Fantasy Strike is a fighting game currently in development by Sirlin Games. Billed as a fighting game that’s deceptively simple and for everyone, we managed to pull the man behind the game, David Sirlin, aside to have a chat about this up and coming title!
Fantasy Strike is claiming to be a very simple fighting game that's also designed for esports. Could you elaborate a bit more on this for us?
Perhaps your question implies a contradiction, but I think we can clear it up thinking about what it means for a fighting game to be simple to get into and what it means for it to be a good esport.
In order to make Fantasy Strike simple to get into, we do our best to:
- Make sure that your character really does what you want it to do and
- That it’s easy to tell what’s going on and how things work
If you want to throw a fireball, we want that fireball to come out. If you want to cancel a kick into a special move, we want you to do be able to do that on the first try. This kind of thing isn’t about strategy, nor does it reduce strategy by allowing it. Quite the opposite actually; it allows you to actually implement the strategies you have in mind, even if you are new to the game and the genre.
All our special and super moves are a single button press (no joystick motions) so that they are easy to execute. We have to be very careful about those design-wise, because you can react to things more easily if there are no joystick motions, so we have built in drawback and tradeoffs on our reversal moves.
Anyway, doing moves is very easy, and doing combos are easy too. Combos are just a tool, just a way to reward hitting with certain moves at certain distances. Combos are short, and often the kind of thing someone says out loud to you “Jump A, land A, B” and you say “oh ok” and do it on the first try. There’s an enormous 8 frame buffer on all moves too, so that any time you do anything we repeat it for you for 8 frames. This makes combos easier and things like doing a reversal when you get up very easy too. The difficulty is in what SHOULD you do, not in can you do it.
We also do our best to make the game immediately understandable. That’s why we have our life bar segmented into about 6 segments (different for each character though). Those are your hit points. Get hit 6 times and you lose. A good jump in combo usually does 3, which is half your life (same as in Street Fighter 2!). Often a grounded punish will be 2 hits for 2 damage. The point is you know exactly how much damage you can take and you know if a combo is going to kill or not.
Our super meter also works in the easiest to understand way we could come up with. In earlier versions it worked like it does in most fighting games, but we noticed that if we simply refill it automatically over time, it ended up functioning fairly similarly, but have way less rules and data surrounding it. So that’s what it does: it fills up at a constant rate that’s different for each character.
Our throw escape system, though unique, is also immediately understandable to anyone. If you let go of the controls completely, you automatically reverse throws with a “Yomi counter.” Even when you dig deeper and find out that there are special throws that can’t be Yomi countered, there’s still a consistent rule: you can always jump out of special throws, but you can’t “do nothing” to Yomi counter them. Normal throws are the opposite: you can’t jump out of them, but you can do nothing to reverse them.
Let’s move on to high level play though. Let’s imagine an expert player...I’ll use Daigo as an example because I always admired his play. How do the things above affect Daigo’s opponents and how do they affect him? Now Daigo won’t accidentally fail to do special moves...but he didn’t anyway. Now his opponents won’t accidentally fail either...but they weren’t failing anyway unless they were brand new to the genre. Daigo won’t miss his bread and butter combo for half life, which he wouldn’t have missed anyway. You can see where this is going. The stuff we’re doing to make the game easy to control and easy to understand just doesn’t intersect much with the things that matter in high level play.
So what DOES matter in high level play? Decisions matter. Stuff like having the right spacing between you and your opponent, doing moves at the right times, knowing which pokes to do, when to go for a risky sequence with good upside, whether you should be defensive and block, or whether you should go for that reversal. These elements are the essence of the genre and we have them in Fantasy Strike just as much as in any other fighting game. It’s just that you can get to the “real game” very fast, in just a few minutes.
Whether Fantasy Strike is interesting to play at a competitive level comes down to whether or not it has interesting decisions during gameplay. It has at least as many decisions per game as other fighting games, if not more. Very little of the game is spent getting hit by combos, so most of it is actual interaction. I think a lot of how interesting these kinds of games are come down to character design and move design. We try very hard to make every single move have a purpose and pack a lot of value into them. And to ensure that the characters have a variety of play-styles and tactics.
Another way of putting this is that while you might have the assumption that a simpler to play game is ultimately less interesting, I’d say there’s no correlation there. It’s not hard to imagine a very complex fighting game (or to name one…) that ends up being too degenerate, and have too few decisions going on. If anything, we’re in a better position to guard against that than if we were making a very difficult to play game. In Fantasy Strike, we have everyone playing “the real game” right away, doing the real combos, and it’s LESS likely that all the fun dynamics we have will degenerate away into just a few really difficult setups that only a few players can actually do.
We saw a demo of this game available for attendee's at the NCR 2017 (NorCal Regional’s - CPT Event). The feedback from those who played it seemed to really be having fun with it, how as the feedback been overall since you started development? And has this helped shaped the future of this game?
I know if I tell you “the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive” that you’ll probably write it off as marketing speak, but it really has been overwhelmingly positive. That said, we were actually very nervous about it all.
The first stage of nervousness happened during the early months of prototyping. Yeah in theory a simpler to play fighting game is still as fun as the other games out there...but is it REALLY? We considered this an experiment and we weren’t planning to go forward with it if the experiment didn’t pan out. All the people we showed the game to behind closed doors said it was great and we should keep going, so we did. It was fun to see some non-fighting game players (but who were generally good gamers) pick it up quickly and do really well, since that’s what we hoped for.
The next stage of nervousness happened around November 2016 when we showed the game at the Sony PlayStation Experience show. We had good feedback before, sure, but this was the general public. This was people who didn’t know me, or my games, or anything about any of this and were coming in cold. We got about 500 people to play our game at that event, so it was a massive amount of feedback. We went into this pretty worried too, because we saw some hate online about us on one or two forums just before the event. But PSX was a huge success. There something like 2 people who didn’t like the game out 500. This was the first time we knew that we had something the general public actually liked.
While we did have some pro players play the game, and like it, we still had nervousness surrounding how hardcore players would see the game. We enjoy the depth it has, but would they? This was slightly answered at PAX South and PAX East, but much more definitely answered at NCR. The trend we saw was this: the vast majority of players from all skill levels from low to high like the game. And the few that don’t, the skeptics, all said exactly the same things.
Skeptics at these shows (and there were only like 2 or 3 at each) would say “isn’t there just nothing to this?” Then we offer to crush them really hard, either with me playing them or one of my staff. In all cases, we crush them easily, as in more than 10-0. You might think people get salty from that, but the skeptics were all very excited. It’s exactly what they wanted to see, that there is a level of play far above what they were aware of.
Our highest praise, in my opinion, came from such a person who, after getting crushed really badly, trained at our booth for hours and hours. Then he challenged me again, and I crushed him yet again (slightly less badly, he at least won a few rounds, but not games). Then he said the first time he faced me, he lost a lot of times because he was unaware of this move or that, of this property of a move, or something. But the second time, he said he had full knowledge of all that stuff, and “he was simply outplayed.” That’s exactly what he hoped for: that a higher level of play was possible, so there’s a skill to it.
That said, keep in mind that this kind of skepticism was in tiny minority at all these shows. For the most part, our booths are full all day every day at all events with much love from everyone. It’s been very energizing to get this much love, and I feel very lucky.
As for this kind of feedback shaping the game, I think the biggest thing we learned is about how we frame the game to people. What we saw in front of our eyes over and over were scenes of a Killer Instinct player playing against a Street Fighter player or a Smash player against a Guilty Gear player. This was especially striking when a Smash player was involved because Smash is so different from other fighting games that it’s hard to cross over. And ALL those games are so hard to play that it’s hard to play anything together unless you’ve each happened to devote a lot of time to exactly the same game. So we learned that we’re a sort of “melting pot” of the FGC in that people from all backgrounds and all games came together to play Fantasy Strike. We realized that’s something we should talk about more because it’s something people brought up at every trade show.
For more in-depth feedback that definitely has helped guide development, we get that from Patreon. Our patrons have generally provided excellent feedback and have helped us prioritize which things people actually care about seeing developed more.
When people think 'simple' fighting game, games like Smash Bros and Divekick come to mind, how will this game differ and what helped inspire this new title?
These are really the wrong games to come to mind if you’re trying to figure out what Fantasy Strike is like, so I better clear that up. Here’s a diagram I use to describe the spectrum of fighting game complexity:
You see Divekick all alone on the far left. I’d put Smash on the far right. Though it’s control scheme looks simple, and similar to ours actually, Smash is one of the most difficult to play, most technical fighting games around. That’s actually what we’re trying to avoid: we want our simple control scheme to stay simple even at the expert level. Anyway, we’re in this new territory between Divekick and everything else that no other game is really in.
I’d like to give a special call out to Divekick though. It definitely did influence my thinking. Before Divekick, I was thinking about games like Street Fighter and Guilty Gear and wondering which elements could be removed without hurting depth. Then Divekick came along and I expected it to be terrible. Then I was blown away. There is A LOT more to Divekick than I expected. I think it’s incredible how much gameplay they packed into a 2 button game with no joystick.
As great as that is, Divekick wasn’t something I personally wanted to play in tournaments or seek out a scene for. I wanted more. And then during this time, several of my friends mentioned that they got new players into Divekick, the new players love it, then they’d ask which fighting game they can play next, as a next step. And me and my hardcore friends discussed what to even tell them, and kind of came up blank. ANY fighting game is a huge step up in complexity. There seemed to be a hole in the market.
So what Divekick did for me is make me think from the perspective of a 2 button game, then ask “What can we add to make this deeper?” We could add the ability to walk left and right. We could add...one attack on the ground. Maybe 2? 3? Etc. We could add throws and blocking. Instead of 1 hit point per round, what about 2? Or 3? Etc. By building the game up from almost nothing, rather than starting at Street Fighter and subtracting, I think we ended up with a much more elegant, streamlined game. Once we added enough that we started playing Fantasy Strike for real, for fun, over other fighting games, we stopped adding stuff. Amazingly, we never got around to adding crouching, and it seems fine.
What's been the biggest challenge thus far in Fantasy Strike's development?
I’ve been pretty well-equipped to solve the design challenges we’ve had. I think the biggest challenge by far is just the funding. It costs a lot to make games. We’re making something that can go up against AAA games and we’re trying to do it with 10 people. We’re struggling and we really need people’s support, whether that be our Patreon, or our upcoming crowd-funding campaign this July, or on Steam Early Access this fall. I really wish I could grow our team just a little bit to push development along faster, but we can’t do that without more support.
Probably the second biggest challenge has been art style. We’ve massively improved it during the time between November 2016 and January 2017 and we have a bunch more art improvements in the works. It was difficult for us to develop our cel-shading tech, but we finally did it. And special thanks to the Guilty Gear development team, as they publicly shared their techniques and we use much of the same tech they do. Plus I love their game in general!
Probably one of the most intriguing mechanics I've seen in a fighting game, the 'YOMI' counter which reverses throws, requires the player to literally do nothing. I picture commentators and crowds losing their mind when a player pulls this off, who came up with this idea?
The Yomi counter is my idea and it’s something I’ve wanted to do for over 10 years now. I can explain where it came from. In Street Fighter 2, throws are very, very powerful. As time went on, fighting game companies made throws weaker and weaker. More start up, less range, less damage, more ability to escape, escapes for zero damage, and so on. They have gotten hilariously too weak in some games.
Why has this happened? I think it’s because players complained that throws are cheap, and so game companies responded. This is the wrong response though, in my opinion. Throws need to be powerful because they serve an important role in the overall system of a fighting game: they beat defensive play. And yet the players who complained had a real point too; powerful throws such as the ones in Street Fighter 2 can be very frustrating to play against. Specifically, even at the pro level (!), there are many cases where you totally know a throw is coming, you are trying your best to counter-throw or escape, and you still can’t.
So what throws need to do is: 1) be very powerful when it comes to their range, damage, speed, etc and yet 2) be very easy to escape if you know they are coming. So saying it that way I thought what if the command to escape was something you could never mess up, but that was risky to do? The simplest, most risky thing possible is just letting go of the controls. So I thought that would be an amazing way to implement throw escapes. If you have played fighting games much, you’ll realize just how risky it is to “let go of all the controls” if you want to throw escape. So it’s incredibly hype when it happens.
This is something I theorized about for many years, but I didn’t know if it would REALLY work in practice. In our earliest prototypes, it was immediately fun. That was a big relief!
Do you have any general dates in mind for when we'll see Fantasy Strike released for everyone to enjoy?
As time goes on, we’ll offer the game in more and more ways. Here’s a rough timeline:
Right now, we’re on Patreon. Anyone who supports us there can get the current build of the game immediately, and we do new updates every month. This is for Mac and PC.
We’re planning to do a crowd-funding launch on Fig in July. If you’re not familiar with Fig, think of it as two parts. On the one hand, it’s just like Kickstarter. In addition to this, all games on there have the option for people to invest. By doing that, you’ll get a portion of our future revenue. Anyway, I really urge you to check out our Fig campaign once that’s ready as it will offer several options to get the game at various stages of completion.
A few months after the Fig campaign in June, we are planning to go to Steam Early Access. I’m hoping our full release will be Q3 2018. At that point, we’ll be on Steam (not Early Access) as well as PlayStation 4, at least.
Fantasy Strike is definitely looking like a title that’s bound to deliver. We’d like to thank David for taking the time to answer our questions. If you’re interested in checking out more about this title, you can visit the website, as well as David Sirlin's personal site. Adam Rorke sometimes writes about games. You can catch more of him on Twitter.