Perhaps more than any other, fighting games are a genre that people commonly want to get into but simply lack the time and/or skill. Though beloved, thanks to the early 90s explosion of fighters led by Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, the genre eventually reached a level of complexity and difficulty that worked wonders for the burgeoning e-sports scene, but has alienated most non-vocational players.
With the indie explosion of the last few years bringing a plethora of game genres back to their roots, it seemed only natural that fighting games would eventually get the same treatment. It has arrived in the form of Iron Galaxy Studios’ Divekick, a 2D fighter that both affectionately parodies the genre while bringing it back to a level of simplicity and purity that harks back to its early days while feeling fresh and utterly ingenious.
It’s a fighting game with two buttons – ‘Dive’, which makes your character jump, and ‘Kick’ which while standing makes the character hop backwards, but while airborne launches them into a one-hit-win flying kick. While there are a handful of supplementary mechanics (Including character-specific special moves executed by pressing both buttons simultaneously) the game revolves around divekicking and the cat-and-mouse game of timing and positioning needed to secure victory.
The game, which, has enjoyed wildly enthusiastic word-of-mouth, even has its own limited two-button controller designed by Dustin and Shawn Huffer of Hitbox notoreity. Though the controller is unavailable for sale (And, let’s be honest here, wouldn’t be the most versatile buy in the world even if it was), it is undeniably awesome. Although development of Divekick was initially set up to be funded via Kickstarter, Iron Galaxy eventually stepped in to help complete and publish the the game, allowing it to reach its current, impressively-polished level.
We spoke to Divekick creator Adam ‘Keits’ Heart about the creation of the game, and about what makes this new spin on the fighting genre special:
Cav Gallagher: What was the inspiration for Divekick?
Adam Heart: The game started as kind of a gag a friend and I were putting together. I run a series of tournaments out of Chicago for fighting games, some of the biggest ones in the US. I’m always trying to make my events stand out, so were up one night playing Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3 and joking about how overpowered divekicks are, and I said, “What if we made this game where the characters only dive and kick, and the only buttons are dive and kick and that’s the whole game?”. He thought it was hilarious and that he could make it, so we started in on it right away; we pulled my fiancé in as the artist, and the three of us were on our way as this freshly made team making this game.
Somewhere along the way we pulled in a fourth guy because we realized it was going to be too much work for three people, and the game started to get really fun. We put a lot of love and attention into it to make it presentable for its reveal at my tournament in May 2012 and people really enjoyed it, so we’ve continued since then.
Cav: Was the game conceived with any ideal skill level in mind?
Adam: I don’t design games that way. I’m never thinking of how much skill something takes, or how easy it is to play. I’m designing a game first and foremost to be fun , so whatever forms around what’s fun to me is what you get! We designed this game as a gag, so the focus was ‘Let’s make this as funny and entertaining as possible’, and everything just kind of developed from there.
We ended up with a game that is essentially maybe the first entry-level fighting game, and it has a very high skill ceiling. We’ve been playing it competitively for ten months now. But all that said, there was never any intention to make an ‘Easy to play, difficult to master’ type of game, it was about making a fun game first. I think that’s why people identify with it.
We tried to make sure the game is as balanced as possible and to give it our best shot at making it something that competitive people enjoyed, and they’ve seemed to really enjoy it. We had 325 registered players in one day at EVO as a side tournament, which is more than some of the EVO games got!
Cav: The game is very reminiscent of the classic early Nineties fighting games…
Adam: The good old days!
Cav: What’s your personal history with fighting games?
Adam: I played Street Fighter 2 for the first time at a roller rink on a school outing. It was so embarrassing because I was the video game nerd of my class and I was getting beat up by people who had no business beating me! (Laughs) It was frustrating but I loved it, and the graphics were so amazing. It was so different because you could just walk up to that arcade machine and you could have a chance to beat anybody, because nobody really knew what they were doing yet and knew how deep the game was.
Times are different now: you have the internet, fighting games have been around forever and I think everybody knows that
they’re hard to play. Even people who call them ‘button mashers’ know that you can’t just hop in with a pro player and button-mash your way to victory. Divekick doesn’t necessarily reset the learning: if you jump in against someone who’s good at fighting games you’re still probably going to get your butt handed to you. They know a lot about spacing, their reactions are really trained, they know about how to recognize patterns in an opponent’s behaviour and use those to make intelligent reads those are skills we’ve spent 15-20 years learning playing Street Fighter, Guilty Gear and Tekken.
That said, when you hop in and play Divekick the execution barrier is gone so you get to that ‘mindgame’ part a lot faster. It takes two or three games to get comfortable moving around the screen and then that’s it – it’s time to play, it’s time to read your opponent, be in the right spot on the screen, and take away space, take away options – all those things that fighting game players have been enjoying at the topmost levels, you can get to that really fast, and start to appreciate it and understand it and learn about it. It’s really cool!
I remember Dave Lang, the CEO at Iron Galaxy came up to me one day… after beating someone pretty badly during a lunch break, and he said “I think I finally know what it feels like to control my opponent, and I probably would’ve never known that feeling playing Street Fighter for another 20 years. Thanks to your game I get it now”.
Cav: What influenced you to accept Iron Galaxy as publisher after starting a Kickstarter?
Adam: That’s a weird story, because I felt like I really didn’t have the funding. We did the kickstarter after we did a few events, We did Ultimate Fighting Game Tournament which is mine, we did CEO, we did Evo, and people were really pushing me to release it. I didn’t know the first thing about releasing a game! So we tried to figure out how much we thought it was going to cost to finish up the game, add a little bit of content and some netcode and get it out the door, and my team estimated $60,000.
So, we put up a Kickstarter for half that, so people wouldn’t get mad and think we were asking for too much. So, we put it up for $30,000… And people got mad and thought we were asking for too much anyway!(Laughs) I was also working at Iron Galaxy studios at this point, they’d brought me in to work on various fighting game projects they were doing – Marvel Vs Capcom Origins, Darkstalkers Resurrection, 3rd Strike Online patching, that kind of stuff. And this whole time Dave Lang is whispering in my ear “What’re you going to do with $30,000? You can’t make a game for that!”. So he’s telling me I need more, and everybody else is telling me that $30,000 is way too much money!
So we got towards the end of the Kickstarter, which was an extremely stressful experience, and Lang sat me down one last time and said, “Let’s make the game you want to make rather than the game you can afford to make”. I went home and thought about it, and thought ‘I’d much rather put the love and quality into this that I could be proud of than just do what I can afford to do and get it out the door’. So we cancelled the Kickstarter, which means we didn’t take anyone’s money, but we decided to honour the backers anyway because I do truly and deeply appreciate all the people who offered to help me in achieving my goals, and we started working on the game with Iron Galaxy shortly thereafter.
Cav: Parody games have a spotty history . Did you encounter any challenges balancing the humour with keeping the gameplay working?
Adam: We’ve had a few challenges with adding things we thought were hilarious, but it doesn’t play super well with the rest of things in the game, but that’s kind of the beauty of a project like this: there’s not a ton going on in the game where we can’t prototype something and see if we like it before we put a ton of work and polish into it. Those struggles have been short struggles, which is very good.
Cav: With the game’s appeal revolving around the simplicity of the controls, what led you to include special moves?
Adam: The original prototype that we showed had five characters which didn’t have special moves, and they were a lot more similar. One of the biggest problems we ran into when putting videos of that up online, was a lot of people were making assumptions that (Title characters) Dive and Kick were identical characters. They couldn’t have been more different – Dive jumped much higher than Kick, Kick jumped much further away than Dive did, Kick’s attacks were faster – a huge number of differences, even without special moves. But the main complaint from people online who hadn’t played the game was ‘this looks boring, there’s not enough variety’, so we had to take a step back and think of how we could dial up variety without hurting simplicity.
I always felt that it really wasn’t asking that much to have people press two buttons at the same time. We’ve sacrificed a tiny sliver of simplicity, and the result is that we’ve dialled up variety like ten thousand times. So now it’s super obvious that Dive and Kick aren’t the same character because they don’t share special moves!
It’s also given me more freedom in designing new characters because I can use the special moves to make them more unique which helps us explain to the player who they are visually. That helped with another problem with the original prototype, which was the only way to give you a character’s personality was through their voices, and at an event or a trade show you can’t hear the game! You couldn’t hear Dive shouting about math, or Mr.N saying really goofy things about falling off of chairs and beating his dog – all that was lost. Special moves are a way for me to tell you who this character is through their actions.
Cav: The game also has a really striking art style. How did that come about?
Adam: My fiancé – now my wife – is a very talented artist and we kind of forced her to do the prototype. We came up with the idea in the middle of the night; when she woke up the next morning I asked her if she wanted to do the game, and she just tiredly said “Okay…”. She didn’t know how much work was ahead of her!(Laughs)
She did a beautiful job on the prototype and when we rolled over to the new version she did it again. She did all of the character designs and backgrounds. We had to outsource a lot of the animation, but the art design is all her and she did a wonderful job, just absolutely beautiful.
Cav: Any plans for additional characters/DLC?
Adam: I’m optimistic. I’m always thinking forward which Lang yells at me for. He says I’m cursing us by doing that!(Laughs) I have a ton of character ideas that I would love to add. I wrote the game’s story, which is fun and quirky and I could go further with that as well. But we need to see how the game does first from a business standpoint, to see if it’s worth doing more content.
So we’re going to get the game out there, if people are buying it, playing it at tournmaments, people are supporting the game and they demand more content we’ll give you more. I have lots of plans and I know where I want to go with that stuff, but we haven’t started on anything. This game has to do well in order to make that the right choice.
Cav: Well a lot of us old-schoolers are crossing our fingers for you!
Adam: We very much appreciate that, thank you!
Cav: Last question: If you were to pick any non-fighting game character to guest star in Divekick, who would it be?
Well first of all DK characters are completely unique and original and not based on any work existing, or any persons real, fictional, living or dead – so let’s get that disclaimer out of the way! (Laughs). This is a dangerous question! I’d put myself in the game, because everyone keeps telling me that with the size of my ego they’re surprised I didn’t put myself in!
Divekick releases on PC, PS3 and Vita on August 20th.