The upcoming batch of Exceed Fighters, Season 6, isn't formally announced yet, but is scheduled to open up for pre-order later this year. A number of fans have asked "how did you go about designing Season 6?" Today, I'd like to share some of the details with you.
Design vs. Development
A game is development-complete when all of the game's rules and database are finished. The process that takes us from initial concept to development-complete involves two stages, Design and Development.
In the Design Stage, the game is worked and re-worked rapidly to achieve design goals and create the proper feel for play. Mostly the rules and the conventions of play are in flux during this stage. In an Exceed set, where the rules are static, this means ironing out the season mechanics and inventing the recurring play patterns and shared boosts that will make the season feel cohesive as a whole.
In the Development Stage, the game's final text and numbers are tuned to achieve specific development goals. This often means reworking the specific effects on cards and fighters to support and enhance their playfeel, as well as to remove cards that detract from the experience of the player or their opponent.
To begin, top-level goals are set for the season as a whole.
With Street Fighter rotating out of competitive play next year, it was important to have another set that focused on fundamentals. The new set should be nuanced, but not complex.
Every turn, there should be strong available action which pushes the player forward. Said another way, Exceed players should feel a little bit of dread when they pass the turn without going on the offensive. Passive effects like stat boosts and prevention work continuously and make card resolution hard to compute. So another part of this goal is minimizing what's active during your opponent's turn.
Actions and options should flow naturally from the deck and onto the table, rather than manual setup. Setup pieces like D'Janette's Spell Circle, Polar Knight's Ice Spikes, and Litchi's Mantenbo are fun and welcome occasionally, but it's usually best when the game state emerges organically from standard play patterns.
The first thing to determine in design is a set of unifying mechanics that can bear out the design goals set forth earlier. The full mechanics in the upcoming season can't be revealed just yet, but here are a few examples:
The story of adjusting Normals is a full blog in and of itself. Considerable time was spent looking at these key cards. Were they a solid foundation to achieve the design goals? And would be wise to change them at all, even if they weren't?
After extensive testing, it was found that altering the boost side of the card could reintroduce a lot of design space and help to achieve softer 'season mechanics' in the form of boosts relevant only to the new fighters.
For example, in Season 6, every fighter has the ability to go into Exceed Mode by playing a single Normal Boost. This is something that won't work in every set—but in this season, by starting with it in the Normal Kit, we're able to create fighters that are balanced and feel vastly different from past seasons.
Unique Abilities are at the core of Exceed's fighter design.
To encourage action-oriented play, UAs in the new season would take the form of 'elective actions'. That is to say, the player has to choose to use them, rather than passive benefits they have to calculate during a strike or reactions they have to remember to trigger.
A great example of this is UA style is Ken from Street Fighter. Ken's UA allows him to move and draw (or later: move, draw, and strike) as an action. This means that Ken is a lot more dangerous on his turn than on his opponent's turn.
Designing the fighters themselves is an iterative process, and only begins after the season mechanics are clearly established.
Concept + Archetypes
There are 9 archetypes of fighters - 3 built around macro-strategy, and 6 built around execution. The combinations of these archetypes determine the playfeel of a fighter.
For example, a Control fighter works primarily by managing the tempo of a fight and keeping the upper hand through triggers rather than stats. But a Control-Beatdown character accomplishes this by chaining advantage and card draws together, while a Control-Zoner does this by out-maneuvering the opponent with cheaper or more reliable movement.
By attaching fighters in our roster to archetypes first, design can be focused on creating a wide range of play styles that each feel different and fully explore the season mechanics.
Gameplay + Gameplan
"How do they win, and how do you feel when you play them?" These are the first two critical questions in design.
For each fighter, there is a target 'feeling' for the fighter, and at least two core strategies built into their kit by design.
During later testing, the two design questions above as asked and checked against the original design intent to ensure that the fighter is achieving their gameplay goals.
Favorite Triggers + Purpose
The next step in design is streamlining the fighter's kit. An Exceed deck isn't huge, and so each attack and each boost needs to earn its place. At various times during a game, do you have a clear idea of what do to next? Is there a game plan from this board state? What could go wrong?
A design-complete fighter should inspire the player with several potential paths at each moment, whether their position is advantaged, disadvantaged, or neutral. If at any point the player has a reasonable hand of cards (4+) and still doesn't have a clear strategy in mind, then there's probably a deficiency in the fundamental nature of their attacks or boosts.
One concept used to unify a fighter's intention is "Favorite Triggers." This involves choosing one or two effects and threading them through the fighter's kit. When chosen appropriately, Favorite Triggers like this send a clear signal about what the fighter should be playing towards. They also give a player opportunities to leverage a trigger in different ways throughout the match.
These Favorite Triggers and their interactions provide a gauge to determine what cards are supporting the fighter's gameplan, and which cards are diluting their focus.
In development, there are also goals to achieve for each fighter and each card.
The player should be able to intuitively read and understand a card without breaking their focus on the strategic play of the game. Part of this is wording, but another part is clarity and relevance of the effects themselves. That second part feeds into...
A player should say not only "I know how to use this"—they should also be able to say "I know why I would use this" at a glance.
Some cards are a little stronger, some are a little weaker, but the sum of the fighter's kit should be roughly on par with others. There may be situational setups that are oppressive or strong, but cards shouldn't be inherently far above or below the game's curves.
Good and bad matchups are an inherent part of asymmetric gameplay. However, a fighter should have a realistic gameplan even when they're at a disadvantage. This doesn't mean that they always have an answer, merely that they always have a path forward over the coming turns. There must always be a reasonable chance of winning the game, but not necessarily of winning the current position.
The development process follows the outline of these goals across iterations, with early passes focusing on the relevance and strategic elements of the kit. Later passes focus on tuning and robustness. In this iterative process, each fighter goes through the following phases several times to become complete.
Some fighters develop easily, with Benchmarking and Balance being so smooth that they are vetted after just a few plays. Others were iterated over ten times before making it to the first Vetting phase.
Throughout both design and development, fighters are tested against benchmarks. The benchmarks are fighters from past seasons who have solid balance or strong gameplans.
Examples of a few benchmark fighters are Ryu, Sagat, Iron=Tager, and The Enchantress. These aren't the best or the worst fighters in their respective seasons, but they have consistent styles and can be used to check for situational deficiencies or hyper-competence within a fighter's kit.
During this phase, a character's kit is mostly locked-in and numbers and effects are touched up. If a card needs to fundamentally change, then the design isn't really complete yet and bigger questions need to be asked.
For Season 6, in-house statistical tools were developed to help evaluate fighters both overall and compared to one another. These tools compare the average speed, power, threatened ranges, and word counts of fighters to give a picture of the real curves in the season. Those can be compared to past seasons and to theoretical ideals to weed out many issues before going to actual balance testing.
Once balance is close, playtesters outside of the team check our work by playing each fighter against different fighters from the same season as well as the benchmarks.
At this point, testers are asked if they can answer some of the questions set forth earlier: "What's the fighter's gameplan?" "What strategies are available to you in this situation?" "Can you identify a purpose for each card in the kit?" The answers to those questions reveal if the development and design goals have been met.
Sometimes exploitable play patterns or holes in the fighters kit are identified at this stage. In that case, the fighter is sent back for more tuning and then cycled back into development.
Thanks for taking the time to check out the design process for Exceed's upcoming season. Hopefully it inspires you as you develop your own custom fighters, or perhaps devise a playtesting process for your own asymmetric card game!
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