Mike Zaimont Breaks Down the Future Plans of Skullgirls
A good many genres lend themselves to indie development. Platformers, retro-themed RPGs, score-based arcade games, and even the odd shoot 'em up can all be engineered by a small team of hardcore developers. However, it takes some serious guts to develop something as complex as a fighting games. With a team of only 16 (mostly artists), the guys at Reverge Labs are hard at work at doing exactly that--making a small indie fighting game to please both casual fans and the hardcore.
Enter Skullgirls. You've seen our impressions may have even read our interview with Skullgirls' Lead Combat Designer, Mike "Mike Z" Zaimont, but that's only skimming the surface of this game. We've picked his brain with a few more questions concerning the things hardcore fighting game fans care about: balance, content, cost, and netcode. These topics might seem a little odd to the casual gamer, but believe me, Skullgirls has to address all of them if they hope to succeed right out of the gate.
GameZone: Building a fighting game from the ground up is a massive challenge, especially considering the teams behind Street Fighter, MvC3, SNK, Mortal Kombat and BlazBlue. What do you have to say about your competitors, and how do you hope to stack up?
Mike "Mike Z" Zaimont: I prefer not to comment on my competitors’ recent games--people should rent them and form their own opinions. As for Skullgirls, we hope to “stack up” by getting the gameplay right. I mean, we don’t have the marketing budgets or series loyalty of those games, so the only thing we can really do is try to make a better game. Skullgirls isn’t a sequel, which means we haven’t had years to incrementally revise the game mechanics to fix emergent problems. So there may be some growing pains, but I’m confident that we’ll get there.
In the end, all I ask is that people simply give the game a chance and try to evaluate it fairly.
GZ: Many fighters are notorious for being broken, riddled with cheap characters, infinites, etc. As a team well-accustomed to the tournament scene, what have you guys done to stop Skullgirls from becoming an unbalanced fighting game?
MZ: Skullgirls doesn’t have any comeback mechanics, infinite combos, unblockables, canned strings, catch-all combo breakers or high-damage loops. Right off the bat, this eliminates most of the problems that commonly affect games in this genre. Then we added the ability to pit different sized teams against each other, custom assists, and one of the least restrictive juggle systems ever created. Rather than simply practicing complicated move execution or landing that ultra, to excel at Skullgirls players will have to learn all about the intricacies of each match-up and out-think their opponent. This way, every pixel has a chance to be a hero.
Apart from designing solid systems, the rest is just play testing and iterating. I run a weekly fighting game night with some other very skilled friends, and with their input I think we’ve gotten a good foundation to build on. We’re also going to be taking the game to a number of tournaments so players can get their hands on it and offer feedback, and we'll of course take that into account, too.
GZ: What is your official stance on patching? Could we see a "Super Skullgirls" via patch?
MZ: Since we’re purely a digital game, technical problems will be addressed as quickly as possible via patch. We’ll also release balance patches as needed, but only if potential issues are determined not to be “accidental features.”
Generally speaking, though, I’m not a fan of knee-jerk reactions such as reducing a character’s health or damage in response to a perceived imbalance without completely understanding the effects it might have. Changing game systems should be a last resort, and even then they should only be tweaked gently. I think developers must allow enough time for the game to evolve before deciding what to fix. If some older games had been patched as soon as each new glitch or seemingly overpowered technique was discovered, the resulting “fixed” game would be tremendously more unbalanced than what it has evolved into by being left alone.
There will be DLC, of course--the sheer amount of proposed characters is staggering. But we’re not interested in doing re-releases, which are really just an artifact of a disc-based past. If there’s another major release, it’ll be a full-blown “Skullgirls 2.”
GZ: So far only Filia and Cerabella have been confirmed as fighters. Care to discuss Peacock and her fighting style? Can you talk about some of the other girls? Will we see a Skullboy?
MZ: Peacock? She’s the first “zoning” character we’re revealing, so she has plenty of tools to keep her opponents at a distance and harass them.
Let’s see ... since she is based on classic cartoon characters, there are pies, a hammer, a shotgun, a chainsaw, a baseball bat, a cannon--and those are just her normal attacks. She’s also got bombs of all sizes, boards with nails in them, eye lasers, and plenty of pianos and other comical items to drop. She also has a teleport for quick escapes, and a very unique air dash which changes trajectory depending on what she’s doing when you start it.
Lots of her tools require setup time and careful planning, but once she gets going she’s extremely hard to get in on. To compensate, she isn’t the fastest character, and she has a wee bit of trouble escaping good pressure.
Finally, just because “girls” is in the title doesn’t mean guys are out of the question. I can’t talk about anything specific, but there is certainly some testosterone to balance out the estrogen once we get to DLC.
GZ: How do you feel about games like Street Fighter IV, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and BlazBlue employing DLC for new characters? Can this break a game?
MZ: As I just alluded to, we’ll be doing this ourselves. So I’m all for it!
Simply being DLC doesn’t mean a character is any more likely to have abused tactics than characters that shipped with the game, as long as it’s been thoroughly play tested. I certainly don’t intend for our DLC characters to be afterthoughts, and they’ll be getting the same effort as the core characters.
GZ: Let's talk about the artwork. When Skullgirls was first announced a while ago, the general art direction wasn't quite pinned down. Now the game has a sort of "Old Hollywood" feel. Additionally, the character models went from passable to very fluid and beautiful. How did Skullgirls evolve visually?
MZ: I wasn’t involved with the 2006 version of the game, and you’d have to talk to Alex about the style, but I can talk about what I did to improve the technology. When I came on in 2009, I had already been working on a fighting game engine for over 8 years, and we immediately moved Skullgirls’ development to use it. When the project began, games were still designed for standard definition TVs, so when Skullgirls switched engines all of the existing art was scrapped and all-new art was created at HDTV resolution. We also discovered a brand-new way to draw frames, which allows us an unprecedented level of detail while requiring less creation time than traditional pixel art--especially HD resolution pixel art. This fresh start and new approach to character animation gave Alex an opportunity to refine his character designs and overall vision for the game, which might be responsible for some of the stylistic improvements mentioned earlier.
The new Skullgirls engine can fit a huge number of frames into a very small space and dynamically load art data on the fly, and it also has a number of new features for 2D games, like real-time lighting. We’ve also got members of Paul Robertson’s Mecha Fetus crew on the animation staff, so I think we’re set to make the most the engine’s capabilities.
GZ: An initial complaint leveraged against Skullgirls is that it's a "loli-fighter." What do you have to say to these haters?
MZ: Certain people just seem to use “loli” as a derogatory blanket term for all things Japanese they don’t like, so I’m not sure it’s worth focusing on. I would point out that the actual definition of "loli" has little to do with the Skullgirls characters or art style. Nor does “animu” or any of the other words you see thrown around. Alex’s art is Alex’s art.
What I think people may be implying by with comments like this, though, is that they see Skullgirls as just another fighting game hoping to sell primarily due to sex appeal or cuteness, with little attention paid to the actual “game” part. In that regard, they couldn’t be more wrong. Filia and Cerebella may have legs and other parts of their anatomy visible, but that doesn’t extend to other characters like Peacock or P--err, anyway, it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the gameplay.
A lot of all-girl fighters are more about the girls than the gameplay, and that’s not the case here. While Alex has a lot of freedom with the art, ultimately everything has to go through me and not have any negative impact on the gameplay. My goal is for Skullgirls to be a tournament-worthy fighter--what the characters are or are not wearing doesn’t change that focus one bit.
GZ: Why do you think it's so hard to please fighting game fans? Where do you hope to see Skullgirls in the future?
MZ: In my opinion, it really isn’t all that hard to please fighting game fans. I am one, and I have greatly enjoyed many games. Any fan can name a “good” fighting game which already exists; otherwise they would not be a fighting game fan in the first place. We are detail-oriented, though, because at high levels of play that stuff really matters. So if fans are displeased by a recent game, you should look to the game instead of the fans.
From the first time I played Street Fighter II, I have wanted to make a fighting game. Now that I’m actually doing it, I want to continue making more. Of course I hope that Skullgirls gets the details right so it will be adopted by tournament players, but I also want it to be fun enough for regular people to enjoy, too. And I hope Skullgirls is successful enough to allow us to continue making games, since even while doing what you love, you still have to pay rent.
GZ: How are you going to address the online netcode?
MZ: I have a 4-letter word for you: GGPO.
If you haven’t heard of GGPO, it was written by someone vastly more competent than I am when it comes to networking fighting games, and it’s the preferred network library of many fighting game fans. It has the advantage of being made by someone in the fighting game community, too, so it was designed from the ground up for fighting games, even though it’ll work with any kind of game. It will make your breakfast, clean your room, do your taxes and eliminate as much of the lag as possible.
GZ: Anything else you'd like to say?
MZ: Since we talked a bit about DLC, I thought I’d mention one last thing about it.
I’m not a fan of DLC that simply unlocks something that should have been included with the initial release. Exactly how our DLC will work with PSN and XBLA isn’t finalized yet, but you can rest assured there won’t be any fully-functional “new” characters hidden in the original download.
If at least 86,405 people purchase Skullgirls on launch day, I will post a picture on my Twitter account teasing some upcoming feature but hiding most of it behind an AllStar Seaworthy action figure!