We exhibited Fantasy Strike last week at PAX South. It was the first time we showed the game publicly since switching our graphic style over to anime cel-shading. It was clear that this made a huge difference in people’s perceptions. We were told repeatedly that people liked the game’s art, with many people saying it was actually one of the best looking games at PAX South (wow!). The single word we heard the most was “polish.” Dozens of players told us that they were surprised how polished the game looked. While we’re flattered, we actually feel that there is lot we can do to polish the game even more. We’re still working on improved lighting for our backgrounds, on animation tweaks, and we have a ton of visual effects and sound effects in the works. It’s exciting that we’re finally turning heads on our graphics though.
Teaching With Handouts
We gave away hundreds of handouts this time, created specifically in the format recommended by Professor Tufte. Tufte is a professor in the field of the visual display of information. He hates PowerPoint more than anyone else in the world, and he likes a conveying information using a single sheet of 11x17" paper, folded in half, which creates 4 pages that are each 8.5x11". This format is long enough to convey a lot of information but short enough as to not feel intimidating. I've made handouts in this format before, and they've always been popular.
On the front, we show the controls for Fantasy Strike, then the rest of the document gives tips on how to play each of the characters. It's separated by archetype: zoners, rushdown, and grapplers, with an extra "wild card" category for the characters who don't quite fit. This allows people to quickly zero in on which character they're interested in.
The notes are about each character were inspired from our PlayStation Experience trade show presence. Even though Fantasy Strike is very "pick up and play," I often wanted to tell people "Let me just tell you these two important things about Character X to get you started." For example, beginners are a lot better off if they know that Jaina's dragon punch damages herself, or that Geiger loses his gear meter when he walks forward (similar to how Guile loses his charge in Street Fighter when he walks forward). So the handout gives the first and most important tips you need to get going, as well as each character's most relevant combo.
It worked as well as we'd hoped, the handouts were a big hit. Here's the pdf of what we gave out.
Regarding the gameplay, fun factor, strategy and all that, our experience at PAX South was very similar to how it went at Sony’s PSX Show last November. Our booth was crowded the entire time, and we got a mix of players who didn’t usually play fighting games and players who used to play, but said things like “I quit the genre around Mortal Kombat 2 and felt like things got too complicated.” This time though, we also had a larger number of currently active fighting game players. They played all sorts of games such as Killer Instinct, Street Fighter 5, Guilty Gear, Smash, and so on.
Hearing all the various fighting games players played seemed natural and we didn’t think anything of it at first. But then we noticed two things. First, about Smash Bros. After like 20+ Smash Bros players were enjoying our game, it dawned on us how unusual it is to be able to play a traditional fighting game with Smash players and actually have a good time. Smash is much different from traditional fighting games, so it can sometimes feel like Smash players are on an island, separate from everything else. Fantasy Strike’s controls are actually immediately recognizable to Smash players though, even though Fantasy Strike plays more like Street Fighter 2 than Smash Bros. We have a jump button (that you can remap to “up” if you prefer), a normal attack button, two special attacks, and a super attack. All those buttons do different things in the air, just as they do in Smash.
We’ve heard a lot of derogatory remarks over the years about Smash “not being a real fighting game,” which is just silly. Seeing Smash players pick up Fantasy Strike so quickly showed us that all this time it’s been mostly the difficulty of learning command motions like half circle + punch and so on that has been the barrier for them playing other fighting games, not strategy, not inability to grasp rushdown, zoning, grappling, and so on. The two players who impressed us the most at improving ridiculously quickly at Fantasy Strike were both Smash players!
We’re the Melting Pot
The next thing we noticed when hardcore fighting game players played Fantasy Strike was how it allowed them to come together in a way they weren’t used to. A Smash player playing against a Street Fighter player, for example, was normal at our booth, but it’s not just about Smash. Guilty Gear is one of our favorite games of all time, but it’s a damn difficult game to play. It’s something you devote yourself to in order to even reach a basic level of competence. Other fighting games, such as Street Fighter, Killer Instinct, Soul Calibur, BlazBlue and so on all take a lot of dedication as well. If you put in the months of practice on one of those games, while you have a friend who puts in months of practice on a different one, it’s pretty hard to play EITHER game together. In order to be any kind of real competition for your friend, you’d probably have to spend a few weeks in training mode learning combos in your friend’s main game, and who knows what else.
In Fantasy Strike though, we could go through all of a character’s moves and special properties with a new player in just a couple minutes. For combos, we simply say the combo out loud such as “jump A, A again, then B” and they do it immediately. This meant we had REAL matches going between a top Killer Instinct player and a top Street Fighter player (and many other such pairings) right in front of us at our booth.
Because we had more active fighting game players visit us at PAX South than PSX, we had a few more skeptics too. About 5 out of the hundreds who visited our booth pressed us on how there could possibly be any depth to the game. The control motions to do moves are so simple, some said. Of course THAT is irrelevant to depth though. It’s not like the depth came from having to do a 360 motion, but it’s still a fair question. How can such an accessible game still have any depth?
I think that is difficult to answer in words. Whether a game has depth or not has to do with its decision space. Are there enough decisions made per game? At each decision point, did you have enough options? Could the opponent have done anything about your various decisions at each point? Much of this comes from the character design, move design, and tuning so there isn’t a blanket answer. We can easily imagine making a game with fewer moves, with no dragon punch motions, with no crouch, and having it end up boring and shallow. On the other hand, we can ALSO imagine making an incredibly complicated, hardcore, technical game that ultimately boiled down to simpler decisions (and thus less depth).
For us, having fewer moves per character than Street Fighter (to keep it simple) means every single one of them has to be very carefully chosen and have a purpose, hopefully several purposes. And our commitment to keeping the focus on strategy and off of execution actually makes it easier to deliver on depth. In a highly technical game, what you think the game is about at low levels can turn out so wrong because high level play morphs into a completely different game dominated by difficult-to-do techniques. We have to worry a lot LESS about degenerate high level play because we try so hard to make sure the game DOESN’T morph into a completely different thing at high levels. You can’t, for example, do anything like Street Fighter 4’s crouch tech option selects that basically let you play rock, paper, scissors by throwing all three at once. The strategic decisions we build into the game are more likely to still be there as you get good, rather than overshadowed by some finicky one-sixtieth-of-a-second tech you’ll have to learn to be pro.
So the short answer to “why is there any depth” is something like “because the decision space is interesting, and in our opinion MORE rich than some other complicated fighting games that boil down to easier choices once you master their difficult execution.”
But how do you KNOW that’s true? You probably can’t without playing it. And it’s too hard to even try to explain the above paragraphs to people at a convention booth. What’s much easier, and what skeptics beg for anyway, is for us to simply crush them at the game. Every one of our skeptics asked for this, and we delivered. I crushed all of them repeatedly, making them feel like they had no chance at all.
What’s funny is how HAPPY they were. Usually it’s demoralizing to get crushed at a game repeatedly, but it’s exactly what these players hoped for. Getting beat badly showed them that there must be a lot to the game they didn’t know.
The Smite streamer @dmbrandon was one of the most vocal skeptics here. He got crushed repeatedly like the rest, and though he was much happier after that, he remained somewhat skeptical. After I beat him many many rounds to 0, he stayed at our booth quite a while to practice vs a variety of opponents. He learned Setsuki’s standard combos, her rushdown techniques, the tricks of other characters he should avoid, and so on.
Later in the day, after he had improved a lot, he challenged me again. I still won, and by quite a bit, but this time he did win some rounds. He really was better, he knew what he was doing this time. His final comment was one of the most interesting of the show, and I think a great compliment. He said that the first time we played, he got crushed really badly but he felt he was missing several pieces of factual knowledge. But the second time he didn’t feel he was lacking in knowing any facts. He said this time, nothing I did worked in some unexpected way to him. I didn’t hit him with surprise things he had never seen. “Instead, I was simply outplayed,” he said. And THAT, he said, showed him that there must be real depth here. If it’s even possible to be outplayed like that, there must be a lot of skill going on that he hasn’t yet developed, and he was really excited about that.
Thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth. Check us out an Patreon and we’ll see even more of you at PAX East next month!