Feature Article

Rising Thunder: How to Make a Hardcore Fighting Game That's Easy to Play

Easy Mode

When I heard that Seth Killian wanted to come into our office to reveal his latest fighting game, the fan in me was excited. Killian has been a champion of fighting games for a long time, and by "champion," I mean that he's been an outspoken supporter of the passionate fighting game community. He knows the games and the people like the back of his hand, but with no known affiliation to a publisher or developer, it was near impossible to imagine what he had up his sleeves. When he arrived, that status no longer applied, because he was joined by EVO co-founder Tom Cannon, one of the two brothers behind the young studio, Radiant Entertainment.

To see these two together, I immediately expected to see a hardcore fighting game, one that ticks every box an ultra-competitive fighter might look for. In some ways, Rising Thunder, their new fighting game with anime-inspired robots, is the perfect competitive fighting game. It's got a deep combo system, fast gameplay, and a varied cast of fighters. In many ways, the pace of battles in Rising Thunder, and even the camera movements during super moves, mirrors Street Fighter IV.

However, unlike so many fighting games that grace the stage at EVO and light the screens of arcade machines around the world, Rising Thunder doesn't demand that players memorize complex inputs and combo strings. There are no quarter-circle-forward moves or charge characters here. Everything, from standard attacks to super moves, are executed with the press of a button. Killian and Radiant Entertainment have stripped away the barriers that prevent casual players from making strides in competitive communities, opening the field to anyone. The question is: how will pro players, who spend months and years learning the nuanced inputs of their characters, react? If they're "special" because they've put the time into learning complex movelists, what becomes of their status if the value of memorization and muscle memory is stripped away? Killian knows Rising Thunder will be met with opposition from the community that inspired it.

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"I've been involved in different capacities with fighting games most of my life," Killian said at the start of our meeting. "I spent a lot of time at Capcom and wanted to do something else for a while. Just too much fighting games. It was my profession, it was my friends', it was my friends' businesses riding on the back of the decisions I was making at work. I wasn't able to enjoy [fighting games] in the same way. So, I took a detour, and then thought about coming back to fighting games, roundabout, these guys had started a studio to make Stonehearth. They were like: 'Hey, hey, let's make a fighting game. We got a studio and everything.'

"I think fighting games are well done for the most part right now," he continued, "and that's great. I'm really happy about that. but when we're thinking about going back to fighting games, we basically want to try to figure out rethink it from the ground up. What is it, that the genre that's meant so much to the both of us and all the people we're working with for so long, why is it that we're still, after all these years...weirdos? It's still difficult to talk to people about this. No one understands what you're talking about when you're talking about fighting games. You seem like a religious zealot, talking about this stuff, because they look at it and they don't understand the mind games and the stuff that's going on behind the scenes. We identified a few problems. Basically, this is our attempt to address those problems. We didn't know if it would work, but we're here today because we think it did work."

Killian dove deeper into the meaning of complex controls, which have been a mainstay of fighting games since Street Fighter II ignited the first wave of competitive fighting games. "The basic moves of the game, the game that as designers we build the characters and the entire gameplay around, like fireballs and uppercuts, those are behind this execution wall, and it's a significant execution wall. If you're dealing with a very coordinated person, it's weeks, maybe a month; if you're dealing with most people it's three months or six months; in most cases, it's actually never, that you'll be able to do those moves in an immediate, every-time way, and not [mess] it up.

I spent a lot of time at Capcom and wanted to do something else for a while. Just too much fighting games. It was my profession, it was my friends', it was my friends' businesses riding on the back of the decisions I was making at work. I wasn't able to enjoy [fighting games] in the same way.

"That's the thing. 'I can do a fireball like more than half the time.' Good luck. That does literally nothing. If anything, that makes you more vulnerable if you can do an uppercut half the time. We wanted to bring the core game out from behind that execution wall. If you asked us two years ago, well if you ask anybody in fighting games right now, they'll explain to you carefully why that's impossible and crazy and heresy, and stupid, and we might have agreed with them two years ago, but we built that game and it works. It doesn't just work; it's fun."

Tom jumped on, explaining Rising Thunder's simple controls. "Basically we set out to build a PC online-first fighter and make it accessible to everyone, not just fighting game fans like Seth and myself. We've got typical light, medium, and heavy attacks, but then all of our special moves are one button. You can really start to put together combos that are really tough in traditional fighting games. We went all the way with this, so even our super moves are [on the] spacebar. We really just dropped the execution bar down to like nothing."

"Well, shift the execution barrier, is the truth of it," said Killian. "Tom has given you the full extent of the hand holding that we do in this game. Hey, guess what? You will not miss your moves anymore. This game is full of dexterity and lots of opportunities to be creative and do different things. It's right down the middle, a core fighter, it's just that your special moves are one button plus a direction, or, you hold the button. Nothing worse than that.

"I've been thinking about this genre for a lot of years, and what it is about this that people hate or makes them give up. When I think about great fighting game matches, I don't think 'man, that guy sure executed all of his fireballs.' I think about the fact that that guy made a great decision or baited that guy into this other thing. That's the greatness of fighting games that so many people never get to experience. The reason why is because they're stuck grinding moves and they give up at some point because they're not having fun. It's a genre that both has people who are lifelong devotees who go to crazy lengths to get together and play these games, but it's also a genre that's also squeezing out 90% of the people that try it and end up never playing it again. People give up on these games and never get to that special experience that gets people coming back. We really want to try and crack that open."

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Early indicators have convinced Killian and Cannon that they're on the right path. As advocates for fighting games, they've tried for years to bring more players into the fold, but with the barrier of execution, it's proved more than challenging to woo newcomers. Rising Thunder is already proving to solve a problem they've tried to crack for years. "What's been exciting is that we have people that we used to play Street Fighter with before this game was working," Killian recanted, "and they are guys who like the games and kind of get it, but I couldn't even evaluate their skill. This one guy just spins the stick with Zangief, like that kind of guy. Turns out, when they start playing this, after two weeks, these guys are doing mind game shit. They're like 'surprise!' These are the same guys that, two weeks prior, would literally just spin the stick and mash buttons. As someone who's been trying to teach people fighting games for most of my life, I've never seen anything like it."

Killian and Cannon seem convinced of one thing: complex commands are a problem, not a benefit. So I asked: what place do complex controls have anymore?

"I've been thinking about that for a while," Killian answered, "and it's pretty hard for me to go back to other stuff in some ways. You could say any input scheme in the world is going to have gameplay around it at the highest level. The input scheme changes, the gameplay changes."

Cannon butted in. "Seth's trying to be diplomatic, or maybe I'm more extreme, but I think complex control schemes have some purpose, but not a lot. There's some satisfaction of being able to do really complicated, hard combos...but for the most part, why? Imagine if in Counter-Strike you had to [do a quarter circle forward] to reload. The fireball in a fighting game is as basic as a jump in Mario Bros., so why shouldn't it be one button?"

I think complex control schemes have some purpose, but not a lot. There's some satisfaction of being able to do really complicated, hard combos...but for the most part, why?

Fighting games, in the traditional sense, are prohibitively expensive. Unlike other genres, where you experience new things every minute, fighting games require you to train for months before you get to the core of the experience. Therefore, Rising Thunder will be free to play. "Free to play is not a fun thing to say because there are so many shitlords using the term for games that make people hate things," admits Killian, "but we're inspired by games like DOTA where you never pay for gameplay. You could play this game forever and not pay us a dime and that's fine. We just want people to play and have a good time. We think there's plenty of evidence that you can build a business around that. We really don't want to sell gameplay and we think we've figured out how to do that. It's basically out of fear that you monetize a different way."

At this point in our meeting, I was totally on board with Rising Thunder. However, one thing bothered me. So far, there had only been talk about online play. Killian and Cannon had demonstrated a few features that are designed around the fact that each player has their own screen when fighting online. Cooldown timers, which apply to every special move to prevent spamming, are invisible to your opponent. Even specific moves, such as an invisibility cloak, were designed for the two screen experience. Unsurprisingly, but disappointing nonetheless, Killian confirmed that there's no such thing as a local versus mode in Rising Thunder. While I understand how a single screen could devalue the features that were designed around a two screen experience, surely players will want the option to play next to their friends, even if they have to accept that some things are different than when playing online. The fighting game community was born in arcades with players bumping elbows, not ping measurements, after all.

I had to reiterate my question several times before they would address the implications of going online-only. I could get behind changing controls, but nobody has ever said I want some interesting moves at the cost of local competition. Killian finally answered my concerns: "I get the force of the question. There may be some fun to be had [locally], but it's not the game that we're building. But you know, developers don't always know best about their own games."

Time, and the community, will tell.

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Peter Brown

Peter used to work at GameSpot. Now he just lurks at GameSpot.

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