Dec 12 2013 - 2:00 pm

The art of building the perfect indie eSport

At the risk of understatement, every major eSports title is massive in scope
Patrick Howell O'Neill
Dot Esports

At the risk of understatement, every major eSports title is massive in scope.

Every month, 32 million League of Legends players choose from 116 characters who can equip themselves with almost 200 items and use 1,000 abilities. At the same time, 6.5 million Dota 2 competitors choose from 112 heroes and 128 items. StarCraft 2 offers 111 units and 65 abilities. Millions of fans watch the best players from these games compete for tens of millions of dollars in prizes.

Now compare that to your average indie eSports title.

Divekick, a fighting game, uses a grand total of two buttons. Frozen Synapse, a tactical strategy game, boasts a slim six units. Hokra, an abstract sports game, is just a collection of fast-moving squares flying towards a goal.

None of these indie games are the subjects of major international tournaments. They don’t require novel-length guides to play. But they're still attracting a sizable number of serious competitive gamers. Why?

When it comes to indie, small is a selling point—and a necessity. Little or no funding means indie teams can’t invent vast universes for their games. Instead of delivering a futuristic physics engine and expensive, lifelike graphics, indie titles zero-in on a few key gameplay devices—and execute well. So sure, indie titles are small in scale. But that narrow focus can, in turn, deliver tremendous competitive experiences.

Indie is no longer a "a pimple on the game industry’s ass," as developer Greg Costikyan once declared. But will any indie title ever reach the dizzying heights of success that titles like League of Legends have? And where does indie fit into the future of eSports?

...

Like many great creative minds, Paul Taylor and Ian Hardingham found inspiration late at night in university dorms.

“Ian played a lot of Tribes 2 at university,” Taylor said, “and my first actual eSports experience was watching him play an organized match online and then listening to a shoutcast of the same match later. There's always been an awareness of that scene.”

Known today as Mode 7 Games, the two-man team wanted to make competitive games since day one. But indie studios always have to work within certain limitations.

That's part of the reason Hardingham has always been dedicated to making a competitive game that could function on a low server population. Frozen Synapse, a turn-based tactics game in which small squads of soldiers clash in strategic warfare, is made so that even if only two people are online, you can play as many simultaneous games as you dare.

"Multiplayer indie games are really difficult to get going because of the community size needed to sustain a busy server population," Taylor said. "I can imagine an indie eSport happening eventually, but I think it will be an outlier."

Fittingly, Frozen Synapse’s competitive scene is largely limited to its online ladder and a small but hardcore group of players at Rock Paper Shotgun.

Games of Synapse move slowly and deliberately, with the rhythm and drama of a chess match. During each turn, players are faced with do-or-die decisions about where to move their few valuable pieces. Unlike chess, turns play out simultaneously so there is no first-move advantage. Instead, everything moves together in a chaotic symphony.

The graphics for Synapse are beautiful, minimalist, and classic cyberpunk. They’re also a compromise the developers had to make because the original ambition to make side-top perspective pixel art (think Zelda) proved too costly. But while the game’s look started as a classic indie cost-cutting measure, the simplicity has turned into a serious selling point.

"I've always felt that the best games will combine a low entry point with true, long-lasting depth," said Hardingham.


Early designs for Frozen Synapse that were later discarded.

...

Divekick embodies the simplicity-as-a-selling-point philosophy. There are two buttons: dive and kick. The game, developed by indie studio Iron Galaxy, strips away the endless combos and seizure-inducing artwork of major fighting games and comes out the other side focused on mind games, spacing, and reaction time.

Divekick has gained much wider competitive success than Frozen Synapse. Much of the fighting game community has adopted it as one of their own. Dozens played it at Evo Championship Series in July, the biggest fighting game tournament of the year, where a modest live crowd received the game well. Thousands have watched the matches online. Divekick has continued its competitive run at a number of major tournaments ever since.

Maybe no one should be too surprised at that, however. Evo has a proven track record of bringing small indie competitive titles to their enthusiastic players. Take, for instance, Nidhogg, a high-speed, minimalist indie fighting game that has been tantalizing audiences since it was first revealed in 2010.

Other Evo successes include BaraBariBall, a competitive sports game, and SlashDash, a capture-the-flag game that won the Audience Choice Award at IndieCade 2013. 

...

And then there’s Hokra, a fast-moving, FIFA-inspired sports game from Ramiro Corbetta that’s won prizes at international festival IndieCade. It's one of the most highly anticipated indies out there. A 2012 tournament at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab showed off the game to a wide range of players. The winners were a group of young Brazilian men who just happened to walk by at the right time.

"They played differently," wrote Abe Stein. "They passed. They moved without the puck. They communicated with one another. I sat there, a loser, the cord of my controller like a tail between my legs. My pride bruised and my competitive spirit awakened, I determined then to be better—to get better."

This is the ideal indie eSports experience. Anyone can learn and play Hokra instantly. But hidden in the simplicity is a depth that allows players to keep inventing and improving play. Two years later, no one has reached the seemingly simple game’s skill ceiling.

"We have played the game against each other for many, many hours," designer Ramiro Corbetta wrote, "and I feel like we are still finding new ways to get better."

It makes sense that a big game with a million moving parts can be replayed again and again. When small, minimalistic games find that golden replayability, it’s an achievement worth bragging about.

...

Nearly every indie eSports developer I spoke to said that the biggest challenge facing small teams are the limited play testers available to them. After all, how do you balance and improve a competitive game when you’re lacking competition?

"Playtesting a game that requires four players is pretty tough when you are working alone at home," Corbetta said. "For a few months before I finished the original version of Hokra, a few New York City indies were getting together a couple of times a week to work on out games. That was super useful."

Introducing these kinds of games to more competitive players at major eSports events might be the best chance they have to perfect their games and establish real eSports scenes, as the success of games shown at Evo demonstrates. Plus, it helps show just how accessible and fun the games really are.

"The most encouraging part of making the game," wrote Adnan Agha, developer of SlashDash, "has just been going to all of these amazing events or just taking the game around and seeing people have fun with it.

"No matter how tired we get or how frustrating it can be, it is always so incredibly gratifying and energizing to see people's faces light up when they play and to see them bring their friends back excitedly. It's a really amazing feeling."

...

Once upon a time, the simple but deadly Quake ruled eSports. The deathmatch genre has long since diminished. Since then, increasingly maximalist, big studio games like Counter-Strike, StarCraft, Marvel vs. Capcom, World of Warcraft and League of Legends have sat atop competitive gaming’s food chain with few exceptions.

Can a small game break into the top tier of eSports ever again?

"Right now," said Robert Meyer, creator of indie fighting game Pulse of the Samurai, "I don’t think an existing minimalist eSport of even the highest quality, such as Hokra or Nidhogg, could reach top-tier status where it’s one of the 10 most viewed games on Twitch," he added, referring to the most-popular video game site in the world, whose most-viewed list gives a strong indication of what's trending in the industry. "I would be ecstatic if either of those games or any others proved me wrong."

Being a small indie studio does come with benefits when creating a competitive game, however. The biggest boon, Meyer explained, "is that if the designer knows exactly how all the code and art is implemented, they can have very tight and nuanced control of their game systems, which is often incredibly useful and important for real-time actions games."

Iteration is instant on small teams, added Hokra’s Corbetta. "If you have an idea or a change you want to make, you can do it right away."

Many of the solo indie eSports developers we spoke with have worked on slightly bigger teams of six to 10 at some point in their career. Even that sort of seemingly small increase can introduce a slow-moving bureaucracy where changes can take weeks. That's why Corbetta says he appreciates working solo.

With indie studios, ideas can move fast. When facing up against Goliath, David has to take every advantage he can get.

...

ESports has always been the goal for the two men behind Frozen Synapse. Now, three Independent Games Festival rejection letters and one massive hit later, the developers are ramping up to their second major release: Frozen Endzone.

Endzone is no sequel to Frozen Synapse, but its spirit endures. Instead of men with guns, Frozen Endzone stars giant robots playing a futuristic game like American football—except everything moves at the pace of chess. The cyberpunk aesthetic has been upgraded to graphics worthy of a beautiful, barebones sci-fi movie. But the underlying simplicity and depth of the Frozen franchise remains.

"I love going to the pub after a bridge match and hearing people discussing the hands," designer Ian Hardingham said. "The way people talk about bridge—comparing the decisions they made and the perceptions they had on the same hand—really excites me, and it's something I wanted to happen with Synapse and Endzone."

At first, the idea of two Englishmen making a game so heavily influenced by American football is a little surprising. But then, football is a turn-based sport emphasizing significant, specific game events that bring great drama. Add to that the outlandish, bombastic nature of American sports and you’ve got a something awfully interesting to play. Making a turn-based strategy game out of football is one of those great ideas that seems obvious and brilliant in retrospect.

The holy grail of competitive gaming remains a low entry point and true, lasting depth. Hardingham and his partner Paul Taylor are cautiously optimistic about Endzone’s eSports’ prospects.

The simple, turn-based structure lends itself to other comparisons, too. In addition to bridge, there's also an element of poker in the game, Taylor added.

"The audience can see and comprehend decisions the players are making. The real thrill comes from being surprised at what another human does in a situation you can fully place yourself in and empathize with."

They’re making every effort to land on the top of Twitch and break into that top tier of games. But eSports is something you can’t force, Taylor said.  Success in the industry is determined by a whole storm of variables beyond the control of the creators.

"We'll just see how it goes."

Illustration by Jason Reed

Jan 23 2017 - 8:37 pm

Armada takes out Genesis 4 Melee crown

His win at Genesis 4 helps solidify his claim as the best Melee player of all time.
Xing Li
Dot Esports

We've seen this story before. Adam "Armada" Lindgren vs. Joseph "Mang0" Marquez for the Genesis Super Smash Bros. Melee title.

Once again, Armada emerged victorious.

Both players are idolized in the Smash community for their stunning success over the years. But if any venue has been the site of their personal rivalry, it's Genesis, where the two have met in the finals again and again. There were other talented players in the field, but this is the matchup most fans wanted to see at Genesis 4.

Armada had the easier path to the final by virtue of his 3-1 victory over Mang0, which sent his rival to the loser's bracket. Armada had a relatively easy time, absolutely controlling stages and strangling life from his opponents. His run seemed relatively routine until he ran into Jason "Mew2King" Zimmerman.

Mew2King was on-point with grabs and air attacks on his signature Marth. Many times, Armada was stalling on Peach, trying to get into winning situations. Mew2King had a lead and momentum.

But Peach is hard to finish off and Armada's stalling got him to a deciding fifth game. Even then, Mew2King had chances, but missed key inputs. Small mistakes compound against a talent like Armada, and he punished Mew2King relentlessly.

In the loser's bracket, Mang0 survived by grit and guile, coming back from numerous deficits. First, it was against William "Leffen" Hjelte, where Mang0 mounted an insane comeback to tie the set at two games apiece. But Leffen came out strong in the deciding game and quickly took a two-stock (life) lead. Down to his last stock, Mang0 found his way back to the middle of the stage and went ham, somehow ending Leffen's run. The comeback ignited the crowd, with fans hugging and high-fiving at what they just witnessed.

Things wouldn't get easier. Juan "Hungrybox" Manuel Debiedma, valiantly playing with a broken finger, used Jigglypuff's burst to take big stock leads. But Mang0 continued to control the center of the stage to take Hungrybox down. He then beat Mew2King—reeling from his loss to Armada—to set up the finals rematch.

Fans wanted to see a show, but it was a different one than they might have expected. Though these two have gone back and forth in extremely close sets over the years, Armada has been on a tear for the last several months. And the final against Mang0 was no different. Instead of a close, tightly-fought match, fans got a coronation.

Armada had an answer for everything Mang0 threw at him. He floated around and seemed to take no damage. It was perhaps his most convincing win of the day.

Melee has been ruled by the Six Gods (which includes all the aforementioned players) for years now. But Armada is beginning to separate himself from the pack. He stands alone at the top at the beginning of 2017—if he ends the year in the same position, he could cement himself as the greatest Melee player of all time.

Jan 23 2017 - 3:29 pm

Our predictions for the Evo 2017 lineup

These are the ten games we think will make it to Las Vegas... and the four that won't
Steve Jurek
Dot Esports

Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to officially enter Evo season.

Organizers for Evo, the largest fighting game event in the world, will reveal the event's 2017 lineup on Tuesday at 9pm ET. Thousands of fans will be watching intently to see if their favorite game will be played on the fighting game world's biggest stage. There is a bit of uncertainty about this year's lineup, as several new games—including King of Fighters XIV, BlazBlue: Central Fiction, and Injustice 2—all have strong cases to be part of the Evo 2017 lineup, and the nine games that were part of Evo 2016 all have strong arguments to return to the event.

Earlier this month, lead Evo organizer Joey Cuellar asked which seven games fans would like to see at Evo 2017. This led many to believe that only seven games will be featured at this year's event. While that's certainly a possibility, Evo staff have a tendency to try and do things bigger than they did the year before. I feel that this year will be no different, as I believe a record-setting ten games will make the final list.

Here are the 10 games I believe will make the cut for the Evo 2017 lineup, along with a few that won't.

Will make the cut

Street Fighter V

After a launch year that included poor reviews, missed sales targets, and an embarrassing rootkit fiasco, it is safe to say that 2016 was not a great year for Street Fighter V. However, there was one area in which the game was unquestionably successful: tournament turnout. A record-setting 5,100 players took part in last year's Evo tournament, which is more than the number of players who participated in the second- and third-largest tournaments in the event's history combined. Despite its freshman struggles, Street Fighter V's status as an Evo game is as safe as can be.

Super Smash Bros. Melee and Super Smash Bros. for WiiU

The increasing prominence of Smash games at traditional fighting game events has not been without controversy, but it's a trend that isn't going away anytime soon. Last year's two Smash games were the second- and third-largest events in Evo history. Over 2,600 players entered last year's WiiU tournament, while over 2,300 entered the Melee event. With support like that, it's impossible to imagine a 2017 lineup without either game.

Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3

To steal a line from a popular fighting game talk show: Marvel lives! The Marvel community did everything they could over the past two years to reignite interest in Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, and Capcom's December announcement of Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite poured gasoline on that spark. There's no doubt that we'll see at least one more Evo with the insanity that is Marvel 3.

Injustice 2

Injustice 2's May 16 release date will surely make Evo organizers a bit nervous. With just two months between the game's release and Evo 2017, the game's entertainment value will hinge largely how well-balanced the game's cast is at launch. A poor initial balance could lead to a repeat of the original Injustice's Evo debut in 2013, an event in which three of the top six finishers played Superman. Still, those fears won't be enough to dissuade Evo organizers from including the game in the 2017 lineup.

Tekken 7: Fated Retribution

It's strange to think that Tekken 7, a game that hasn't seen an official North American release, can be making a third straight Evo appearance. Yet here we are. Bandai Namco, the Tekken series' publisher, has done well to drum up interest in the game with its regional King of the Iron Fist tours. That effort will pay dividends on Tuesday, and they'll pay dividends once players can finally get their hands on the game. Speaking of...

 BONUS PREDICTION: Tekken 7 console release date will be revealed

Tekken publisher Bandai Namco has promised to announce a console release date for its much-anticipated fighter some time this week. The company has been coy about exactly when that announcement will come, but Tuesday's Evo lineup reveal show seems to be the most likely choice. With popular figure Mark "Markman" Julio - who has appeared on the reveal show in each of the past two years - now working with both Evo and Tekken in official capacities, this appears to be a no-brainer.

King of Fighters XIV

The King of Fighters series is always a favorite among international Evo viewers, so it would be incredibly shocking to see the recently-released King of Fighters XIV left out of the 2017 lineup. 

Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator- and BlazBlue: Central Fiction

Evo has historically had one unwritten rule for "anime" games: they only get one spot in the lineup. That rule was broken in 2015 when both Guilty Gear Xrd and Persona 4 Arena Ultimax were included in the event, but only Xrd returned last year. I feel that this year will see that rule broken again, as the BlazBlue series has a strong new entrant in Central Fiction to join Guilty Gear Xrd's still-strong -Revelator- update.

Killer Instinct

This may be the toughest call on the list. With the amount of developer and community support shown for the game four years after release, Killer Instinct is the type of game you want to see succeed. Microsoft is now backing the competitive scene in a big way as evidenced by the upcoming $30,000 Killer Instinct World Cup in March. I feel that momentum should be enough to see the game make the cut again despite being the game that had the fewest entrants at Evo 2016.

Will not make the cut

Pokken Tournament

It's tough to imagine a game going from over 1,100 entrants at Evo 2016 to not even in the 2017 lineup, but that's the fate that I believe Pokken Tournament will face on Tuesday. The game's community has shown up to events in force, but so have many other communities. Pokken felt like an odd choice last year, but with so many other games in contention,this year it feels like the odd one out. 

Mortal Kombat XL

There is precedence for Evo including two different NetherRealm Studio games at one Evo - both Mortal Kombat 9 and the original Injustice were a part of Evo 2013. But with so much crossover between players from the two series, along with the abundance of potential choices at Evo's disposal, I think that we've seen the last of Mortal Kombat XL at Evo.

Ultra Street Fighter II and ARMS

The Nintendo Switch will likely have at least two fighting games available by the time Evo rolls around, but don't expect to hear the name of either game on Tuesday. Many tournament players love Super Street Fighter II Turbo, but its re-release as an "HD Remix" was not particularly well-received by most of that group. It's doubtful they would be more receptive to Ultra Street Fighter II, a game that appears to be an HD remix of HD Remix. And as fun as it would be to see players like Justin Wong and Daigo duke it out with motion controls, there are far too many 'legit' fighting games in the running for a spot in the lineup to take a flyer on ARMS.