You practice, practice, practice with your favourite fighting game character, but, even if you're really good, the special moves don't come out the way you want. One of the icons of fighting games is making a game where they will come out every time.
"Honestly, if you asked me two years ago, I would have said what we've built here is a dumb idea and wouldn't work," says Seth Killian. "But we built it anyway and I think it works." Killian is a fighting game guru. He's been a competitor, commentator and developer deeply committed to telling people what's cool about the various games where two characters beat up on each other with esoteric, over-the-top martial arts moves.
After being out of fighting game development for a couple of years, Killian is back, spearheading a new fighting game called Rising Thunder. "I was burnt out on fighting games," Killian told me two weeks ago over Skype. "I will always love them. There's a slightly religious zeal to my love of fighting games but people can burn out on things."
Killian's part of a team at Radiant Entertainment, the dev studio founded by the Cannon Brothers. "I have a slightly messianic belief in fighting games, just for the way they bring people together. You can watch two human minds interact in this environment in a really fast-paced way," Killian said. "When I was thinking about making a fighting game, the first question I was focused on was, 'What do I have to offer the genre?'" It's a healthy time for fighting games, Killian observed. Lots of high-quality games are coming out and the genre isn't in danger of dying out the way it was a few years ago. But he still thinks there's a big problem keeping the genre from growing.
"I know fighting games are basically impenetrable in a lot of ways to a lot of people," he offered. "It's kind of painful. And what I've realised over years of talking to people who've said as much to me, is that they're right and I'm wrong." Let's say, Killian imagined, that he preached the gospel of the sublime beauty of fighting games to twenty people. "As much as I love 'em, it's sad to realise that, of those twenty people, maybe one of them is actually going to have an experience with a fighting game like the one I'm going to have."
The big twist with Rising Thunder, as opposed to most other fighting games, is that the game's special moves — powerful attacks that require tricky inputs — can be done with a single button press. "When you look at the essence of fighting games, the core elements of the game — not the upper-level, really-advanced-player stuff — is locked behind this huge execution wall," Killian opined. "I talk about fighting games being a mix between speed chess and poker. It's like if we were playing speed chess and [I said something like] 'I'm a player who really doesn't know how to use the knights, so I just let them sit there. Pawns really aren't my deal.' I don't know if what you're doing is really playing chess, then. But with fighting games, that's really what most people's experience is."
"Collectively, we're laughing about the people that aren't going to get them but it sucks. You have to grind, basically for six months," he continued. "Depending on your level of natural dexterity, free time and things like that, you're looking at one month, six months, a year to just become totally proficient with the basic moves of the game. Fireballs, uppercuts, that kind of thing. Basically, at that point, once you become proficient at those kinds of things, then, now, you are playing fighting games. It doesn't mean that you're actually good at fighting games. To bring it back to chess terms, you are now able to move our castles and you can play with the pawns as well."
The game — played in its current form on PC with keyboard — will feature three special moves for each character, along with a super-move and something called Kinetic Mode. Players can choose between Kinetic Advance and Kinetic Deflect. Kinetic Advance lets players cancel special moves, dash forward/backward and offers more offensive flexibility. Kinetic Deflect works more or less like a combo-breaker, Killian said. Special moves will all have variants, too.
"On the design side, when we're looking at these games, we build them assuming everybody can do all these things," Killian went on. "As an empirical fact, that's just wrong. It's super obviously wrong. You can look at any fighting game on any show floor and watch people fail, fail, fail. I'm not talking about trying to do something amazing; I'm talking about a fireball. That's as simple as special moves get in those games and it's a fail-fest. So I was thinking about that and thought, 'is there anything that can be done about this?'"
The best example Killian can offer as to Rising Thunder's design merits so far comes from within the Radiant Entertainment team. "Our sysops guy doesn't even play video games anymore. He played RPGs back in college but never played action games," Killian related to me. "That guy could play a credible fireball/uppercut game after a week, two weeks. There's another guy who understands basically what's going on but is very bad. That guy, after two weeks of playing with us, he doesn't beat me all the time but he makes moves. When I say "makes moves," I mean he'll walk up and throw me and walk up and throw me again and then he'll walk up a third time. I'm like 'this clown just thinks he's gonna throw me all day! I'm gonna throw him now.' And then — bam! — he hits me with an uppercut and cackles about it. To me, after the initial rush of anger, I got so happy in that moment."
"This is a terrible scrub who's really bad at fighting games but it turns out he's a smart player. He is able to understand what is going on; he just couldn't do the moves before. That completely locked him out of the competitive experience. He's now in it and he's having fun. He's into my head and playing against those ideas, juking me. As somebody who spends a lot of time talking about how great fighting games are, actually seeing that transition in a realistic amount of time — where you can ask people to stick with a game for a couple of weeks vs. a couple of months — is staggering."
Killian also wants Rising Thunder to address a landscape of online play that he calls fraudulent and depressing. "Nobody's putting online front and center," he says. "You have to learn separate timings for online [play] that will vary by opponent and that's kind of tough. I wanted to build a fighting game that takes online super-seriously. Because even after you've gotten to that point where you've put in the six-month grind and mastered those special moves, then you have to find people that have also put in the same grind who are close-by to you and willing to play. It helps if they're people you kind of like to some degree. That's a challenge sometimes."
Players won't be paying to play and learn Rising Thunder. "I wanted to do away with the idea of charging people $US60 to begin their six months of suffering, after which they're allowed to begin playing the game, which they may or may not like," Killian told me. :That seems wrong. You look around at all the most competitive games and they have figured out how to build a business around giving the game away for free. If you make a fun game, a good game, you can give it away or free. If you don't, you've got to worry about selling it all up front. That wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to do." The plan to make money with Rising Thunder, Killian said, will be centered on cosmetics.
"When you think about great fighting game matches, no one ever says, 'wow, Daigo certainly threw all of his fireballs in that round. He did not fail to throw a fireball over and over .' You think about the mind games, the set-ups, the great decisions. The fact that he knew what was in your head and spanked you for doing it. That's what greatness in these games looks like and that's what I want to open up to people. It's a core fighter but the one thing we give you is your special moves. So when you fail to win — and you will fail — it's more about the decisions you made."
"When you first start learning a fighting game, you don't feel bad you can't throw an uppercut. That's the worst part of the learning process of fighting games. But the third month, when you can uppercut half the time? That's the worst! Because now there's a guy jumping at you and you know you're supposed to uppercut and you kind of want to try but, in the heat of battle, you screw it up. And you think if I had just blocked, I would have been OK. So there's this negative incentive loop for a lot of the learning process. You probably win more games by not even trying to play. You'd be better off blocking and trying to find your stray hit here and there if it's a raw numbers game. I'm done with that kind of process and it's really hard for me to ask people to engage with that."
Rising Thunder's technical alpha opens up on July 28.