Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Design Analysis: Street Fighter IV - The Fighter's Legacy

At the recent Game Developer's Conference 2009, Yoshinori Ono gave a talk about Street Fighter IV, and discussed the direction his team took in the development of Street Fighter IV.

The keyword in the development of Street Fighter IV was 'origin', and "the team wanted to return the series to where its phenomenally successful run began, Street Fighter II." One particularly interesting analogy he used was likening Street Fighter IV to a "class reunion" of sorts.

I find this term particularly apt, as beyond being a "class reunion" for the distinctive cast of the Street Fighter II, (and some returning characters from other entries in the series as well); Street Fighter IV also came across to me as a somewhat-meta "class reunion" of sorts between the iconic 2D Fighters since Street Fighter II.

Dissecting Street Fighter IV's gameplay system reveals some familiar gameplay elements, and to a long-time 2D-Fighter-fan that's been there since the heyday of the original Street Fighter II: The World Warrior, Street Fighter IV almost seems like a nostalgic snapshot that pays tribute to some of the ghosts of the past in the genre's (relatively) long and varied history.


1) EX Special Moves

Yes, Fire Hadoken is now EX-Hadoken

In Street Fighter IV, players can use one bar of the Combo Meter to enhance their regular special moves into a more powerful, EX version of the special moves, giving it properties like additional hits, armor-breaking properties, etc. This adds some new opportunity for mind games or simply allows players to build more powerful combos.

In memory of: Darkstalker / Vampire Hunter Series

ES Dae-mon Craaa-dle

For me, this was an INSTANT throwback to Capcom's Darkstalker / Vampire Hunter series, where players could use one bar of power to enhance a special move into an ES Special Move. But between the 2, Street Fighter IV's EX Special Moves only takes 1/4 of your combo meter as opposed to 1 entire bar in Darkstalkers, which players could be using to perform a often more powerful and unique EX Special Moves.

In addition to that, Armor-Breaking and Hyper-Armor properties give an additional layer of play to consider deciding when and what moves to EX.


2) Hyper Armor

Focus attacks (see below) and certain moves in Street Fighter IV allow players to absorb one-hit of an incoming attack in exchange for a chunk of their vitality that will regenerate over time. Getting hit before the vitality is fully regenerated will cause permanent damage to the player's vitality.

In memory of: Street Fighter III, Marvel-Vs. Series, Darkstalkers 3

When using the Hyper Armor properties of a Focus Attack, it seems to be a simplified replacement of Street Fighter III's insanely difficult parrying system, even down to the blue flash. Things have been slightly simplified in the sense that the Focus Attack's Hyper Armor blocks attacks from all directions, instead of Street Fighter III's different parries for high and low attacks, making it less exclusive to expert-players.
But the difference is that while in Street Fighter III multiple parries are possible, Street Fighter IV's Focus Attacks can only take one hit. And will also cost you a little bit of your vitality too, temporarily at least.

The First time when there was something worse than a Red Life Bar

First seen in X-men Vs. Street Fighter, where the inactive fighter regenerates health over time when tagged out, this feature was later incorporated in Darkstalkers 3's system as well. This features causes players to consider balancing attack and defence in accordance to the situation.
Unlike the other two series, where every move causes a permanent damage and a recoverable damage, in Street Fighter IV, only the Hyper Armor moves gives rise to this effect. Overall, it adds a bit more strategy of balancing attack and defence, but it's probably intentionally kept this way as compared to a game like X-men Vs. Street Fighter, where knowing when to tag out was a core part of the gameplay.

3) Focus Attacks

At Least the Ink Effect made it into the Game somehow
By pressing the Medium Punch and Kick buttons simultaneously, players can perform a chargeable and potentially unblockable Focus Attack that can cause the opponent to stumble. Also has hyper-armor properties and can be cancelled into a front or back dash.

In memory of: Street Fighter EX series

3D Street Fighter has come a Long Way

Perhaps one of the most blatant references, Street Fighter IV took what was a rather rarely used move in Street Fighter EX, the Guard Break, and totally ran with it to the moon. In Ono's talk, he mentioned that "The command is simple, but there needed to be a reason for hardcore players to use it. Ono said the team went about looking to incorporate it as an "easy to learn, difficult to master" gameplay element."
And they sure did stack-up the hardcore factor in the Focus Attack, making it chargeable, hyper-armor and cancel-able all at the same time.
4) Ultra Combos
Brings back Memories
A new gauge was added to Street Fighter IV that builds up as the player takes damage. Once filled sufficiently, players can perform powerful Ultra Combos to turn the tide of the match and come back into the match with a decent fighting chance.

In memory of: The King of Fighters '95, '96

I wonder why they took away the Ripping Clothes for Yuri
A little history lesson behind this. In the good old days, Capcom and SNK had very different views about how a character would build up his / her gauge towards a finisher. Whereas Capcom believed in rewarding offensive play, where each move hit or special move performed increased the gauge; SNK chose to take the reverse approach, gearing towards damage-centric increment, in light of the chance for a last-minute comeback by the losing player.
Initially, SNK coupled this with a charge move that allowed players to increase their gauges by charging, in The King of Fighters (KOF) '94 - '96, before becoming ambivalent about which approach to go for in KOF'97, where they offered players 2 styles of play. Eventually, offense- heavy play became the preferred choice, and SNK only retained the last-minute-match-reversing moves in the form of Desperate Attacks, which could only be performed when the player had less than 1/4 vitality and a full gauge.
Taking a page out of SNK's old design philosophy, Street Fighter IV introduces Ultra Combos to give losing players a chance for a comeback. Probably in an attempt to make the game more accessible and potentially lessening the chances of utterly one-sided matches. I personally like how the Ultra Combos are balanced in the way that while more powerful than the regular Super Combos, but cannot be Super (Ultra?) Cancelled and are much harder to combo into.
5) EX Focus

Probably the most advanced-mechanic in Street Fighter IV, players can interrupt and cancel special moves with a Focus Attack or EX Focus, which then allows it to be cancelled into a front or back dash, as with a regular Focus Attack, which can then be cancelled into any regular or special moves.
Needless to say, this gives players the potential to string together some really impressive combos. Fortunately, it uses up 2 segments of the combo gauge, limiting its use and preventing it from being abuseable.

In memory of: Guilty Gear series, Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves

Perhaps the most obtuse of references, the mechanic of cancelling a interrupting a special move mid-way through its animation has been used in the likes of Guilty Gear's Roman Cancel or Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves Break system, both of which involve hitting 2 or more buttons simultaneously.

Fatal Fury: Mark of the Wolves - Extremely Underrated
While in Fatal Fury: MotW, no gauge was necessary to perform a break, it was limited to only specific moves being interruptible. Street Fighter IV's EX Focus is a bit more akin to Guilty Gear's Roman Cancel, but is more advanced as it requires a dash after a EX Focus before cancelling into another special move, and doesn't allow players to cancel one special move into another special move immediately like the Roman Cancel.
Either way, mid-move cancellations are always a deep and rewarding system, and Street Fighter IV's system allows players to improvise on their combos while not limiting it to dial-a-combo type of fix sets, given they are prepared to invest the time in mastering the timing of the EX Focus.

Street Fighter IV is an excellent example of evolutionary game design that even though borrows gameplay elements from its genre counterparts, it still manages to marry them together into a cohesive, elegant and balanced system that is "easy to learn, difficult to master."

Ono spoke about his "theory of fighters not as games, but as tools for competition," where like chess, "a grandfather can play against his grandchildren for fun, while the game is deep enough to justify high-level champion-versus-champion play in an entirely different context. Proper fighting tools such as this cast a wide net, offering something appealing to all audiences."

I'm personally not sure if the gameplay references in Street Fighter IV are actually an intentional tip of the hat to its forefathers or not. But for me, aside from the deep and rewarding gameplay mechanics, part of the appeal of Street Fighter IV is the warm sense of nostalgia of seeing and identifying some of the shadows of past fighters that have managed to leave a legacy in today's update.

Pictures Courtesy of:

Street Fighter IV Walkthrough and Guide:

Saturday, March 14, 2009


MDA Invigorate 2008 : Protégé Productions : Simulation : PC


“Guide the Destiny of the Tribe through the Stars.”

As the Great Spirit watching over the Tribe, use the magical power of the stars to help your tribe survive the harsh environment, answer their earnest prayers, guide the development of their village, protect them from treacherous enemies, and ultimately lead them to become the Great Tribe that they are destined to be.

Dreamcatcher is a real-time resource-management / development game interlaced with exciting tower defense battle sequences. Stylized silhouette visuals contrasted against a star-lit twilight sky help to create a magical and mystical Native-American-inspired setting.

Game Concept

In Dreamcatcher, the player utilizes the different colored stars in the sky to bestow different things on the tribe and guide the development of the tribe:-

  • Each Level requires players to complete specific objectives.

  • Players circle stars in specific groups to fulfill needs or construct buildings.

  • There are 3 primary-color stars (Green, Red, Blue) which are mostly for fulfilling Survival needs (Crops, Fire, Tepees).

  • Players can create Secondary-color stars (Purple, Yellow, Cyan) by circling two corresponding primary-color stars. These are essential for buildings / structures.

  • Players also can create special White stars by combining 3 secondary-color stars. White stars can be used to cast Magic Spells, which can aid the Tribe in a variety of ways.

  • Occasionally, players will have to help defend their village from aerial attackers in a Tower Defense-style gameplay, where efficient resource management and strategic building placement can separate victory from defeat.


Dreamcatcher Gameplay Video

Music by: McVaffe (http://www.ocremix.org/)

Dreamcatcher Battle Gameplay Video

Music by: McVaffe (http://www.ocremix.org/)


Game World / Backstory

They say that in the beginning, the Great Spirit created man out of seven stars. With a mighty hand he reached across the night sky and ground them into dust. This he gave to the Wind and she scattered them across the land, that every grain might become a man, woman or child, and so the seven tribes began.

Since then, man has always looked longingly towards the sky, and that is how we, the Ancestral Spirits of each tribe, were born. Since times immemorial we have kept watch over our children, we have guided them, protected them, taught them, and all was good. But now we live in dark times…

Tech Tree

UI Design


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Design Analysis: Odin Sphere - Small Team, Big Game

Released by Atlus in 2007, Vanillaware's Odin Sphere was a critically received Action-RPG that was not only a tribute to the glory days of 2D games, it was a 2D-sprite-based masterpiece, still considered gorgeous even by today's standards, as noted in the multiple game reviews.

But more than that, what was more amazing about Odin Sphere in my opinion, was that the team behind the game, Vanillaware, only consisted of 12 members. Expectedly, 7 of which were Artists, 3 were Programmers and with 2 Game Designers (or Planners, in Japanese Game Development lingo).For a small development team to ship a game that can hold its own against today's 100-man-blockbuster-games environment is no small feat.

I believe that this was made possible by the team making a few very smart and economical Game Design choices that gave the most gameplay-bang for the asset-buck in Odin Sphere, and produced a game that worked around the manpower and technical constraints of a small development team.

Some of the good design choices that I concur with as I played through the game were...

1) Parallel Storylines - Bits and Pieces

Parallel storylines are always a great excuse to extend the replayability of a game and get more bang-for-your-buck with what you already have. But Odin Sphere does it with much more panache and thought than most others.

Each character's story is actually deeply-intertwined with the at least one other character's storyline, giving players a new perspective on previous stories, while contributing to the overarching story in Odin Sphere, by revealing new details of certain key events previously left ambiguous. The fact that each story is complete in its own right and yet gives enough room for subsequent stories to fill in the gaps is evidence of the thought put into the writing and pacing of the story to ensure its coherence and continuity.

Parallel Stories

It helps that there is an overall game timeline, which sequences the events in each character's story against those of the other characters and makes the entire story more easily referenced and accessible to players.

Naturally, parallel storylines make the game more "design-heavy", and is a great way to cover up for...


2) Reusing of Assets - How to do it with Style

Unlike some other games which shamelessly reuse assets and cover it up with some weak storyline excuse (I'm looking at you, Devil May Cry 4), Odin Sphere's reusing of assets is done with a lot more finesse.

Between 8 -10 areas and an almost equal number of bosses, the repetitive factor that plagues the constant reusing of assets is somewhat nullified by how smartly the game interweaves the character stories with the level orders and the levels themselves.

World Map
There is always a convincing reason as to why the different characters are transcending the same few areas, and since the order in which the stories have to be played are pre-determined, certain thought had surely been put into the pacing of which to introduce new areas or bosses with each new storyline.

As an additional cool factor, it's always cool to use a what was previously a boss in one character's story as a playable character later.


3) Simple Core Game Mechanics - K.I.S.S.

To keep the game manageable by a team of 3 programmers, Odin Sphere keeps it core gameplay simple. Run left to right in a "circular" stage, which is essentially a 2D plane connected at both ends, kill all enemies, proceed to next stage. Stages are interconnected predeterminely through a "map." If you break it down, essentially, Odin Sphere can be said to be simply a side-scrolling brawler infused with RPG elements.

Kill Him, and Everything Else that Moves
Things are kept a bit more interesting with the limit imposed by the POW meter and the different 2-4 unique abilities of the different characters. The Designers probably understood that killing all things on screen are inherently fun, albeit or perhaps intentionally old-school, and mixing things up with different character abilities adds to the dynamics of the game and how players would actually tackle the same enemies in different ways.


4) Recipe System - The Power of Knowledge

Perhaps the most understated aspect in Odin Sphere, the complex Recipe System adds substantial depth to the dynamics of the overall game. In a game that forces you to start from Level 1 with each new character, it is an extremely smart choice, in my opinion, to allow the Recipe Book to remain consistent between the different characters, giving at least a sense of progression as you move from character to character.

It sure helps that the recipes in the game are extremely useful, like helping characters level up faster, giving them access to new power-ups, etc. I don't remember a recent RPG that I played that I felt so empowered simply by "knowledge" and not so much by character stats.


5) Psypher System - Player Choice

Absorbing Psyphers

Essentially it is a rather simple feature, but introduces a sort of "management" element and player choice into the game. Players can choose to use Psyphers (floating orbs) from defeated enemies to power up and upgrade their weapons, learning new magic spells in the process, or use it to grow food items, which allow you to regain health.

This choice was an extremely crucial one as I moved from screen to screen due to a number of reasons, the limited inventory, the difficulty of the enemies, and the food recipes were all crucial in my decisions between getting a more powerful weapon or ensuring my survival or saving it up to power up my stats while taking up precious inventory space.

For a simple system that was not at all hard to program, the options that branched out from this resource led to a rather engaging player choice that I consciously thought through every 2-3 screens.


Overall, Odin Sphere is by no means a perfect game, when you consider its technical shortcomings like slowdown and frame rate issues (try fighting Odessa and you will know what I'm talking about), and some general repetitiveness.

But for what it's worth, it's an example of a game that retains much of its charm with the emphasis on "design-heavy" features, like story and resource management elements, while trying to keep the technical and artistic manpower limitations in mind, resulting in a rather deep and engaging game that is greater than the sum of its technically-simple parts.

Pictures Courtesy of:
Gamespot: http://gamespot.com
Wikipedia - Odin Sphere: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odin_Sphere

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Know Thy Maker(s)

IGN.com has just very recently finished their run on the a list of the Top 100 Game Creators, which is basically a who's who in the world of videogames over the last 4 decades or so, spanning 7 console generations.

This is especially note-worthy in my opinion, simply because the heroes in the game industry go relatively unsung of in mass media as compared to the giants of the other media industries, like the movie industry for example.

Needless to say, rather obvious choices like Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, Shinji Mikami and company made the list, but it was refreshing to see some of the forefathers of the industry getting props too.

All-in-all, I would say that its a rather fair list, give or take a few debatable positions, but still... No prizes for guessing who made the top of the list though, it was a far too obvious choice.

Hit the link if you're even remotely interested about finding out the people behind your favorite games.

Top 100 Game Creators