We want to thank fighting legend Mike Z for taking the time out for us to talk about Skullgirls. We have also gotten very lucky to get Creative Director Alex Ahad on with us for some questions. Overall this will likely be the most comprehensive interview we have gotten so far, since we have both major creators.
Readers will remember Mike from multiple tournaments such as Evo as well as the “Real Soviet Damage” segment of the Blazblue tutorials. Alex Ahad is a professional artist with quite a lot of work under his belt, check out his site here: 404
Mike Z has achieved a personal dream for many gamers: creating his own fighting game called Skullgirls. For us at Nerd Age this is a double treat. This is because Skullgirls is a unique fighter from people outside of the mainstream gaming world and we are big fans of Mike Z.
Scholar of Nerd Age: How long have you dreamed of making a game like Skullgirls, Mike?
Mike Zaimont of Skullgirls: I’ve been dreaming of it for a long time, ever since playing Killer Instinct, but I didn’t start seriously working on it until 2008. Before then I was just working on the engine in my free time. I started devoting my life to it when my previous employer, Pandemic Studios, shut down, and I teamed up with our creative director, Alex Ahad, in 2009.
NA: Do you think your significant experience with fighting games gives you an advantage in development?
MZ: I do, but only because I also have experience with game design and programming. Just being good at fighting games doesn’t guarantee someone could make one – it’s the practical experience of analyzing games and taking them apart that allowed me to really use my fighting game knowledge properly.
NA: In a similar question, were there any specific fighters that you wanted to draw from on this game (MvC, Jojo’s, etc)? Or did you really want to take it in a whole new direction?
MZ: My goal was to make a game that was as free and fun as Marvel vs. Capcom 2, but fix it for competitive play. This was a chance to refine a genre I love, and fix things I see as problems. Some of those ‘fixes’ are new features, like custom assist types, and some of them are adapting ideas I’ve always liked, like the ratio system. We’ll see where it goes after the initial release, but for now we’re focused on combining and refining our favorite features from existing games and making sure they all work together.
NA: What influences does Skullgirls draw from for its characters, either artistically or in personality?
Alex Ahad of Skullgirls: I have too many heroes that have inspired my style to list here, but I’ll give you a few. I love the work of Bruce Timm and Shane Glines, who worked on “Batman: The Animated Series,” as well as classic cartoon directors Tex Avery, Gainax’s Hiroyuki Imaishi, who directed “FLCL,” and Gurren Lagann. I’m also heavily influenced by video games, like the work of Vanillaware’s George Kamitani and, of course, Capcom.
The personality is kind of my own thing – I like making things that are ridiculous and over-the-top, but are also serious and tinged with a dark sense of humor. And a lot of my characters are cute, but I always end up putting something off-putting or violent about them.
NA:There have been quite a lot of cheesy yet inspiring openings to fighting games. From “This battle is about to explode.” to “The Wheel of Fate is turning”. Why did you decide to go with “Take 1, Action!” in early demos and will there be a variety of opening phrases down the road?
AA: That’s actually in the process of changing, but it’ll be in a similar vein.
In keeping with the art deco vibe, a lot of the game is inspired by the golden age of Hollywood, so you’ll see a lot of film and old-school movie influences in the menus and overall presentation. That’s the place where the “Take 1: Action!” came from, and also where the new one will come from.
That’s how all fights will open, at least for now.
NA: Animated openings with excellent soundtracks are becoming standard in the fighter genre. Can you tell us anything about how you are handling this?
AA: I can’t, unfortunately – I have ideas for one and I definitely want to do it, but it really just comes down to time.
NA: Is this game predominantly targeted at tournament players or casual players? On the same note, how will you be balancing the game for tournament play vs. casual play?
MZ: Of course my primary goal is to make a great tournament fighter, but I don’t think making something that appeals to tournament players is mutually-exclusive with making something that’s good for casual players. Older games were played casually by plenty of people – it’s not like casual players are against balanced games.
I think that a lot of the features that are commonly considered ‘casual friendly’ like comeback mechanics, simplified button schemes, input shortcuts, etc. actually end up hurting the overall experience as those casual players improve. For example, if you can nearly always make your risky move safe, when do you learn to weigh that risk? If losing some (or all!) of your health grants you the opportunity to obliterate the opponent off your next hit, why work to preserve that health?
That said, we’re doing a lot to help bring casual players in: our special move inputs are more lenient than most other games even though they still require the actual input, we’re going to have robust tutorials that now only teach you how to do things but also why you should do them, and our AI is designed to help you learn how to respond to situations in game instead of trying to emulate a human player. Fighting games are basically the only genre now that don’t teach players how to play them, so we’re looking to address that – simply learning combos is not learning “how to play.”
NA: Will any of the characters in Skullgirls deal enough damage to consider their attacks “Real Soviet Damage”?
MZ. Since you’re bringing that up, as I hang my head in embarrassment, you clearly know that I play grapplers. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that our grappler, Cerebella, can certainly dish it out. That isn’t to imply she’s overpowered – it’s just what grapplers are supposed to do if you let them get in on you.
Since you can select team sizes in Skullgirls, though, any single character “team” against a three character team is going to be able to put out a lot of hurt. In return, they are fighting an uphill battle to land a hit against a team with assists.
NA: Can you tell us anything about the combo system that stands out from other games?
MZ: Brace yourself, because I can talk about this stuff forever…
The basis for the combo system is lifted almost directly from the Marvel vs. Capcom series. You can combo pretty much anything into anything else, and it’s really open and free. There are chain combos, launchers, air combos, and you can cancel normal attacks to specials to supers. The systems we’ve added on top of this proven foundation have led to some really interesting features.
It all starts with our anti-infinite system. While the freedom afforded by a combo system like this is great, the inevitable infinite combos it creates are what tend to ruin games. So we’re heading that off from the start – if the game detects that your combo is looping, the hit sparks and sound effects will change and your opponent will be able to break out of it for free. They can only escape if you let them, by doing a loop, and the system starts out pretty lenient and then gets stricter as your combo gets longer.
The detection is based on the actual combo you are doing, and there are only a few very simple rules. By heading this off, it means Skullgirls didn’t need hit-stun deterioration, gravity scaling, or any other combo limiters – if some series of hits combos at the beginning, it will still combo at the end. It also doesn’t forcibly end your combo – you still do damage, and if the opponent chooses not to escape you could continue forever.
One of the other things the game engine outright prevents is high-low unblockables. In other games, if you are touched simultaneously by a high attack and a low attack, you can’t block both and the opponent gets a free hit… and the subsequent combo. In Skullgirls, if you are touched by an attack that forces you to block high or low, you are protected from any other object hitting high or low for about 12 frames, or 1/5th of a second – this means any 100% “human unblockable” setup will only be a 50/50, since you still have to block the first hit properly.
This protection enables one of our other unique features, custom assist types. When choosing what a character will do as an assist, the player can choose from two predetermined moves, or they can perform their own action by inputting the move at the character select screen.
A standing weak punch for tick throw setups, a multi-hit low move for mixups, an invincible special move as antiair… you want it, you got it. Any ground move, any special move, throws, even dashing – whatever you do, that’s the assist you get. The only limitation is no supers, because those were supremely overpowered when we had it as an option. I should also note that any assist, even immediately invincible moves, will have 3 vulnerable frames when they land to prevent situations in which the opponent’s only choice is to block.
NA: We’ve heard that there will be DLC for this game. While we’re sure you can’t tell too many specifics, is it safe to assume we will see more characters and stages?
AA. Yeah, obviously I can’t get into specifics because we’re so focused on the core game right now, but we’ll be adding new characters and stages via DLC.
Some of those characters will be men, too, which has proven to be surprisingly controversial. Fans of all-girl fighters shouldn’t worry, because there will always be more girls than guys – we’re basically flipping the gender ratio from other fighting games.
I guess it strikes people as odd that there are guys in a game called Skullgirls, but they’ve always been part of the game’s story and universe, and you’ll see that their designs are just as insane as the girls’.
That wraps up our interview. We are sorry to Mike for embarrassing him about his past, but he should know that their are thousands of people with fond memories of that segment in their hearts. Us included. We will keep you posted on future Skullgirls updates including a review when it is available. Be sure to check out the Skullgirls Site.