Game Breakdown: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
This post begins a new series on this blog. While I will continue my standard posts every other week, sharing insights we have collected throughout the game building process, this new series will occupy the "off weeks" in between. Each post, I will focus in on a different game (or otherwise game-like product) and identify things that I believe have contributed to success (or lack thereof). I'm very excited about this new segment, as it will be a learning experience for myself as well as for you, the reader (hopefully). Thanks for reading, and enjoy!
This week, I want to highlight a new take on an old classic: Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. There are a lot of things this game does right, and a lot of lessons we can learn as game designers by studying this game.
First off, we have to discuss the brilliance of just the premise of Super Smash Bros.; take all the characters you already love and dump them into a single game, finally giving credence to every late night argument about whether Trevor Belmont could take Kirby in a fight. Right off the bat, it lets you know that this is a game made by people who love to make games just as much as they like to play them. Ultimate in particular reinforces this love for the game by providing an unprecedented 70 unlockable characters, 103 stages, and 28 hours of music, all pulled from the expansive library of properties connected with Nintendo. This is a game, and in fact an entire series, built on fan service. However, fan service is not enough on its own; what makes the series excellent is the quality and thought put into every part of the games.
The most important part of Super Smash Bros. is not that it has lots of well-loved characters; it is that the game is an insanely fun fighting game all on its own. All the character sprites could be replaced with original characters that no one has heard of (and in fact, many of the more obscure Smash characters already feel that way), and the game would still be the wacky, chaotic, addicting fighting game it is. This is the lesson we can take away from the theme of Super Smash Bros.: It is okay to rely on pre-existing properties to help players connect with your game, but your game should always stand on its own. If you are looking to make a game based on a book, movie, or even previous game, be sure to ask yourself these questions: Would this be fun if I had no idea who these people were? Does my game give players a good idea of what the pre-existing characters and placers were like? Will newcomers to the franchise get a good first impression of the world if this is their first exposure to it?
Asking questions like these can help us to make sure that the games we develop are worth the time of all players, whether they are familiar with the established lore of the world or not.
Digging more into the design of the game itself, we find a treasure trove of mechanics and features that make sure the game is fun for everyone, regardless of skill level. One feature that speaks to me is the concept of the Smash Ball, introduced two games ago in Brawl. The smash ball introduces an 'ultimate' type ability, a tide-turner that offers massive damage, often to multiple targets. Many, many fighting games feature some 'ultimate ability' mechanic, but what makes the Smash Ball unique is the way it is earned. The Smash Ball flies around the stage randomly, and the first player to break it gets the ability. This means that the ball is available to anyone who can reach it, regardless of prior performance. Getting a Smash Ball depends partly on luck, as your odds of collecting it are better if you are closer, and partly on skill, as you must land hits on it to break it.
Contrast this to the more traditional 'power meter' in many fighting games- as you deal damage (and/or take damage, in some games), you add power to a slowly climbing bar. Fill the bar, and you can unleash your ultimate ability, dealing devastating damage. While this mechanic usually has more 'reward' behind it- do well, and you get to use your big moves- it also can be far less fun for inexperienced players. If your opponent is mopping the floor with you, and you can't land any hits, it's hard to get excited about a big move you will never earn.
The Smash Ball presents a nice solution; it doesn't matter how badly things have been going. If you are on the ropes, and a Smash Ball appears, you have just as much of an opportunity to get it as your opponent. Beginners get to have a chance to get it, while experienced players don't feel like they are being punished by buffing their opponents. If your opponent gets a Smash Ball, you can only blame yourself; either you didn't move fast enough to get it, or you didn't get out of the way once they had it. In any case, it feels fair, which makes it feel fun. It allows for tide-turning upsets, without guaranteeing success for the underdog.
From the Smash Ball, we can learn that It is good to add tide-turners and other powerful elements to your game, as long as they don't punish winners for winning. Managing this balance is one of the most difficult parts of creating a good game; if these chaotic elements are too strong, players will feel like their actions don't matter until the end of the game; however, if they are too weak, players who fall behind will likely give up because they don't see any point in continuing.
Note that the 'fall-behind' issue is not a concern in purely competitive games. If the goal of a game is strictly to find out who is the best, then rewarding winners and punishing losers is usually a good strategy. If the goal of a game is to entertain, however, it is more important to ensure that there is always a chance to come back and upset the game, so players never feel hopeless.
All said, Super Smash Bros. is an excellent case study of a game that is both highly competitive and accessible to all levels of players, whether they are lifetime Nintendo fans or have only ever heard of Mario. The lasting success of the franchise tells us that this peculiar blend of innovation and tradition is a winner, and we all have much to learn from this bastion of player-focused gaming.
These are another new feature. Obviously, you don't have to do these, but if you want to exercise your game-development brain, give these questions a go by answering in the comments!
If you have played Super Smash Bros. (any title): Who is your favorite character? Do you like to play them because of the way they are presented in Smash, or because you were familiar with the original property they came from?
What other games have you played that were part of a pre-existing franchise? How much did you enjoy playing them? Did your enjoyment primarily stem from the game itself, of the connection to the franchise?
Have you ever played a game that relied too heavily on how "cool" the theme was, but offered substandard mechanics? How would you change that game to make it more fun to play, while still engaging its theme in a thoughtful manner?