It’s Really a Shame about Fantasy Strike

Fantasy Strike is a neat fighting game. If you’re ever in a position to try it out without having to buy it, I highly recommend it. You’ll have fun tinkering with it until the novelty wears off and you move on. And if you’re like me, your parting thought will be something like, “Shame there wasn’t more to it.”

The game is still in Early Access, but all the characters are in and other than a 1P story mode it’s pretty much feature complete. What you see is what you get with this one. The crowdfunding is over, it’s made its way around the trade shows and fighting game tournaments, and the community it’s built is probably the community it’s going to have. Absent a miraculously successful marketing blitz on the full launch, I think Fantasy Strike has done all it’s gonna do.

The concept of Fantasy Strike is wonderful. It was designed from the ground up by fighting game veteran David Sirlin to be as accessible as possible. The game is billed as being easy to pick up, but very challenging to master — appealing both to new players and tournament experts.

There are two critical flaws that kill the game though, both stemming from mistaken assumptions on Sirlin’s part. And as much as I love the guy, Sirlin strikes me as being too stubborn to admit these mistakes, which would be the first step in correcting them and fixing Fantasy Strike. In this post, I’ll go into each of them in some detail.

First of all, I really love David Sirlin.

There are very few game developers I’m a fanboy of. David Sirlin is one of them. He’s maintained a general game design blog for decades, and I’ve spent that time hanging on practically his every word. He’s got old design articles on every subject from the fun value of hidden collectibles in Donkey Kong Country to in-depth analysis about incorporating fun game bugs as standard features in remakes and sequels. I learned more about fighting games by reading his balance articles for Street Fighter II HD Remix than in all the combined time I’ve spent actually playing Street Fighter titles.

I don’t actually own a lot of Sirlin’s games, outside of Fantasy Strike and his silly panda poker game, because most of what he designs are card battle games in the vein of Magic: The Gathering. This hasn’t dissuaded me from reading pages and pages of his analysis and design theory about card games, though, all of which I’ve found fascinating.

So I know the man’s work, and I know something about his game design philosophy. I also know he has a stubborn streak that has resulted in some burned bridges across various internet communities. For example, when most reviewers were championing the decision to make the online edition of Street Fighter 3: Third Strike arcade perfect, Sirlin had the audacity to point out that the arcade version of Third Strike was kinda butts, and a re-balanced version would have made for a much better game*. He was totally right about this, and I was on his side every step of the way, but the manner in which he argued his points, dismissing out of hand that Third Strike fans with different priorities might have a valid argument, earned him no small amount of abuse.

And it’s this stubborn streak, this sense of I’m right gosh durnit, why can’t everyone just see that, that I see in his responses to feedback Fantasy Strike has received. I find myself disagreeing with Sirlin on some key aspects of what Fantasy Strike is supposed to be, and what could make it great.

*Third Strike had 19 playable characters, but at the highest competitive level only three could win fights. It was a boring meta both for competitors and spectators. Sirlin’s argument was that rebalancing the game to make more of the characters viable would increase depth and attract more players to the game.

Second of all, I’m a filthy casual.

And this has the unfortunate side effect of Sirlin assuming I don’t exist.

Fantasy Strike is billed as “the strategic fighting game for EVERYONE”, but what Sirlin really means by this is that he is targeting two kinds of players: expert fighters who will enjoy the game’s strategic depth, and newbie fighters who he hopes will speed through the learning stages to become experts.

He’s not aiming at people who are neither experts, nor want to be. I’m standing here waving my hands around, and senpai is not noticing me.

I approach a fighting game the way I approach any sort of game: I play it until I either finish it or it stops being fun, then I move on to the next game. I feel like 30-40 hours of playtime out of a $20 Steam game is pretty good value. The most I’ve played any fighting game is Super Street Fighter IV, where Steam says I have just shy of 100 hours logged. 100 hours is a long time for me to play a game, but it’s a fraction of a fraction of what is required to become an expert player, even in a game with single-button specials.

Accessibility is still an unsolved problem.

This is the first of Sirlin’s misconceptions: he thinks people quit playing fighting games — or avoid getting into them in the first place — because the moves are too hard to do. In his mind the barrier to entry is the controller, the physical interface between player and game, and if you can just push through that you can begin what he calls “actually playing”. You’re not spending brain cycles on whether you can physically perform a move, but rather should you perform it. If you read the HD Remix articles I linked earlier, you will see him repeat this phrasing again and again.

It’s easy to see why Sirlin thinks this. He learned to play fighting games in the Bad Old Days, when Capcom and SNK arcades ruled the roost. In those days the special moves really were difficult to do. You were lucky if the specials were listed on a cabinet decal or instruction manual, and even then, the motions were notoriously finnicky. I bet Sirlin spent a lot of time back in the ’90s fumbling with bad control schemes before he got güd, and those memories were probably front and center when he drafted the Fantasy Strike design doc.

But this is a solved problem. Sirlin himself implemented many of the solutions in his work on HD Remix: he widened input windows, relaxed directional requirements, and reduced button mashing. These changes are a big reason why HD Remix is my favorite iteration of Street Fighter II — I can do a dragon punch now!

What he didn’t realize, though, is that every other modern fighting game has adopted this design philosophy. The motions for specials in Street Fighter IV are even more lenient than HD Remix; nobody has quit playing that game because they can’t throw a fireball. This design trend probably started with Super Smash Bros., where every move is as simple as “button plus direction”. The Bad Old Days are gone.

The real barrier to entry is the competition, not the controller. It’s when you haven’t yet learned enough to make good decisions, nor developed the muscle memory to implement those decisions. It’s true that Fantasy Strike gets you to that point faster than Street Fighter does, maybe a couple hours versus a couple days. But it still has combos to master, matchups to learn, and frame data to study. Jaina’s fireball being on a single button rather than QCF isn’t very helpful when what you really need is the knowledge that Geiger’s move has a long recovery, the presence of mind to recognize the situation, and the muscle memory to react quickly enough to make that fireball count.

In a world where everyone is having trouble driving stick on icy roads, Sirlin is patting himself on the back for implementing push button ignition.

Babby’s First Fighting Game

Being the Sirlin fanboy I am, and seeing his previous work on HD Remix, I have full confidence that Fantasy Strike is a deep, well-balanced and strategically interesting game. As we’ve established, though, that’s not really what I’m in the market for. The players he needs to sell that line to are the established fighting game community, and by most accounts they’re not buying it.

Part of this just comes from the man himself being such a polarizing personality for such a long time in established fighting game circles. There are lots of people out there who don’t like Sirlin, for one reason or another, and just won’t buy his game no matter how good it is. That leaves two other places to potentially cultivate interest: veteran players who are intrigued by what Fantasy Strike has to offer, and veteran players who don’t have a game to play.

We can discount the second group pretty much immediately. If you’re a fighting game veteran, you already have a game to play. You’re not going to move from that game to Fantasy Strike unless it becomes a blockbuster smash, and it’s not doing that.

To the remaining fighting game veterans, Fantasy Strike is a hard sell. If you have what it takes to climb the ranked ladders, you are not concerned about accessibility. The idea that the hard part of fighting games are the QCFs must sound absurd to, say, the 98th best Blanka in North America. The #1 selling point fails to land, and I really don’t know that Fantasy Strike has a #2 selling point.

Passed all that, though, even veterans who want to actively support Fantasy Strike are going to have a hard time doing so, because nobody is playing it. lists Fantasy Strike as having an average user base in the single digits. Contrast that with Skullgirls, an indie-developed fighter that’s been out for several years, but has cultivated a dedicated playerbase by leveraging unique gameplay features. In terms of active playerbase Fantasy Strike is more in the neighborhood of Divekick, and that’s not a good look.

So why doesn’t Brickroad like it?

Okay, the game’s not appealing to newbie players looking for an easy in, and it’s not appealing to veteran players who want a new playfield. I’ve already established I’m not in either of those groups, so why doesn’t Fantasy Strike appeal to me?

There are no online lobbies. And there never will be.

My usual rule regarding Early Access titles is not to buy them unless I’m happy with the state the game is currently in. I broke this rule with Fantasy Strike for three reasons. First, the game looked cool and colorful and fun. Second, I was very happy Sirlin had finally developed a video game I was interested in playing rather than simply reading design articles about. And third, I was absolutely certain online lobbies would be added to the game.

If you’re not familiar with lobbies in online fighting games, here’s how they work. You open a room and invite a bunch of friends. The game then matches two of you up while the rest spectate the match. The winner of the fight moves on to the next match and the loser goes to the back of the list. It’s a way for a group of people to all play the same two-player game together. This feature is an industry standard. The only major series I’m aware of without lobbies is Super Smash Bros., but those games have 4-player simultaneous play, which is functionally the same thing.

Lobbies are important to me as a player because fighting games are stressful to play, even with a group of friends at about my skill level. I much prefer playing a few matches at a time to grinding out an endless row of them. I really like playing as hard as I can while I’m on a win streak, but once I lose I appreciate being able to take a break and spectate.

Lobbies are important to me as a Twitch streamer, too, because it makes for the best viewing experience. Viewers are either watching my match and listening to my friends commentate on it, or they’re watching the same match I’m spectating and listening to me commentate for my friends. It also makes it easy for viewers to get matches with me, without either of us having to screw with our friends list or manually send invites.

So when I learned online lobbies was not a feature Fantasy Strike was ever going to have, I immediately regretted my purchase. Here’s Sirlin’s response on the Fantasy Strike forums when asked about it:

This reveals the second mistaken assumption Sirlin has: that Quick Match is the best way to play fighting games online, to the exclusion of all other possible ways to play. (I don’t know what the comment about Hearthstone is supposed to mean. It seems weird he’d conflate two entirely different genres of competitive game like this.)

Again, I can follow his logic here. Quick Match is the default method of playing for experts and for people trying to be experts. The way it works is you push a button, and some guy in Germany pushes a button, and then the game throws the two of you into a match. The loser is given an option to rematch, and then both of you are dropped back into the queue so you’re available for the next guy who pushes a button.

Notice, though, that the only other way to play Fantasy Strike is to challenge someone on your friends list. When you do this you are locked into an endless series of matches with that friend until one of you decides to leave.

Fantasy Strike makes it easy to play with randos, and it makes it easy to play with a single friend, but there’s no easy way to play with four friends at once, or to make yourself available to a small group of people who happen to be watching and want to jump in. I know from experience that trying to organize a Fight Night in a game using just these features is a major hassle, and my solution in the end was to stop playing that game.

If you’re looking for a steady stream of competition, Quick Match is your jam. And if you want to spar against one person, the single button invite is an elegant solution. But if you want a fun, casual night with a couple friends on Discord chat, Fantasy Strike can’t really accomodate you.

Sirlin is very, very wrong when he says “custom rooms take away from Quick Match”. The two game modes appeal to very different kinds of players, and it’s his own tunnel vision that prevents him from seeing that. In his mind there is one particular correct way to play his game, and he won’t spend development resources on a feature that allows people like me to play it wrong.

So, unfortunately, I’m just going to stop playing it altogether. Which, yeah, is really a shame.

I wonder if David Sirlin is the type of guy who Googles himself.

If so, I just want to say I’m still a big fan. Thank you for Playing to Win, and for fixing Chess, and for giving T. Hawk that hilarious throw whiff animation. I want you to know I think it’s a travesty that HD Remix and Puzzle Fighter aren’t in that big Street Fighter collection that’s coming out.

I urge you to reconsider your decision to leave out the one standard gameplay feature that would enable me to enjoy your game. Even if you don’t, I hope Fantasy Strike eventually finds its audience and that you get what you want out of it. I’m still following the game on, for what that’s worth.

And to everyone else, thanks for reading!

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