This interview has been edited and condensed.
Fighting games are hard to access.
The moves, the combos, reading (guessing the opponent's next move) all raise somewhat of a barrier for newcomers. How many times was I pinned down in the corner by Dhalsim, at a loss for how to break out of the combos the other player was laying on me?
Soon, the fighting game community will have Fantasy Strike — a title in the works at Sirlin Games. David Sirlin, the eponymous founder, worked on the Street Fighter franchise and played fighting games competitively; these two experiences gave him first-hand insight into how to make, and enjoy, fighters.
Sirlin joins OPN to discuss how his personal and professional history has helped him with Fantasy Strike, how he made the game accessible and easy to learn even for newcomers, and what makes Fantasy Strike an experience around which the community can rally.
David, tell us a little bit about yourself. You used to work on the Street Fighter franchise. How was your transition from working for other companies to having your own company?
I’ve always been interested in games and game design, and I went into that field after graduating from MIT. I worked at many different game companies for years. So, on the one hand, I was a tournament player of Street Fighter and other fighting games, and I was really into playing those games. On the development side, I kind of was just in the right place at the right time to be working with Capcom. First, on their classic collections, where I helped putting together collections of old arcade games onto consoles of the modern day. That led to working on Puzzle Fighter HD Remix and Street Fighter HD Remix, which I was the lead developer of both. That was quite an experience because it was like I was on both sides of the fence at once. I was a player of Street Fighter but also, now, developing it.
After that, I started my own company, and my first effort there was card games. I actually launched three card games at once, but the main one was Yomi, which was a card game about fighting games. And, the reason I chose to do any of that is that I had already been a consultant at several different game companies, and I'd worked at several different game companies, so I had kind of seen inside how it works.
What is more successful? What do people react to more strongly: card games/tabletop games or video games?
Well, video games are a bigger market, but board games are still a huge market. I'm not sure if you're aware of the situation on Kickstarter, but the biggest revenue category in all of Kickstarter is board games. The second biggest is video games. That might go against intuition because you might think of a few very big video games but there's just so many successful board games.
Your current project is Fantasy Strike, tell us a little bit about it. If someone knows Street Fighter can they know what to expect of Fantasy Strike?
I worked on Street Fighter 2 as I mentioned and I think of it like this: Street fighter 2 was this big revolution, really. It was kind of like the first real fighting game, and some versions of Street Fighter 2 are played to this day in tournaments and are really great. When you think of nostalgia, that's what we're thinking back to. Now, ever since then, there's been an explosion of many different fighting games, but all of them seem to be clustered kind of close together on the opposite end of the spectrum of complexity. They're generally very complicated games compared to the old days. I don't condemn that because — I don't know if you're familiar with the game Guilty Gear — but I think that's my favorite fighting game and it's probably the most complicated fighting game.
What makes Guilty Gear your favorite fighting game?
I think of it kind of like jazz or something — it's for people that understand what's going on. It took mechanics from a bunch of different games and picked the best ones and really innovated and added new mechanics, and design-wise I feel it's so solid. It has the most diverse cast of characters; the characters (are) the most different from each other and yet, somehow, it all works. So, it's really fun, and I love it, but if I wanted to teach you to play Guilty Gear with me, we can't do that in a session. We need months, actual months of practice before you would have any chance. It's very hard to play. So, what I wanted to do was to create a fighting game that, I guess, is kind of in the middle but really closer to the old days of Street Fighter, back to the fundamentals. In addition to that, to go way further than any game I've seen in making it easy to learn so that it can be everyone's first stop in the fighting game genre. So there's no joystick motions like quarter circle or Dragon Punch... We found that there's a lot of other mechanics and baggage and things that fighting games have these days that we found we didn't really need in order to express the core of what they're about, which is pacing, and timing and zoning, and getting reads of the opponents and having match-up knowledge, all of the good stuff of fighting games. We can get to that in a much simpler way, that's what we're trying to do.
So would you say that's what makes Fantasy Strike unique?
Well, yes, I would. In that regard, it's hard to name any games that are really doing what we're doing there. We're very far along the direction of accessibility... and I hope people don't think it's shallow. It's quite the opposite of it. In fact, think of it this way, if we were making a board game and we had a bad design, it's hard to hide that in a board game because you have some static images but it kind of is the design. So when you're making a board game the design is right up front, out in the open, everyone can see it. In a video game, you can have production values, you can have cutscenes, you can have so much to cover up some problems. An analogy is if we make a fighting game that if your Dragon Punch whiffs or something and I hit you back, if everybody knows the optimal punishes and what the mix-ups are and how to do them then there's no way to have a shallow game anymore because it's immediately exposed. But by having everybody being able to play the game for real, right away, it has forced us throughout the whole period of development to make sure it is deep and strategic. It's not obfuscated. It's right out there in front. So, even though it's simple, there is quite a bit of strategy. I would say more than in many of the other complex fighting games rather than less.
That's a good approach. I saw the characters were designed with sophistication. How did you did design the characters and the animations?
I had to do that a long time ago because these are the same characters that were in my card games. At the time that I was putting them in the card games, I knew that in my mind I was making a fighting game. I imagined a fighting game, and I was making the characters off of that. Some people think that our fighting game is inspired by the card game, but that's not really the case. It was more like I imagined the fighting game first and the characters were always intended to be in an action-fighting game. So, how did I decide what they should be? The way I did that is like a matching exercise on a test. You've got column A and column B, and you draw a line between the things that match. On one column is all the gameplay archetypes. If you're going to make a fighting game you're going to need some kind of slow character that wants to get close and throw people. You've got to have a very fast character that wants to do some mix-ups.You want to have some kind of versatile person that can sort of keep away and sort of rush down. These are purely mechanical descriptions so you can cover all your bases. There's actually three columns I had in mind. The mechanical one is first. The second one is personality. If you're going to make a cast of characters, they're probably involved in some kind of story, and you should think about how they're going to come together. What do they have in common? What are their rivals and so on?
Fantasy Strike is still in Early Access[EA]. When do you plan to release it fully?
As of this interview, it's only been in EA a week or something. So, it's brand new, and I think we need ten months, maybe? As of this moment, there are eight characters in the EA version, and we're very close to releasing our ninth one, which is Lum, the gambling panda. We would like to get to ten for release. It's not just characters; there's many other modes we have in mind. We want to have a survival mode that's a little better than most other survival modes. We have a team battle mode in mind. We want to do ranked play and do it a little differently than other games where it simulates little, eight-man tournaments. I hope we're going to be able to this very unusual mode that's similar to Hearthstone's arena. In this mode, you would pick between one of three power-ups, and one of three again until you have five power-ups, like five different alterations of your character and then you would go against other people who would do the same...
People are wondering 'why is it taking so many months?' Well, there's a lot more content that we would like to do before we call it an official release and before we put it on PlayStation 4.
What importance does the community have for Fantasy Strike.
The community is, generally, the most important element of pretty much any competitive game, so if we don't have community, we're nothing. I don't know how else to answer that than say it's super important and we want to cultivate our community however we can. We want to be as welcoming and friendly as possible.
How do you reach out to this community?
We do our best to be out there on social media and to be out there at events. We were at PAX South, PAX East. Then at EVO Northern California Regionals and Southern California regionals. I'm sure we'll be at PAX West the next time around, and E3. We're active on the Steam forums and our own forums at FantasyStrike.com. We should be doing more, but we just don't know what. The next one is at PAX South in January. Actually, the next one is the PlayStation Experience Show [which] I believe (is) in December. [EN: December 9, 2017]
You mentioned that's it's important to get gamers that don't know anything about the game to try [it]; that Fantasy Strike has a low threshold to get into a game. How do you try to do that?
I'm sure for any game if people try it, it can help. We've found that effect in Fantasy Strike is way more powerful than we were really prepared for. When we would show the game publicly at a trade show or a public event, it would be almost universally positive feedback. People would really like it. Then we would look online, and people would just super hate the game. That tide has turned a little bit, but still, it kept happening over and over. I guess, what makes it worthwhile is not something you can see in a screenshot. It's difficult to explain, like, "Hey this fighting game looks kinda like other fighting games, but you can play it." Or, if you can already play fighting games like Guilty Gear, to explain or pitch the idea that, "You can learn this in like 10 minutes. And now you have a second game you can play with anyone in the FGC." It's harder to say that in words and get through until they try it. Another related problem at public events when we ask people, "do you play fighting games?" If they say no, then, we say "Well, this game is for you!" It's also for people that play fighting games, but we definitely had you in mind, so why don’t you try and see if you really can understand the genre for the first time. When they try it for the first time, they usually become believers, but they are super skeptical beforehand because they think they've been lied to a lot. They've heard a lot of fighting games go like, "Oh, well, now it's easier," but it really isn't; it's slightly easier to drag and punch. That's why trying it has been so important. We have the most success when people say to their friends, "Hey, no, seriously — you should try this!"