Design Rant: Platform Fighters (Smash Bros)

16 July 2018

I’ve been playing them for years, and now that I’ve played different versions of platform fighters I gotta speak my mind on the design.

[Keeping smash simple]

The motivation for smash is to create the thrills of a fighting game without unnecessary confusion for new players.

Let’s deal with avoiding unnecessary confusion: there are less buttons for attacks (2 instead of 6) and combining up/down/left/right with an attack will always give you a unique attack.

A pressing a direction is more intuitive than remembering every button.

Thats enough for accessibility.

[The core of a fighting game]

Now lets talk about the most important part of the game. The unique attacks.

These moves have their own value to a player. Value comes from effectiveness. So what makes a move effective?

  • It’s easy to use!
  • It’s easy to hit the enemy with!
  • It’s fast!
  • It knocks the enemy very far away!
  • If it hits an opponent’s attack at the same time, it wins!
  • It looks cool!
  • It makes a cool sound effect!

These help lets the player think: “I’m going to win by using these attacks!”

Specifically in super smash bros or any crossover of pre-existing characters, these attacks need to fit the personality of the character using them.

To prevent the character with the largest or fastest hitboxes from winning too easily against other characters, games have typically introduced Shields.

Even with a weaker character, you can win against a careless opponent by shielding and counterattacking.

To stop everyone who uses shields from winning too easily against others who dont, games have typically introduced Grabs. They work on shields.

[Design Goals]

Now you’re probably thinking, winning is fun.

But just being able to run, jump, and use your attacks can be fun too!

In fact, you should focus on making the controls fun first.

It’s obvious that if running and jumping feels bad your game is finished.

We know what makes a good platformer. So let’s deal with our “fighting game core”, the attacks.

[Making a fun attack]

Step 1: It has value (as described earlier) Step 2: It visually makes sense. Step 3: It does not have TOO MUCH value.

Lets go through them.

Step 1: (Attack has value) Without it theres no game

Make the attack a tool that can help a player reach victory It needs to do damage, knockback, or healing etc.

Each character needs the right mix of moves to allow them to damage opponents AND finish them off.

To keep players from being bored you’ll give different characters different types of attacks. An attacker with long range, a speedy character that needs to get close to deal damage, or someone who shoots a gun etc.

Step 2: (Visually intuitive) It makes your game easy to understand

Players have visual expectations, from other games, from natural intuition. Swinging a giant heavy hammer should naturally send people flying.

Depending on the design, a punch thrown fast enough could actually damage opponents that missed contact, if they’re still close enough. Because of the speed of the punch, players might not notice it missing.

But what’s smarter is making the fist used for punching actually become larger during the punch. Since it’s happening fast, it doesn’t look weird unless you pause the game. Then it’s just funny, which is fine.

You’ll also want to keep characters reasonably simple. If a single character is a gun user, a sumo wrestler, a soldier, a plumber, and a swordsman at the same time, thats confusing!

Step 3: (Attack doesn’t have TOO much value) It makes your game challenging but fair

Pretend there is an amazing attack. When you use it, the game ends and you are declared the winner.

This is not fun. The game becomes “be the first to press a button”

Instead, let’s say there is a less amazing attack. It has alot of reach, and you can use it many times very quickly. It wins against every other attack.

It’s a little more fun? But the game becomes “everyone uses the same attack”

When few moves is too good, players only think about a very small amount of moves that are necessary to win. Maybe some people find this fun?

There even has been games where specific moves are required to score points… but I can’t recall any successful ones.

Even when done well, some moves tend to be better than others.

Somehow, if every attack is almost equally useful, while still being unique, new players won’t be at too much of a disadvantage (accidentally using low value attacks), and experienced players have more tools worth using.

[Last thoughts]

I suppose I just wanted to confirm something about the upcoming switch title. I reckon it’s going to handle Step 3 better than any other version of the game.

I never even mentioned Items. When holding most items, they temporarily replace your normal attacks.

Some items were created with the intention of creating chaos… if this is the case, you don’t have to worry about design goals. You just need to create chaos.

Finally, I never talked about combos. If attacks work together in a combo, it improves their value… but only for players who know how to combo attacks. You should always know your target audience…

Have fun out there, won’t ya?