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The Shifting Continuum: An Arc System Works Interview
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The Shifting Continuum: An Arc System Works Interview

October 12, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

When it comes to 2D fighting games, there are three big names -- Capcom, SNK, and Arc System Works. Capcom's Street Fighter is exacting and relatively precise, while its Marvel vs. Capcom series is controlled combo chaos. SNK's King of Fighters series is the anti-Street Fighter, stringing combos together with fetishistic precision, occasionally crippled by infinites and game-breaking combinations.

Arc, meanwhile, has been going in its own direction with Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, two very popular fighting game series that draw on anime for their look, and a love of the combo for its systems. It's the youngest child in the major 2D fighting game family, combining the combo-heavy nature of MvC, with the cancels and many gauges of KOF, along with its own, very distinctive flair.

Though it's easy to analyze them as building upon what has come before, an exacting attention to detail has ensured Arc's games have a style all their own. Even if the characters were reskinned, any fighting game fan would instantly know an Arc game simply by feel.

The company takes pride in its characters, making them diverse enough to appeal to different players not only in terms of their play style, but also their look and extensively detailed backgrounds. Distinctive characters -- whether you're talking look, feel, or gameplay design -- are its hallmark.

We spoke with Arc system Works programmer Tatsunori Ishikawa and CTO Hiroyuki Masuno to find out what makes the company's games so singular.

What, to you, makes a good fighting game? Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have a unique style, and you're obviously trying for a unique direction.

Hiroyuki Masuno: It's certainly the case that, with titles like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, we have a certain Arc System Works kind of direction and we aim to pursue that throughout development.

Tatsunori Ishikawa: I think it's part of the producer's goals to take that unique sort of anime "look" and have that reflected in the games -- the idea that you have this corral of anime characters that you're able to personally control.

When it comes to the system itself, what do would you consider the most important components?

TI: In games like these, which you could call "combo" games, control response becomes very important -- that very quick and responsive feedback you get whenever you press a button. That's what enables players to do things like cancel combos and make things feel exciting and fun along the way -- that sense of excitement as you link combos together. That, plus the anime look, is what I think defines us.

With that kind of combo-heavy gameplay, it seems like the game gets increasingly complicated with each iteration. Does that concern you, or do you prefer to focus on the hardcore fighter fans?

TI: No; instead of that, I think we do aim for a system that even light users can take the reins with. "Combo" games like these look difficult at first glance, but like with Capcom's Street Fighter II, once you try them out, they're not as difficult as even some much simpler games. With BlazBlue, we have Stylish Mode, where you can just press the buttons rapidly to perform combos -- the purpose of that is to give beginners a way to better enjoy the game.

BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend

Capcom has implemented that, too, especially in the portable versions of their games. Do you think people who use those modes eventually graduate into really digging in to the game's more complex systems?

TI: Well, in the first [BlazBlue] game, Calamity Trigger, you had the Easy Special feature that worked along similar lines, and with [sequel] Continuum Shift, there was an Easy Mode, but with Continuum Shift 2 it's become Stylish Mode. It lets you break out combos by pressing a button repeatedly. So you have the Special button, the Normal button that you have to bash on, the Drive button, and the throw button, and that forms the control system for this mode. That then enables an assortment of moves to be pulled off with a single button.

How do you design a tutorial to get out of this easy mode and help people understand how to get deeper into the combos? That's always been a difficult thing for fighters.

TI: The home version of BlazBlue comes with a tutorial mode, the sort of thing that starts out with how to walk and continues on with how to execute moves, guard, do throws and so forth. There's a popular character named Rachel, and she walks you through it, and the way she's set up allows for her to be a good gateway character for players just getting started with the game. That, and there's also the Challenge mode which lets you test out and learn characters more readily.

So the idea is that if you're just starting and you find all of it a little difficult, you can jump right in with Stylish mode and experience how the basic flow of a combo-based fighting game like this works. That enables you to see the special moves at your disposal, and then you can use that combo mode to step up your game and get into normal play. The goal of this design is to get players up to the point where they're able to take on other real-life opponents.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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I think an important point about what it means to be a "combo fighter" isnt just a matter of stylishly comboing someone with hits, but doing a series of attacks starting with a blocked one as well. Being able to cancel a blocked attack into a mix up of various sorts(a "pressure string" or "block string") or into things which allow you to return to the position favorable for your character is something that goes hand in hand with a creative combo system. The way games like Skullgirls, Melty Blood, etc set up what sort of options you have for using cancels to create an offense or to have options off ranged attacks are quite different in design, even if to the uninitiated there appears to be no difference.

Combos arent just a matter of execution barrier but of allowing new set ups for risk-reward, allowing new mixups mid combo, allowing different setups for knockdown, allowing different rewards based on positioning and how much super you have, etc. Different games do this differently- skullgirls has a lot more mid-combo mixups and guilty gear/persona/blazblue has more options for combos leading to different setups, especially with certain characters.

It is really a shame that even in games with decent tutorials like Blazblue or Skullgirls, one has to go to the internet to start to understand a lot of stuff like this. Most fighting games dont explain themselves at all,which means new players have a hard time understanding why they lose(or even call the games button mashers), an understanding which is pivotal to the growth and fun that makes the genre so addictive.

I don't think the complexity of fighters is really the problem, but fighters dont give people the tools to process the games. It is like if chess didnt tell you what the hell a knight does, or if rpgs didnt let you easily compare old equipment's stats to new equipment's stats. People aren't shown how to distinguish what a move is for or what is beneficial about certain options, but once they start understanding how to interpret things in fighting games then suddenly an amazing wealth of depth is opened up.

Alfie Parthum
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The term ďcombo gameĒ (コンボゲー) in Japanese is more like something of a catch-all term for a variety of games where combos are (kind of) easy to make and long combos occur (somewhat) frequently. They typically share a number of mechanics, but the combos are the main consideration. So, not just Melty and Marvel, but also recent Tekken installments are often called combo games. SF or KOF, on the other hand, not so much, even though to a certain extent blockstrings are crucial for pressure. Anyway, Arc System Works (particularly Guilty Gear and BlazBlue) is more or less the flagbearer for this subgenre of sorts, which is why I think the term came up.

As to tutorials: At least from my experience when I was diving head-first into the genre (about five years ago), I found that the (fan-made Internet) strategy guides for fighting games that were available in Japanese were fairly comprehensive compared to what materials (of a similar nature) were usually available in English for any given game. In addition, some games even had small (official) strategy guides aimed at beginners in addition to more in-depth ones. I think some things have certainly changed for the better on that front, though I am not prepared to fully evaluate the current state of the genre since I havenít been able to play new releases, and have consequently not seen the current discourse.

I agree that more of these techniques ought to be discoverable within fighting games themselves, but I would surmise that part of that is the quality of what materials often donít escape Japan along with the game. Itís not a great reason, and itís not the only reason, but I think it is a reason.

Daniel Boutros
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Completely agree. The UIs - pertaining to in-game cues in the animation and so forth - also don't hint or teach the rules of the game. It's all trial and error and for many, frustration.

Had a big long whinge about it here (and in the comments field):
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Also Brandon; a shame you are not writing things anymore. Your interviews were always among my favourites.

Brandon Sheffield
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I'm writing things, just on a contract basis.

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I think that people are often distracted by notions of needing to have some sort of big innovation which, while they can produce nice gameplay mechanics, are generally gimmicks that dont really do much. Plus, notions that games need to bend to reality to be fun and appealing are stupid, realism is the antithesis of video games. We already have a genre which has incredibly beautiful gameplay, in my opinion moreso than 95% of almost all other genres. The question is not "How do we make this better?" but "How do we get people to see and enjoy the beauty?" I think many notions of fighting games needing innovation are almost all springing from people who don't really understand them. Almost every other genre needs more innovation and depth, fighting games are the last ones that need them. What they need is, as those articles pointed out in some instances, things that make stuff like "wtf why did lariat make zangief dodge fireball" less baffling and more of just a sense of system/rules of projectile invincibility or whatever, although many games do visual cues of evasion of absorption or "Ah, you got hit because that was an overhead and you were blocking low."

Gameplay improvements, making a game more enjoyable and deep like chess than like checkers, is clearly not something favored by the current market of gamers and gaming journalism. People focus more on things like abstract, loose and ultimately rather nonsensical senses of "content"(ie valueing the mediocre single player content of soul calibur 4 over the actual content and mastery presented by the greater gameplay system in sc5) This is not the field where fighting games need improvement - the field where they need improvement is the image of gameplay- how gameplay is perceived. Ability to understand the games, smaller emphasis on things like combos in many games(combos bring depth and are rather inevitable in any game with a sense of hitstun, but is there really a need for a 1f link instead of a late gatling on hit to make it easy?) so that people can get to the meat of these games more(the mindgames involved, the techniques and strategies which have incredible nuance, etc) as well as things like single player content like SC4's or decent story modes so that people are more interested in trying them in the first place.
Most people dont actively want depth. They merely want things that seem desirable to them in some loose sense of what will or wont be fun. When someone says "Minute changes aren't real innovations to me," that is not because those things arent innovations but because that person is not in the position to appreciate them and would rather have something that, instead of actually innovating, changes the game to something else. Difference is not necessarily new depth.

Clearer demonstration of the games as games like chess and less execution barriers are good things that would help the genre. But trying to change it to something else because of people (who dont see the depth in the first place cant appreciate the differences between Street Fighter 4's Ryu and Guilty Gear's Venom) isn't innovation - it is pandering to someone's mental image of what they want rather than the actuality of something's depth.

What is the goal of such "Innovations" that seek to "break the mold" of fighting games? It is not to make fighting games better(see how real improvements are ignored), it is not to give them more depth(they have tons), it is not to make them have a greater possibility field because they supposedly lack such - it is a matter of people's mental images. People with a light understanding of something want to see something that even they understand is new, regardless of whether or not it makes the game better because they are not even in a position to understand that focusing on making FGs better in depth instead of other genres is like giving a rich man a food stamp.