In Absolver, you are constantly presented with decisions. What fighting style do you want to adopt? What sort of moves do you want to use? Do you want to take on students, or do you want to be the best fighter of them all?
Pierre Tarno, creative director of Sloclap, took time out of his busy schedule at Gamescom for an international call, and answered some of those questions for us — and we at SRK had a fair few!
Combat Is a Dance
The goal with Absolver, according to Tarno, was to create a combat experience that was accessible but had “enough interesting mechanics to make it deep enough for competitive PVP.” Sloclap took inspiration from Tarno’s own fighting history rather than other fighting games, resulting in a unique take on combat.
With partner Jordan Layani, Tarno drew from his time as a Ninjitsu practitioner to build a combat system that is designed to feel natural — and thus make sense even to those new to the genre. The pair spent hours discussing “the importance of positioning and of orientation.” The most important take away from this, says Tarno, was their discussion of body dynamics, and how they changed depending on the position of your hips in relation to the opponent.
They settled into three design mantras, which they followed throughout development: combat is a dance, movement is your weapon, and make your move, which ended up becoming the official tagline of Absolver. Movement is the main focus of Absolver — a deliberate decision that coalesced as a system built around four stances, with moves that flow between. “The stances system is very body-centric. It’s about how you position yourself relative to your opponent, and what possibilities emerge from that. You can start a combo in one stance, and by picking your moves carefully, finish in another.”
In a bid to encourage creativity while keeping hold of that accessibility goal, each player will have a “combat deck” — a collection of moves that they have assigned to each stance. As they progress through the single player campaign, moves for the combat decks will become unlocked, allowing players to pick the moves that they like best. Tarno says that Sloclap wanted a system “where players could choose for themselves what attacks would be in which stances, and create their own unique playstyle based on that.”
“We wanted to make something that reflected both the depth and the beauty of martial arts.”
Movement Is Your Weapon
Just as Absolver is bringing a new perspective on the way it is approaching combat design, footsies in the world of Adal will be approached differently.
“It’s maybe a bit fuzzier than those pure fighting games, partially because of the [over the shoulder] perspective. At the beginning of development, we were slightly worried about the fact that in a traditional 2D fighting game you see the characters from side-on, and you can really gauge the distance very precisely. What we ended up realizing was that even if it is just playing on perspective, you can actually judge pretty accurately the distance that your opponent is at.”
Like traditional games, footsies will be vital in Absolver, despite the differences in the style of the combat. In the words of Tarno, “The distance to your opponent is super important to manage.” Because the combat is built around stances, there’s even more to keep in mind when playing neutral. “You end up learning that hey, this guy has just gone into his back left stance and I know, because I’ve seen it, that the moves in his deck for that stance are quite long range. Maybe it’s not worth me moving out, and I should be offensive at that point.” Like in some of the most famous examples of high-level footsies, the best practitioners will find exactly the right space to be in. Tarno suggests that “finding that sweet spot where the enemy will attack, but you’ll be out of reach without having actively dashed, that puts you in a very interesting place in terms of counterattacking right away.”
And it’s at the highest levels that this is expected to pan out, Tarno explains, as the end goal for Absolver is providing a strong player-against-player environment.
“The structure of the game is that you’re free-roaming in our open world, where you could meet someone and have no idea what is about to happen. Are you going to fight, or are you going to teach each other?
“But then you have altars in specific spaces in the world, and from there you can search for one-on-one duels. This is more traditional matchmaking, based on your skill level, your character rating, and your latency.” This is the sort of matchmaking that is eminently familiar to every fighting game player, many of whom have found that finding matches with an equally matched opponent can be a tough task. Tarno hopes this won’t be the case with Absolver.
“When you’re actively searching for PvP, you’re matched with somebody on your level and skill rating, and you’re then sent to a dedicated PvP where the fight will take place. It’s just the two of you there. When you’re into the competitive PvP, instead of the freeform PvP you encounter in the open world, it’s totally encapsulated and it’s just about the combat.”
Sloclap are actively considering the long term future of Absolver — a future that will hopefully include tournaments. But with so unique a style of character and combat, how will that translate into tournament play?
“The question is, whether we want players in tournaments to be playing their own combat decks, or to be playing preset combat decks. For the moment, we don’t know enough about how the game reacts. It’s one thing to run a beta test, it’s another to have thousands of players putting dozens of hours in. That’s the point at which new things emerge, that you can’t see before.”
Sloclap don’t plan to just see what happens. They plan to carefully keep track of what is happening during the first few months Absolver is out. “We’ve basically placed tracking tags everywhere in gameplay. So yeah, we’re storing loads and loads of data.” That’s how they plan to make sure that tournament play stays as balanced as possible — despite the appeal of showing off the total customization that their system allows. “I think at first we’ll try to keep things as open as possible, but if we realize that some elements are problematic and are creating lack of choice, or lack of viable strategies in competitive gameplay, then we’ll make decisions based on that, to have a level playing field that is interesting whatever your playstyle.”
They don’t want to lose some of the dynamic that Absolver brings to the table with its combat decks, however. “One of the challenges when you’re fighting someone is to understand as quickly as possible what his combat deck is, and how you can react to it efficiently. It’s not like working a matchup, where you know that Ryu against Chun-Li has this or that drawback. It’s about reacting to your opponent, each and every battle.”
“We wanted to make something that reflected both the depth and the beauty of martial arts.”
Make Your Move
Those tracking tags that Sloclap have placed throughout Absolver are also how they plan to keep the combat balanced and interesting. With such a variety of styles and moves, there is the risk that some combination of stances and moves that they’ve not yet seen could be overwhelmingly strong. “At some point, if you want to balance properly, you really need hard data coming from a lot of matches. That’s why it was really important for us to place all these tracking tags everywhere, so almost everything in the game is noticed and stored.”
Tarno says: “At the meta level, if everyone is using the same combat style and the same combat deck, it’s not interesting anymore. If we do come to the realization that a certain fighting style is a bit overpowered relatively to the others, we’ve built in enough levers to make a few tweaks here and there to ensure that they’re as balanced as possible. We’re really going to focus on making sure that these choices are still as relevant and interesting as possible, even for high-level players.”
The problems with balancing extend to the online open-world environment that Sloclap have created. Tarno explains that the online aspect of Absolver actually influenced the design. “We wanted to make it fair and interesting, even in real network conditions. That influenced our designs in terms of timings for example. We don’t have build-ups that are faster than 0.35 seconds [around 35 frames], maybe 0.3 for the very fastest attacks.”
And that’s not all they have done to ensure that playing online doesn’t become a drag, having invested heavily in an online infrastructure so that, according to Tarno, they can “ensure that we synchronize the action as well as possible.”
“Even if you’ve got 150 ms of lag against an opponent, the game is still interesting and fair. Beyond that, there’s nothing we can do.”
And all that data that Sloclap have been collecting? They plan to be open and transparent about the changes that they are making from it. Tarno explains: “We plan to have very detailed patch notes saying ‘we’ve added three new attacks,’ or say the curled-up uppercut has been rebalanced so that, for example, it costs a little more stamina.”
They also plan to be open about things like frame data, or the amount of stamina a certain move might use. The move data itself? Tarno has yet to decide. “Even though it’s not there in the game, we’re going to release the frame data. If we don’t release it, some players will just analyze their gameplay and learn the frame data of the different attacks. But if enough players feel that they really need more detailed information to more finely tune their combat deck, then yes, we may consider releasing it.”
Throughout our conversation, there is a very clear sense that the plan for Absolver is that becomes a living, breathing experience. Tarno doesn’t seem the sort to sit on his heels if he sees a problem, and there are already plans in the works for the addition of three on three team battles and a spectator feature.
Certainly, they’re saying all the right things, and the unique outlook they’ve taken in creating the game is genuinely fascinating. Only time itself will tell whether Absolver delivers. There’s just one last question to ask. Who’s the best player in the office?
“That would be [gameplay designer] Jordan. He built the system from the ground up, and he’s also the one who is constantly tweaking and retweaking and polishing the parameters of every attack. He knows these attacks intimately, and he’s got hundreds of hours testing and trying these different attacks and knowing how they work and how they’ve evolved. He can read them just from the first three frames. It’s like boom, he knows what is coming up.”
Absolver is arriving on Steam and PlayStation 4 on August 29, 2017. Look out for SRK’s review later this week.
[All images courtesy of Devolver Digital.]