Interview with Critical Depth Games, Developer of Super Combat Fighter

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Super Combat Fighter is a crowdfunded homage to the video game Mortal Kombat developed by Critical Depth and Headless Chicken Games. I spoke to Critical Depth Games’ creative director, Richard James Cook, and Headless Chickens’ technical director, Jose Pablo Monge Chacon.

Hammy Havoc: Hi guys! Great to be speaking with you today.

Richard James Cook: Hey! Excited to be here and talk about the game.

Jose Pablo Monge Chacon (“JP”): Hello, hello! I am happy to be here, muy feliz.

HH: Can you briefly summarize Super Combat Fighter for our readers and where you’re currently at in the development cycle?

RJC: So, Super Combat Fighter is an amalgamation/tribute/homage/satire – whatever you want to call it – of every fighting game I’ve ever played growing up, in the best definition of it. When designing the concept, I basically went off the premise of seeing myself as a kid, playing MK1 or 2 and loving it, but at the same time going, “I wish it had… X in here,” or “I wish I could do this too. That would be awesome!” I took those moments and said, “Hey, we can do that now in 2018, so… let’s give my kid self what he wanted and make this game.”

As far as development goes, it’s been an uphill struggle. We’ve constantly put efforts into it at different times, and even just until the last year, it had no functionality to it. Just a lot of art and design docs done. We had been through several programmers who didn’t really stick around because we had no funds for the project, but then we managed to bring a team together and that brought the game to life. Now we’re here, trying to make sure that can continue through Kickstarter.

JP: Super Combat Fighters (SCF) is an amazing fighting game, inspired by 90s fighting games, polished by years of playing fighting games and making new and exciting games. SCF is one of those projects that only when you see it’s real potential, it’s impossible to unsee it.

Development wise, as RJ said, we are kind of in the middle right now?

HH: What’s the team’s background with game development? What have they done in the past? How did you come together?

RJC: I’ve been chasing the “game dev dream” for 15 years now. I started out as a 3D artist and went to school for that in 2003. After spending a lot of time trying to find work, I just wasn’t finding myself in a place that was giving me that. So, I took a stab at indie dev, and over the years spent time on a lot of smaller projects with small, unfunded teams. I often say “my brand is failure”, because for one reason or another, projects I’ve worked on have never really come to fruition. I had some small successes in games like Battlesloths, which I worked on for Humble Bundle, and later Rooster Teeth. I even diverted to film at one point and made a couple of documentaries with Devolver Digital. But almost all my experience in game dev has come from just being hands on with nearly every aspect of it.

For Super Combat Fighter and the current team, I had gotten with JP after he tweeted at me, having seen my last movie, Surviving Indie. He offered help if we needed it, I responded, and the rest is history.

HH: How did martial artist Ernie Reyes Jr. enter the equation?

RJC: Twitter actually! It’s a great place to form new opportunities through casual communication. We had tagged him in a tweet about how cool it would be to make a Surf Ninjas game, like the movie he starred in, and he liked the tweet, so we sort of saw an opening. We were bringing Super Combat Fighter back to in development status and decided to email him about being a part of the roster. Myself and our producer on the game had breakfast with him in Burbank, and talked about bringing him in. He was really into it.

It took about 2 years to get the terms of the contract straightened out though since we were sitting on no funding when we first met him. But he had been up to a lot. He even directed Wiz Khalifa’s new music video “Rolling Papers 2” in the meantime while we got our stuff together. Dude is talented as hell.

As an added note, we even learned recently his father played the Akuma character in the Street Fighter: The Movie game, so getting him into ours was interesting to say the least, and I guess it brings it full circle? I thought that was pretty cool. He worked on the 1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II live action movie, so it’s an added nostalgia hit.

HH: Who else is involved in the acting motion capture and filming side of things?

RJC: We have been working diligently with other guest actors, and have some surprises coming up. I’m particularly excited about this next one, as of the writing of this – I’m honestly floored we managed to get them in our game.

For the ground level guys though, we’re a total indie operation, so we haven’t reached the point of casting yet. The two characters in the game right now are played by me (Ninja Team) and a childhood friend (Armand Manfist). We just threw up a green screen and bought a bunch of lights from the hardware store. Used a camera I had for my documentary work I did. It’s a total resource thing. We had to do what we could, but if the campaign succeeds we’ll be doing it a little more professionally. I’ve learned a lot regarding how to film these things properly.

HH: In an era of highly polished polygons, what drew you to the lovely lo-fi aesthetic of filmed actors as sprites and animations?

RJC: I’m sure most of it was nostalgia fuelled, but also as an artist myself, I know how tough it can be to hide imperfections in current-gen graphics. I mean, if you seriously took the sprites from older Mortal Kombat games and made them super high-res, those costumes they wore and how cheap some elements of them were would stand out like a sore thumb.

I look at Baraka’s mask as an example – the teeth were made from salon-style fake fingernails glued onto a Halloween mask they found somewhere. But those things, when captured at low resolution, are hidden beneath the degradation in quality. So, the behind the scenes, photos of that costume look terrible, but the in-game capture looks super depthy and scary. I love the concept of getting more out of less in that regard.

All the same – It’s surprisingly hard dumbing down 1080p capture to make it look pixelated and with less colors available. There’s all kinds of filters and things you have to throw on it to achieve a desirable result. It’s a funny juxtaposition to me, to see in retro games that they were trying to achieve high fidelity in graphics with the same techniques we’re trying to achieve lower fidelity in them now. It’s a lot of trial and error.

HH: Retro games are more impressionistic in terms of visuals with a focus on the gameplay itself. Do you feel that the games industry sometimes focuses too much on recreating reality with polygons and not enough on fun and gameplay?

RJC: I do think it’s that way now in a lot of ways. Looking at it from my own and game dev friend’s perspective, sometimes you see that a lot of people out there aren’t really interested in different experiences like they say they are. That might just be the cynic in me, but it’s more about what is being shown off in the market, and what people are buying. There’s a lot of that audience liking the idea of experimentation, and even sometimes dogpiling on companies for offering up the same experiences every year, but the fact is that they are still buying that same realistic, one-dimensional protagonist. If they keep buying it, the companies will keep making them, and it will get stale until the next shake up comes along, much like “indie” did almost 10 years ago.

HH: Do you feel that the industry isn’t as willing to show its sense of humour anymore at the risk of offending people?

RJC: I think the industry is just focused too much on safe bets in general. We could make an argument about the indie space being the filler there, but it’s just not big enough to make most people turn their heads. As well, I think the industry has gotten less edgy – long gone are the days of “John Romero is About to Make You His Bitch” ads. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not willing to show its sense of humor at the risk of offending people. It’s just growing up and realizing there are ways to market this all without needing to be an ass about it.

HH: Who is going to be featured on the soundtrack of the game?

RJC: I was fortunate to get one of my good friends Andrew Hulshult to headline a bit and contribute music. He’s on a high wave right now, having done music for Quake Champions, and a lot of people know his work from games like Dusk, and mods like Brutal Doom. He’s extremely talented and writes some of the best rock music soundtracks I’ve heard.

We have a lot of other artists who will be contributing that we have yet to announce, but I think people will be really pleased.

HH: On top of the gnarly graphics and killer soundtrack, what features does Super Combat Fighter have?

RJC: Our big thing is content. While, at the surface level, one could see this as just another fighting game equivalent to Mortal Kombat, I am doubling down on my previous statements and taking all of those elements from games of that era, then smashing them together to make something crazy. That runs the gauntlet with things like Giant Mode, where two players start normal, but end up fighting as giant versions of themselves – to other things like match modifiers that you can switch on and off at will and create your own match types with.

Even taking influence from games like WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game and WWF No Mercy, where we have a wrestling arena stage you will be able to go onto the floor of and uppercut each other through tables and throw chairs at each other. Basically, if like me, you ever said, “Hey, it would be cool if I could do X,” in any other fighting game, we’re trying to cover that desire.

HH: I really applaud not including online multiplayer at launch as it’s refreshing to encourage people to get together and play like they used to as a social activity rather than at a distance. There’s nothing quite like rubbing it in the face of your best mate when you beat them… with that said, is online multiplayer going to be on the cards as a stretch goal?

RJC: [Laughs] Well, the main reason we aren’t— can’t include it at launch is because it’s expensive! Of course, we do love the idea of couch-play, right in front of the TV, getting into the friendly competitive aspect of it. But online is kind of a no-brainer to include for people who want that option. All the same, we’re offering a lot of single player content to compensate for those who like to just kick ass on their own.

But yeah, online functionality of any decent quality is not a light endeavor. There’s dealing with creating the framework for it, tweaking and testing that, networking compliance and issues… then renting servers and maintaining that traffic. We must bring on a specialist for it to handle it appropriately, and that can get pricey. It’s just a monster feature to take on in and of itself. It is a stretch goal, but something we’ll most likely be working on after launch if the game sells okay.

HH: What’s your stance on DLC and the use of it as an ongoing business model within the industry?

RJC: Well, for our case – we’re going 100% free with the game’s updates. The reason we’re doing that is because it keeps our expectations in check for what’s delivered, and also stands by the idea of how games used to be this way. That said, I have no issue with charging for DLC. I remember buying new maps for Halo 2 and 3 and being perfectly okay with it. It wasn’t as ingrained in modern gaming culture then as it is now, so you knew you were getting extra content on top of an already fully featured game.

But yeah, it varies from case to case. Some companies have pretty shady practices about it. Some companies legitimately deliver a good experience and give you more on top of that for not much extra. Microtransactions are a whole different story though, and I’d need a few pages to analyze that.

HH: How’s the crowdfunding campaign going so far and how confident are you about reaching your target?

RJC: I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wish it could be going better. It’s really just a matter of finding the right balance of buzz with exposure for it. People need to be excited, they need to know the game is there, and they need to have the money to back it. It’s a complicated formula with simple elements. We’re going to keep pushing though and have some plans in the works to hopefully turn it around. We’ve all worked really hard and want to see this happen.

HH: What’s the earliest that people can get into playing the game for themselves?

RJC: We’ll be talking about doing more demos at shows and such after the campaign if it succeeds, but also, we lead with the perk that every backer, down to the $2 tier will get exclusive access to the alpha test we do early next year if they can’t make it to any shows. Basically, that means you get to demo the game and give us all your feedback for it so we can improve it. Nobody else will get that chance until it’s released, so it’s a great way for us to give something back so people aren’t waiting a year to play this.

HH: Can you tell those wanting to back the campaign what the other perks are? That Super Combat Fighter themed Polycade looks awesome…

RJC: We have some higher tier perks for those who really want to throw down for them. All the way up to starring as a fighter in the game yourself. It’s a challenge and requires high physicality, but to be immortalized in a game is a great thing to have!

We also have other awesome physical rewards, like collectible mock shells of SNES and Genesis carts for the game, mini-strategy guides like those old Prima ones… and like you mentioned, the customized wall-hanging arcade cabinet from our friends over at Polycade!

And finally, our most popular digital rewards – being a severed head in the game or a statue in it. I’m looking forward to seeing the different expressions and poses we get out of it!

HH: Can you spill the beans yet on who the executive producer of Super Combat Fighter is?

RJC: He’s working hard behind the scenes with us, but he specifically asked we keep his identity secret for now due to some politics he’s dealing with from a former employer. He will be revealed in due time!

HH: Thanks for speaking with me today guys, really looking forward to playing the finished game!

RJC: Thank you! I look forward to you having fun with it!

HH: The developers are looking to raise USD $35,000, you can back Super Combat Fighter on Kickstarter now!

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