In 2011, indie development studio Mane6 began work on one of the most unlikely fighters in recent memory: Fighting is Magic. Based on the recently revived My Little Pony franchise, this title blended their love for the cartoon with traditional genre sensibilities to create the dream mashup fans likely had no idea they even wanted. Early gameplay footage looked promising, but the creators hit a brick wall when Hasbro intervened, slapping them with a cease and desist that halted production.
“We were a few weeks away from release,” combat designer Omari Smith explained to us. “We were finishing up the last character and balancing them. So we were basically in the polishing, final stretch.”
But where the looming threat of litigation would stifle creativity in other small studios, Mane6 persevered with a renewed focus. The lead developer on the rebooted My Little Pony series, Lauren Faust, would officially join the team, where she now acts as the chief creative force behind the characters, story, and overall universe. They would also receive a godsend in the form of a fully-functioning fighting engine from Lab Zero Games, who provided their Z-Engine free of charge after reaching a substantial stretch goal in their Skullgirls crowdfunding campaign.
“Our first project was made in Fighter Maker, which is kind of like Legos: you piece together parts of logic and it works. But now, we have to learn a whole scripting language and do everything manually,” Smith said of the transition.
Fortunately, Skullgirls lead Mike Zaimont has made himself available to Mane6 should they run into any insurmountable obstacles. While their philosophy revolves around learning things on their own before running to the creator, they still maintain a back and forth that has yielded results.
During this time, Fighting is Magic became what’s now known as Them’s Fightin’ Herds, a fighter that still revolves around four-legged animals throwing down but without a pony in sight. Where they once had established characters, the cast now includes a cow, a reindeer, an alpaca, a lamb, all lovingly brought to life with a brand new (and quite endearing) art style. But they are looking for additional support through Indiegogo to finish the job.
While there was obviously a ton to be done from an aesthetics point of view, work was also being done behind the scenes as they switched to entirely different engine. “We had to make new tools for it, essentially,” animator Luke Ellinghaus mentioned. “We also kind of ported the movesets. They’re based off our old movesets from the game using the Fighter Maker engine. But there’s a lot of things that have changed.”
“A comment we get a lot on our promotional materials is that, ‘Oh, they’re the exact same moves,’ or, ‘You guys couldn’t just make something original?’ We technically never released a product! We see this as finishing our first game,” Smith chimed in, providing further insight into their mindset.
But the question still remains: how does it play? A brief gameplay teaser (posted above) provides a hint at where Them’s Fightin’ Herds may be going, but the creators were quick to dispel the notion that they were pulling from any established series. “[E]ven with [Fighting is Magic], we never actually tried to be another game,” Smith said. “It’s just kind of been an iterative game. We don’t really look at our game like that.”
That being said, players will likely draw a number of comparisons. Them’s Fightin’ Herds features the Magic button, which functions similarly to BlazBlue’s Drive system. Magic further exemplifies a character’s individuality by giving them a unique ability to work with that’s tied to a separate resource.
“It seems that a lot of fighting games are starting to move in that direction. Even Street Fighter is doing it! I always loved this kind of mechanic because characters were much more unique that way,” Smith continued. “We can even have a character with a similar moveset, like Ken, and then give them a new Magic, or Drive, or V-Trigger, and they’re a completely different character because they have that unique resource to focus around.”
Them’s Fightin’ Herds also features the same ABC > launcher > ABC combo routes seen in titles like Marvel vs. Capcom and Skullgirls, giving beginners and experienced players alike the opportunity to pull off something interesting without much of an execution barrier. This philosophy constitutes an important pillar of their overall design goals.
“Obviously, it needs to be fun. Another obvious thing is being relatively easy to do something that looks and feels cool, even if it’s not the most damaging or whatever,” Smith clarified. “So like, we have a universal launcher and a basic ABC chain system. Pretty much every character can do ABC, launch, ABC and it does something cool, like bouncing off the wall or the floor.”
Despite their varying histories with other fighting game franchises, Them’s Fightin’ Herds has also features shades of Vampire Savior and Super Smash Bros., picked up during their iterative development process. Movement options aren’t uniform across the entire cast, giving each character their own feel in terms of how they get around the battlefield.
“One of the people who played our game compared [the Magic system] to Smash’s C-Stick,” Smith said of other similarities. “With the cow character, her Magic involves her rope. It’s kind of like a command grab that’s long distance. To do it, all you do is hit Magic. To aim the rope up or down, you hold back or down plus Magic.”
As many of the players approaching Them’s Fightin’ Herds will be newcomers to the fighting genre, I was especially curious about their efforts to make the game more intuitive for folks who have never picked up an arcade stick. While there is no easy mode or anything like that currently in the works, the developers are taking two interesting approaches to wrangling in beginners.
“[I]n general, we’re starting out just making the game as it is. By having the moves feel impactful, that seems to create a level of gamefeel that has resonated with people that we have had try the game,” Smith explained. “Even when they don’t know what they’re doing at all, if they land that one move and the screen shakes and freezes for a moment, they feel good and they keep doing it. We’re going at it from that angle.”
And it seems to be working. Smith reports that they’ve received a lot of positive feedback from family and friends who weren’t involved in fighters before.
“We also have a lobby system that we have poured a lot of love into. We want to surprise everyone with it,” Ellinghaus continued, explaining a system that functions much in the same way as similar hubs seen in more recent Arc System Works titles. “We hope that that also brings new players in. There’s gonna be quite a bit of our game’s fanbase that will probably be mostly there for the characters and the world. That gives them a place to be in the game that’s one button away from being in the actual match itself, rather than just being on the forums talking about the characters.”
Lab Zero’s Z-Engine also contributed to Them’s Fightin’ Herds ease of use, allowing Mane6 to shift away from the complex motions forced on them by Fighter Maker’s compatibility issue to simpler inputs. “You won’t really have many pretzel motion type stuff happening. It’s mostly quarter-circle, there’s like one half-circle in the game right now. Shoryukens are probably the hardest motion you can do in this game right now,” Smith said. “We’re not going to lock any moves behind really long inputs, especially now that we can do two-button inputs and we have the Magic system.”
As for experienced competitors, Mane6 recently held a location test at Xanadu Games in Baltimore, Maryland, giving the community members who congregate there the opportunity to get their hands on the game and provide their thoughts. “I was surprised that it was positive and happy that it was extremely helpful,” Ellinghaus said of the feedback.
There’s quite a bit of content in the pipeline to expand the game, including further characters after the initial cast they revealed today.
“We wanna just start rolling those out if we can, if everything goes well,” Ellinghaus said, “so eventually the game is populated by quite a few characters.”
But, for now, they have two completed characters, with another two in rough states of development. “We’re hoping to get at least one of them showable during the beginning of the crowdfund,” Smith said of the latter pair. “A lot of the time was setting up to be able to get to work. The stuff that you saw in the trailer were things that we were able to put together in the last few weeks.”
Of course, much of Them’s Fightin’ Herds future relies on a succesful Indiegogo campaign. At the time of publishing, their funds sit at over 10% of their final $436,000 goal, which needs to be raised within the next 31 days if they want to see any of it.
During my conversation with Smith and Ellinghaus, it became immediately apparent that they are in this for the long haul, both due to their previous troubles and dedication to putting out a quality product. When a build of Fighting is Magic was leaked online years ago, they were forced to fire their entire testing staff, slowing down development considerably as they took on more responsibilities. Them’s Fightin’ Herds wouldn’t even include netplay if they weren’t able to take advantage of a tool like GGPO and its rollback netcode.
“It’s all about making a fighting game that’s awesome,” Ellinghaus said. “It’s not about the money, it’s not about the fame, I just want to play something with people and have fun.
“If you want to to do something, just do it. You can always think about all the things that can go wrong, but you’re still here, so just keep going,” Smith concluded. “And maybe something cool will happen. Maybe.”[hr]
If you’re interested in helping Mane6 bring Them’s Fightin’ Herds to life, be sure to check out Indiegogo for more details.