new challenger

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

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.