Matt Fairchild’s adult life has revolved around Super Smash Bros. Now, he’s trying to make a game which rivals it – or that could even knock it from its perch.
It feels an impossible task. Smash is the undisputed king of platform fighters – games where you battle to boot opponents off-stage – and after 16 years, Super Smash Bros. Melee is still the community’s favourite: played by a dedicated hardcore, broadcast to a huge worldwide audience at tournaments such as EVO. And yet… it is 16 years old. You still need a GameCube to play it on. That’s a pretty tough barrier to entry.
Melee launched just before Matt went to college. He spent a lot of the next four years playing it, then found a job after organising some of the first professional Smash tournaments. Over time, he became part of the game’s community: meeting pro players and befriending an early employee of Major League Gaming – Jason Rice – who is now his business partner. A string of community manager jobs later, he felt it was time to found a studio himself. This September, Matt and Jason’s Wavedash Games will turn two.
Wavedash unveiled their new platform fighter at EVO 2017, named Icons: Combat Arena. The project had been bubbling away for some time, and the community was eager to see it. It was announced with gameplay footage, detailed as a free-to-play game and revealed with the promise of an open beta later in the year. But the response was mixed. Would-be fans criticised its similarity to Smash, its lacklustre characters and its lack of polish.
A few weeks on, I caught up with Matt via Skype to see how things were going. Perhaps surprisingly, he was positive – really positive – about how Icons was progressing, despite the loud feedback received. Wavedash had learned from the experience, he said, but were no less certain Icons would still compete with Smash, in the genre Nintendo had made mainstream.
“We are the luckiest company in the world,” Matt tells me, when I ask for his thoughts on the community’s response. It’s not exactly the answer I was expecting. “We can release something and people want so badly for it to be good they tell us what they don’t like about it,” he explains. “We’re only in trouble when we release something and nobody notices.
“The first thing we did was say thank you and let people know we were reading every single comment. That’s how we do business – we want to hear it, we’re talking on reddit and discord and other social media channels. We held an AMA and answered as many questions as we could about art, design, sound…”
Despite its issues, Wavedash still has a solid pitch. “Melee could now hold a driver’s license in the USA,” Matt states. It feels like a line he’s used before, but it rings true. Wavedash Games’ motto? “Fighting for everyone.” In other words – you can play this on Steam, no GameCube needed. Icons is far from the first contender for the platform fighting crown but, as yet, no one else has properly cracked it. Matt tells me he knows there’s an opening there – room for a Smash rival designed specifically for a fresh audience, one raised on free-to-play megahits like League of Legends and Hearthstone. Wavedash is dreaming big – very big.
“Genres with the hook of a strong PVP loop and that are really watchable – each has a really strong and successful game. You have card games with Hearthstone, squad shooters with Counter-Strike and more recently Overwatch. All of these make north of $200m a year,” Matt says. “And then you have platform fighters – as of January you have Melee as the seventh most-watched game on Twitch. It’s one of the reasons we’re moving quickly to get a really polished product out there – we believe the first company to hit that mould is able to achieve those PUBG or League of Legends heights. We think League is a good starting place for how watchable it can get.
“When we were first doing market research we were asking people if they would play it [Icons] and the feedback we got was ‘yes, but a lot of people are trying to do this’. We knew the point of value we could bring was the sheen of a professional studio. We felt that could be our edge.”
Fine words, but fighting game fans watching Icons’ initial trailer were not blown away by what they saw. For a studio trading off the idea of providing a professional sheen, it’s a major criticism. Feedback from Icons’ initial showing suggested Wavedash still had a long way to go.
“We learned a few things,” Matt admits. “We were caught off-guard by the intensity of the reaction to the polish. We’ve done in-person playtests – we actually had a playtest the night before at EVO. There’s work to be done, there’s many things we can do before now and launch to improve, but if people care so much about polish it means we’re onto something.”
Specific criticism was levelled at the game’s current sound effects. It wasn’t something Matt expected to come up and, to be fair, the game is still pre-beta. They’re being changed soon. But then there was the widespread response Icons simply looked too much like Smash Bros. What can be done about this, when trying to make another game in the same genre?
“We come from having played a great deal of Melee…” Matt pauses. “If I could go back, I would modulate the signals we sent out about being just another game in that mould. We really passionately believe we’re bringing something new to the lineage which comes directly from Melee.”
I can imagine it’s a tough balancing act – making a game which will appeal to the Smash Bros. crowd so not wanting to mess with the fundamentals of what made Smash great any more than is needed, but at the same time bringing in enough new ideas that people are tempted away from Smash in the first place. Matt describes Icons as an evolution of Melee, down a different genealogical path from warmly-received “Smash 4” aka, Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U. (There’s no mention of the Wii’s Super Smash Bros. Brawl, which has long been consciously ignored by serious fans.) Even so, when explaining one character’s’ move-set, Matt at one point even uses the term “Up Smash” to talk about one of their ability. “Up Smash” is the name of the equivalent move in Smash. In Icons, it’s termed “Up Charge”, something he quickly corrects. It’s an unintended example of how ingrained Smash is.
“A lot of us cut our teeth on Melee,” Matt continues, “and while Smash 4 is a great game, it takes the genre in a very different direction. We very much see Melee as that fork, from which you have the Smash 4 path and then the Icons path. We looked at Smash 4, thought about what was successful, what wasn’t.” It’s a philosophy which stems from the idea behind Project M, the Brawl mod which converts the game into a more Melee-like experience, and on which four team members at Wavedash worked.
“We underestimated [the extent] the homages in the trailer would take the oxygen out of the rest of the message,” Matt says, back on the reaction to Icons’ unveiling. “Ultimately our thesis all along has been that Melee fans deserve more games which expand the market. Melee’s not going anyway – nor should it,” he hastily adds, “I will be playing that game ’til the day I die. But there’s room for more. In the same way there are multiple squad-based shooters out there, multiple card games out there. We heard loud and clear – even from those who’ve played Melee for 15 years – what people really want to see from us is what we’re bringing to the table which is new, that is in the game.
So, what is new? For one, Icons has killed off Smash’s classic L-cancelling technique, used by pro players to land back on a stage and attack again faster. To someone not well-versed in pro-player mechanics it sounds like a minor decision. For the hardcore, Matt says it’s “controversial”, but working out well in playtesting. More importantly, there’s a new move – the gust shield.
“We didn’t want to add a bunch of meters to the game as they add extra layers of complexity, but the shrinking shield idea is already in the game,” Matt says, explaining. “So if you press the Special button while shielding it will now burst the shield outwards. It is intended as a way to get people out of shield pressure. In Melee, if a character doesn’t have a way to get somebody off them while in shield pressure, they are simply classed as a bad character. Rather than give every character a move which works out of shield pressure, we added this. It’s worked really well in playtesting and we’ve added other stuff to it as well, so it can deflect projectiles. It gives additional mechanics and spectatorship aspects without simply being beholden on what was there in the genre before.”
Others have tried to recapture the Smash Bros. spirit in their own riffs on the genre. Rivals of Aether has good reviews on Steam, Brawlhalla is in Early Access and is taking Icons’ free-to-play approach. Even Sony tried to muscle in with PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. But no one’s had the level of success Matt thinks Icons can achieve – at least, not yet.
“We have a game mode announcement coming up soon which we think will be a big deal for the tournament scene,” Matt concludes, as enthusiastic as ever. “We’re doing a stream and playtest soon which will show our grappler character in more action. The narrative which is out there now is that she is clearly inspired by other platformers, but she actually plays like nothing in a platform fighter before. We didn’t show it, that’s on us.” Can you concoct a new genre king by riffing on an earlier classic? History shows it can be done. Will Icons be the one to do it? The verdict is still out – but after more than 15 years in love with Smash, something tells me Matt is far from done trying.