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Beating Super Smash Bros. at its own game


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.

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Matt Fairchild.

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.