In the month of April, streamer and YouTuber Mike Levesque (also known as MrMKL) had the idea to host an indie fighting game developer roundtable, inspired by the periodic Japan Fighting Game Publisher roundtable. His rationale was that, even if indie fighting games do not reach the same amount of players as—say—Street Fighter or Tekken, they have their own hardcore audience. Furthermore, indie developers are constantly trying to push the boundaries of the genre, in directions that are often precluded to more commercial titles. So, in his eyes, that was the perfect opportunity to have 3-4 developers meet together and get them to talk about the current status of this amalgam of subgenres.

I got in touch with MrMKL for the first time thanks to our shared treasure hunt for the mysteries of the Laptop Arcade Player and I was one of the four people he contacted for this first roundtable, together with Mattrified (Battle High, MerFight, Drag Her), MonochromaticHermit (Heatwave) and Love, from team Kaizen Creed, currently developing 5 Force Fighters.

The roundtable was finally held on the 16th of April, 2022 and streamed live on Twitch. A couple days later, the video was also uploaded on YouTube, where it’s available for watch in all its 2 hours and 36 minutes glory.

For those who aren’t fond of watching videos, though, I’ve decided to write up a summary of the event to the best of my skills.

This week, we’ll go through the first half of the show, covering the first four main topics:

  • Inspiration and design principles
  • State of the game
  • Innovation in a conservative/legacy genre
  • Onboarding new players

The second part, which will be published next week, will cover the rest of the roundtable:

  • Is there a trend towards approachable design?
  • Monetizing your game/post-launch support
  • The importance of community champions
  • Where do we go next?

You can use this handy table of content to navigate through the topics discussed during the event!

Meet the panelists

As written before, the four panelists were Mattrified, chosen to represent standard or semi-standard 2D/2.5 fighting games, MonochromaticHermit, for their experience in building and designing air-dashers, Love from Kaizen Creed, as 5 Force Fighters crosses the lines between platform fighter and traditional fighting games, and yours truly, Andrea “Jens” Demetrio, mostly for my work on 3D fighters.

It was interesting and heartwarming to see my peers’ faces for the first time. Until this year, Love and Mattrified were “just” names I had interacted with thanks to Discord and Twitter, but seeing them and being finally able to match a face with a voice, was incredible. MonochromaticHermit decided to go for a self-made 2D V-Tuber model instead, that was quite awesomely put together, responding in a dynamic way, lip synced, and moving accordingly.

The stream was hosted and led by MrMKL himself, with the help of his technician and moderator, Safety Man (member of the Toronto Top Tiers tournament organizers). After some technical test that lasted around half an hour before going live, the show began in earnest.

Portraits from the indie FGC developer roundtable

From left to right, up to down: yours truly, Andrea “Jens” Demetrio; Mattrified; MrMKL; MonochromaticHermit with their V-Tuber and Love from the Kaizen Creed team.

Inspiration and design principles

Timestamp: 04:50

The first theme of the roundtable was a warm-up question: What was the inspiration behind the games those developers made? Each one of us shared very different stories to share.

I was the first being asked and replied for both Schwarzerblitz and Motionsickness: Schwarzerblitz was literally born as a love letter to the games I had played in my local arcade when I was a child (especially, but not limited to, Tekken 2), while Motionsickness was a gut reaction to people complaining about over-simplification in recent fighting games—which, after watching this video by Core-A gaming, prompted me to create “Fantasy Strike, but the opposite”.

Second in line was Love, who, when prompted about the inspiration behind 5 Force Fighters, earnestly said that he wanted to design a game in which he would be able to beat his little brother. Since the game he was the most proficient with was Super Smash Bros., he decided to put to use the input system of the staple Nintendo platform fighter, together with some traditional Street Fighter feeling and all the crazy movement options of air-dashers.

Mattrified, wishing fighting games were more pick-up-and-playable even for casual players, went for MerFight with the goal of minimizing the time that passes from getting the game to reaching some level of proficiency with it—not at a pro level, but enough to understand the mechanics and have a grip of the fundamentals. Some of these same design goals were shared with his previous game Battle High and with the upcoming Drag Her, where he works as a main programmer.

Finally, MonochromaticHermit, revealed that they joined the scene relatively recently, as the first fighting game he consistently played was BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle. Nevertheless, Heatwave was originally inspired by Samurai Shodown, while The Last Blade 2 was the main engine behind the different fighting styles. MonochromaticHermit mixed elements from their original idea with anime air-dashers, putting together something that resembles both and neither at the same time.

Heatwave was featured as a centerpiece in YouTuber Stumblebee’s video about original ideas in indie fighting games, classifying it as one of the loosest game in the genre, allowing for an inordinate amount of player expression.

State of the game

Timestamp: 14:07

MrMKL moved then to the first topic—the current status of the industry and the fighting game genre.

I was asked to “start the dances” and gave my opinion on the argument: That it’s an incredible time for fighting game fans, thanks to rollback netcode spreading like wildfire, but that the current industry is a bit stale in terms of new, original (not derived or third party) IPs and capitalizing on sequels. Major production studios were also slow to catch up with important features like rollback netcode, which was pioneered in full force by games like Skullgirls and Punch Planet, all while games like Street Fighter V were still lagging behind [post-roundtable fix, but I should have mentioned Killer Instinct (2013) too, if only my brain just decided to remind me of it]. Thus, innovation and moving to unexplored directions is the niche that indie developers and indie games can fill.

MrMKL asked Love about the effects of the pandemic on the genre and if that helped the indie games to shine a bit more. Love mentioned how rollback netcode was the number one request during the 5 Force Fighters Kickstarter campaign, but also described how it has become increasingly important to the players to attune to the story the game wants to tell and how the characters interact. In his opinion, Guilty Gear is an example on how to get crazy with this, but major games seem to have little space for more a personal and/or relatable story. He mentioned Celeste as an indie game that tells a story that is not mainstream, but of the kind people would need to be more exposed to.

Why should I play your game?

For Mattrified, one of the biggest hurdles of indie fighting game development is that we are competing against titans and one of the questions he gets asked the most is “why should I play your game, when I can play Tekken or Street Fighter?“. He argued that currently there is no reason for a pro player to focus on MerFight, since there is no pro-circuit or big money involved. This is one of the biggest issues in his view, as people who play games as a career have no real reasons to spend time on smaller games. The availability of rollback and community-building tools like Discord helped smaller developers a lot, but it’s still hard to “make numbers and earn a lot of money”, especially because indie game communities tend to be rather small in terms of player size. In his thoughts, there is still a lot of work and uphill battles for indie developers, but the tools at our disposal have improved a lot, especially when we just want to share our creations with the players.

MonochromaticHermit said that there is a divide between big games and smaller indie fighting games, with players taking indies “less seriously” and allowing developers to get crazy, fun and creative instead of being laser-focused on balance. The focus on balance causes major games to get very homogenized, due to the attention to making them as competitively viable as possible, while many indie fighting games tend to have a more experimental approach.

Love remarked that he agrees and that indies allow for a lot of originality and cool new themes and ideas (he mentioned MerFight as a theme nobody really went for before Mattrified). That isn’t true in major games that try to play it safe.

When asked, I remarked how it is true for me as well, as I go for “rule of cool first, balance second” and focus on making a game that I’d love to play instead of a game that is inherently balanced. The example I have taken to the board was the (in)famous “Lazor one-punch KO” clip from the Quarantined Rapport Schwarzerblitz tournament.

MrMKL then asked Mattrified about the level of freedom and exposure of indie fighting games in the current market, to which he replied that, since we aren’t AAA game studios, we can allow ourselves to take risks and to make something we love instead of what sells. Big games cannot stray too far away without backlash (e.g. killing off Ryu in Street Fighter would result in a player revolt), while we can just go our way with very few consequences. Even if the game ends up being a failure or not as good as we wanted, we don’t lose anything. In contrast, if an AAA game fails, people get laid off and a lot of money is lost.

A panel from MerFight's tutorial, showing the basic buttons for Gigi. In the picture, Gigi uses her Heavy Kick (tied to the B input button) against the training dummy.

MerFight is a game that is strongly geared towards approachability, with a slew of simplified inputs that are catered towards new players that have never touched a fighting game before.

Innovation in a conservative/legacy genre

Timestamp: 28:46

MrMKL went on to ask how to innovate in a very conservative and legacy-worshiping genre as that of fighting games.

Mattrified told us how people kept asking him if they could switch off the easy controls in MerFight, but that he wouldn’t do that because his idea for MerFight is a game that is easy to pick for new players (unless he got a big offer from a publisher, in which case he would have considered it). Players often ask developers to get back to the usual formula, but sticking to one’s design guns is the way to go if we want to try something new and somehow innovate.

I later chimed in talking about how many players kept asking Arcus Chroma‘s developer, GxGrainSon, to add a jump to the game—which would go against its core design idea and against what makes it unique. So, I suggested that one should stick to refining the aspects the core audience of the game cares for and care less about feedback from people that probably wouldn’t have played the game in the first place. In case these design ideas don’t work out in the end, failure is an option, but it’s better than not trying to innovate, especially because we don’t have a lot to lose.

MrMKL then asked MonochromaticHermit about how the Heatwave community reacted to the innovations presented in the game. MonochromaticHermit argued that they have no pointer of what is right or wrong and just go in the direction they think is better for the game. They say that feedback is welcome, but they are the designer and the one in charge of taking decisions. In Heatwave there are a lot of broken combos and busted characters, but it’s the way they like it and have fun with. There are no complex motions either (e.g. no pretzel motions) and all dragon punch motions are tied to a down down input, but they didn’t design it with approachability in mind—they designed the game for themselves, hoping that other people could enjoy it too.

Love said that 5 Force Fighters’ systems are working together in some intricate ways, with focus on both passive and active abilities. It has been very interesting for him to get feedback from the players, especially while observing them approaching the game “blind”. This became especially important when players started “breaking the game” and playing it in a way the developers never considered or didn’t realize was possible. Tutorials should be perfected to allow players to understand how the game should be played though, otherwise we as developers haven’t been good enough.

Mattrified added that the absence of a legacy is both a con and a pro for us small developers, since it’s not as easy for new players to just transfer skills from other games like they could, for example, from Street Fighter 2 to 3 to 4. This is where tutorials should come in handy and help work through this issue.

This picture shows the characters Gangco and Zaiva facing each other at the beginning of the round.

Arcus Chroma is a game that introduced some innovation by completely removing the ability to jump. However, several people kept on asking the developer to add it to make it more “conventional”. It’s unfortunately hard to balance innovation with player expectations.

Onboarding new players

Timestamp: 40:18

MrMKL then used the hook about tutorials to ask us about how to onboard new players. I was the first to reply that onboarding new players is just hard in a competitive 1v1 game, because there is no way for new players to “blame their losses on their teammates” (see ScrubQuoteX). A loss streak in the first hour of the game can be detrimental for player retention, because after losing ten matches in a row, people could just move to something different. Playing against the AI or learning through tutorials is not really helping for this, because playing against a human player is much more intricate and “illogical” than playing against something which follows a predetermined set of patterns. I’ve also argued that we still need tutorials, and good tutorials at it, just that they aren’t the panacea.

Love then quipped on how the best way to onboard new players might be engaging single player content that teaches you how to play and give a sense of progression, removing some repetition from the loop. He took Warzard/Red Earth as an example of a game that does it right, having this beat’em up main scenario that would catch the attention of people who aren’t very interested in the genre. Love also remarked how playing against a human player is almost like fighting an AI boss character every time. Player expression is so varied that the same character is played in wildly divergent ways and no two opponents play the same, forcing one to adapt and learn new patterns at every match.

Speaking of onboarding, MrMKL mentioned the concept of “Time to Hadoken” (TTH) introduced by the developer of Bearsus as “the minimal time required by a new player to do the first cool thing”, which should be kept as low as possible to make the learning process smooth, instead of having to wait for e.g. ten minutes for the servers to sync and let someone finally leave the title screen.

A still from Beatdown Dungeon's dungeon crawling mode

Beatdown Dungeon, with its impressive single player campaign, was given as an example of a good way to introduce newcomers to the genre without overwhelming them

The role of story mode

MonochromaticHermit went on by telling how story modes are a very good expedient to teach new players the game mechanics, but remarked how usually fighting game story modes aren’t very good at it: Either they are side content without a lot of mechanical challenge or are just traditional arcade encounters that do not help a lot with the learning process.

Love then mentioned a Game Boy Advance called Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure, a game with a fighting game system within a story/beat’em up. The combat switched between beat’em ups and a traditional fighting game, transitioning seamlessly between the two of them.

MrMKL then dropped a wild suggestion, having a fighting game whose story mode would pit the player against other players around the world, replacing the AI boss with another opponent of a suitable skill level. All developers thought it was a cool idea that might work if executed correctly, but also cautioned about telling it out loud, jokingly suggesting that Capcom could patent it.

Going forward, Mattrified focused on the fact that for small games without a longstanding legacy, story mode is part of brand-building: Story modes, arcade endings and the likes are a way to convey the world of the game to the players and let them become more familiar with that, helping them to become invested in the characters. On the question of accessibility, Mattrified remarked how it is important to give resources to players to learn, but also take note of what a player wants. In his opinion [paraphrasis and emphasis mine]:

“I think game design has a problem, where we try to get everyone to play our game—like, we want everyone to play our game—and it feels awful to just be like… it’s not for you. Some devs don’t want to say this game is not for you and this is the reality, not only of our genre but also of bigger AAA studios. It’s actually better to focus on an audience more than trying to shotgun for everybody.”

Going back to indie fighting game solo content, I then brought up the example of Beatdown Dungeon, a game which built its solo campaign as a progressive tutorial that taught the player the fundamentals organically, with a roguelike dungeon crawling experience to add variety to the experience. In my opinion, both Beatdown Dungeon and its sequel Demon Day, are peak indie fighting games in terms of single player content, with little to no rivals.

MrMKL, speaking of the learning process, mentioned a [then] recent AT&T Annihilation Cup Street Fighter tournament played among e-sports representatives from different genres (e.g. Apex Legends). One of the players complained about the difficulty required for him to play the game, but he “skipped the ramp”, without learning organically.

Mattrified noticed how fighting games give everything to the player at the beginning, without keeping anything hidden to the player or blocking some skills and actions behind unlocks. This is one objective challenge, because players might be overwhelmed by having everything available. Single player content might be a good way to replace the unlock progression and “guide” a newcomer through the ramp.

MonochromaticHermit agreed. In contrast with Metroidvania that lock harder areas to prevent people from accessing harder zones too soon, fighting games allow everyone to challenge the hardest foes from the get go, due to how matchmaking works. This is an issue for many competitive games, to have players start at the easiest point.

This article will continue with part 2!

Parsing two hours and thirty six minutes of video wasn’t an easy task and – since I have already overcome 3000 words, I have decided to split the article here, at around the half point mark. I hope it was an interesting read for you until now and that you’ll come back next week for the second hour of the show!

The Indie FGC Developer Roundtable Round-Up – Part 2

Special thanks to MrMKL, Safety Man and all the developers involved for making this possible and reviewing this transcript before publication!

Articles referenced in this summary