5 tips for making fighting games with giant monsters

While it's not likely that many people are currently designing fighting games starring giant Japanese-style monsters, these game design tips should provide some pearls of wisdom for just about anyone.
Game designer Simon Strange loves making fighting games with giant monsters. He cut his teeth on Atari's Godzilla series (Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla: Save the Earth and Godzilla Unleashed) and has also worked on a modern take on the classic giant monster video game IP Rampage. Strange recently sought funding for a new, original giant monster fighting game, Kaiju Combat, through a Kickstarter campaign. His project ultimately did not get funded, but he and his team at Sunstone Games are regrouping and plan to try again, for a little less money, in October. In the meantime, we thought we'd talk to Strange about what he's learned about what works -- and doesn't work -- when making a fighting game starring giant monsters. We understand that not very many of you out there are currently working on giant monster fighting games yourselves but, as always, there are pearls of wisdom here that should apply to game designers working on just about any kind of game.

1. Humans in giant monster suits

You might think that people playing giant monster fighting games want to control characters who actually feel like giant monsters, but in Strange's experience, that's not the case. Instead, players -- whether they realize it or not -- want their characters to control like humans dressed as monsters, since that's just what they know. "It's been really frustrating to me," Strange, a former physics major, tells us. "But I think it's because in Godzilla movies…you have a human wearing a Godzilla suit, so you have the speed and moves and reactions of a human." Playtesters didn't like it when Strange tried to make monster physics adhere to the way a real monster would move in the real world, saying that they felt too slow and sluggish. The fact that they were complaining was important to note, though not so much their rationale. "I'm a big believer in the fact that opinions are really important, but people's justifications for why they hold opinions are basically crap," he says. "When someone says 'I don't like this,' that's really important and you have to believe them. But when someone says 'I don't like this because-,' you can often kind of ignore their 'because,' because they often don't have the data to understand what's going on." The monsters in that game were changed to feel much more "human," and were more satisfying for it.

2. For every reaction, an action

One of Strange's biggest gripes with most fighting games is that avatars traditionally play a reaction frame when getting hit, leaving them incapable of fighting back. This is, of course, the basis for what we call "combos," where players find a way to continue hitting their opponent while leaving them unable to retaliate. "That's kind of a fundamental truth in fighting games," says Strange. "That means the best strategy in fighting games is to find something that prevents your opponent from doing anything. "A combo means, I found something that makes you unable to play. This makes fighting games kind of suck." A procedural animation system in his 3D Godzilla games eventually solved this (leaving, for example, a monster's arms free to attack while his legs got hit), but one early solution was to simply not freeze his monsters when hit with a weaker attack. One playtest with this system, however, showed that players have come to expect that they can't move when getting hit. It's become the language of fighting games. "'This game sucks, he hits me and I can't do anything.'" Strange recalls a playtester telling him. "And I said well, did you try? "He was so certain that he couldn't do anything, he didn't even try to push a button."

3. Slow down the parts you don't control

Players may want to feel like they're controlling humans in monster suits, but their monsters also need to feel like, well, giant monsters. They need to have a lot of weight. These may seem contradictory, but after a lot of trial and error, Strange found that the solution was to keep the voluntary actions human-like and fast, and to slow down the involuntary actions. "We made the reactions monster-sized," he explains. "When you hit somebody … everything slows down and they go soaring across the city, hit with this enormous thud, crush everything beneath them, and there's a huge screen shake." "If you can make losing look awesome, it's a lot less annoying."

4. Make your monster's gimmick easy to use

Giant monsters usually have at least one cool gimmick. If you're making a giant monster fighting game, don't hide that gimmick behind a complicated special move. You might even, like Strange, just make those moves accessible with one button. "You don't want to play as Godzilla and not know how to use his atomic fire," Strange says. "Monsters needs to have key monster attributes out on the surface." "They come to the game for those weird, unusual tools. A monster doesn't feel special if that move is not immediately accessible."

5. Big monsters need big environments

Not only do involuntary movements help to slow monsters down: the environments in the Godzilla games do, too. Even though the monsters have faster human agility, navigating around environmental obstacles helped to slow them down and keep them feeling weighed down. The environments also gave the games another unexpected bonus: weapons play. Instead of simply blocking or jumping over an attack, players could take cover behind, say, a building.

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