Striking gold Can fighting-game vet David Sirlin lower the genre’s entry barrier?
A fighting game for total beginners: how a genre veteran hopes to transform funds into fundamentals
He worked as lead designer on Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, was running the Evolution tournament before it even bore the name, and has placed in the top eight three times at the championships as a professional player:
is serious about fighting games. It’s perhaps surprising, then, that the one he’s currently developing is aimed at a far more casual audience.
Fantasy Strike is a 2D fighter with an extremely simple control scheme. There’s a button to walk left, another to walk right, a third to jump and a fourth to attack. Quarter-circles and multi-input combos are nowhere to be found: two more buttons trigger a special attack each, while pressing Attack and a Special together unleashes your super. That’s your lot. Our immediate reaction is sceptical. But then, Fantasy Strike’s purpose isn’t to preach to the choir. “I think that, while I have my roots in hardcore games, the real opportunity is to go much wider and get a whole bunch of new people into the genre,” Sirlin tells us.
This is not the first time a prominent figure in the fighting-game community has sought to bring brawling to the masses. Free-to-play, eight-button 2D robot rumbler Rising Thunder had virtually the same MO before it was bought and shuttered by Riot Games last year. It was directed by Evo co-founders Tom and Tony Cannon, and produced by former Capcom employee Seth Killian, all of whom Sirlin knows personally. Although Fantasy Strike was in development long before it, Sirlin acknowledges the similarities. “You could put Seth’s text [about Rising Thunder] right next to mine [about Fantasy Strike] and you couldn’t really tell them apart,” he says. “The problem was that their game, I felt, was much more complex. So it was confusing, because they’d say a thing, and then we’d say the same thing, and then we’d have to go, ‘But, for real!’. They chose a point on the spectrum that was pretty close to Street Fighter IV, but with easier controls.”
By contrast, Fantasy Strike has been stripped back and rebuilt from the bare essentials. “The reason that our game is so different, I think, is actually because of Divekick,” Sirlin says. “When I saw Divekick, my eyes really opened. It caused me to think, if they can do all that with only two buttons, what if there was a third button? What if you could walk left and right?” Sirlin began to design Fantasy Strike in the smallest increments possible. “By starting with something simpler – too simple, maybe, for what I was after – and adding to it until you reach the threshold where you’ve got the gameplay you want, the result is a much more streamlined, elegant design. Everything from top to bottom is about accessibility. It wouldn’t have looked that way if I started with something like Street Fighter IV and made the commands easier. The baggage of the genre would still be there. I hate to say something negative, but I feel like that’s what happened with Rising Thunder. It’s just not quite committing to this idea as much.” It’s something you certainly couldn’t accuse Fantasy Strike of. From the cooldown-centric supers, to health bars split into hit-equalling segments, to countering an opponent’s throw by simply not pressing any buttons, everything that feels counterintuitive to fighting-game veterans is proving revelatory to the newbies playtesting it.
Of equal note
is how Fantasy Strike is being funded. Part of the game’s budget is from external investors; the rest will be made up of backers buying shares in the title via crowdfunding service Fig, where Sirlin hopes to raise $500,000 by August 25. In Fantasy Strike’s case, 24 per cent of total revenue will be sectioned off and distributed to those with stakes. But Sirlin is also running a Fantasy Strike Patreon, where fans can also support the game financially. He’s careful to make the difference clear. Once the Fig ends, investors will receive Steam keys for an “early-early access”, highly-polished build of the game. Sirlin’s Patreon predates
Fantasy Strike, has been rebranded for the new game, and is a way for longtime supporters to receive updates, play prototype builds and even have a direct say in development.
It’s a convoluted funding process. But development costs mean it’s a necessary one, and having run five previous Kickstarters, Sirlin knows what he’s doing. His passion for bringing the genre to a new audience, meanwhile, cannot be understated. He thinks of fighting-game skill in two categories: ‘contested’ and ‘uncontested’. ‘Uncontested’ displays of technical prowess – the likes of a Daigo parry, for example – are of less interest to him than ‘contested’ skill: decision-making, strategy, out-thinking the opponent. “Everything in that category, to me, is what’s exciting,” he says. “If someone was pretty good at that, but couldn’t really express it because they couldn’t do the uncontested skills, that’s really sad to me. I want more people to feel that.”
“I think that, while I have my roots in hardcore games, the real opportunity is to go much wider”
David Sirlin has designed fighting and strategy card games, and wrote ‘Playing To Win’, a book on competitive gaming