Indie success story and gonzo projectile beatdown sensation Lethal League recently got a sequel in Lethal League Blaze. The games combine a fighting game setup with play that involves manipulating a third entity, a ball that floats around the playfield and bounces off of walls like the ball in Breakout. When smacked by a player, it gains gratifyingly greater speeds and becomes able to do huge damage to opponents.
One of the game's creators, Dion Koster of Team Reptile, agreed to answer out questions about this engaging and kinetic take on fighting games.
This interview has been slightly edited for publication.
A small team with big results
[...] I'm Dion Koster, I like dancing and making things. Me and Tim Remmers are the two bosses of Team Reptile. We're a concentrated team of about five people. We also bring in lots of artists for specific things so the credits roll a bit longer than that. My own role is that of a game director. Determining the style and vision both visual and gameplay-wise are the things on my plate. Tim is on the business and management side, but both of us still spend most of our time hands-on with the game. We released our first game, called Megabyte Punch, in 2013 and then our first heavy hitter, Lethal League, in 2014.
Lethal League did really well, both of us moved out and from that point on we were truly self sufficient. We never worked with a publisher or received any funds for development either, mostly because we can't work without full creative control. Lethal League Blaze is our latest release and it did even better for us than the original Lethal League. All of our games made their investment back and a bunch more for the Lethal League series. So as an independent studio we're pretty well off. Of course, we don't want to sit back too much. We do our best to challenge ourselves in new ways for every new game and if the fans can see our sincerity with that then I'm as happy as can be.
From prototype to hit
Sure! While we were making Megabyte Punch, there was a mechanic that reflected projectiles. There were projectiles that were one-hit-kill in that game which made it really exciting to reflect them back and forth. We decided to make this into a mini game, which became the Lethal League prototype.
I made it in flash in a space of two weeks, put it on our site for free and we sent it off to a few websites (you can actually still play it over here). It appeared on the radar of Adam Heart, who people might know from Divekick, who was at Shoryuken.com at the time. He featured it at the Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament 9 as the grand final mystery game and that really boosted our popularity early on.
We finished Megabyte Punch and it was clear we should just head straight into making Lethal League into a proper full game. A year later, in 2014, we showcased the game on EVO and released it on Steam. Before the release we didn't get a lot of attention outside of the FGC. Thereafter however, Youtubers jumped on it one by one. TotalBiscuit, Game Grumps, PewDiePie, Markiplier, it probably was the extremity and big anticipation moments that attracted them. We kept updating the game for a while and we managed to port it to PS4 and Xbox One in-house.
While that was going on we decided to do a sequel with 3D graphics, since we ported the thing to Unity anyway. It was also a good way to up our 'game dev game,' to scale up a bit without taking that big of a risk. I didn't want to name it Lethal League 2 because it implies that you'd had to have played the original. So we went with Lethal League Blaze instead.
The Blaze is actually the get-up move you can do in this version after being knocked down, signifying the fact that you won't die in one hit anymore. On high speeds you still have the one-hit-kill shots so the hype is not lost. We added more moves, like pitching and spiking. The pitch is especially important because it directly counters parrying (which is like blocking in Lethal League).
Of course the main attraction are the new characters, stages, modes and music. We have double the characters that the original had at launch. One of the modes you can unlock is called Lethal Volley, we had a lot of 2v2 fun with that one. We also made a story mode in this iteration. Even though Lethal League doesn't really shine in singleplayer, most people will be buying this game by themselves and I want them to get some fun out of it even before finding a homie to play against.
Inspirations and Jet Set Radio
The style comes from my experiences in street culture and hip hop with the skating, b-boying and graffiti I was doing. This is what drew me to Jet Set Radio Future at the time, which blew my mind with near-future versions of the styles I was familiar with.
Hip hop originated in America of course, but what they had done was use inspiration from the French sci-fi artist Moebius and the backdrop of Tokyo to advance it into new territory. Although I admit it hit me more than others because I saw where it was coming from; this mix between west and east influenced my personal style heavily. So yeah I'm a fan of Ryuta Ueda, the art director for Jet Set Radio. Looking for similar Japanese artists, I also came across Ippei Gyoubu and Daisuke Nakayama. Add to that my friends in the European underground dance scene and graffiti writers from all over the world and you get something that looks like Lethal League Blaze.
Simplicity means accessibility
It wasn't really tempting to add more elements perse. When looking at people picking up the games we make, they usually seem to have more fun with something deep instead of something complex, if you get what I mean. There are still not that many elements compared to most top of the bill fighting games, but the interactions in certain contexts or with certain additional inputs actually number quite a few.
It's true that I like to hide extra mechanics inside others. Some definitely disagree with me here, but I believe the fun of discovering and sharing these is a big part of enjoying the game. It's also a way to keep it interesting for both beginners and experienced players. There's many techniques to learn, but they won't get in the way when you're playing free-for-all at a house party.
In action games there's an old trick to give more impact to any hit, be it fighting games, beat 'em ups or sports. You would pause the animation at the moment of impact to give the feel that the thing you're hitting has more resistance. I added this (hitpause as we call it) without a thought to the prototype and when I had the ball speed up it made sense to increase this pause along with it. Of course, the speed of the ball can be increased exponentially so you would be hanging there for multiple seconds after a while. This upped the hype by a ton so it felt like it was the right direction.
Total Drama Camera
We really wanted to show the characters close up, but the gameplay doesn't really allow for that. Although it was very late in development we still needed a K.O. moment anyway, so I went ahead and tried a few camera movements. It turned out it didn't take much to look dope, because with the way we handle animation the characters are in poses that work by themselves pretty much all the time. You see, sometime during development we switched to limited animation instead of 60fps full animation for the characters for better readability and a more stylized appeal. [This tweet from Team Reptile’s Twitter account demonstrates the animation.]
This means that almost all animation frames are handpicked poses. We did, however, have trouble with the backgrounds not supporting all the new angles and positions of the camera, you could see through all the smoke and mirrors so to speak. In the end, the teaser we made to announce the game a year before inspired the solution to this problem. In that teaser we used hard opaque colors to save time and have it stand out. We did the same with the K.O. camera and turned the background into a big red canvas. I'm sure everyone thought we planned it all along!
Creating and balancing characters
So I have a kind of backwards way to do that. What is important to me is that the visual design sort of activates your mind by surprising you with a big contrast or extremity that still makes sense. I'll refrain from going really deep into this, but the characters' appearance is really important to me because they embody the style of the game not only to those who are playing the game, but also the ones who haven't seen any gameplay yet at all.
So I design the visuals first and then think about how they would play in the game. I'll test out ideas for their movement and actions on existing characters. Having the special ability be fun and work even for beginners is the most important thing in that phase. Sometimes I'll go back and forth a bit with the design at this point to better fit with the gameplay. Of course, I'll only know if it's fun for real once I let others try it, so I make sure to let my critical friends try it out.
What’s new in Blaze?
As I explained earlier I always feel like improving upon our previous work in a big or different way. So I set a couple of goals for myself. These just came from seeing beginners picking it up at conventions and the hardcore players doing the online tournaments every other week. First was to have the game not be as punishing for new players, but to retain its hype play. Second was to add a few new moves to make it a game that you could play for longer, with the requirement that each action has a proper place and time to use. Thirdly, we one-up the game in every other way. Graphics, characters, stages, modes, music, outfits and so on.