For more on Skullgirls, see "Skullgirls: Screenshots from the Next Big Fighting Game." Check out our E3 2011 category for more coverage from the show. See more photos in Shannon Cottrell's slideshows, "E3 2011: Day One" and "E3 2011: Day Two."
Over the course of E3, there was one game that we kept revisiting. Skullgirls sucked us in with its striking artwork and fighting game format. We, apparently, weren't the only ones who were swayed.
"I haven't really gotten the chance to play the game at all because there are always people playing it," says Ian Cox a designer who has been working on the game, "which is exactly what we want."
In some ways, Skullgirls was at a disadvantage at the annual trade show. The game, developed by Reverge Labs and published by Autumn Games with Konami distribution, doesn't have the same level of name notoriety that many other products at E3 had. There wasn't a huge unveiling or big media hype. It is, however, clearly gaining a following. The team has had a demo version for a while now and has been taking it around to conventions and fighting game events. Right after E3, they headed to the ReveLAtions tournament.
"We're hoping that it's one of those things where by putting it in front of people, we can build the hype organically," says Cox. "We aren't putting out a bunch of big trailers and trying to get a bunch of traditional hype. We really want the players to know what the game is like."
We stopped by the booth several times each day of the three-day show and, every time, we saw more and more people waiting to play it. By Thursday, the game had received Best Fighting Game nominations and awards from several game publications.
"We are getting a lot of word of mouth," says Cox. "We feel lucky that people are seeing it and bringing their friends over and playing it again."
He adds, "You couldn't ask for more, really."
Cox acknowledged that part of the attraction may be the games creators, Mike Zaimont, otherwise known in gaming circles as Mike Z., and artist Alex Ahad. Both have solid reputations within fan communities.
Zaimont is a fighting game champion. He attends the Evolution Fighting Game Tournament every year and he's participated in Japan's Super Battle Opera. Ahad is an artist whose work is probably familiar to users of the popular anime social networking site Gaia Online, where he used to work. He's also contributed art to a number of comics and games. Zaimont devised the game's engine, while Ahad designed the characters and plot. Together with Reverge Labs, they've developed a captivating and forward-minded 2D fighter game. While Skullgirls, planned for release on Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network later in 2011, has technically been in development for about a year, Zaimont and Ahad had been working on it for much longer than that.
"I wanted to make games since I played Battletoads," says Zaimont, referencing the early '90s game. "I wanted to make something that could make someone scream in frustration as much as that game made me scream in frustration, but I love it."
In college, Zaimont studied computer science and began working on an engine for a fighting game. He turned it in as his senior project, but continued working on it after finishing school as a hobby. Then, in 2007, he mentioned the engine to a gaming friend of his. The friend suggested that Zaimont meed Ahad, who had been working on characters for a fighting game for an equally long time.
"I met him and the first thing I said when he showed me the plot and the characters, was 'Why do you want to make a fighting game?' This should be an RPG," Zaimont recalls. "He said, 'I love fighting games. I'm terrible at them, but I really want to make one,' so we teamed up."
During the course of our conversation, Zaimont rattled off a number of titles that have piqued his interest over the years, from Super Street Fighter II Turbo to Marvel vs. Capcom II and BlazBlue.
"There are two ways to do game design," he says. "One is to come up with a new gimmick that you think everyone is going to like and focus on that. The other way is to look back over the history of the genre that you've been in and try to take everything that you like from games and refine it to be as good as possible."
Zaimont and Ahad chose the latter.
"What I really want is X-Men vs. Street Fighter without the infinite," he says. "That's my goal with this."
Oh, yes, infinites, those little glitches in games that, when found, can unleash a flurry of repetitive moves that leave your opponent with no way to fight back. With Skullgirls, Zaimont has been working on ways to level the playing field.
Zaimont notes that the problem with many fighting games is that, even if developers patch up infinites, players will find new holes. With that in mind, the Skullgirls team took a different approach.
"We're assuming that players are going to break the game anyway because they're going to try to. I would try to," he says. "We're building systems which mean that it doesn't matter if you break it."
Essentially, if you unleash a variety of combos upon your opponent, that's fine. However, if the game detects a loop-like combo, it will trigger a chance for your opponent to break from from the pulverization. It's the kind of feature you might really want in a game where you would challenge friends arcade-style.
With Zaimont's tournament background, Skullgirls has its roots firmly entrenched in the arcade world, despite the fact that arcades are becoming increasingly more difficult to find. When we spoke, Zaimont mentioned a "Tournament Mode" for the game that would allow people to compete without the problems that arise from trying to run a competition with console games.
"You can't accidentally pause it and it makes you configure your buttons before you play and all this other stuff to try and make it as friendly as possible for tournaments, like arcade games used to be," he says.
But Skullgirls isn't just for fans of the genre. We were immediately attracted to the artwork of the game. As we played, we thought of Gainax's quirky heroines and Genndy Tartakovsky's stylized cityscapes and rich use of color. Still, Ahad's work wasn't quite like either. It was the kind of character design that is sure to attract cosplayers, much like Silent Hill and BlazBlue do (two games that Ahad mentioned in an enlightening post on the Skullgirls blog about his favorite character designs). It's already inspiring fan artists.
"Alex's art is definitely Alex's art," says Cox. "We've had people who were already fans on the Internet stop by and be like, 'I didn't know Alex Ahad had a video game.'"
One of the things that makes Skullgirls unusual on an artistic level is its animation style. It is a hand-drawn 2D game, however, it's rendered in 3D.
"The fact that it's rendered in a 3D engine gives us a lot of technological flexibility," says Cox, "so we have things like dynamic shadows and dynamic lighting."
The process also allows the developers to play with colors to reflect the environment of particular levels. Cox mentions a level where players are in a cathedral with stained glass windows and red carpeting.
"When you're in there, your characters are faintly red," he says.
The game is also peppered with little references to other video games and cartoons, treats for gamers and animation buffs.
"The phrase 'by fans, for fans,' I like to avoid it, but it's honestly just really true in this game," says Cox, himself a fighting game fan who recalls driving "all the way to Orange County" to see a Marvel vs. Capcom tournament at Southern Hills Golfland when he first got a car.
"We're making games for our friends and our family and the people we see at E3 and the people we see at fighting tournaments," he says. "If they don't like the game, then what good is it?"
For Zaimont, the best thing about developing Skullgirls is that he's creating something he wants to play.
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"If I was making it because I would like to sell two million units to my target demographic of 18- 34 year old males who don't have any income and really like cars or whatever, then I wouldn't be making this game," says the game's co-creator. "I'm making it so that when it's done, I can sit down and play it with people."
Skullgirls will be making an at appearance at Anime Expo on Fourth of July weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center. You'll be able to check out the game at booth 811 in the Exhibit Hall.
For more on Skullgirls, see "Skullgirls: Screenshots from the Next Big Fighting Game."