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Interview: An Upstart Fighting Game Developer's Radical Re-Think

Interview: An Upstart Fighting Game Developer's Radical Re-Think

April 18, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

April 18, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Design

The 2D fighting game genre has long been dominated by the Japanese. Even in the genre's arcade heyday, the only serious Western contender was Mortal Kombat -- otherwise, all of the notable franchises, including the industry-leading Street Fighter franchise, came from the East.

The situation has not much changed these days. Mortal Kombat is still huge, Street Fighter has revived in spectacular form, and Marvel vs. Capcom is back and very popular. But a new upstart developer, California-based Reverge Labs, has emerged -- and is prepping its first title, Skullgirls -- a 2D fighting game. It will be released as a downloadable console title this summer.

A cartoony game clearly influenced by cult titles like Darkstalkers or Guilty Gear, it seems at first to play very similarly to Capcom's stable of fighting games, with the familiar six button layout the company pioneered and popularized.

However, dig deeper, and you'll find there are some profound differences between Skullgirls and the competition. In this interview, project lead Mike Zaimont explains to Gamasutra exactly what sets the game apart from the titles that inspired it.

You guys are doing something that hasn't been done for a long time, which is create a new 2D fighting game franchise. This is especially rare for a Western developer. Where did the inspiration come from to actually pursue making a new 2D fighting game franchise?

Mike Zaimont: Well, from the gameplay mechanic side, I wanted to make a game that was as easily approachable as possible but still kept all the creativity of the older 2D fighters where you can pretty much do whatever you want and it all works. We've actually done a lot to make it easier for beginners. The game uses the standard six button layout, and some characters have common moves like fireball, Hurricane Kick, and Dragon Punch.

You have experience in fighting games. You have worked with Capcom, right?

MZ: Yeah, I advised them on the console port of Marvel Vs. Capcom 2. And I helped do balance testing and stuff for BlazBlue: Continuum Shift and Calamity Trigger.

There have been very few 2D fighters that are well balanced, outside of a handful of exceptions.

MZ: Yeah, we're actually doing a fair amount to make sure that the balance will end up the way we intended it. Because a lot of the things that usually make games unbalanced are either abusable features that were unintended, or abusable features that were intended, but turn out to be worse than the developer anticipated.

How are you going to test the game, considering that you don't have the same capacity as other developers? You can't really beta it, and you can't do something like a location test.

MZ: I've brought it to pretty much every tournament in SoCal, and we have people come over every Wednesday to play it. The group of people that used to come over and practice for BlazBlue and Street Fighter IV tournaments now comes over and plays this. So we constantly have people that know what they're doing with fighting games testing it.

You talk about fairly advanced mechanics, but you also are talking about accessibility. How do you balance the game to accommodate advanced mechanics and maintain accessibility?

MZ: So one of the easier accessibility examples I can give you is with our character Cerebella. She's a grappler; grapplers normally have 360 input [Ed note: meaning a full circle with the joystick or D-pad] commands and whatever. So we have a throw input already, so if she had a command throw, instead of being a 360 motion and throw, it's just fireball and throw. Instead of a 360 motion and punch, it's just a fireball and throw.

Basically our approach is make it easier to do the things that you want with a character, rather than making into a single button for a special move or whatever. And that also changes game balance.

Yeah, Capcom tried stuff like that with an "Easy Operation" control scheme in some of their games, but it ends up with people just spamming moves.

MZ: Yeah. In this game, if you want to learn how to Triangle Jump, for example, it's not just for experts anymore. It's actually a viable option for intermediate players. The thing is, it doesn't make it faster or more common or anything, because experts do it all the time; it just makes it more accessible. So these are examples of stuff that we're doing to make it easier for beginners to play in ways that haven't been done in games before.

In addition, there are always infinite combos and stuff like that in these types of games, so our approach is to assume players are going to find abuse-able stuff, and then limit what abusable stuff they can actually do, regardless of what it is.

For example, if I do an infinite combo on you, you'll see the hit sparks change and hear the noises change. You can then hit any button to escape, but only if I do an infinite. And it's not number-of-hits based, it's not timing based, it's based on the combo you're actually doing. I don't know why this approach hasn't been taken before, but this is the only way to do it that makes sense to me.

So you're basically taking different approaches to address these sorts of issues.

MZ: Yeah. I'm a player; I know what people are actually trying to do to the game. I'm trying to prevent the things that players are really doing, as opposed to taking an abstract view and saying, "This is what they might be doing." We try to avoid that whole problem, but we still allow long combos and all the rest of the stuff that makes the system open and creative and fun.

Yeah, it's interesting. Have you tried pitting intermediate players against really advanced players? Has it changed the dynamic of balance in any way?

MZ: Well, the advanced players are better at resets and stuff that allows you to kill people really fast, so they still steamroll intermediate players. But for intermediate players versus beginner players, it actually makes a huge difference.

Intermediate players are always at the level of thinking, "I can do this a whole bunch of times," or whatever, and they know they have all of the escape mechanics and they know they have unblockable protection. So this is more of how we prevent players from breaking the game. I don't know which unblockables you can find, but I know they're not going to work. Same thing goes for infinites; I don't know what infinites you can find, but I know that they're not going to work.

You're addressing it from a system level. Sometimes it seems Japanese developers just try to address things in less of a big-picture way.

MZ: Yeah. They might say, "This character has this problem so we're going to change this character to fix that problem," as opposed to changing all the characters that have that problem in the same way or addressing the problem outside the characters.

The other part of our strategy is that the infinite protection and stuff rewards you for being creative; it rewards you for finding longer things you can do rather than easy loops. But in addition, since I don't have to change any way that any character works beyond saying, "I want this character's moves to work this way," it allows me to be more creative in the character design, it allows me to be more creative with the game engine.

Do you think these sort of systems are going to change high-level play?

MZ: I hope so. I mean, I'm not a long time established fighting game company; I don't have ways that I already do things. But as a player, these are certain ways that it looks like I should be doing things. And I certainly hope that this kind of stuff will change high level play away from repetitive things and toward more things like resets and interesting things like that.

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