When Casual and Competitive Collide: Is Playstation All-Stars Smashing Off Its Nose To Spite Its Face?
As a game design student, my enthrallment with gaming is typically attributed to my educational path; people say “oh, that makes sense” when they learn that my fascination with gaming has turned into a professional focus. However, when I state that I enjoy the competitive facet and culture of gaming, the response is typically “why?” — or more specifically “oh, you’re one of those people,” due to the fact that a majority of my friends are gamers themselves. Being a competitive gaming enthusiast is easier to explain to someone who is not familiar with gaming culture at all, as those unfamiliar with the concept are satisfied when I equate it to being a fan of any other sport; “You enjoy watching baseball even though you don’t play it,” is more readily accepted as a valid comparison to them.
It’s not nearly as easy to explain it to some of my gamer friends, who accuse me of being “a little too hardcore.” The play-to-win mentality is painted in direct contrast to the play-to-enjoy mentality; play-to-learn applies to both sides, but is generally considered to be a third category in and of itself. Casual gamers perceive play-to-win as “I can’t have fun, I’m trying to win” or “I only have fun when I’m winning,” — the attitude of the stereotypical uptight, “too-intense” tournament gamer. Competitive gamers are considered smoldering balls of rage, incapable of enjoying a game long enough to remember why they wanted to play it in the first place. This sort of profiling also occurs in the other direction, perverting the moderate “winning isn’t everything” approach to gaming into the mantra of scrubs and gimps — demographics admonished as undeserving of consideration or respect.
Finding the moderate path in this divide is no easy task. Creating and maintaining a system that rewards casual gamers while compensating avid fans for their investment and dedication is a nightmare that haunts content designers and engineers alike. Some would say that there is no way to achieve a happy medium; that there is no amount of compartmentalizing, no leaderboard algorithm, no match pairing system that could prevent a casual fan from losing interest after being eviscerated at the hands of a more competitive player.
The human element is the key to bridging the gap between communities; a single word of encouragement or advice is capable of teaching a new player far more than any tutorial could, fostering growth in individual players of all skill levels and thus strengthening the community as a whole. An active, enthusiastic community is capable of increasing a title’s longevity by years, even decades.
A community capable of keeping a game alive for so long does not necessarily need to be competitive or hardcore in order to do so. While it stands to reason that the players who stick with a game for years are going to be heavily invested in said game, attracting new players is as much a necessity for the players of a game as it is for the developer.
Without pulling in fresh new faces, gaming communities grow into cynical clusters of malcontents — devoid of wonder and brimming with entitlement. This is especially evident in the case of MMO communities, where players burn out daily when a highly anticipated new patch or expansion doesn’t reignite the passion they started the game with. When Square-Enix released the Wings of the Goddess expansion for FFXI: Online, the lack of new melee jobs or worthwhile end-game content sent me packing, eventually finding my new home in the Smash Bros. community.
The Smash Bros. community shares a place in my mind with Fighting Game Community in that their efforts are almost the entire reason for the longevity of games like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Street Fighter III: Third Strike, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. While Smash Bros. has found success as a part of MLG for several years, both scenes have thrived through community-regulated tournaments and unofficial forums for years afterward, with new top players emerging to this very day. The main difference between the two communities is that the Fighting Game Community is generally granted the privilege of dealing with developers that seek to embrace the innovation found in their games, while Smash and other unconventional fighters receive no such consideration from their creators.
In fact, I would argue that Masahiro Sakurai, creator of the Smash Bros. series, took actions while developing Brawl to actively spite the people that he felt took Smash too seriously, not taking into account that he may have alienated far more than his intended target with blunders like tripping or the cyclone of pent up gamer rage that is Meta Knight. (I don’t actually have a problem with Meta Knight, as there are far more polarizing characters in the history of fighting games. That said, I have not seen a character permeate and infuriate every level of his or her respective game as thoroughly as Meta Knight.) A platform fighter that has the luxury of a development team that follows it and adjusts it as gameplay evolves has yet to be seen.
I consider the disregard Sakurai had for Smash and its community as a whole to be a heinous blunder on his part, and can only hope that others do not follow in his path. Which brings me to my next subject, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. I have been following the development and portrayal of this game intently, seeking desperately for a title that had some ability to take the wind out of Brawl’s sails. When PS All-Stars was announced, I had great hopes that Sony might provide an inventive twist to the genre, but initial information and demonstrations left me feeling unsure. After having the chance to play the game with Community Manager Daniel “Clockw0rk” Maniago, I must admit that I’m a bit conflicted.
Featuring a somewhat unorthodox rule set that I can only say that I’m apprehensive of, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale provides no alternative way to KO an opponent than to build up one’s meter in order to execute supers that result in unblockable one-hit kills. While their desire for innovation is admirable, SuperBot’s ambition toward such an adventurous new system runs the risk of alienating casual and competitive players alike. By restricting the KO method in this way, the game is in danger of enforcing a standard of play that not only encourages, but actively rewards camping until the opportunity to build meter presents itself. Guarding is currently impenetrable except for supers, rolling away breaks block stun, and grabs are too slow; there’s no way a seasoned player would be caught by one unless they were blatantly not paying attention. Since players will not build meter by taking hits, a merely passable defense can shut down your opponent from making any sort of comeback.
Game Director Omar Kendall stated that the system is meant to be more accessible to novice players, who may not be able to keep up with too many meters and bars. No matter how casual someone is, reading a health bar or any type of health assessment system is so basic to the concept of fighting games that when I mentioned the reasoning to my casual peers, they scoffed at the idea. They found it insulting that a developer would deem them unable to keep up with a basic health system, and stated that just because one isn’t a hardcore player, his or her intelligence should not be insulted through an arguably “dumbed-down” system. The other rationale that the meter system acts as a proxy health bar is considerably more valid, as meter mitigation, super avoidance, and stuffing an opponent’s level one or two super can turn a simple 3-stock match into something much deeper.
While the supers in Battle Royale take some thought to set up and execute in an actual match, the truth of the matter is that I wanted the ability to turn them off. Even if I chose to use them, I wanted their existence and importance to be my prerogative. Smash manages to appeal to casual and competitive gamers alike for the same reason–How one wishes to interact with the game is his or her choice. While working at PAX East, I played Super Smash Bros. with nearly 200 attendees. As an experienced (albeit mediocre) tournament player, I just wanted to share the love for the game with fellow enthusiasts. Leaving the rules up to my opponents, I was able to sit back and appreciate the sheer multitude of ways that players chose to interact with the game, rather than barking that the only way to play is by tournament standards.
Over the course of three days, I played time match, stock match (ranging from one stock to ten), and grab the coin mode. I played with people who used all of the items, limited them due to their thoughts on what was unfair, people who only played with smash balls, and those who balk at the idea of an item appearing on the stage. I ran into players that insisted only Final Destination was fair, while others swore that nothing could be further from the truth.
Some players told me that playing Ike was unfair in free-for-all matches, while others that playing Snake in one-on-one matches was worse; some players demanded that I only play random characters. Conversely, I played with people who knew my “Ryko” tag because they lurked Smash boards, or had subscribed to my YouTube channel, and wanted to specifically play against my Ike or Snake. I let them pick the rule set because bridging the gap to that large community, competitive or casual, was worth far more than insisting that there was one way to play. What I learned over the course of that weekend is that any facet of a game’s community can develop its own rule set and competitive standard if the game is open enough to provide the players options for gameplay. Each new rule set that I experienced caused me to prioritize my gameplay in new ways.
On the bright side, what Battle Royale currently lacks in its overpowered defensive implementation, it makes up with great offense, assuming you’re able to mount one. Each character has twelve attacks in the ground and the air that string together in unique and interesting ways. Kratos’s move set is so fluid that players will be able to freestyle their combos in a manner that pays proper homage to the God of War series. Radec’s linear close-range move set is offset by the sheer amount of ranged abilities at his command. His down-square grenade drop provides a defensive mobility that the character can take full advantage of. Fat Princess is also worth noting, her moveset employs multiple villagers that act independently of her own hitboxes, providing a level of overwhelming offense if used properly.
Not to be disregarded, Sly Cooper has the potential to be the sleeper hit of the game. True to his series, Sly’s move set exemplifies his sneaky style of play. He can confuse his opponent’s inputs, disappear, teleport, and set up a hard knockdown that can result in him stalking his opponent for another throw on wake-up, depleting his victim’s meter with every successful throw. With no universal wake-up attack option (which should be heavily reconsidered), Sly could very well end up amongst the strongest characters in the game in a one-on-one situation.
PS All-Stars has so many well thought out combat mechanics that SuperBot’s insistence on pushing its K.O. system belies what merit the game has otherwise. If every 2D fighter wanted to avoid being compared to Street Fighter, how would we have King of Fighters, Guilty Gear, or any game that uses a universally recognizable “Deplete health to K.O.” standard of gameplay? If a new car manufacturer wished to avoid being compared to Chrysler or Ford, would they instead create a car devoid of wheels and a speedometer? Moreover, would they then spend time talking about how they really hope to appeal to the street racing community? That’s a really fast way to make everyone furious.
Despite my initial reservations, PS All-Stars manages to make bold strides in an effort to provide unique gameplay through robust combos, appropriate character move sets and a smart mentality behind the offensive combat mechanics. Combat Designers Paul Edwards, Edward Ma, and Artavan Mkhikian should be commended for making a solid combatant group out of Sony’s roster, with at least four more to come next month at Gamescom. With the potential for crossplay with the Vita, the ability to turn off stage hazards, and fight stick support, this game has a chance to provide an experience that has yet to be seen in a brawler. In fact, all of Battle Royale‘s good points are what make the strict enforcement of the unorthodox super-only KO system so concerning.
I honestly don’t know why I’m so invested in PS All-Stars, but I truly want it to do well. I want an alternative to the stagnation and frustration caused by the way Smash Brawl was neglected by its developers. Luckily, SuperBot seems intent on taking player feedback into account, and are currently working on a system that takes away some of the advantages to blocking all the time. Daniel Maniago is a fantastic Community Manager, making videos to specifically address any and all concerns that pop up about the game (for example there is an infinite avoidance system that kicks in when your character builds a certain amount of meter). All they ask for in exchange is an open mind; preconceptions as to what their game “should be” will do everyone a huge disservice. The crew over at SuperBot seem to be listening, and consideration from both ends will ultimately result in a better game for everyone.
I am earnestly excited that SuperBot is being given the autonomy to innovate in this way and provide their potential fans with a system brimming with options and unexpected gameplay. Sony has a chance to do what Nintendon’t, and the knowledge that they’re serious about taking player feedback into account is a surprising aspect that I am encouraged by after experiencing it first-hand. PS All-Stars will hit stores on October 23rd for the PS3 and Vita. While having a chance to play the game won me over, only time will tell how gaming audiences will receive it.