Beyond a joke: Divekick and teaching beginners strategy
03 October 2013 | By Import
If you're a player of fighting games, you've probably learned to fear the 'dive kick'. Used to describe a move that sends a jumping character hurtling back towards the ground in a deadly fashion, almost every 2D fighter has a character or two with the skill.
When one fighting game community figure began building a game solely based around the skill as a joke, he had no idea what genius he was on to, or how useful the game would be for teaching beginners about the deeper mechanics behind top-level fighter play.
Picture this - a fighting game with only two buttons. Dive - meaning jump, and... well, you probably don't need me to explain the other. There's not even a stick for movement. Characters jump vertically, but a kick will send them towards their opponent, whatever direction that's in.
There's no complex button presses, no quarter-circle or charge commands to learn, and there's certainly no combos. If you get kicked? You're dead. Round over. Next round.
"It was really just a joke, and then we turned the joke into a one-time attraction for a tournament, and then people demanded a release, so we started a Kickstarter..." Adam Heart, the brain behind the game, explains to me. "Now we have a publisher!"
Heart, well-known by his online handle 'Keits', is a well-known figure in the world of fighting games. He's been a top player, a tournament organizer and a staff member on Shoryuken.com, the website owned by the Evo folks. He's also a skilled developer, and began using those skills to put together a joke game mocking the dominance of the dive kick to have as a one-off joke game at his tournament - with that, Divekick was born.
Heart is now the Lead Designer and Associate Producer on Divekick at its new developer and publisher, Iron Galaxy Studios. Iron Galaxy is known for its high quality ports of old-school fighters - and that was actually why Heart was involved with the company to begin with.
"I was hired to Iron Galaxy about a year and a half ago to work on Marvel vs. Capcom Origins, Darkstalkers Resurrection and other titles," he explained. "I'd already started working on Divekick before I was hired there, but it wasn't announced at that point. So I went up to Dave [Lang, Iron Galaxy CEO] and I told him about the game, just to let him know I was working on something at home, so he wasn't surprised. He was like 'Okay, good luck with that! Sounds stupid!' and that was that."
For a while, Divekick was just going to be a fun little indie game trucked around tournaments and played on one tiny screen as an aside. Then people actually played it - and the effect on everyone, from fighting game beginners to pros and even Lang - was profound.
"Dave played it and thought it was the bees knees," Heart reveals. " He started talking to me right away saying let's get together, let's do this right, but I kind of snubbed him. I wanted to try this Kickstarter thing and see what happens - I didn't want to lose control of the game."
The Kickstarter was successful, and safely cruised past its modest $30,000 target with ease. But Lang was nothing if not persistent.
"Lang pulled me aside and said 'Man, what are you going to do with 30 thousand dollars? You can't do anything with that money, you don't know what you're doing! Let me help you, you'll keep creative control of the game, you'll have a bigger budget - let's do this together. I agreed, and here we are."
Even in my short time with the game pre-launch, it's immediately clear to me that the thing that makes Divekick so subversively and surprisingly addictive and satisfying is that it manages to distil the final ten seconds of the most intense match of Street Fighter into every round. Each of its first-to-five rounds plays out like that moment where one more hit will kill, and that same level of energy and tension is in the players even though the concept of the game is frankly a bit silly. It's exciting.
"This game is really deceptive," Heart tells me as I play. "It's kind of like Marvel 3 in that everybody who plays it thinks they can win. You play Divekick two or three times, you think 'I can win this, this is easy' - but it's not. It's one of the hardest games I've ever competed in."
Beyond simple diving and kicking, the post-Kickstarter funding from Iron Galaxy allowed Heart to consider additional gameplay options, including story modes, online and a single special skill for each character, activated by hitting the Dive and Kick buttons simultaneously.
"The signature moves really help differentiate characters and give them new ways to hide their weaknesses and really open up their opponent. We really love those. We were worried originally that we might over-complicate the game with that sort of thing, but as soon as we got our hands on the prototype version of the special moves, we knew that they had to be in the game - they made it that much more fun."
The game's cast and attitude has carried over from when it was a joke - and as such they're all suitably silly. Dive and Kick are parodies of Yun and Yang, of course, while Mortal Kombat's resident divekicker Kung Lao gets is carried off as a girl in Kung Pao. Resident Marvel divekickers Dr. Doom and Wolverine are parodied as Dr. Shoals and [redacted], the latter's name removed when the game went serious to avoid a lawsuit.
There's even nods for big fans of the fighting game community - Mr. N is part Street Fighter's Rufus and part pro player Marn, while Mad Catz' Mark Julio and Seth Killian, the man behind much of Street Fighter IV, both put in appearances as in-game characters. There's even a character based off Zubaz, a rejected Street Fighter II character design, and a 'Stream Monster' - a troll character designed to immortalize the attitude of the stream chats of tournaments.
Even though these references are designed to please the hardcore fan, the real magic of Divekick and the thing that has made it one of the most packed booths at shows like PAX remains its sheer accessibility.
" The amateurs are unable to complete with the pros, but they FEEL like they can, which is a good illusion," Heart says. "The game will let anyone play with anyone, because it's so easy - but the pros are just better at outthinking you, displaying those reactions, so they're very hard to beat. It's the mind game that defines this game."
With its simple three-move, two-button design, Divekick removes a barrier of entry for those who'd like to understand the mind games and thought process behind the top players at Evo and concepts like spacing but can't nail down the timing on difficult combos.
"When you outsmart somebody in Marvel - if I hit you first - I'll kill your next two characters for free, because I have good set ups," Heart explains, describing scenes I've watched in Marvel a million times.
"It doesn't work like that in this game. I hit you once, we reset back to our starting positions, and we go again. You have to be very consistent to go far in a Divekick tournament."
"It takes total focus to play a game when the only thing that matters is spacing, reading and reactions. You can't rely on how much you've practiced combos or your knowledge - you just have to simply outsmart your opponent every time."
Divekick is a ton of fun but doubles as the ultimate teaching tool for Yomi - a Japanese term for "Knowing the mind of the opponent," - often used to define the very core of any high-level fighting game bout. For that, it isn't just a fun parody, but actually rather vital.
If you've ever wanted to learn, this may be your gateway drug. Divekick is out now for PC, PS3 and Vita. It costs $9.99.