David Sirlin has a hell of a lot of responsibility - it's his job to sort out the Xbox LIVE and PSN re-imagining of one of the greatest games ever - Super Street Fighter II. Not only is he making sure everything from the new HD lick of paint to the character rebalancing turns out perfectly, he has to keep the famously loyal and vocal Street Fighter following sweet. Here, Sirlin answers his critics in one of his most honest and frank interviews ever.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks for giving us the opportunity to ask you some questions regarding Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix. Let's begin with some background - could you explain your role on the development of the game and how you came to be involved in the project?
David Sirlin: Even during 2005 when I was Backbone's producer on Capcom Classics Collection Volume 1, I suggested several future projects to Capcom, big and small. Among them were redrawn versions of Puzzle Fighter and Street Fighter. I don't know how much my suggestions influenced Capcom's eventual decision to do both those projects, but once they were approved, it was only natural that I oversee design on the development side.
On this project, my role is directing the design of SSF2T:HD Remix. This mainly includes the carefully considered balanced changes to the new game, but there's quite a bit more as well. For example, I've really tried to sniff out any differences between the original arcade version and our HD Classic Arcade mode and get them fixed.
I've also managed to carve out a role for myself that allows me an agile, birds-eye-view of things. On this game (and on Puzzle Fighter) my goal is to somehow improve the game each day, doing either what seems most important that day or is the biggest bang for the buck that day. At one point this was making sure the button config screen was as quick and easy as possible. At another point it was working on an in-game command list that I think will help beginners a lot. Another was figuring out which network options we needed to support. I've investigated differences in speeds between the arcade version and our version. I've also pushed hard for a couple of little features that we can't commit to talking about yet, but I really want them. So although balancing the game is my main concern, I help in other areas and I do a lot of complaining until other people fix whatever my top annoyance is, ha.
VideoGamer.com: What's your take on the reaction from die-hard fans of the series to the changes you are implementing with SSF2THDRemix?
DS: It's been interesting to watch. At first, the reaction was pretty overwhelmingly negative. I was told more than 100 times from all sorts of people (and I mean that literally) that a rebalanced ST could not improve on the original. I think that was the knee-jerk reaction of a lot of die-hard fans, yet I just continued working on it during that time because I could picture these improvements in my mind's eye.
There was also a phase of misinformation where a lot of people didn't realize that they are getting BOTH the HD Classic Arcade game as well as the HD Remix game in one package. That calmed almost everybody down, but I see the HD Classic Arcade game as a bit of a Trojan horse. The 13 year-old game is awesome, and greater still with new HD graphics, but its existence is what allowed us to take some chances on the new HD Remix gameplay. As time has gone by and we've released more information about the game, I see that the fans are warming up, and even reaching genuine levels of hype about this new game.
The best indicators I have of what the "die-hard fans" will think is the playtest feedback I get from the Evolution tournament players who have actually played the game. Of course they have found problems here and there (which we've addressed), but so far every one of them has really enjoyed the new game. As it stands now, and I know it's very early to say, it appears to have even more of a fun factor and fewer mismatched fights than the original game. Considering how happy these tournament players are, I expect the hardcore fans in general to get even more excited as they learn more about the game. (And of course the beginners will be happier with things like Cammy's new Hooligan throw command.)
VideoGamer.com: What's your opinion on accusations of dumbing down?
DS: I think people who call a bigger timing window on executing a Dragon Punch "dumbing down" have vastly misunderstood what fighting games are about. I see Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo played at the very highest levels. I see it at the Evolution Fighting Game Championships which I help run in the US. I saw it in Japan at the Super Battle Opera tournament, and these days we have DVDs and online videos of high level play, too. So I can say with great authority that when top players are able to execute their moves all the time, the game still holds up well. I think people less connected with the hardcore scene think that if only Cammy could do that Hooligan throw every time she wanted, she'd be #1.
So the first myth to dispel is that giving more players access to doing special moves somehow imbalances things. Quite the contrary as it gets one of the barriers of entry for beginners out of the way sooner, and gets them to the real part of the game: the strategy.
The second myth to dispel is that fighting games are all about dexterity, so reducing the difficulty of some special moves means there's less to the game. Not so. Fighting games are about making a series of good decisions, tempered by your ability to execute. While the average player might think a fighting game is 95% dexterity and 5% strategy, that is hardly the case. Unfortunately, if you don't have *some* level of dexterity, you can't compete (and we've tried to relax that requirement), but after you reach a certain level of basic proficiency, strategy, knowledge, and reading the opponent are far more important than dexterity.
The third myth to dispel is that making special moves easier to execute leaves players with no nuance, and no ability to show off their execution skills. Your ability to manoeuvre to just the right distances for your moves (sweet spots) is no different now than ever. Your ability to use expert timing is no less important (for example, doing your Dragon Punch one frame after the opponent's so his invulnerability runs out first and you hit him). And there are still plenty of difficult combos in the game, tons of which I can't even perform. So accusations of "dumbing down" are as far off-base as you can get, because this game has plenty of nuance, is more inclusive, and puts more focus on strategy than ever before, not less.
VideoGamer.com: You've done a great job with your updates on Capcom's site detailing your rebalancing job. Did you feel it was necessary to do them because of some of the misinformation that was banded about regarding the game?
DS: Yes, that's exactly right. When I saw that people didn't even know that there are two games in one, that both games feature redrawn art, etc, I really wanted to set things right. Seeing the inaccurate claims of "dumbing down" also spurred me to action. The message that the game is friendlier to beginners really overwhelmed the internet gaming news, maybe because it's hard to imagine that something can be better for beginners AND better for experts. That's why I started to reveal the balanced changes one by one to show that the game is intended for (and tested by) the hardest of the hardcore players in the world, as well as beginners.
VideoGamer.com: With an eye to the rebalancing that is being implemented, in your opinion which character has seen the most improvement in terms of power and which has seen the biggest cut?
DS: The biggest drop in power is obviously Akuma, because he's gone from being a nearly unbeatable boss character to only average power. Besides him, the nerfs have been fairly light. The previously top characters are only very slightly worse (Dhalsim can keep you out as well as ever and Balrog can rush you down as well as ever). There is one character that got several nerfs, but some other enhancements, too, hopefully keeping the power level similar, just fewer blowout matches. I'll keep the details on that to myself until I write a full article about it though.
It's hard to say who between Cammy, Fei Long, and T.Hawk has gone up in power the most, so maybe a tie between them. T.Hawk has been the hardest to balance though and I've had probably eight versions of him over the months.
VideoGamer.com: We understand that almost every character, especially the less popular characters, has been given some new toys. Could you give us some examples?
DS: Well, not *every* character has a new toy, but most do. You already know about Ryu's new fake fireball, T.hawk's dive (now safe!), and Ken's juiced up Dragon Punches and big roundhouse Hurricane Kick. I hate to spoil my own upcoming articles, but I'll give you two more: Cammy's Spinning Backfist can go through fireballs (as it could back in Super Street Fighter 2), and Sagat's Tiger Knee can juggle for three hits.
VideoGamer.com: After the mobile phone video of the game hit the web, Rey Jimenez said "The HUD and fonts are very early. We haven't done anything to jazz it up yet. So I know it looks boring now, but it's something we'll be working on." Could you tell us a bit about how the game will be jazzed up for the final version?
DS: Don't read anything into the HUD you saw there, that was an early version. I didn't like the diagonal tips on the health bars in that version because it's too confusing to see how much life is missing in the diagonal areas, so I requested that we do another pass on it. Our current HUD is actually more similar to the original game's, but high res and with some more graphic touches here and there. We're actually still working on the fonts and on some effects for when the super meter is full. Also, we're putting the player's Gamertag just below the character's name under the health bars, so you can see who is actually playing. We're still tweaking that to look nice, but I think it's going to be great to have that feature.
VideoGamer.com: Does the 360 download limit cause any problems?
DS: Yes, it's difficult to store so many 1080p graphics in such a small download size. A lot depends on the specific shading that the final art will have, and how well that shading compresses. It also makes it difficult or impossible to include all the original game's music AND all remixed set of music. We're still doing our best to fit within the limit we've been given.
VideoGamer.com: What can you tell us about how the game will play online? Has there been anything learnt from the XBL Arcade Street Fighter experience?
DS: SF2: Hyper Fighting on XBLA showed us several pitfalls we need to avoid. For example in that game there is no timer on the character select screen, so you can sit there forever, not selecting your character to grief the other player. Also, it's difficult to remember the Gamertags of the two people playing in a four-player room because it's not labelled on-screen during gameplay. So we've tried to improve on the overall experience in areas such as those.
As far as the actual quality of the networking, we knew we had to create a less laggy, less error prone system than SF2: Hyper Fighting on XBLA. Networking is about trade-offs: because sending information back and forth to your opponent inherently takes *some* time, something somewhere has to suffer. The trick is choosing to deal with the lag in the way that players will notice the least.
VideoGamer.com: What's your favourite beat-em-up apart from Street Fighter and why? What's your opinion on the big 3D fighters? For example Tekken, Virtua Fighter or Soul Calibur?
DS: To me, "beat-em-up" is the term for 1p and cooperative games like Final Fight. My favourite fighting game other than Street Fighter is Guilty Gear. It really stands alone in how much is going on with each character. One character has pool balls he can bounce around, another controls two characters at once, another has infinite guard reversals, another has a mechanic where you summon these cards that power up your moves, and it goes on and on. It has more variety than any fighting game I know of, yet it's still balanced enough for very high level tournament play.
I love Soul Calibur. My favourite version is Soul Calibur 1 for Dreamcast because SC2 and 3 have too many game-breaking glitches and SC2 made ring outs much, much less important (making positioning less important). But as a whole, Soul Calibur has so many wonderful qualities. The art and animation is amazing. The 8-way run movement system is intuitive and just feels right. The focus on attacks being either horizontal (you can duck them) or vertical (you can sidestep them) is easy to understand and works well. I also like that the moves are mostly very easy to do and that you have access to dozens of moves by doing nothing more complicated than tapping or holding a direction and pressing a button.
Virtua Fighter is also great and gives the player more chance to show off yomi (reading the mind of the opponent) than probably any other fighting game. Even though I think the game is incredibly well thought out and I played it for years, I am really turned off by the emphasis on execution. When VF4 came out, designer Yu Suzuki explained a telling detail about Pai and Lau's 4-hit sequence with pppk. He said that with Pai, if you press ppppk (an extra p), you will still get the pppk combo (all 4 hits). But with Lau, if you press ppppk (an extra p) then you will only get ppp (the crescent kick with k won't come out) because "Lau is a skill character." Well, I disagree on the nature of what skills should be measured. Soul Calibur as a game seems to want me to do my moves and Virtua Fighter seems happiest when it's creating a barrier between me and the moves I want to do. If only VF could move away from being so incredibly execution heavy, I think more people would discover what a terrific game it really is.
VideoGamer.com: In your opinion, what can Street Fighter learn from its 3D rivals that will help make it a better game?
DS: It's a shame that 2D games lagged so far behind 3D games just in resolution. I don't think 2D games have even gone beyond 480p yet (until SSF2T:HD Remix). Gameplay-wise, the question is mostly backwards. The concept of controlling space, rather than relying on close-up high/low mixups and so-called frame advantage makes 2D style gameplay easier to understand than 3D, and there's hardly any reason it can't be done with 3D graphics, if only someone tried.
One specific feature I think 2D games could consider taking from 3D games though, is the "wakeup" situation when your character gets up from a knockdown. In SF, we have moves that are invulnerable at the start and safe on block. So if you are knocked down and the enemy is close to you, there is no strategy here, the best thing is always to do that move. It's currently balanced by making it physically hard to do. If the enemy is attacking you as you get up, you have only a one frame window to execute that Dragon Punch, so that's why you don't see it done 100% of the time. In 3D fighting games, though, characters have rising attacks with huge windows of like 60 or 120 frames. With just a simple button press somewhere in a huge window, you can get up with what amounts to a dragon punch on wakeup (a high priority rising kick). The existence of this separate rising attack lets them balance the wakeup game by making the rising attack unsafe on block (or some other disadvantage). A system like this would still allow a character like Ken to have an awesome Dragon Punch for general use and another character to NOT have a general use Dragon Punch, but still have some form of rising attack. This would be an improvement because rather than a simple dexterity test (I should always Dragon Punch on wakeup if I can execute it), it become a mental test (should I press the button to get a wakeup attack or not?).
VideoGamer.com: How do you think Street Fighter fits in with today's HD, super-powered console market? Is it still relevant to the mainstream?
DS: Of course it's still relevant. To be mainstream, you need good graphics (we're working on that!), good networking for multiplayer games (working on that too!), and to be accessible to beginners. In the future, Street Fighter can become even more accessible to beginners by having better one-player modes, but for now the easier controls will help.
The heart of this whole question though, is that Street Fighter fills a core need for many gamers: the need to pick up a game that's easy to understand, compete in it, and get better. You don't have to level up your Chun Li for 400 hours to play. You don't have to sit at a character creation screen, tailoring every detail before you get to the real game. All you have to do is select your character, click a button, and you're immediately playing. If anything, the "mainstream" should take a lesson from that: there's something wonderful about being able to get into a game right away with no barriers.
Also, we're seeing more and more team-based games. Coordinating and being part of a team involves real skills for sure, but there's something to be said for the purity of one-on-one competition. You don't need to worry about the logistics of your team's real-life free time. You can't blame anyone else when you lose, and you get (and deserve) all the credit when you win. The only way to keep winning is within you you have to keep improving your skills and strive toward mastery. That simple journey unobstructed by artificial barriers of levelling up or external factors like the performance of other people that journey still resonates with gamers. Street Fighter is one of the best games around at offering this journey, so its relevance is, if anything, stronger now that so many other games are going the route of team-based or have RPG mechanics that get in the way of player-skill.
VideoGamer.com: What's your opinion on the 360's pad versus the PS3's controller? In your opinion what's best for Street Fighter? I know I hate the 360 d-pad for beat 'em-ups...
DS: In my opinion, one of the worst ideas inflicted on the Shoryukening gaming public was Sony's idea to turn the d-pad into four buttons with no diagonal piece. I hated it on the PlayStation. I hated it on the PlayStation 2. I hate it on the PlayStation 3. Microsoft's d-pad has a much better shape (including the diagonals) and yet somehow, it isn't any better in practice. There's something amiss about the mechanism underneath the Xbox 360's d-pad that makes it mysteriously imprecise. My final tally is that both d-pads tie for badness.
This is at least part of the reason why some special moves are more forgiving in SSF2T:HD Remix. You should have an easier time using a d-pad in this game than in other Street Fighters such as SF2: Hyper Fighting, but if you really want to be a pro, my best advice is to get an arcade-style stick. I've been using the Hori DOA and VF5 Xbox 360 sticks throughout the development of the game.
VideoGamer.com: And finally... what's your take on Street Fighter 4? I assume you've seen the screens and the gameplay info that has come out recently!
DS: I've never seen the game myself, though I'd be happy to help with its design and balance if anyone asks. ;)