The Indie FGC Developer Roundtable Round-Up – Part 2

In April 2022, 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. I was one of the four panelists of the event, together with Mattrified (Battle High, MerFightDrag Her), MonochromaticHermit (Heatwave) and Love, from team Kaizen Creed, currently developing 5 Force Fighters.

I have covered the first half of the roundtable in this article of mine, going through the first hour of the show, covering the following discussion topics:

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

This second part of the article covers the four remaining topics:

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

Is there a trend towards approachable design?

Timestamp: 1:08:55

MrMKL started the second half, after a short break, by asking us if fighting games are getting more simplified in recent times. MonochromaticHermit said that that it is difficult for them to deal with the topic, as they love very complicated and demanding games, but it would be better to have easier games too, on the side. Recent games seem to be looking for a balance between complexity and approachability, instead of downright becoming simple. They discussed Melty Blood Type Lumina as an example of a simplified game that retains still quite a lot of complexity underneath. No motion inputs are fine, as long as games are designed around it.

Love argued that it’s not necessary bad that fighting games are becoming simpler to get into, to help new players getting in the genre. He mentioned how the built-in button macros in e.g. Tekken help a lot: It’s something that slightly reduces the skill level required to perform the moves, but in turn makes it easier for pad players to actually play the game.

From my point of view, simplified input systems are good, but should/could be toggleable by design—one example being autocombos. Features like Stylish Mode in BlazBlue Continuum Shift Extend or autocombos in Dragon Ball FighterZ allow a more casual audience to play the game and not play against the inputs in order to play the game. Moreover, they are very helpful for people who do not physically have the dexterity or have impairments that make it harder to enjoy them. Accessibility should be a focus point, but how to balance the game around the existence of simplified inputs is hard to gauge. I concluded that I don’t have a real answer to this last question, though.

Mattrified spoke about how “accessibility” is becoming a “catch-all” term, including measures for making the game enjoyable for people with e.g. colorblindness or other visual impairments. In terms of fighting games, input seem the most controversial points. There has been a positive evolution from the 90s, comparing for example the input requirements for Mortal Kombat 2 special moves with e.g. more modern titles. However, in recent times, input have become a sort of overfocused theme, while there are other areas that would need the same care (e.g. UI and specific character meters). Removing motion inputs would cause changes in the game design—one cannot remove motions from Street Fighter without changing how the game fundamentally works [writer’s note: compare the Nintendo 3DS version of Street Fighter IV, with one-button Sonic Booms and Flash Kicks to see how this cannot work without completely changing the game].

Monetizing your game/post-launch support

Timestamp: 1:20:57

The next topic was commercialization and monetization of indie fighting games, with focus on e.g. free-to-play models and similar approaches. I started the discussion by asking Mattrified to begin, because at the time of the roundtable, I didn’t have any monetized or commercial game in the works, while both MerFight and Battle High have been on sale for a while.

Mattrified said free-to-play fighting games are a weird spot to go for. In his opinion, Killer Instinct (2013) was one of the best implementations of the concept, with the game being free and having a specific amount of rotating characters that people could test. This acted as a sort of glorified demo, allowing players to buy only the characters they were interested into.

Of course, free-to-play could be the beginning of some awful exploitation from bigger companies (e.g. ads every few matches, pay-to-play like a virtual coin system). Mattrified could think about a very horrible monetization system, including a pay-to-play training mode, with a per-minute fee. Competitive games cannot implement pay-to-win mechanics like e.g. Candy Crush Saga can do, because people would hate it, but Mattrified could see very gross things happening in the future and was very curious to see how the upcoming Project L and Multiversus will deal with it.

MonochromaticHermit would never want to have free-to-play fighting game, as a player. From a game’s preservation standpoint, it would be a very bad decision, causing most content to be lost to time. E.g. would all DLC characters be available for purchase after 20 years? [writer’s note: definitely not. Think about Mai Shiranui being delisted from all stores as a DLC character for Dead or Alive 5 LR]

Love said how Kickstarter was a big risk for them but also a huge opportunity. If you fail, people might not trust you for a second time. Love said that they want to release the game as a full product for full price, but as myself, he still doesn’t have a lot of experience with commercializing a game. When asked about how the price of the game reflects the work put into it, Love said that it’s also his team’s first experience in this regard, which led them to gather information from more seasoned developers. Money should be used in a smart way, going for internal development when possible and outsourcing only when absolutely necessary.

ROBO OH - Autofive hits Grandsky with a special move.

ROBO OH costs less than 2.00 USD, despite the amount of content and care it offers. Pricing one’s indie game is truly a conundrum.

Are games too expensive?

Timestamp: 1:31:28

MrMKL noticed how most indie games are under 20USD and asked if games are becoming too expensive to develop and why indie games are priced so low. One example cited was ROBO OH, which goes for less than 3USD, despite having a lot of content.

I started by saying that—in an ideal world—one should price a game based on the development costs, but in reality our games compete with heavy hitters. Heatwave is competing against air-dashers, Schwarzerblitz might be seen as a poor man’s Tekken. This means that, be it true or not, players will always compare them to the more famous counterpart. To quote myself verbatim:

Nobody is going to pay seventy dollars for a four-characters-game that you spent seven years making if there is Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R at five dollars in the same store.

Mattrified went over saying that pricing games is extremely difficult, especially in the indie area. There are so many games around that it is very difficult to get people to play your own. Being free is the fastest and easiest way to have people try games out. Even for big players, when putting together the prices of all season passes, we now have games that reach a full price tag above 90USD.

MonochromaticHermit said that it was very interesting to see how players approached their 5USD game. As they make it as a hobby, it wasn’t a question of competing against other games. They were still thorn about how much to price the game. On itch.io, they set the suggested price to 10USD, but most if not all buyers went for the minimal amount instead. In a perfect world, they would have made the game free for everyone to enjoy, but, due to how much time they poured into it, they just don’t want it to be free.

Post-launch support

Timestamp: 1:38:05

MonochromaticHermit decided to keep adding secrets to Heatwave, since they miss unlockables in fighting games (stages, characters and such). The lack of surprises and small things to discover reduces the lack of feeling of progression. They mentioned how adding new secret content, even for free, keeps giving players reasons to go back to the game, to find all what was were hidden inside it.

I tuned in on the unlockables discourse, as for me unlockable content is a make-or-break (that is, the reason why I clocked 70 hours in Soulcalibur 6 or 40 hours in Saint Seiya: Soldier’s Soul). Unfortunately, due to how esports and tournaments work, forcing people to unlock characters to even start a small tourney is a chore and it’s a hard sell. I had this conundrum in Schwarzerblitz, and I actually solved it by adding a toggle that unlocks all tournament-legal stages and characters on the go (also thanks to a discussion with the—now dormant—Twitter account Fighting Game Ideas).

Love would love to add characters and story expansions on the way forward, and have the fanbase take part to it, getting invested in the IP. Investing in the characters is what can make people come back to the game. The important updates would all be free (e.g. the story mode), but the characters would most likely paid content. It’s still pretty far out, so it’s not something he’d be sure about.

MrMKL cited how Fantasy Strike manages it well for core tournament players, giving all the core content for free and pay-walling everything else that isn’t directly required for it.

Love pointed out how the balance between initial roster and DLC characters is something to take care of: If a player paid for a game with five characters and then had to pay for ten additional DLC characters, they would inherently feel as if the had been ripped off. I just added a small comment on how the timing of these ten DLC characters matters: If they are released in the span of a couple years, it’s different than if they are dropped just as the game is published.

The importance of community champions

Timestamp: 1:49:43

MrMKL asked how the community makes or breaks a game and how to keep it engaged. Mattrified started by publicly thanking MohastGridlock, the developer of the card game Versus Tag Shuffle, who is acting as a de-facto community manager for MerFight, pouring in a lot of time for the cause and organizing tournaments. It made it nice for the community to work without direct developer interference. Paraphrasing his take:

The players make a more important and greater narrative than the game does itself. At first I thought it was stupid, but after thinking about it I realized it’s both very smart and very true.

Mattrified also talked about how the community helped fixing the bugs and polishing the online netcode, sharing the pain points with the developer and making it easier to address them.

Love told us about how they got engaged with their community, also by means of some collective activities like voting for a character re-design. He noted that

The community is everything, you can’t do a successful Kickstarter without a fan base

MonochromaticHermit noticed that the players in the Heatwave Discord server members are very active and good at finding issues, unknown tech or very broken things—like unescapable throw loops. MonochromaticHermit found it very heart-warming that people other than them could enjoy a game they made.

I myself have thanked the Indie Breakdown organizers, the Schwarzerblitz New Zealand community, and SkreamnRedSkull a Twitch streamer that became a de-facto brand ambassador for Schwarzerblitz, even convincing Woolie from Super Best Friends fame to play it on stream. Community was very strong when Schwarzerblitz was launched, with players asking me story details and even additional world-building questions that sometimes I hadn’t even noted down. I added how I received quite a lot of fan-art, including VERY NSFW fan art of my characters [writer’s note: including Tutorial Man NSFW art. You are welcome for the nightmarish image]. Having a community backing the game up is mandatory, as no game survives first contact with the players, including but not limited to infinites, game breaking bugs, and busted interactions. The highest peak for the Schwarzerblitz scene was that the game, somehow, ended up as a game for a mystery tournament at Frosty Faustings XIV.

I also remarked how it is extremely important to listen and have a dialogue with the community, especially because we have the privilege of being in direct contact with the people who play our games.

Issues with fandoms and dealing with communities online

Timestamp: 1:59:36

Love wanted to thank publicly the mods of his 5 Force Fighters Discord server, who keep an eye on everything happening there. He also explained how sometimes it has been hard to interact with the people on social media, with some questioning why all characters in 5 Force Fighters seemed to be of black ethnicity. We consume a lot of media which is pretty homogeneous in terms of representation and it’s weird that people complain when you have a game with a full black cast being criticized for it.

Mattrified said that until now his interactions with the community have been very civil, without immature threats or problem players. His main issue is coming to terms with the fact that the amount of feedback is overwhelming at times. For a solo dev, this makes it challenging to manage everything at once. In terms of content, when you have themes that aren’t as common place, e.g. drag queens in Drag Her!, there is a sizeable amount of people dunking on them just because of it—race and sexuality being the ones eliciting more response.

Lemonade dabs on her opponent in Drag Her!

According to Mattrified, unusual themes like “drag queens” are still frowned upon by a significant portion of players, who don’t lose an occasion to define them as “gross” without even giving them a chance or recognizing “it’s not for them”.

The role of TikTok and other social media

Timestamp: 2:05:12

MrMKL noticed how Love and the 5 Force Fighters team are currently trying to find an audience on TikTok, which has a whole different audience than Facebook and Twitter. The fighting game community uses Twitter as its core, but Love said that 5 Force Fighters is more popular on TikTok, counting several viral posts. However, it’s always hard to “crack the algorithm” and understand social media for people to pay attention to one’s post.

I added that being a solo developer, it’s hard to follow social media and keep the pace with posting all content regularly. I’m not sure I could get behind yet another social medium and would prefer to keep focusing on a single platform. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have completely different demographics and should be considered as different goals. In a perfect world, I should triplicate myself to deal with each social network separately.

Mattrified said that there are now too many social media and would really like to have a service that could edit the posts for you and simultaneously publish it on all websites. Marketing is exhausting, especially for small or solo developers. All the unspoken rules about best times to post, how to format thumbnails, what to write makes it very challenging.

MonochromaticHermit almost exclusively used Twitter and found it enough for them, even if TikTok might be an interesting alternative. They still think they can’t handle two social media at the same time.

Before moving to the next topic, I wanted to mark how the reason why our communities are respectful is also because we all have zero tolerance for hate speech, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Those that don’t adhere to these basic decency rules are not welcome.

Where do we go next?

Timestamp:2:15:24

It was time to wrap things up with the last topic. MrMKL started asking us if we are going towards a new golden age for fighting games. MonochromaticHermit commented that they don’t know if it’s a golden age, but surely is a positive direction. In their opinion, people should be more open minded about the games they play—and should not judge a game by the first look (the example they used was Acceleration of Suguri 2).

For Love, indie fighting games are the future of the genre, thanks to the innovation and creativity that they take to the table, but we should be able as developers to capitalize on the momentum and try to dethrone the big titles. A change in culture with big tournaments for indie fighting games would be a future he’d like to see coming.

Mattrified agreed with MonochromaticHermit on the fact that people could be less picky about which game they try, but his main wish for what’s to come is for players to get out of the “scarcity mindset”. This makes several people disparage other games because they fear their main game won’t be played as much, and has overall a detrimental effect on the genre. Also, he was curious about what’s to come, among V.R. and proper mobile fighting games—two genres that haven’t been explored a lot till now. Mattrified mentioned the Fraud Krew community, who plays every kind of fighting game and more community should go for such a variety of titles.

I closed the discussion by giving a shout out to The Community Lab Discord server, composed by people who are labbing any possible game that is even remotely considered a fighting game. Then, I went to discuss how for us indie developers, it’s definitely a bright future because people like me, who fantasized about making their games back in elementary school, now have a lot of new tools at their disposal. This makes it possible for them to actually go on and build their dream game, thus allowing for some exciting variety to come.

However, the fact that GGPO went open source and rollback has become easier to implement, also means that players have much higher expectations on indie fighting games. It has become anachronistic to publish a commercial fighting game without any netcode in 2022, which is partly a shame because it’s also a bigger obstacle for fresh developers. I personally wouldn’t have even started with Schwarzerblitz if netcode was a hard requirement, back in 2016. Implementing netcode is a challenge even if it’s easier now and might result in less people actually approaching this genre from a development side.

Fortunately, there are still tools like Parsec that can be used to help first time developers, so that they don’t have to start with rollback netcode but already have some hints of multiplayer.

The roundtable ended then with a last closing round of salutations and credits.

See you next time!

I was honored to be part of this event and I’m happy I could find time to write a full transcript of it for you all too. MrMKL will probably host new editions of them in the future, so keep tuned and—if you liked this format—tell us what you thought about it!

First part of the article

The Indie FGC Developer Roundtable Round-Up – Part 1

Articles referenced in this summary

Posted in Events, Interviews, Shows and tagged , , , , , .