises to triple in size at no extra cost, with management modes and a free-roaming twist to look forward to. It may be a marathon instead of a sprint – an uphill struggle instead of a home straight – but I still believe I’ll be holding the title when the music stops! Either way, I’m pretty sure this is the last time I’ll ever put myself through this process again – so I’m going to leave everything I have in the ring and wish everybody the best of luck in their future endeavours.

Patrick Hickey Jr. Patrick Hickey Jr. (330 Posts)

Patrick Hickey, Jr., is the founder and editor-in-chief of ReviewFix.com and a lecturer of English and journalism at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn, New York. Over the past decade, his video game coverage has been featured in national ad campaigns by top publishers the likes of Nintendo, Deep Silver, Disney and EA Sports. His book series, "The Minds Behind the Games: Interviews With Cult and Classic Game Developers," from McFarland and Company, has earned praise from Forbes, Huffington Post, The New York Daily News and MSG Networks. He is also a former editor at NBC and National Video Games Writer at the late-Examiner.com