new challenger

I make games. I also play them. I talk about both activities here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Here Comes an Old Challenger - GOTY Edition

I knew I hated Street Fighter IV the first time I played it.

It was 2008 and I was in Japan. Street Fighter IV wasn't actually even released yet; the version I was playing was just an arcade test. I don't even remember if I was there for Street Fighter IV at all - there's a good chance I just stumbled on the test while intending to play Virtua Fighter 5. I remember I selected Blanka to play first, whom I've chosen as a main character on and off since Street Fighter II. While I've never gotten to a competition level of play in Street Fighter, I've always been able to eke out a measure of local success with my Blanka in almost any game in which he's on the roster.

My success with Blanka in SF4 during that first play session can be calculated simply: I had none. But what bothered me more than anything was that I just didn't like the way Street Fighter IV played. It had a weird feel to it. I'm not sure what I was expecting - Super Turbo, perhaps, based on the way the producer went on about it - but what I ended up playing felt nothing like Street Fighter to me.

Still, I felt in my heart that Street Fighter IV was an important game that warranted my attention. You see, 2009 was dubbed "The Year of the Fighting Game" primarily based on Street Fighter's return. Yes, there was also a new King of Fighters, a new Tekken, the debut of an all-new fighting game called BlazBlue, and a host of other lesser games, but Street Fighter is, and probably always will be the fighting game that defines the genre; without it, fighting games might as well not exist.

So, at the next opportunity - E3 2008 - I decided to give Street Fighter IV another chance. My next character choice was the character I always go back to, the character that I actually selected the first time I ever played Street Fighter II - Ryu. Ryu is my favorite fighting game character of all time. That he keeps showing up in basically every fighting game ever made is a testament to the impact he's had within the genre. I haven't ever really been good with Ryu, though; despite his being billed as a middle-of-the-road character, I feel that he's actually quite a difficult character to really be proficient with in most Street Fighters, and I've never really clicked with him (I've never learned how not to throw that third fireball...).

At E3, I was equally fruitless with Ryu in Street Fighter IV. And I still didn't really care for the game, either.

What bothered me most was the way the characters stood up. It was just so freaking slow. I complained to Seth Killian about this. He mentioned aloofly (he was not being rude, but at E3 2008 Street Fighter IV was a big star and it was making Seth a big star too) that there was a command input to get up quicker. I didn't have a chance to test this out, though, as the day was drawing to a close and I wanted to hang out with some friends from out of town.

Eventually, Street Fighter IV was released in Japanese arcades, and again I set about trying to play it. For this attempt, I ended up choosing Abel, mostly because I thought it would be amusingly ironic to do so. You see, Abel is Street Fighter IV's "MMA fighter." That he doesn't seem to have anything even remotely resembling a move that I would associate with an MMA fighter apparently didn't dissuade Capcom from giving him this designation anyway.

I should mention here that my arcade of choice in Osaka is something of a hardcore fighting game hotspot. As is typical in Japanese arcades, there is an entire floor dedicated to fighting games. On weekends, it's not unusual for my arcade to host a tournament for Super Turbo or VOOT, despite their advanced age. The Street Fighter IV machines (only 4 of them - apparently my arcade recently has trended more towards VF and Tekken) were placed in a prominent position on the floor, with a large space around them for spectators. Stepping up to the machines to play is an anxiety-filled endeavor; lots of opportunity for people to see you perform, and perform badly. Being a 188-centimeter tall foreigner only heightens my conspicuousness.

So I bet you figure this is where I finally get to have my shining moment. Surely now, with the right character and the right opportunity, I was finally able to find some success in the game, which solidified my love for it, enough so to compel me to proclaim it my game of the year some 24 months after first playing it, right?

Wrong. I was knocked around like a flimsy rag doll. It was almost like someone was just reaching in my pockets and taking all the money out, that's how quickly the matches would go. I was thoroughly embarrassed by my poor play time and time again.

And I loved every minute of it.

I purchased Street Fighter IV for the Xbox 360 in February of 2009. It is the only Xbox 360 game I have played since.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Well, this didn't turn out at all like I imagined

So yeah, I made a game about the Ultimate Fighting Championship. I'll get around to making one of those games that make you cry at some point or another, I guess. A commenter requested that I give some insight into how we went about making UFC 2009 Undisputed. Well, I'll try to do this and avoid being fired by shedding some light on some of the more abstract decision making that went into the creation of the game's combat system.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, first off, what's wrong with you? I update this thing every six months or something ridiculous; find some new interests. Second, you've probably realized that I like fighting games, and above all fighting games, the Virtua Fighter series. Long criticized as being sterile, boring, and bland by the majority of fighting game players (shunned so is Virtua Fighter that at this year's Evolution 2009 World Championship, an event attended by only the most distilled and dedicated American fighting game player, it was completely unrepresented), Virtua Fighter has steadily eased itself into comfortable obscurity in the West. Its latest arcade incarnation, Virtua Fighter 5 R, is unlikely to receive any sort of console version, a feat almost unheard of in the current arcade market, which is shrinking by the day. There are a combination of factors that led VF to never really catching on in the West; like a lot of Sega games, the visual design of the game is rooted in a much more pragmatic aesthetic, focusing on believability more so than excitement. And the game's combat mechanics, while solid and not at all uncommon within fighting games as a genre, are perhaps more difficult to learn through simple empirical play than either its 2d predecessors or its 3d contemporaries. The Virtua Fighter series is known for being one of the few 3d fighting games that actually looks better in the hands of experts than in the hands of novices - and while I think that contributes to the game's celebration in some communities, I'm fully convinced it led to its downfall in ours (there's also that whole Virtua Fighter initially being only available on Sega consoles and Virtua Fighter 3 costing a dollar to play in arcades thing, but that doesn't really fit into the argument I'm making at all).

So of course, when I sat down to design the combat system in UFC 2009 Undisputed, the first thing I said to myself was, "Well, I better get started ripping off Virtua Fighter." I can say this now because where Undisputed ended up is quite a ways away from VF. But in my opinion, most of Virtua Fighter's core mechanics are more than suitable for extraction and translation into other fighting games. There was actually an early version of UFC 2009 that featured momentum swings based on guaranteed throw situations, which is the cornerstone of Virtua Fighter's gameplay. Ultimately we had to go with something else for a combination of reasons, one of them being a desire for more a more organic, physics-driven reaction system (another being that in focus testing, people just weren't getting the subtle nuances of a -8 frame advantage after blocking a mid attack; no, I'm not joking).

This plan of mine, to root UFC 2009 Undisputed's gameplay in the fertile soil of the traditional fighting game, was a controversial one at the time. The expectation was that the game would be more spiritually aligned with sports games that happen to feature combat elements, like Fight Night. I have written about Fight Night, suggesting that it and games like it represented an opportunity for fighting games to survive what I perceived to be the genre's pending demise (that fighting games are experiencing a tremendous resurgence speaks loudly to just how wrong I am about a great many things). But in saying as much, I'm also asserting that Fight Night is not a traditional fighting game, and I stand by that, while stressing that I say that not as an insult, but simply as a descriptor. Its core gameplay is not rooted in the fighting game tradition, and while Fight Night is one of my most favorite series, it does not satisfy the same gaming hunger that I satiate with Virtua Fighter. I wanted to make UFC 2009 Undisputed feed that hunger, for a combination of selfish and altruistic reasons. I wanted to prove that the fighting game was still a viable medium, and one that could be played and enjoyed by the general gaming public, not just the nomadic tribe that puts its tents up in Las Vegas for three days every August, and in doing so I was taking a big gamble in the minds of my co-workers, many of whom disliked traditional fighting games for their complexity, arbitrary mechanics, and lack of relatability.

Given the unsuccessful early play testing sessions, my co-workers were justified in their concerns. So, after my initial failure at implementing a throw-based frame advantage system, I decided on another approach. Rather than pull out the actual mechanical gameplay elements, I elected to instead try and replicate the emotional decision-making that's involved in playing Virtua Fighter. I tried to recreate the sense of "risk mitigation" that dominates so many of Virtua Fighter's encounters. Rarely in Virtua Fighter does a defensive maneuver leave the player free from attack. The famous "Evade, Throw Escape, Guard" macro-movement, the first step in becoming an advanced VF player, only protects against a limited amount of retaliatory attacks from an opponent; it's up to the player to decide to which side to step, which throws to defend against, etc. I took this concept and applied it to UFC's defensive systems by making them exclusive. You can block against strikes, and you can block against grapples, but you cannot block against all strikes simultaneously or all grapples simultaneously, and never both of them at the same time. By making most of the offensive options as equally viable as we could across striking and grappling, KOs and Submissions, I also tried to encourage as much true yomi (literally the Japanese word for "reading," but in the fighting game community, the word is used to describe predicting the intentions of your opponent) as possible. While not exclusive to Virtua Fighter, yomi is often considered most potent in VF due to the inability to effectively mitigate all types of attacks with any consistency; players must truly "read" the intentions of their opponent at any given situation and take the appropriate action. I think UFC 2009 Undisputed does a good job of replicating this. By making the match-ending conditions so lethal and omnipresent, players have to quickly discern the intentions of their opponent based on things like character selection, and whether the opponent chooses to fight standing, in the clinch, or on the ground.

It would seem that generally, the public likes what I'm feeding them. While internally there was a lot of what I'll call "concern" prior to release over some of the decisions we ended up making, UFC 2009 Undisputed is off to great success, both critically and (I presume) financially. There is an initial learning curve to the game's mechanics and control scheme, and the complete nuances of the game continue to be discussed and debated. Most reviewers agree that the game is much more (enjoyably) complex than your standard gaming fair. Whether or not the game's success is due to, or in spite of, a more hardcore fighting game experience than anyone (except myself) envisioned is kind of a wash to me. I got the chance to expose a couple million people to what I consider to be gaming at its finest for the very first time in my career. If I don't get to make another game ever, at least I have that. Plus, I think we've shown that games don't have to be dumbed down to be made palatable to the lowest common denominator to succeed, which is a popular theory amongst executives in this new gaming world of ours. If the subject matter of a particular game is attractive enough to a demographic, the people will rise to the occasion and dedicate the time and energy into getting better at your game and they'll thank you for it. There's a really impressive new community that has sprung up around the game, and that they appreciate what we did is humbling, gratifying, and inspiring all at once.

You could kind of say that UFC 2009 Undisputed is my console port of Virtua Fighter 5 R, but that would probably get THQ sued, so I won't be saying that.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

They Call Him Punches in Bunches

Just finished a game recently, hope you guys dig it.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Game Begets Game 2: The Begettening

Well, the success stories keep pouring in. Turns out that Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix is well on its way to being the highest-grossing digital download ever. A homegrown fighting game community kid by the name of Dave Sirlin is more than a little responsible for helping HD Remix achieve this amazing feat.

I won't lie, it warms me somewhere deep in my cold heart that a fighting game - perhaps the finest fighting game the industry has ever produced - is going to set this record. At a time when fighting games are oftentimes relegated to second-class status, as most major American publishers don't even consider fighting games to be a core gaming genre, this is a huge victory.

Congrats to Sirlin, and to everyone who made this possible.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Game Begets Game

I'll admit it; I get really giddy when I see coverage of my friends' games. I entered the industry with a group of designers born from the fighting game community; a group of guys for whom simply playing games was never enough. My good friends John and Paul Edwards, Adam Puhl, Eric Williams, and extended family like Ben Cureton, Jason Cole, Ed Ma, Dave Sirlin and Jason De Heras all came into the industry around the same time and have all gone on to show themselves as rising stars in the industry; if you haven't heard some of their names yet, trust me you will.

Another good friend of mine birthed from the fighting game community, all-star designer Derek Daniels, is currently tearing it up within Activision's venerable Central Design department. This means he gets to demonstrate his prowess over many of Activision's titles. One of those titles is set to be EGM's January cover game - X-Men Origins: Wolverine. A quick look at the quotes from their teaser over at 1up clearly show that Derek's influence is showing through:

"In our January issue of EGM, we tell you all about real-time in-game healing, the simple satisfactions of an elegantly accessible combat system, a sweet boss fight against the very first Sentinel robot prototype, and lots more...We also chat with Raven about a few of Origins' influences, from God of War to Super Smash Bros..."

So yeah, this post is just me bragging about my friend's accomplishments. Game seems to be shaping up nicely and I can't wait to play it. Kudos to Derek!

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Please Accept this Meager Update

Apparently, David Jaffe is unaware that when a product is marketed, occaisonally one is lied to about that product's contents. In case Mr. Jaffe is uninformed with regard to some other truisms of the world, I provide this valuable lesson: water is also wet.

I don't have many words on this subject; I think Jaffe speaks for himself pretty well. Ironically, I have never felt that God of War's marketing does the complexity of that series justice. Maybe the themes I appreciate most aren't the ones on which Sony wants to sell the game; it's their right to do so.

And just for the record, God of War is one of my favorite games ever, and my second favorite game on the PS2, right behind ICO and right ahead of Metal Gear Solid 3, so let it never be said that I'm not fair and balanced.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Downright Fierce

The above picture is from an ad campaign for the console release of Street Fighter 4. I wish I could say I found it over at Kotaku, a cool site that I don't feel gets quite the recognition it deserves, but I actually stumbled upon the set through NeoGAF. This particular picture, with the instructional commands for a Hadouken, had an immediate impact on me. Street Fighter 2 was a watershed game for me. While Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. won the first Battle for my Heart, Street Fighter handily won both the Battle for my Brain and the Battle for my Soul (all important battles in the hotly contested, yet completely fabricated Omar War).

This particular picture made me chuckle because I recently received a bug on the game I'm working on at the moment. In short, the bug complained that controller inputs changed based on screen orientation - an input performed when a character is on the left side was mirrored when that character was on the right side of the screen. You know, exactly like Street Fighter. In my entire design career, it never occurred to me that anyone who's ever played a fighting game would ever find something like this strange, which of course reveals a more important lesson: there are a lot of modern video game players for whom fighting game conventions are not a part of their gaming language.

That really sucks.

Anyway, please check out the recently released Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, an update to the greatest fighting game ever made. There's not a game being released this year that deserves your money more.

Thanks for reading.