The fans who became developers share the surprising story of Fighting Is Magic, a My Little Pony-inspired fighting game.
DESIGNING A FIGHTING PONY
Over the fighting genre's long and colorful history it has hosted plenty of outrageous warriors, from ancient gods to intergalactic aliens, and animals have been no exception. The Tekken series has its panda, Killer Instinct included a fighting velociraptor, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters…well, you get the idea.
Somehow, amid such outrageous combatants, a fighting game with an all-pony roster has remained absent in the lineup--until now. However, the process of turning these cartoon ponies into war horses has presented some interesting challenges for their young designers. The road from initial idea to finished fighter is filled with unexpected perils, and surprising solutions.
STEP ONE: "WOULDN'T IT BE COOL IF…"
This is the all-important brainstorming step. The team gathers around a shared document or open canvas to decide how a friendly pony would throw down in a fight. Every "wouldn't it be cool if…" idea is shared between them, within reason. MANE6 strives to match the tone of the cartoon as closely as possible. To that end, certain aspects of the ponies--such as their appearance and attitude--are set in stone. You're not going to see a hyperaggressive Fluttershy or a Rainbow Dash that only fights with projectiles. These restrictions help guide each pony's fighting style.
The team also looks outward to the numerous other fighting games available for character references. Seeing how other developers have interpreted the common fighting game archetypes accelerates the design process and can inspire new ideas. Once a pony's general play style is established, the challenge then becomes making that style unique. Referencing another character is fine, but copying one entirely is out of the question. The development of Fighting Is Magic's distinct magic button has gone a long way toward making its roster feel different from any other.
STEP TWO: SKETCH EVERYTHING
Once a road map is in place for a character, the next step is sketching out each of those ideas in detail. Hit boxes are assigned during this time as well, showing which areas of an attack can actually harm the other player. An attack's special properties, such as between its standard and EX version, are also discussed. For characters such as Apple Jack and Twilight Sparkle, these designs come quickly. However, others can take a little longer.
"With Pinkie Pie," recalled Ellinghaus, "we had no idea what we were going to do with her."
"She has so many random motions," Nappy added. "Everybody saw her do a cartwheel during an episode and thought, 'Oh, that's the perfect move!' Except, we then have to build a whole moveset around that. How does she jump? What's her battle stance? We had to dig pretty deep in the show to find these ideas."
Every so often during their research, MANE6 finds one of their own ideas mirrored elsewhere. "For example," said Nappy, "Pinkie Pie has this move where she fires a present out of a cannon, and she can teleport out of the present as an attack. After we got this idea in the game, Persona 4 Arena comes out and this Teddy dude has a move where he throws TVs--and then he jumps out of the TV--and I fell out of my seat! We thought we were so unique, but it is cool that we're thinking along the same lines of these top developers, even slightly."
STEP THREE: INDIVIDUAL REVIEW
Before committing a character to production, the detailed sketches are sent out for another round of inspection. The designers check for redundant attacks and ensure that everything remains consistent with the pony's style. Ideally, each pony would need to go through this process only once, but as experience has shown, this is rarely the case. One of the most troublesome has been Rarity, a long-range fighter whose arsenal has seen more revisions than any other.
"[Rarity] was always seen as a zoning character," said Ellinghaus, "but our execution and direction for her needed heavy revision. In the beginning, nothing really fit together."
"She was more of a MOBA character than a fighting game character," Nappy added. "She had all these setups and situational attacks with her gems that required precise timing at the right angle. In the end, our testers only used her most straightforward attacks; the others just weren't worth all the trouble." In the end, after an eight-hour debate, it was decided that less was more in Rarity's case. Certain moves were nixed completely, while others were simplified. The team is confident these changes help focus her play style while maintaining some technical complexity.
STEP FOUR: FLASH ANIMATION
This step is where the rubber hits the road. All moves have received the MANE6 seal of approval and are drawn up one by one in Flash. Early on in this process, the team discovered that animating attacks that felt powerful with a pony's physiology was going to be tricky. As Wright explained, since ponies lack the T-shaped torso and shoulders of a human, they cannot attack with the sweeps and rotations that make punches look painful. Plus, since a pony's legs and torso are the same color, certain attacks just looked like a mess of color.
"Consider Ryu: His body is all white, his center is highlighted by a black belt, his hands are red, and his feet are skin colored. Because of [these details], you always know exactly where his attacks are coming from. With our characters, for example, there's a yellow blob with these sort of spaghetti noodle lines coming out of it, and the end of that line is supposed to have power somehow. I don't think we have succeeded 100 percent, but we have tried to make up for it using hit sparks and opponent reactions."
STEP FIVE: FROM FLASH TO FIGHTER MAKER
This final step is the long, difficult road each character must travel to make it into the game. It is an extremely complex, often heartbreaking journey as the vector-based, soft-edged images from Flash are made ready for the pixel-based, hard-edged world of 2D Fighter Maker 2002. As one of the team's animators, Wright has penned an extensive entry on MANE6's official site detailing how this is done. It is important to note that there is "some crying involved."
Once a character makes it into the game, the team can see if their attack designs--specifically the hit box layouts--work well in real combat. Naturally, the first few attempts didn't feel quite right and required extensive reshuffling. As Nappy explained, "When we drew up the hit boxes for these characters, they were basically square heads and huge rectangle bodies. When we put it in the engine, we found the game became very cross-up heavy. I don't think there has ever been a fighting game where the standard character design was this wide. That has been a fun challenge to play with."
Over the many months since this project began, the team at MANE6 has run through these steps more times than they care to admit. Mistakes have been made, moves scrapped, and characters completely reworked. But with every new challenge the team learns a little more about development, and becomes a little more proficient at their craft. Today, the end is almost in sight. "We're not on the homestretch yet," said Wright, "but we can see it. There are still hundreds of things we want to add, we just have to get them all in the game. We're almost there."