Getting dirty with the Skullgirls [Interview]

7 Dec 2011  by   Paul Younger
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Speaking to the people behind fighting games is always very interesting. Given the nature of the genre, every developer has very strong ideas and goals about the requirements regarding balancing, character design, frame rate, patch updates and long-term enjoyment. 
These are all essential elements, because if any one of them is wrong, even by a little, then everything goes haywire and the game is ‘broken’. 
For that reason, talking to the creator of a beat ‘em up teaches you a lot about the nitty-gritty of game design in general – particularly how to solve problems without creating others.
At a top secret location in London recently (think of it as the Batcave) we got to sit down with Peter Bartholow, designer and community manager for Reverge Labs’ Skull Girls a brand new fighter arriving next year on XBLA and PSN.
Our hands-on preview of Skullgirls is coming in the very near future, but Mr Bartholow does a great job of honestly summing up the idea, the approach and the end goal.
IncGamers: Skullgirls is clearly a very technical game, is it aimed primarily at the hardcore beat ‘em up fan?
Peter Bartholow: We don’t think that, just because the game has a very high skill ceiling, means it can’t also be accessible for new players. That’s part of the reason we spent so much time creating our tutorials. Having said that, yes, Mike’s [Mike Zaimont, lead designer] driving goal is to make a tournament grade fighter.
Again, we don’t see any reason why people new to fighters can’t also play it. It’s interesting because Mike wanted it to be a high-level fighter, whereas Alex [Alex Ahad, art director] just wanted people to enjoy the characters. So far we seem to somehow be pulling it off. We have a lot of casual and hardcore people that are excited about the game.
If we do our job right I don’t think it will matter that the game has a high skill ceiling.

IG: The characters are very individual in the way that they play, each is focused on a specific play style. Do you expect players to pick, and stick, with a certain character?
PB: We want to give you as many ways to play as possible. One thing that’s great about the variable team mechanic (see our hands-on preview) is that it makes it accessible to people that are familiar with all kinds of different fighting games.
So, Marvel vs. Capcom fans are very happy to jump into a new game and play in a three characters per team setup, while Street Fighter players are happy to focus on a single player. We’ve given them that choice.
From online chatter, what we’re seeing from a lot of comments is that people will start out by focusing on one character and then they’ll add a second character and slowly build their time until they’re skilled with a trio. We’ve got a fairly small roster but we’re providing a lot of ways to play.
IG: How much does that pre-release fan feedback and chatter affect the design process?
PB: Because we want the game to reach that tournament grade level, we’re very open to input. Some of our features are very minor but they’re things that the fighting game community have wanted for a long time.
For example, to pause the game you need to hold the button for 15 frames for it to register. One of the pet peeves of fighting game fans is accidental pauses. Somebody online suggested that you should have to hold pause for a certain length of time, so we literally put it in and tried it out. We liked it and it’s staying in.
We’ve also been taking the game to a lot of tournaments so that we can get feedback from hardcore players on the balancing. All of that has gone into the game. Parasoul’s projectiles work completely differently than they once did, specifically because of feedback.
That kind of fast implementation is (being a small indie studio) something I think we can do that someone bigger probably can’t.

IG: Fighting games are hard enough to balance at the best of times, but with the variable team sizes and such focused characters has that made it harder?
PB: Yeah, we do a lot of play testing; both the tournaments and in-house. So far people say that it’s pretty well balanced, including the team sizes. Those team sizes are purely mathematical scaling, so that’s not too complicated.
Again, if something does slip by then we have the anti-infinite combo system that acts as a bit of an insurance policy against any moves that are open to being abused and might break the game.
IG: Are you expecting to update the balancing post-release?
PB: We have a pretty hands-off approach when it comes to that. I think Mortal Kombat were very knee-jerk about their balance patches, they were probably too reactive; they were constantly adjusting health and lots of stuff like that.
Our approach is very much ‘wait and see’ when it comes to balancing, because the player base tends to evolve over the years. Early on in the life of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, for example, Iceman was considered to be extremely broken and everybody would use him. But then people learned counters to his moves and now nobody uses him because he’s considered weak.
If we see something that is obviously broken and has no possible counter then it’ll be fixed, but if it’s something that there probably is a counter for then we’ll wait and see if the community figures it out. If they do find a counter then it may need a little tweak and it’ll be fine, if not then we’ll probably adjust it.
IG: Why the 2D route? What does that offer over 3D?
PB: It’s really just what we wanted to do. Mike prefers the 2D fighters because the hit boxes make it a lot easier to predict and work out what’s happening. We’re not massive fans of the 2.5D games because the way the hit boxes work with the motions are artificial and don’t actually work… basically they’re not as technical as a pure 2D fighter.
Plus, our creative director is a professionally trained animator and 2D is his forte.

IG: How do you straddle the line between including enough familiar elements so as not to be overwhelming, but not include so many that you’re too similar to the rest?
PB: That’s probably a better question for our lead designer, but our game is fairly derivative in that we’re borrowing a lot of elements from other games and trying to refine and improve it. I can see us definitely branching out from that in the future but this is our first game and we haven’t had years to build our own fighting system.
We’re sticking to what we know works.
IG: Why the all female route?
PB: Alex has been working on the characters and the story since he was in high school, basically. The game is not always going to be all female, but the story focuses on a wish granting artefact that only works on women. So it makes sense that in the early parts of the game it’s only women that are seeking it out.
However, Alex’s long term vision includes male characters. The character ratio between male and female will be the same as other fighting games, only flipped around. Alex has about 40 characters that he’s made and wants to put in future games and via DLC.
IG: And the generic question for all digital games! Why the download route?

PB: Part of it is because that’s a much easier place for a new independent studio to get in because of the budget. However, it also allows us to do a lot of interesting things with the fighting game. Capcom has to release a new disc to update their game, basically, whereas we plan on offering free content updates. So being a download game is an advantage in a lot of ways.
I think a lot of more casual fighting game players like the mechanics but are not very good. To them the idea of spending $16 on a fighting game is a lot more appealing than spending a full $60. That’s just an example, our price hasn’t been finalised, but you’re definitely going to feel as though you’ve got your money’s worth.

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