Shoryuken interview: Mark Essen of MESSHOF on Nidhogg II’s development and inspiration

By on October 5, 2017 at 1:00 pm
nidhogg 2 promo art logo

A look into what went into the inception and evolution of the Nidhogg series.

With the kooky and brutal tug-of-war fencing fighter Nidhogg II now out in the wild and available for PlayStation 4 and Steam players, we caught up with MESSHOF co-founder and creative director Mark Essen to talk about the new game — and the design choices behind both the original Nidhogg and its sequel!

Answers have been edited for clarity.

Zavian “mushin_Z” Sildra: Going back to the original inspiration: what led to the initial choice of a fencing/dueling game? How did the multi-screen tug-of-war system come about?

Nidhogg_20170815121952Mark Essen: I was interested in weapon-based games that dealt with the awkwardness of holding a weapon, and getting it to do what you wanted. Bushido Blade was an inspiration, as was the fencing game, Great Swordsman, which was all about blocking and poking with a fencing foil. I thought that game was super funny! One-touch-kill games are great because you can’t mash buttons; if you miss any attack, chances are you will die to the counterattack. There’s a lot of tension in trying to read your opponent without “playing” the game like you might with a game like Street Fighter, where you can slowly chip away an opponent’s life bar.

I was playing a lot of Great Swordsman with friends, and it’s such a simple game anyone can pick it up; though it frustrated me that the game was single-player against the computer, so I started making my own fencing game with a multiplayer focus. The animation looked a lot better smaller on screen, so it ended up being these little fencers in a very wide frame. That meant they could end up being very far apart, so I added a running mode if you held one direction for a while (instead of tap-tap-tapping to skip around like a fencer), and then if you have someone running in a game, you have to try adding jumping. Pits and high ground/low ground made for interesting levels.

At a certain point I just tried panning the camera rather than switching between different screens, and that just kinda naturally made a tug-of-war mechanic. At the time I was thinking it would be like one player was playing a beat-em-up as the hero, and the other player was playing the enemies — and if the hero died, the enemy character would be the new hero going the other direction… or something like that.

mushin_Z: How much of the original concept started with mechanics alone, and how much was the style and setting?

Essen: It was purely mechanics in the concept and prototype, though my prototype basically kept getting upgraded with more and more detail and animation frames as time went on.

mushin_Z: Why the Níðhöggr?

Essen: My roommate at the time, Andy Kopas, suggested that a nidhogg eats you at the end — though I don’t remember why that came up. There was also a rock-climbing section and plans for nidhogg jousting. Originally, fencing was just going to be one part of each battle.

Nidhogg 2_20170815123759

mushin_Z: What design process led to Nidhogg II‘s revamped, cartoonish aesthetic?

Essen: It was mostly to try something new! Kristy [Kristy Norindr, MESSHOF co-founder] and I were also keen to grow the team. I was most interested in the design end, as well as playing around with new tech and visual effects, so that meant that we needed more help with programming and especially art. We found Toby Dixon during our search for a pixel artist and fell in love with his work.

mushin_Z: Was the addition of new weapons driven by the desire to widen the original concept’s scope — or was the original design goal always to have multiple combat options, and the first game simply limited by time and resources?

Essen: I dreamt of adding a couple more weapons to the original game, but just never had time to get very far with any of them. There was too much else to do, and we wanted to release in under a decade.

mushin_Z: What brought about the change from the axe mid-development, to the broadsword?

Essen: The axe didn’t feel like the right shape. It was short, so it only worked at close-range, which felt awkward being both shorter and slower than the rapier. The axe was also unblockable when thrown, which was confusing.

Nidhogg 2_20170815123709

mushin_Z: A number of different — and very talented — musicians provided the soundtrack this time; were the tunes made for the game itself, or borrowed from their existing work?

nidhogg 2 ost coverEssen: Kristy found all the music — some were existing works that were licensed, while others — such as the Doseone track — were made for the game. The general way we created levels was to all talk about what kinds of environments would be cool, then figure out some unique set pieces to go on each screen, build a rough version of that level, and then find a track. If it couldn’t be found, we’d try to find something that had elements of what we were looking for, and then ask for modifications.


mushin_Z: There have been a number of patches on PlayStation 4, and the online matchmaking (aside from direct invitation matching) still seems a bit problematic. What are the challenges in setting up the online infrastructure?

Essen: The biggest problem we see right now is that once people find each other on matchmaking, they might play a series of games lasting 10 minutes each, or more. That’s then divided by some searching in Ranked mode, and some searching with other filters set. We are in the process of redesigning the flow of matchmaking to get everyone into the same pool of people, match them based on skill whenever possible, and shorten the standard time limit. We are hoping that with these new settings people will cycle in and out of the matchmaker search more, breathing a little more life into it. You’ll still be able to use all the match modifiers like weapon order, time limit, and cheats in online mode when inviting a friend, just not in matchmaking. We’re also hard at work implementing rollback networking, which your readers are probably familiar with — smoothing out the occasional FPS hit by guessing your opponent’s controller input when the actual inputs are late to arrive. If the guess was wrong, the game backs up, applies the new inputs, and fast forwards to where you were. Pretty neat.

mushin_Z: Tell us what it was like having the game featured in the PAX West Omegathon, and about the creation of the PAX Place stage.

Essen: It was amazing! Ryan Hartman and Travis Eriksen reached out to us to see if we were interested in having the game be a part of the Omegathon. We were trying to think of how to make the event even more one-of-a-kind, and eventually decided on making a new level that had a bunch of Seattle and PAX elements, like the PAX Place sign, booths, gum wall, and space needle. We gave Toby some direction, and he made a bunch of new assets. We had music ready to go from Osborne. It all came together pretty quickly — too quickly it turns out, as I forgot to add in a Sudden Death screen.

Nidhogg 2_20170915135122

mushin_Z: The player customization options are a fun new addition; will we see new accessories added to the game in the future, or a means to “bookmark” our favorite avatar builds?

Essen: Yes, we have a favorite avatar feature in our internal build that will go live with the rest of the matchmaking changes. We have a good amount of new costume pieces nearly ready for you, too!

mushin_Z: Any hints at what new content Nidhogg II fans can look forward to?

Essen: Big items coming up are those matchmaking updates and new cosmetics. We’re also launching on PS4 in Japan soon (published by NIS). We wanted to localize the text for that, but ended up also localizing it to 15 other languages. Oops. Localization will be in the next update for PS4 in other regions, as well as on Steam. Looking forward, we plan to add a couple more levels as well as weapons.

mushin_Z: Any tips on how to use the multiple weapons, for aspiring warriors?

Essen: Try to avoid going on tilt and just throwing whatever you spawn with. You will be much more intimidating if you can stand your ground and turn your opponent’s attacks against them! Bounce arrows, parry swords, disarm with the longsword, and block those high stance knife throws!

Nidhogg 2_20170815123052

You can read our own review of Nidhogg II here.

Additional source: Nidhogg Official Site Editor-in-Chief. Street Fighterin' since there was only a "II" in the title.