At E3 this year, I sat in on a lot of interesting developer discussions, but perhaps the most interesting one was the discussion for Smash Brothers where developer Masahiro Sakurai said that their playtesting pod has 12 people.
That’s nothing! How can you balance a whole game with 12 people alone!
Of course, that’s just the hardcore fighting gamer in me talking, and Smash isn’t necessarily geared toward the pro fighting gamer. Rather, Sakurai has a vision for the game, a vision he has never been afraid to support. Smash Brothers is a fighting game that anyone can be good in, a fighting game for the casual player, a fighting party game.
That’s all well and good, in theory. After all, there are a lot of games that don’t particularly hinge on skill. Mario Party is one of the best examples, as the game can kind of just randomly screw you based on die rolls and chance. It’s never really the case that the best Mario Party player wins a Mario Party game, but people have fun nonetheless.
But then you have to ask yourself, “why a fighting game?” More specifically, you have to ask yourself, “what makes a fighting game fun?” The answer is competition. Fighting games are all about triumphing over your opponent. When you outthink him you win. You master spacing, timing, move properties, combos, mix-ups, mind games and more. The fighting game genre is always about trying to edge out your opponent with some new tech, all the way back to the days of Street Fighter II in the arcade. You might be happy even when you lose a fighting game, but no fighting game player doesn’t at least try to win.
The problem here is that this runs counter to Sakurai’s vision of “a fighting game anyone can play.” If the fun of a fighting game is trying to outplay your opponent, then allowing someone to win without outplaying your opponent removed the central concept of the genre. If stage hazards and random item spawns can kill you, then you aren’t playing a fighting game anymore. You aren’t attempting to outplay your opponent, you are attempting to out-survive your opponent as the game pitches random variables your way.
But even that is fine. I don’t particularly mind that there is a party game inside Smash Bros . as well as a fighting game. What I care about, is Sakurai’s insistence in pushing the game away from the hardcore crowd. Random tripping in Brawl was a great example of this. Other examples include how Marth has been deeply nerfed, aerial landing lag has been increased, and how gameplay in general has slowed down in the new Smash Bros. set to come out for the Wii U later this year.
Sakurai obviously doesn’t understand the game that he has created. The existence of “for glory” mode kind of proves this. It’s a move in which players only play on final destination without items, a hardcore mode if you will, but Final Destination isn’t the commonly accepted pro stage. That stage is Battlefield, or Pokemon Stadium, or Smashville, or any other number of accepted “balanced” stages. A flat stage favors characters who work well on a horizontal plane.
But that’s the thing. Smash is about more than the horizontal plane. Smash is about verticality. It’s about spikes, and dash dancing, and SHFFLing, and wavedashing, and tech chasing, and chain throwing, and a lot of other nifty tech, and Sakurai doesn’t support any of this. My question is, how could he expect people to not figure this out? How could he expect to make one of the biggest and most interesting innovations on the fighting game formula since the fireball was created, and not expect people to break it? Why is he so committed to the notion of a game where anyone can lose at any point? In essence, he designed the only fighting game that seriously broke the fighting game mold since Street Fighter II , and he seems to want to alienate the people who would enjoy that innovation!
In literature and other media, there is a notion called “the death of the author.” The idea is that when a work hits the public, it is no longer its author’s work. You can consider a text outside of the person who penned it. In video games, we haven’t yet internalized this concept. Sakurai still sees his game as a casual party game, but the public does not. The public, at least a good portion of it, wants to break this game. They want to have frame perfect inputs. They want combos! They want to outplay their opponent, and the reason why is because that’s what the fighting game genre is all about. You can’t tell fighting game players to stop caring about that one central goal: win!
We broke Melee , we broke Brawl , and now we are going to break Smash 4 . Emergent gameplay always wins. So instead of trying to hold your pro gaming fans back, Sakurai, maybe you should embrace them and realize that no, not everyone will be able to win, but at least everyone should be able to have fun playing.