Game design is serious, complex business. With hundreds of genre, thousands of titles within each category, millions of complexities that sustain countless emergent possibilities, it's crucial when studying game design to develop a well rounded education by studying and comparing a range of games within a genre. The work I've done on this blog for years and the breakthroughs that I made with the DKART system allowed me to conduct the Brawl vs. Melee research project. This project is on going as I'm planning the summary Good Game episode and organizing followup conversations with individual contributors. One take away that I developed while working on this project is a method for organizing and comparing the gameplay or fighting engines of fighting games. The following aspects are important...
- Complexity (game rules). The more complexities a game has the more there is for players to learn and use their knowledge skills. To acquire the knowledge, players generally must practice and experiment via trial and error. The larger a game's community, the more likely the community will develop a database of game information to speed up the learning process.
- Depth (counters, and back and forth counters). Other than natural counters (dodging attacks), the range and the depth of a game's counter is important in part of the push-pull dynamics battle.
- Skill (making choices and exerting control in the game DKART). The real time nature of fighting games means the full skill spectrum is used. The types of skills that are stressed and the ratio of their importances are all legitimate factors to consider.
- Mixup Capacity (influencing opponents to make mistakes). This is a key quality in fighting games because they are generally games of complete information. This means that you can see your opponent and your character clearly on the screen at all times. In other words, there isn't a blind side like in FPSs or hidden hands like in Poker. Because you and your opponent share a full set of capable moves, influencing your opponent to make a mistake is a big part of battle. Whether you use pattern based mixups, double blind mixups, look-alike mixups, play footsies, throw out distractions, etc., the capacity to do so is a key part of how you fight.
- Combo-ability (pressing one's advantage). Though many fighting game fans live, die, and swear by the combo, set ups and mixups are generally much more prevalent. Whether a game has heavy combos (10-30 hits) or light combos (2-5), the ability for players create advantages and press them is what's important here. Matricies, traps, pins, and forks are all possible when players press their advantage in set ups and situations. Though the hits aren't necessarily guaranteed like a combo, the end result can be just as devestating.
So in my self education of fighting games, I turn to friends who know a lot about the games I have little experience with. The first game on the list is Naruto: Gekitou Ninja Taisen 4 or Naruto: Clash of the Ninja 4 (Naruto 4). I turned to my good friend David Chang, whom you may remember from my Pikmin adventure. Chang played 3 versions of this game back in the day. He trained hard and became one of the nation's best players. To goal was to get enough information from Chang to accurately describe Naruto 4 according to the criteria above. Here's how our conversation went.
KirbyKid: How intricate is the game as far as game rules are concerned?
Chang: At first, there wasn't really much complexity. a lot of it was just pure offense. Being aggressive let's you win because of the blocking mechanic where if your shield breaks, you lose all your chakra, which is basically your "get out of devastating combo for free" card. But with time people [learned] the gaps in the strings. ie where you can sidestep out of, jump out of, throw a kunai. Basically taking advantage of a slow part in the combo. Being aggressive, while still viable, became less of the focus. Suddenly most characters safe unpunishable strings were just BB (two B attacks in a row). And if that's your only safe string and option, your character is probably average to bad.
KirbyKid. So other than move animations, hit stun, block stun, and projectile disjointed moves, are there any special cancels / super moves that I should know about?
Chang: When you're comboing someone in the air, you can cancel your combo with Y for 25% chakra and start a new string. Throws are really good because they're basically out on the first frame and start combos. You can even throw some people out of a few strings.
KirbyKid: Interesting. Can your supers cancel the lag on some moves like in Street Fighter?
Chang: Yea, but it's typically only in BBX where u can activate it. There are others though.
KirbyKid: Are projectiles unique and special? Or are they basically a long range hit?
Chang: Projectiles, usually are similar. Some stagger longer
KirbyKid: So explain this "kawarimi" to get out of danger design.
Chang: Well, the big thing behind the game is kawarimi, safe strings, and aggressive strings. A lot of games there's a lot of poking going on. Some characters can be more aggressive and are more likely to be higher tier because of it. A lot of it comes to the part of the string that everyone knows is "unsafe."The aggressor will usually either stop or continue. But they could also delay the string [to] throw the timing off since people will usually retaliate after a generic BB poke (usually the universal safe string).
This is weird kawarimi jumps in. People will be openly aggressive if they have a lot of chakra because even if they get countered, they can get out of the counter combo. People will be more conservative when they dont have chakra.
KirbyKid: If you kawarimi out, is that a sort of % chance mixup? In other words, is there a good way of timing it so that you're 100% safe to escape? Or is it more like... when you do use it, the opponent can read/guess your move and punish you?
Chang: In the case when someone does get hit [into a] combo, obviously, if they dont have chakra, the person comboing will keep going. But when they get to a point where they have enough [chakra] it's a guessing game. People may stop comboing since combo strings have lag in the later parts. So if they kawarimi (imma call it KnJ now since it's no jutsu) people can KnJ, and then punish you in return.
KirbyKid: So it takes a KnJ to punish a KnJ?
Chang: Yea, and people will just stop comboing if they dont feel comfortable comboing someone with enough to KnJ. Or the person being comboed will just hold the chakra and guess that they will stop comboing. This happens most of the time. Occasionally, you get the person that's really greedy in holding his chakra and just gets comboed for a long time. That's rare though, and hilarious to watch.
KirbyKid: Is there a grab counter?
Chang: You can hit any button when [the opponent] grabs you for the first few frames and break out of it.
KirbyKid: Interesting. How does the wake up game work? (getting up from the ground) Are you at a disadvantage when you do?
Chang: Oh, interesting enough, you can grab people on wake up. It's a weird timing. The person waking up is almost always at a disadvantage.
KirbyKid: There are no high / low attacks?
KirbyKid: How do you beat a blocking player? Do you just keep pressuring with BB's and grabs?
Chang: Well, higher tier characrters have more options and aerial moves too. There are very good aerials such as the obvious one, Temari. She has easily the single best move in the game. [It's] powerful, fast, lag is cancelled with the ground, and combos into itself and into a super that can replenish chakra. lol. So.. easily top tier. (see video here)
KirbyKid: Now about skill. Is the game hard on the fingers? Are there strict timings for some strategies/moves?
Chang: Nah, the game isn't hard on fingers. The strict timing is usually for side stepping out of combo strings like OTK Naruto has a BBBA string that people like to abuse. You can sidestep the third B, [but] it's really strict timing. Very tight.
KirbyKid: Is there a frame buffer for attacks?
Chang: What does that mean again?
KirbyKid: It's where you can hit the attack button early by 10 frames or so, and the game will carry that input over for those frames. So if youre a tad early, your move will come out right on time.
Chang: Oh yeah. Though that's only in combo strings
KirbyKid: So we've kinda already covered mixups and combo-ability. Naruto 4 is very combo heavy, right?
Chang: Well, it's actually a lot of just poking [at] high level play. Because people are good about keeping their chakra high and playing safe when they don't, if you watch my vids, most of the combos aren't that long. [They] mainly stop because [the opponent] has enough chakra. So when someone KnJ's, has no chakra, and [can't] punish you your eyes glow because if you can get that one throw it's normally game since there are tons of high damage combos if the opponent has 0% chakra. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOfK07YHrJM This is a good example of that. When [the opponent] finished the previous round with a super [I was] just dying to get that throw to start off the next round because he [had] no chakra.
At this point in the interview I took everything Chang explained to me and described Naruto 4 in the following terms.
- Naruto 4 is not a very complex game (game rules). It's got moves and characters, and slightly different stages... but many hits are kind of "similar" especially air kunais, throws, dash animations, combos, and KnJs.This helps people learn the game a bit faster compared to other fighters with more moves/character/properties for each move.
- Naruto 4 has a lot of counters which is great. The majority of counters will be natural counters or dodging/counter attacking moves/strategies based on a keen sense of timing and spacing. There are much less frequent counters that involve maneuvers like sneaking out of block strings. They are generally harder to pull off. These qualities give the game some room for different strategies and counters. But as far as the deepest part of the experiences goes, there is a neat 3 or so levels deep interplay design, which involves multiple KnJs.
- You don't need a lot of dexterity or timing skills to play Naruto 4 well. There are some strategies and counters that require more, but generally the game is easy on the fingers. Because there aren't a lot of complexities, it's easier to learn all of the moves. So ultimately, battles are mainly a test of knowledge and most of all adaptation.
- Another part of the push/pull dynaimcs of combat involves mixups. Reading the opponent and deciding to go bold/stop strings early is very important. Because of the depth/interplay/counter design of the KnJ, players will be mindful of chakra levels. Generally, players wont' push things too far. Otherwise, varying the timing of moves, using dodge/teleports instead of attacks, jumping in certain ways, etc allow players to throw their opponents off (mixups).
I closed with these thoughts....
KirbyKid: Because the people bring the competitive spirit to a game, a game hardly needs a lot of any category (complexity, depth, skill, mixups, combo-ability) to be taken seriously and to be a lot of fun. Great experiences can come from very little. Naruto 4 is a unique combination of features with just enough in each category that gamers should respect it and its players. After all, the hardest thing to overcome is a human opponent with all the same moves as you have. This is true no matter how "simple" a game is.
Chang: I agree.