Icons: Combat Arena — The Past and Future of this Troubled Fighting Game
The Super Smash Bros. inspired indie fighting game Icons: Combat Arena failed upon its release in 2018, but the game's story isn't over yet.
Over one year ago, developer Wavedash Games announced that it was laying off a majority of its staff and ceasing support for its online, free-to-play fighting game Icons: Combat Arena. Even though it was clear that Icons had not caught on like its developers and dedicated player base were hoping, this news was still saddening within the indie fighting game community. An offline Definitive Edition of Icons: Combat Arena was promised after that shutdown, but the word on that also fell silent soon after.
We are now a year removed from that announcement, and not much has been said about Icons: Combat Arena since. Recently, DualShockers has gotten in contact with Christopher Kovalik, who was a Co-Founder and Board Member at Wavedash Games during the development and aftermath of the game. Speaking to DualShockers, he documented the rise, ultimate failure, and upcoming resurrection of Icons: Combat Arena.
Kovalik cleared up one of the biggest misconceptions about Icons: Combat Arena that has been around since its announcement: that it was a successor to the Super Smash Bros. Brawl mod Project M. “There actually was no overlap in the leadership of Project M with Wavedash. The founders of Wavedash played Project M and knew some developers personally, but were not affiliated at all.” That being said, there was still a significant connection between the two projects. “Project M was shut down due to an unconfirmed legal threat from Nintendo. Wavedash was just as upset as everyone else about the news. Looking to make the best of a bad situation, we handpicked a few Project M developers to join forces with us. The developers chosen were largely based on prior personal relationships,” Kovalik explained.
Moving over from Project M was hard for some of the developers too. “I spent a lot of time with those folks from Project M around the time they first joined. It was depressing. They were soul crushed. They spent their entire professional careers working on a now-abandoned project,” he pointed out. “These were not people who could pick up their things and work on another game. They were hobbyists in the eyes of professional game studios. They worked small gaming-related gigs underpinned by unrelated, entry-level retail jobs. Joining Wavedash was an opportunity for them to apply their credentials in a real game studio. I am so glad we brought them on board, and they’ve since gone on to do great things in the game industry.”
As the team was built up with both developers affiliated with and not attached to Project M, Wavedash had to decide their overall vision for Icons: Combat Arena. “There were many differences of opinion on tactics. The one thing we all could agree on was that we were going to make a game to try to rival the Smash series. This is a super ambitious undertaking. We couldn’t compete on graphics or IP, so the best we came up with, at the time, was to make it PC-first and free-to-play. After all, we figured, there are way more PC players than there are Nintendo console owners. As long as we made it free and scratched the surface of Smash’s greatness, we thought we’d at least break even. Our focus was to nail Smash-like gameplay feel and provide top-notch online Netplay.”
Wavedash then went to work on Icons: Combat Arena, and ultimately decided to reveal it at EVO 2017. According to Chris Kovalik, when discussing the initial fan response, revealing at this time was a mistake in hindsight. “Icons‘ gameplay debut was one of the saddest moments in my life. At that point, I put my life savings into Wavedash. I supported the team for about 18 months at that point. Worst of all, though, I was adamant against revealing in Summer 2017 at EVO. It severely strained my relationship with my co-founders I had leveraged every resource and tactic I could to abort that effort. I didn’t sleep the entire week prior. It wasn’t ready to debut. And EVO was NOT the right place to debut our Smash-like fighting game.” His gut feeling matched the community response, as the initial reception to Icons: Combat Arena was quite lukewarm, which set the tone for the rest of the project’s lifespan.
“Despite significant visual updates over time, Icons was sadly never able to shake that first impression. My gut wrenches talking about it.”
At this point though, all Wavedash could do was take the community’s feedback into account, fix and polish Icons: Combat Arena, and prepare for the game’s early access launch on Steam come July 2018. The developer had a lot of support too, and Kovalik only had good things to say about its partners. “There are some public figures on how much [Wavedash] raised. It was millions of venture capital dollars from really smart folks, too. Wavedash was very lucky to have them on their side. I enjoyed working with each of them and relish the opportunity to do so again. I would encourage any entrepreneur in gaming to reach out to Wavedash’s backers.”
Unfortunately, Icons: Combat Arena failed to make much of a splash when it was released and proved to be unprofitable for Wavedash. He attributes this to three reasons. “It was a function of bad first impressions from EVO 2017, a lack of content available pre-grind and pre-paywall and a lack of unique draws vs. Smash or other fighting games.” He also questions the sustainability of free-to-play for indie console and PC games. “[Free-to-play] is not feasible for PC/console game developers without significant funding. To make things harder, funding is impossible to come by without a stellar track record.” Despite all of this, he does believe Icons: Combat had some strengths. “Icons released a well-funded ode to the Smash series – we nailed the Smash-like feel. We were also most complimented on our netcode – the second part of our focus.”
Still, a lot was stacked against the project. Some of these problems may have been at the core of Icons: Combat Arena from the start. “As I have since written, though, the goals should have been very different from the onset… Unfortunately, Icons didn’t bring anything to the conversation in this genre. There were a handful of unique character designs, but, ideally, Icons could have introduced new types of experiences. New experiences could have brought players in from Smash to at least experiment. Potentially, they could even inspire non-Smash players to give this genre their first real attempt.”
There were about three months between Icons: Combat Arena’s launch and that fateful announcement in October 2018, and Wavedash worked hard within that timeframe to salvage the game. “It felt all or nothing at that point. We had a large studio of staff. We needed to deliver on new features to hopefully attract another stage of funding.” Looking back, Kovalik thinks some things could’ve been done differently in that time, and that the path to fixing the game the team chose was no longer sustainable come October. “In hindsight, we should have pared down to a core team and continued development. Even if it was just three people, development could have continued. What actually happened was far worse: full and complete shutdown. No funds were left to keep the servers on and the whole project died overnight.”
Wavedash shutting down was devastating for everyone at the studio, including those brought over from Project M. “This was a double whammy for the poor folks we brought on from Project M. There was a lot of crying during the shutdown. They had big plans and a wonderful culture working together.” Icons: Combat Arena entirely shut down in November 2018, its Steam Store Page was hidden from searches, and the hardcore Smash community interested in Icons: Combat Arena could turn their attention to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate when it released soon after.
With a year to reflect, Chris Kovalik looked back and told DualShockers what needed to be done differently with Icons: Combat Arena. “I don’t know if my co-founders would agree with me, but I will acknowledge it is a heck of a lot easier to say these kinds of things in hindsight. First, we needed to rethink through how to make a free-to-play fighting game. Besides Brawlhalla, there aren’t any. There are three vital questions associated with being free-to-play: (1) what content do we monetize, (2) how do monetize it and, most importantly, (3) how can we provide a rapid cadence for iteration?”
Icons: Combat Arena was free-to-play, with $5 characters or a $20 one time fee for everything, not including the loot boxes. Kovalik says that Wavedash “failed to design a system that would appeal to its players while also being affordable for the studio to maintain” before voicing regrets over how content was rolled out. “Over the course of the game’s beta, we only had one major skin update and it wasn’t ready before the studio shut down. We needed a model that was much more agile. Look at Fortnite, for example; it feels like they have a new gun or gadget every week.”
He also admitted that the “game was designed for a specific, yet underserved audience: people who played Smash games competitively. Directionally appealing to an underserved audience was a good idea. However, there are two problems in designing a game solely for a hardcore demographic: (1) you limit your potential audience, and (2) you are attempting to win over some of the most passionate fans your competitor’s AAA game has.”
To have a successful game, Chris Kovalik believes that it must appeal to a broad audience. Icons: Combat Arena didn’t. “From the onset, our game had limited appeal to players who didn’t already know how to Wavedash and were competent players. Our AI was boringly bad to play against and there were very few casual-friendly experiences. Every stage was plain and optimized for competitive play. Instead, the game should have been designed from the ground up with specific goals in mind.” Specifically, he thinks Icons: Combat Arena should have been designed to appeal to not just hardcore Smash players, but other fighting game players and those who don’t play the genre as well. He also believes that intellectual property plays a big part in success, and pointed to how Rivals of Aether, Brawlhalla, and Brawlout have all found success with guest characters.
Though nothing can be changed about how Icons: Combat Arena was released and ultimately failed in 2018, the game still has a future. When that wave of Wavedash layoffs was announced last year, a Definitive Edition was promised. Though Wavedash was supposed to talk about it within a week, the discussion never came. This was because “When Wavedash prepared to shut down and promised to release the game, there was much less cash left than expected. As a result of their financial position, the Board of Directors shelved the Definitive Edition and put the whole company, Wavedash, up for sale.”
“Despite internal protests to move forward with this option, we then sold the company to the highest bidder.” Despite not planning to do so at first, Chris Kovalik revealed to DualShockers just who that person is.
“Good news: I am the highest bidder. I bought Wavedash in May 2019 through a new company, Vortex, and I plan to release the Definitive Edition as soon as possible.” While nobody has heard a word on this Definitive Edition over the past year, he updated us on its current status. “It needs a few touches to ensure it stable for online play and to clean up a few minor bugs, but it’s 100% coming. We also need to clear it through the Steam store. Once those two are ironed out, we will announce something formally. You can expect that announcement to include answers to pressing questions.”
Despite all the trials and tribulations that came with Icons: Combat Arena and its Definitive Edition, Kovalik and his new company Vortex are following through with re-releasing it because “it is the right thing to do” for both the players and developers. “Last year, a promise was made not just to our players but to the Wavedash team. We’re releasing it for them. For many members of the team, Icons is their first and only professionally launched game, and, right now, there is nothing that they can point to and say “We built that.” For our players, especially those that paid for content, they were robbed of the chance to play the Definitive Edition that they were promised.
“Even though this wasn’t a promise from myself or Vortex, we thought it was important enough to release nonetheless.” After it launches, Vortex will “take care of it via bug fixes and the like as long as there’s a demand for it,” even if that is not the expectation one would have when looking at Icons’ troubled history. “Truthfully, I wasn’t ready to make this announcement, but it’s important that I be transparent rather than take this interview and pretend like I had no idea what was going to happen!”
Alongside the release of Icons: Combat Arena’s Definitive Edition, Chris Kovalik is also hard at work on a brand new game called Vortex Rising. It’s looking to address many of the mistakes Icons made, but also bolster its strengths. “I was the first backer in Icons because I believed in its potential. That potential is still there. At Vortex, we are taking the lessons covered in this article and many more into our first title, Vortex Rising.”
At the core of Vortex Rising is the belief that a lot more people would play fighting games if they had a perception of being easier to learn than they do now, they created fun, social experiences for players to play collaboratively, and if their online matches felt more like a broadcast-worthy tournament. By emphasizing cooperative and strategic play, we hope Vortex Rising brings fighting games to new audiences.” Sign-ups for Vortex Rising’s Private Pre-Beta are open now at www.vortexrising.com. He also highlighted that “we host daily streams of gameplay tests and developer Q&As so you can follow every change to an attack, dodge, spike and – yes – wavedash.”
When asked if the so-called “Smash clone” sub-genre is viable for indie developers, Chris Kovalik called that out as being a trick question of sorts. “No one should make a clone of anything. Take inspiration, but try to push the boundaries and define something original. You need to have something core to your game that makes your title unique. I have a lot of respect for the designers behind games like Rivals of Aether, Brawlhalla, Slap City and, Brawlout. Each offers something that can only be experienced with their title.”
Icons: Combat Arena may not have been the breakout success Wavedash was hoping for, but there is undoubtedly a lot that can be learned from it. In the modern gaming space, developers like Chris Kovalik believe that titles need to have not only that unique hook but broad appeal to find sustainable success. Icons: Combat Arena serves as a great case study on this because of its failure, and the soon to be released Definitive Edition will cement its place in the indie fighting game scene for years to come.