There are many fighting games aplenty but just how many really attempt to do something different from the template that he have seen time and time again and one that has really become a staple in the genre? David Sirlin, an ex-Street Fighter developer and someone who has competed professionally in fighting game tournaments, knows a thing or two about fighting games and now, courtesy of his studio Sirlin Games, he aims to grow the fighting market by releasing a fighter that does away completely with complex button inputs in favour of strategy. That fighter is called Fantasy Strike and we interviewed Mr. Sirlin to ask him more about the game and how he intends to achieve his goal.
Q: Fantasy Strike appears to be a unique fighting game as it attempts to do away with the complexity of physical inputs that have become the norm in the genre but focuses on the strategy element itself. How will that work?
Sirlin: From a design standpoint, it’s not really hard to do. It’s more about having a commitment to accessibility from top to bottom and going through with that while still doing everything you need to do to have an interesting fighting game. The thing that we focus on is “player decisions.” If you decide to do something in our game, we want that thing to actually happen. That means the focus is on what you, the player, should decide to do. That’s the core of what strategy is: decisions.
if you want to move your bishop in chess, we don’t want you to “miss” moving it and have it do nothing
So how do we make sure that if you decide to do something, it happens? Moves are all just a button press, and there aren’t any joystick motions to mess up. There’s an 8 frame buffer on everything, meaning you have 8/60ths of a second window (which is very large in fighting game terms) on everything. If you’re knocked down and you want to do a move the first possible moment you get up, that’s easy and you’ll never miss it. If you want to do a combo, again, it’s easy and you won’t miss it because we give lenient windows on move cancels and a simple juggle combo and juggle system.
Think of it this way: if you want to move your bishop in chess, we don’t want you to “miss” moving it and have it do nothing. And by committing to that, it necessarily increases the focus on strategy, because strategy is the main thing that is left when you can e sure that you and your opponent both can execute the decisions you want to make.
Q: Usually when developers focus on accessibility, the depth in gameplay gets sacrificed. Is there not a risk of that happening with Fantasy Strike?
Sirlin: If you make moves and combos easy to do in a fighting game, that actually tells you nothing at all about if the game is deep. A deep game is one that doesn’t degenerate into doing just one or two things, so that’s the metric to look at. A deep game offers enough decisions per minute and enough of variety in those decisions that it keeps you coming back. The key to doing that lies in what your tools actually are. It lies in move design, and in characters who have toolkits that come together in interesting ways. It lies in matchups that pit each character’s toolkit together in a way that leads to dynamics that make you think.
So while making moves easy to do tells you nothing about whether a game has a good depth of decisions, it does actually make it easier to develop a deep game. The reason is that all the way through development, everyone is “playing the real game.” In games with very hard execution, sometimes it takes years to discover that ultimately, the game is shallow because it took that long for people to be good at doing certain combos or techniques. Imagine making a chess-like game and that it’s mostly good, but actually a certain strategy is the best so no one does anything else. Would that be easier to discover early in a game’s development where most players can’t even execute the chess moves, and often skip their turns when they drop moves? Or would it be easier to discover when all players can easily do any chess move they want? Clearly it’s easier in the second case to ensure that the depth of play is real and isn’t a momentary illusion in place only until some hard-to-do thing is discovered and mastered.
Another thing to consider here is that there’s a ton of stuff you do in fighting games that’s pretty much the same (not less or watered down) in Fantasy Strike. You still have to control your positioning and try to get at the right range for the right move. You have to use timing to do things at just the right moment. You have to know when and how to rushdown, how to do mixups and how to escape them. You have to know when and how to zone and control the opponent, when to throw, and so on. When to run away, when to bait. A big part of ensuring that there’s good depth of gameplay is creating moves and characters that support all that stuff, which you’d have to do when making any fighting game at all.
And one last note on this subject, I think it’s really important to consider the difference between moves you can press a button to do and moves that you have to do a joystick motion to do even if you never miss that joystick motion. The joystick motion takes at least a little bit of TIME to complete, but the button press is almost instant. This tiny difference requires lots of moves to be designed differently. If a fighting game wants to have simple inputs, this is one way to go really wrong if you don’t design the whole game around it. That’s why all our dragon-punch-like moves (invulnerable moves) need some sort of drawback that they wouldn’t need in a game like Street Fighter.
Q: Players are accustomed to the controls in fighting games after decades of playing them. How will you ensure that this game doesn’t alienate hardcore players?
Sirlin: The thing about easy controls is that it’s, well, easy to do them. That means hardcore players who are used to doing quarter-circle motions on their joysticks will notice a difference, sure, but they will have no trouble actually controlling the game.
So the question is really asking how can hardcore players get over any bias they might have against easy controls. In my mind, simply explaining that simple controls tells you nothing about whether a game is deep or not should be enough. That’s true after all, but it doesn’t seem to convince anyone, ha. To be convinced, they tend to want to PLAY the game, and that’s fine. We’ve been at numerous trade show events now exhibiting the game, and we always get like 3 or 4 people who think that simple controls must mean there is nothing to a game, so they simply play our staff. They get crushed, then they adapt and try again, then they get crushed again and realize they need to adapt and learn more, but by that time they are hooked. We have no trouble winning over the vast majority of players who actually play the game.
I’d hope we can at least make some headway in convincing hardcore players that it’s entirely possible to have a very complex, difficult to play game that is really shallow in the end, just as it is possible to have a very easy-to-control game that is deep in the end
As for the players who just see a screenshot or just watch a trailer…I don’t know. I don’t know how we can win them over, exactly. I’d hope that people would keep an open mind though. If they try our game and don’t like it, that’s fine, but I’d hope we can at least make some headway in convincing hardcore players that it’s entirely possible to have a very complex, difficult to play game that is really shallow in the end, just as it is possible to have a very easy-to-control game that is deep in the end. It all comes down the details of the design, so each game should be judged on its own merits.
Q: The Yomi Counter is an interesting concept. Can you explain how that works?
Sirlin: In the old days, throws in fighting games were incredibly powerful and really hard to get out of. Players often complained that “throws are cheap” and so over the years, fighting games have tended to have worse and worse throws. In Fantasy Strike, we have powerful throws with good stats and damage. The key is that you can easily get out of them in a new way that’s never been done in fighting games: you let go of all your controls.
If you aren’t touching any buttons or movement at all, just standing there still, then if someone tries to throw you, instead you’ll automatically throw them with a special “yomi counter” animation and you’ll also get full super meter. You are risking getting hit by any combo, of course, if you just stand there, so it’s really a hard call-out that you knew they were going to throw. When it happens, it’s exciting, and people usually yell or something, ha.
Q: There are 10 characters. Do they all have wildly different play styles?
Sirlin: Yeah that’s an important part of fighting games. There really need to be lots of different playstyles, partly so that any given player can find a character they like, but also so that the game contains a rich enough variety of dynamics. You want some matchups to be fast and messy, others to be measured and controlled, and so on.
In order to help beginners, we even labelled the character types on the character select screen. We’ve separated the characters into zoners, rushdown, grapplers, and wild card. Zoners are trying to control space on the playfield, often keeping the opponent far away but still threatening them. Rushdown characters bring the action right to the opponent and threaten to do high damage, but they usually have to get close to do it, and they usually have the least hit points, too. Grapplers tend to also need to get close, and they have slower gameplay which revolves around landing their amazing throws. Wild card is a category that just means it doesn’t fit any of those other descriptions, so it’s characters who specialize in some other kind of mechanic.
Q: Is there a possibility of more characters being added to Fantasy Strike?
Sirlin: If the game is successful enough, I’d love to add more characters. My card games feature the same 10 characters as our fighting game, but the card games also have 10 additional characters in expansions. So I think everyone expects us to add at least those 10 more characters after release if we can.
Q: What were the inspirations behind the game?
Sirlin: In a broad sense, the entire fighting game genre is an inspiration. Fighting games are great and I’ve been trying to tell people that for most of my life. My book Playing to Win, my card game called Yomi, and now Fantasy Strike are all various ways of trying to take the fun parts of lots of fighting games and get the knowledge and fun out to a wider audience.
I think the feel of the game is probably closest to Street Fighter 2. It has influences from Guilty Gear as well. Divekick was another inspiration in that it showed how much you can do with so little. Fantasy Strike is not as simple as Divekick but we did have it in mind in the sense that we tried to make every element of our game really pull its weight.
Q: Do you believe Fantasy Strike could have a presence at fighting game tournaments like Evo?
Sirlin: Yes, definitely. Fantasy Strike is designed to be easy to get into, but when you’re already past the beginner level, it’s a real fighting game. It’s made for tournaments. In fact, as I write this, we just returned from Evo 2017 where we exhibited the game for over 28 hours over the course of the event. Our four stations (for eight players) were full for all 28+ hours, usually with a line. We ran two different 32-man tournaments.
Q: You have casual online and ranked online play that runs on something called GGPO networking. What is that?
Sirlin: Our online play uses GGPO networking, which is the brand name of the best kind of networking available in fighting games. Whenever you play any online game, there is at least some latency going on and the technical question is should you best deal with that? The easiest way to deal with it is to add input delay. We aren’t doing that, but if you did, what it means is you press a button, that signal is sent to the opponent, then the opponent sends you back a signal of what input they might have pressed, then after that round-trip is over, you finally get to see the result of your button press. That feels really laggy because you press a button but have to wait for a full round trip of signals to come back from your opponent.
What GGPO does is allow the result of your button press to appear instantly on your screen, just like if you were playing offline.
What GGPO does is allow the result of your button press to appear instantly on your screen, just like if you were playing offline. Sometimes you get a signal from your opponents a fraction of a second later that tells you that the gamestate you’re seeing is wrong though. For example, you do a dragon punch, hit them, but them just moments later you get the signal that they were actually blocking during that. In this case, GGPO will rollback the gamestate to when you first did that dragon punch, insert the correct move for the opponent (in this case it was them blocking) then rollforward to the present. The drawback of this is sometimes you’ll see the opponent flicker from one state to another.
the 99% case is that the game feels fast and responsive
In case that sounds bad, I should add some perspective. All online games have to make a tradeoff somewhere to accommodate lag. In fighting games, the worst place to compromise is on input delay. So the GGPO method means that the 99% case is that the game feels fast and responsive, as opposed to the more traditional method which would ensure that 100% of the time your inputs would feel sluggish. When a rollback happens, it can be a little jarring, but most of the time it’s so subtle that you can’t even see it at all. Then in rare cases, you do notice it once in a while, but it’s a small price to pay for the overall excellent feel. And that’s not just my opinion. This isn’t some theoretical thing, it’s the tried and true method that fighting gamers have tested to death in emulators as well as commercially released games for over a decade. It’s the only reasonable approach for fighting game developers who truly care about excellent online play.
Q: Will there be cross platform play between PC and PlayStation gamers?
Sirlin: Yes. At least that’s what we’re planning. It’s a challenge both technically, and with regulations from the platform holders but we’re working on it because we think it helps players on all platforms. When you click on Quick Match, we want that wait time to be as short as possible by giving you a full range of opponents on PC, Mac, and PlayStation 4.
Q: Do you any plans to bring the game out on the Nintendo Switch or Xbox One?
Sirlin: Right now we’re focusing on making the Steam and PlayStation 4 experiences as good as they can be, but we’ll definitely let you know about any developments about reaching new platforms.
Q: Fantasy Strike features Loot Boxes. Are the rewards purely cosmetic?
Sirlin: Yes, the loot boxes will only contain cosmetic items. I am passionate—to say the least—about fairness in competition. I think if you allow some players to have a material advantage over others because they grinded more or spent more then you aren’t doing justice to competitive gaming and it’s frankly pretty disrespectful to competitive players. We would never implement something like that because it’s against my personal values and the core values of my company. So while you can get some pretty sweet cosmetic stuff, when it comes to actual gameplay, everyone will be on an even playfield.
Q: Can you purchase loot boxes for real currency or only through levelling up?
Sirlin: You’ll be able to get them from either simply playing the game (leveling up), or with real currency. So it’s kind of like Overwatch, if that helps explain things.
Q: How vast will the customisation options be? Are they limited to the characters alone or other things such as banners etc?
Sirlin: We have not even fully decided what things will be in the loot boxes, but at the very least we know that there will be alternate costumes and colors. I think we’ll likely have alternate animations for things that happen outside of gameplay such as intros and win poses. And surely more than that, but it’s something we’re planning on working more a little later in development.
Q: Fantasy Strike has just launched crowd- publishing campaign. What are your goals in respect of that?
Sirlin: I’ve run five successful Kickstarter campaigns ALL of which shipped on time. I think that’s a record or something? Anyway, this time we’re crowdfunding on Fig (fig.co/fantasystrike). Fig lets people pledge for rewards like on Kickstarter, but it also has an option for people to invest, meaning they’ll get a piece of our future revenue stream.
I want all the focus on the game itself being as good as it can
As far as our goals, it’s super simple. The goal is just to reach the funding amount. No tricks, no t-shirts, no posters, and so on. After doing this kind of thing five times already, I know full well that all the time spent on peripheral stuff for a campaign takes away from time, focus, and quality on the main product itself. For Fantasy Strike, I want all the focus on the game itself being as good as it can, so the rewards tiers are very straightforward and the whole campaign is streamlined. We just want to hit our funding goal and deliver the best game we can.
Q: Do you intend to roll out a demo of the game in the future?
Sirlin: We weren’t planning to do this during the campaign originally, but we’re thinking about it now. We’ll get back to you if we make a demo available. Though in any case, anyone who pledges at our deluxe tier or higher on Fig will get a Steam key right after the campaign ends, months before the public can even get it on Steam Early Access.