Magic Lessons for Fighting Game Developers

Magic: the Gathering’s most prized treasure, Mark Rosewater, presented a panel at CDC called “20 Lessons from 20 Years of Magic.” His speech focused on various aspects of game design lessons that he had learned over his tenure at Wizards of the Coast, but many can apply to fighting games as well. Please excuse me as I loosely paraphrase Mr. Rosewater and cherrypick his lessons that I find specifically valuable. There’s a chance I may have also heard of these on his podcast, Drive to Work.

Player Psychographics

Take the player psychographics that Rosewater so often references when discussing the audience for Magic: the Gathering for example. The spectrum of Timmy, Johnny, Spike, and Vorthos is a lens through which you can view anyone, not just card game players. To paraphrase Mr. Rosewater, a Timmy plays to experience something spectacular, a Johnny plays to prove something about themselves, a Spike plays to win, and a Vorthos plays to experience the story. 

The fighting game community includes more specific player archetypes, but I would argue that we all have a little bit of Timmy, Johnny, Vorthos, and Spike in each of us. Keeping these hypothetical players in mind when designing your fighter will ensure that you’ve done your due diligence to include a wide variety of player perspectives into your work (or not, if that’s more your style!)

Don’t Fight Human Nature

At the end of the day, game design is all about conveying and in many ways teaching players complex concepts without ever being able to sit down with them individually. Part of that journey is doing one’s best to pack as much information up-front as possible by utilizing ideas and concepts that the player is already familiar with to ease them into learning about whatever it is that makes your game unique.

The first step on that path is to acknowledge that you cannot and should not try to fight human nature unless that is the expressed purpose of what you are trying to pull off. Otherwise, it’s best to stick to the familiar when necessary and use that to expect certain responses in return.

Players have a finite amount of time and a near-infinite inventory of great fighting games to enjoy. Don’t expect a player to want to learn how to ride a pogo stick when they already know how to ride a bicycle, for lack of a suitable metaphor. Only spend those precious mental resources on teaching your players about what makes your game cool!

Look at this selection of vampire colors!

Discovery & Self Expression Are Vital

Although it differs among players, a key component to analyzing the player psychographics mentioned above is that each player is, in some part, in it for themselves. That isn’t to say that they don’t care about the other players, but they do ultimately want to express or discover something about themselves. 

Providing that player agency can be as simple as a variety of color palette choices at character select or as complex as an in-depth combo system that requires years to truly master. Whatever avenue for self expression your game eventually utilizes, being cognizant of what you are providing your audience to discover will make for a more compelling player experience.

If Your Theme Isn’t At Common, It’s Not Your Theme

I’ve left this for last simply because it deserves more explanation than the others. Magic: the Gathering separates its cards into a variety of rarities: common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare. These have differing rates of occurrence in a booster pack, meaning that most players who purchase products from Wizards of the Coast will run into commons way more often than rare or mythic rares.

These categories offer designers a chance to throttle the player experience and leave more complex concepts or mechanics for rare or mythic rare cards. If a new player runs into a complex mythic rare, that’s okay because it is only one of potentially hundreds of other cards they own, most of which are simple enough to grok without years of experience playing the game at a high level.

Fighting games are similar, except instead of gating mechanics behind card rarities, fighters have normals, command normals, target combos, specials, ex specials, super arts, super desperation moves, and too many more to list here. Most of a character’s moves are going to be normals—their punches, kicks, and basic martial art attacks. Street Fighter’s Ryu, for example, has plenty of normal moves (Street Fighter is traditionally a six-button fighter), but only three or four special moves, and one to three super arts in his arsenal. Throwing a fireball requires a unique joystick notation as well, leaving some new players left mashing buttons rather than trying to do a 623 motion.

“Grok?”

Mr. Rosewater emphasizes in his lessons on card game design that whatever one’s theme is, it should be readily apparent to a new player after confronting their first booster pack of cards. Given that only 3/15 of the cards in any normal pack will be uncommon and 1/15 of them will be rare or mythic rare (although they’ve changed the specific numbers and types of booster packs since I quit playing), that means that 11 of the 15 cards that a new player purchases will be common and, therefore, limited to being relatively simple compared to others.

In the same way that a Magic set’s theme should be apparent at common, so too should a fighting game’s theme be apparent to players who simply mash buttons and don’t wait long enough to learn how to do a hadouken. If you don’t want players to have to worry about links or precise timing between normals, make your basic attacks chain into one another. If you want to focus on aerial combat, give some fighters grounded normals that leave them airborne. Conversely, if you want a fighter to focus on grounded combat, provide them opportunities to keep their opponent where they are most effective and limit their options to jump. 

This applies to both universal mechanics and character-specific themes; if your most inexperienced players can’t “get it” after hitting a few buttons, it needs to be better baked into the foundation of the player experience.

Thanks for reading!

The Midnight Gospel – A Review

Being a cishet white dude almost guarantees that I’m into podcasts of some sort. I listen to NPR, various gaming shows, and a couple of comedy podcasts to help lighten the mood. I often find my specific preferences too idiosyncratic to make sharing podcasts with all but my closest friends practical. The Midnight Gospel, however, is one podcast that I heartily recommend to just about anyone who enjoys lengthy cartoons for adults. What you get in return for a few minutes of your time is a wild ride that was worth the price of admission simply for the conversation with friends after watching the first episode.

While most podcasts rely on specific topics or guest speakers to guide the conversation, the Midnight Gospel flips the format on its head to form an amalgam of spontaneous conversation and scripted comedy that is worth experiencing at least once. Whether you can stomach the rest of the first season is another question entirely.

I want to avoid spoiling anything, so I’ll try to be as vague as possible in my description. The Midnight Gospel is a story about an intergalactic, perhaps interdimensional, podcast host who interviews various denizens of the cosmos on a variety of topics ranging from drug use to the teachings of Ram Dass. That’s it. That’s all you’re going to get. If that sounds up your alley, then today is your lucky day! The Midnight Gospel can currently be found streaming on Netflix.

For everyone else who may not watch but is still interested, I’d say that Midnight Gospel absolutely nails what it sets off to accomplish. The pseudo-philosophical dialog and psychedelic atmosphere makes it an easy cartoon to throw on while hanging out with friends just to gauge their reactions. I fully expect TMG will fall somewhere on the cultural impact spectrum akin to Mystery Science Theater or other late-night stoner classics.

“Us” – Review

First of all, I hope everyone is doing well and staying healthy despite everything going on. We’re all in this together. In an attempt to distract from some of the horrible things being committed on U.S. soil, I recently decided to watch Jordan Peele’s second film, “Us.” For your sake, I’m going to do my best to avoid spoiling anything that isn’t clearly apparent in the trailers. Like Peele’s breakout hit, “Get Out,” this film is worth watching without knowing much going in.

The existence of evil doppelgangers is splattered all over the marketing for “Us,” so I feel no guilt in starting off by saying that the actors who were tasked with playing two versions of themselves did a phenomenal job. There’s a magic to the juxtaposition between the two families when you realize that each of the four actors had to play twice as many roles, often without a scene partner.

Lupita Nyong’o’s performance was specifically astounding given she has admitted to not having been a fan of horror movies prior to joining the project. The protagonist, Addy, is a fantastic stand-in for the traditional horror movie-going audience; she ‘gets it’ more than the rest of her family and is cautious from the moment she senses something is off. This is offset by Nyong’o’s depiction of Red, Addy’s evil doppelganger, who is terrifying yet surprisingly sympathetic. If her Oscar wasn’t enough to convince you of her talent, “Us” allows Lupita to show off her range and expertise in front of the camera twice as much as normal.

In regard to the plot, pacing, script, set design, musical choices, and cinematography, it sounds silly saying anything other than that they perfectly match the tone and themes of the film. Jordan Peele as a remarkable way of taking iconic songs and making his audiences appreciate them in a new light. It goes without saying, given his storied careers in comedy, Peele captures the exact amount of laughs that a horror movie needs to break up the tension. Interestingly, Winston Duke’s comedic timing is able to steal the stage frequently throughout the film regardless of whether it’s Peele that helps provide most of the power behind the punchlines.

It’s important to mention that, although it’s easier to describe “Us” as a horror film, I really wasn’t scared at any time throughout the runtime. Peele is able to capture a spooky tone and atmosphere dripping in tension and dramatic irony but falls short of actually making me want to avert my eyes. This isn’t a critique of the film as much as a warning for those who expect a pants-staining murder fest to temper their expectations a bit. Instead, you’ll be greeted by a remarkably paced suspenseful thriller about murderous doppelgangers. Given I’m not a huge fan of schlocky horror, I was glad to see Peele decide to take a different approach while still nailing all of the telltale marks of an effective horror film.

If I was handcuffed to a table by my evil doppelganger and forced to criticize the movie, I’d say that Jordan wasn’t able to craft as a believable world to set his supernatural horror-thriller in as he was with “Get Out.” Most viewers will have to make large logical jumps in their head to excuse some obvious issues with the world-building and explanations behind the premise. However, if you’re able to excuse having to suspend your disbelief more than usual, you’ll have a blast with Peele’s sophomore horror outing.

When It’s Okay to Go Home Again… Or How to Learn to Love Maintenance Mode

With no end to the pandemic in sight, I’ve found myself delving into MMORPGs in my spare time. Whether it’s Guild Wars 2 or World of Warcraft Vanilla, I always compared them to my time spent in Telera. Eventually, I decided to play my favorite MMO rather than playing games that offer similar experiences with different dressing.

The question inevitably becomes: “Is the game dead?”

As much as I loathe the concept of games dying, it’s easy shorthand to describe a game being abandoned by it’s developer and either shutdown or, at best, put into maintenance mode. Rift still has a community of devoted players, making major cities less barren than I expected. Instant adventures are equally as populated, giving players easy access to grouped content. In all other ways, however, Rift can be considered being in maintenance mode.

Although I wasn’t privy to the events as they occured, it looks like Trion Worlds went under recently and sold the rights of Rift to Gamigo. The new owners seem content in keeping the servers updated and using their limited resources to address community issues, such as recently patching their player report feature.

If you believe the rumors, I also hear good news about world boss content being experimented with on the PTR. This, combined with the already existing seasonal content, is enough to keep me logging in and checking out the game every once in a while.

Can an MMO designed to bring players together quickly and easily ever be truly dead? Sure, LFG queues don’t pop as quickly as they used to (or at all) but you can get folks to join you in chat if you’re patient. Instant adventure solves most murder hobo needs, while PVP, crafting, raids, slivers, and chronicles are all still accessible.

It’s hard to recommend an MMO in maintenance mode without adding a million caveats, so I’ll try to keep this simple. Rift is easily one of my favorite MMOs, if not games, and has a lot of great story and fun gameplay to explore for those looking to find it. If you also want flexible and interesting class choices and build opportunities, plenty of group PVE content, and a unique story/aesthetic, Telera may still have something to offer.

Remnant: From the Ashes – Review

In a world where every game is at some point inevitably compared to Dark Souls, it’s understandable why it took me this long to give Remnant: From the Ashes a try. “It’s Souls with guns!” people would say to me. I’ve slogged through enough Souls-likes that I need more than just the lure of the next bonfire and relentlessly punishing gameplay to win my attention. Thankfully, Gunfire Games manages to find a graceful balance between drawing inspiration from other games and improving upon the foundation they’ve already set.

Instead of drawing directly from From Software’s magnum opus, the developers of Remnant cherry-picked the best qualities from the series to adopt and discarded the rest. Gone are the endless corpse runs back from the last bonfire after dying over and over on the same boss. The UI is intuitive and jumping into a game with friends is as easy as pressing one button. There’s even a difficulty rating, a welcome addition to a genre that often misses the point about player experiences.

A pattern that quickly reveals itself is that Remnant owes just as much to Diablo 2, Borderlands, and similar loot pinata simulators than it does to the Souls series. Chests explode, showering you with crafting materials and ammo. Weapon mods and equipment are easy to mix and match at one’s leisure. Most obtainable items are shared with all players in your party, so there’s no downside to running around collecting everything in sight if that’s up your alley. With an aesthetic that leans closer to Fallout or Deadlands, it’s clear that Remnant borrows a lot from gaming royalty.

That being said, Remnant: From the Ashes is still very much a Souls-like. Players still dodge roll through enemy attacks, chop off dragons’ tails to craft fantastical weapons, and fight against overwhelming odds to their heart’s content. What is gone, however, is the frustration, alienation of new players, and a tanking frame rate. This game runs remarkably smooth and doesn’t overstay its welcome. 

Instead of having long branching paths interwoven within one another, Remnant opts for the randomly generated approach. Players could have very similar experiences up until they encountered their first boss, for example. This along with the difficulty rating provide a lot of replay value for players who want to experience more than the main game has to offer or experiment with new gear and weapon mods combinations. For everyone else who just wants to enjoy a short and sweet romp through a dystopian wasteland, I was able to complete the main story in two or three vigorous gaming sessions.

If you are a fan of Dark Souls and similar titles, then you have probably already given this game a try. However, if you cringe at the idea of dying to hidden traps and wandering off aimlessly only to be eaten by a dragon, then don’t overlook Remnant just because it fits into the Souls-like mold. This might be the perfect introduction to the genre for new players period, both because of how similar to Dark Souls it is and how drastically different it is at the same time.