Gamers the world over exude opinions and complaints about the games they love, and lament at the fact that developers hardly ever seem to hear them. Mike "Mike Z" Zaimont, Project Lead and Designer on Reverge Labs' upcoming fighting game, Skullgirls, is just such a gamer. A long time lover and competitive player of fighting games, Mike Z has used his programming expertise and fighting engine in combination with the art and characters of Alex "o_8" Ahad, Creative Director on the game, to create the game he's always wanted to play. Skullgirls is many things, but at it's heart it's what happens when a gamer takes his expertise and makes a game out of it. Of course, that could mean anything, that could mean making another Marvel vs. Capcom 2 just because that's one of the games Mike Z loves, but instead Reverge Labs has taken it one step further and is implementing a myriad of conveniences and thoughtful design changes that fighting game enthusiasts such as myself have been clamoring for, unwilling to be complacent with the traditional fighting game design and features. Check out the Q&A after the jump and find yourself exclaiming "That's amazing! Why hasn't anyone done that yet?" all the way through the interview.
Q: I got a chance to check out the gameplay side of Skullgirls and it plays great, but it's always nice to have features to supplement that gameplay experience. In that interest, what more is Skullgirls bringing to the ring to expand on the experience? Will players get to smash cars and punch barrels ala Street Fighter?
Alex Ahad: I’d love to do things like that in the future, but for now we’re focused on just making sure the core game’s mechanics and feature set are top-notch before getting into any kind of mini-games like that.
Q: Each character released so far for this game is infused with personality, so how will they all be fitting into the Skullgirls storyline?
AA: I don’t want to get into too much spoiler-y detail, but each of the characters’ have their own motivations, their own backstories or belong to certain factions with different aims for the Skull Heart. Naturally their different goals and histories will bring them into conflict with each other.
For example, Cerebella is a leg-breaker for the Medici Mafia, and that puts her at odds with anyone who dislikes the mob… which I guess is basically everyone. Most everyone is after the Skull Heart to make a wish on it, but Parasoul wants to destroy it because her mother was the previous Skullgirl and she wants to protect her kingdom. Stuff like that.
Q: Fighting games and racing games share one thing in common: they have often have stories and fail miserably at telling them. As such, how does Reverge Labs plan to revamp storytelling within their fighting game?
AA: We can’t really talk about this too much. The best comparison would probably be BlazBlue’s story mode, but with a little different spin. Like that, though, there’d be a single unified canonical story.
We’ll also have non-canon endings in our arcade mode. Some may be cool, some may be sad and some much just be jokes. Should be fun – we’ll get to draw all the girls’ Skullgirl forms, among other things.
Q: If someone says "Street Fighter" gamers all over the place can immediately think of Ryu and "hadoken" or "shoryuken", but the opinion that the constant callouts are irritating in fighting games; what is Skullgirls doing about how characters express themselves while fighting?
AA: We have a mixture of things. Sometimes they call the move, sometimes they have an appropriate one-liner or joke to go along with it – it really depends on the character. For example, Cerebella generally calls her moves because she’s into fighting, while Peacock mostly jokes.
Mike Zaimont: I’m really sensitive to repeated sounds like in most fighting games, so we’re working hard to keep them from being annoying. In some cases a simple sound can be iconic, witness Tron’s laugh or Chun’s Back+Fierce, but most of the time when the exclamation is a real word or a sentence, less is more (“Ya like / ya like / ya like that?”). In games where characters are constantly uttering phrases and interrupting themselves, it all merges into a kind of background blur. The attack vocals in Skullgirls mostly are not played anywhere near 100% of the time and we have many different reads and even different phrases for the same attack, so the soundscape is quite varied. Also in most cases we don’t allow characters to interrupt themselves with similar things, for example since Filia has a few phrases for blocking, she won’t interrupt one with another even if she blocks additional hits.
Q: Speaking of game-character identification, Skullgirls will be one of the first completely new fighting game IPs out there which presents a whole list of difficulties and opportunities; what is Reverge Labs looking to establish for fighting games with their game in the downloadable space?
MZ: Uh, that’s really more of a marketing question, so I can’t address it too specifically.
We just want to make a game people will enjoy. We're not doing any slick maneuvering or anything. A good game should establish itself.
Q: The Mortal Kombat fighting series has at times (including its most recent iteration) used a code feature to allow players to put modifiers on their matches. Some of the codes are silly, some of them are more serious, but either way that does help add variety to each match especially in casual play; will Skullgirls feature any sort of match customization in any of its versus modes?
MZ: Not that way, nope. We have a pretty small team, so all effort needs to be spent on making sure the core game is as solid as possible. Though I admit I’m a fan of Randper Kombat.
One of our core features is mix-and-match team sizes of one, two or three characters, which would qualify as a modifier in most games, except that we actually plan to make it balanced.
Q: The training mode for Skullgirls is writing a big check promising to deliver actual fighting game tutorials rather than just lists of combos out of context. Until now, fighting games are really only taught to new players by a friend who already understands them, so how is Reverge Labs planning to be that friend?
MZ: For the tutorials themselves, we plan to have them as interactive as we can. Things like explaining when to block high or low, when to pushblock, why trying to constantly attack on wakeup is bad (AI that meaty sweeps you, haha), etc. We’ll see how much we can pull off, but I believe spending time on this stuff is important so that there is a mode for new people to practice and actually improve their game, as opposed to just doing combos.
We’ve also got some plans beyond the actual tutorials to make the rest of the game instructive. We’d like the game to analyze your matches against the AI and give you feedback. For example, if it notices that you didn’t ground tech very often, after the match it would offer you the chance to play the ground tech tutorial if you haven’t done so yet. Feedback is a huge part of teaching anything, and aside from the simple “You Lose” it’s completely missing from just about every fighting game.
Finally, we’re designing our AI to be a little more pattern-driven than what you’re used to seeing in other fighting games. Generally, fighting-game AI is not helpful for practice when you are already good at the time. Most of them try to emulate human players, but they do a bad job of it, and as a result fighting against the AI is not useful if you are already a high-level player. But because they’re trying to be people, they don’t intentionally set up situations that are instructive to players of any level and they are fairly random, so the AI is also not helpful to people trying to improve. To counter this, since high-level players will often have other high-level opponents available, we are instead aiming to have our AI be more instructive to new players. For example, perhaps when you’re playing as Cerebella, who is a grappler, the AI will block more often to teach you to get in and throw them, then later on start jumping after blocking a move so you learn to anticipate that reaction and counter it.
Q: Of course, the pros will use training mode too, so what's there for them?
MZ: We’ll have the standard lifebar, super, and recovery settings, as well as other useful features such as the ability to restart in either corner, dummy recording, reversal/guard/tech options, input display, etc. We’re also have hitbox display.
Skullgirls can save and load state, like an emulator does, so we’re going to have save/restore state during training mode as well. You can just save your state after doing any setup, and restore to try again. I think Street Fighter 3: Third Strike Online is also doing this, because it really is useful. We also want to have a few features I have always wanted, such as the ability to load a saved match replay and choose a time during it to give you back control of your character. That way you can figure out if that setup really was inescapeable, or if you just messed something up. That may not make it in for the initial launch, though.
Q: Skullgirls has been touring and visiting many many different fighting game venues allowing players to try out the game, give feedback, all that good stuff. Beyond that, however, will eventually come the demo that every XBLA game has (and every consumer loves), any plans on how to get non-fighting gamers into Skullgirls with the demo alone?
MZ: Yeah, fighting game demos are rough. One round in versus mode with two characters wouldn’t sell me on anything I wasn’t already interested in.
We haven’t really decided how we’re going to approach the demo yet, to be honest. Marvel vs. Capcom 2’s demo was pretty solid since it had the entire base cast, but we haven’t got a large enough roster to do something like that. We have some ideas, like randomly unlocking a different pair of characters for every player’s console based on a unique ID, but nothing is set in stone yet.
Q: Last but not least, characters have been released at fairly large intervals, any expectations on when the full roster will be announced and the game completed?
AA: We’d love to release more info faster, but we want to show things in a relatively complete state and it takes a long time for us to draw and animate them. But I think we’re going to start releasing info more often, since the game will be done this year.
MZ: Well… you can find lots of old stuff if you look for it, but we can’t officially announce anything until the character is done. As Alex said, we’re announcing them as we make them, pretty much, so I’m afraid the full roster won’t be announced until the game’s nearly completed. However, at long last, I will say that we’re looking at around 8 characters at launch.
If you're intrigued by Skullgirls, check out our write-up on their panel at EVO 2011.