Until recently, Super Smash Bros was a subgenre unto itself. Few other games have emulated its side-scroller-meets-fighting-game sensibilities, partly because few other games have such a deep roster of characters to stir up player enthusiasm.
If you’re going to design a new fighting game in the Smash mold, how do you make compelling fighters worthy of Smash’s pedigree?
The answer may lie in Rivals of Aether.
Recently launched on Steam Early Access from designer Dan Fornace and his team, the 2D fighting game looks and plays like a version of Smash Bros for Game Boy Advance.
And that’s because it ... sort of is. Fornace’s start as an indie developer was with the unauthorized Game Boy demake Super Smash Land.
After boiling Smash’s diverse moveset down to their most basic versions, he wanted to take the lessons learned from that experience and make his own fighting game.
“The original goal was to design characters around movesets, rather than movesets around characters," says Fornace. "In Smash, [creator] Masahiro Sakurai has to look at an old character and make their internal elements fit into a moveset. We thought it would be awesome if we could go the other way.”
"The goal was to design characters around movesets, rather than movesets around characters"
The unifying theme for his characters was also inspired by Nintendo. Fornace had been scrutinizing characters like the Pokémon Vaporeon, and tooling around with re-interpretations of their moves. That Pokémon’s place in an elemental hierarchy of characters gave him an inspiration to reach for four elements: Earth, fire, air, and water.
“That pushed me forward because the elements let us organize specific rule types for each fighter,” he explains. “For instance, Zetteburn, our fire lion, has burning damage over time moves as a result of that inspiration.”
Charting the roster--literally
The next step was to organize characters by playtype. For this, Fornace has two sliding scales of how he wants his characters to play. Rushing vs zoning characters, and ground vs air characters. Rushing characters do well in close quarter combat while zoning characters keep other fighters at a distance. Ground characters perform better while battling on the ground, and air-based characters try to take their fight to the sky by jumping and striking.
“Once I put characters on that map, I started to find how difficult these characters were to play based on their alignment,” says Fornace. “One thing that happens naturally is that zoning characters tend to be more difficult because there’s more to figure out. Orcane, for instance, leaves puddles on the stages that can cause damage after a short time, while Zetteburn just gets in to do damage and is more straightforward.”
Zoning tactics and elemental effects also let characters have unique movesets that incorporate the same play presence of items in Super Smash Bros. Since Fornace’s team is really small, he couldn’t count on being able to handle the scope creep of a large item database, so he folded their effects into his move design.
Familiar gameplay mechanics Smash players are used to interacting with through Pokéballs, trophy cases, or fire flowers now are part of Rivals of Aether’s normal fighting rules, like the earth character Maypul’s plants or Kragg’s rocks, the latter of which will even become part of the stage that characters can interact with. This feature-management strategy actually helps Rivals of Aether stand apart from the bigger, broader Smash Bros. “That's mostly by design to make moves match elements,” Fornace muses, “but that’s also what makes the characters stand out. It makes players say, 'This is a Rivals character,' not 'This is a Smash character.'”
Using playtester input--but not all of it
While brainstorming where cha racters fit as air rushers or ground zoners, Fornace tries to find big weaknesses other players can exploit. Lucky for him, Early Access players are all too happy to give feedback. But that also means Fornace has to stick to his guns, and he advises other indie fighting game developers to do the same. “Take Zetteburn for example. His weakness is that his recovery, his ability to get back on stage, is weak compared to other characters.”
“We’ve had some feedback complaining about that. But that’s how characters are designed. If you start to say, ‘Maybe this move should be a bit worse, maybe it should be a bit better,’ you start pushing the roster towards each other. It may feel balanced at first, but eventually you’ll start homogenizing your characters. It’s a balance where we set our goals, stick to them, but try not to go too crazy and alienate people with characters that don’t feel good to play.”
As Fornace and his team proceed through Early Access, they’re looking ahead to dealing with balancing new strategies their players have managed to exploit, managing normal character updates in ways that won’t completely change how a character plays, and figuring out how their game will work in the competitive scene. But with a strong character design process, Farnace hopes this is just the start for his online competitive fighting game.