Yesterday Wavedash Games announced a new round of Venture Capital funding which should secure their new Platform Fighter’s release sometime in the first half of 2018. This news was heavily discussed on the Smash Bros. subreddit yesterday with a number of interesting points raised. Some questioned the potential success of a game in the Smash genre without the power of Nintendo IP to draw in fans. I wanted to take a bit of time to further explore that conversation.
Taking the Easy Road
First, let’s acknowledge the goliath that is Smash. Nintendo IP is absolutely a massive draw for the series. It would be foolish to try and say that getting to play as Mario or Link doesn’t draw in millions of players. It absolutely does. However, I think the Nintendo IP is actually more of a shortcut than a tremendous advantage. When you see a trailer for Smash, there is already a backstory for every character. Sakurai is a genius at making the character look, feel, and play exactly how that character should behave in this universe. We see them on screen and are easily able to imprint decades of emotion, character, and history onto each character. Super Smash Bros. doesn’t actually give us a connection to the history of these characters, it just capitalizes on an existing affection.
Obviously, Smash has caused some people to fall in love with characters and learn about their history after the fact, but we’ll talk about that more later.
My point here is that this is not an inherent dominating advantage for Smash Bros, it is merely easy marketing. Consider Overwatch for a moment. While it has the backing of a trusted and beloved company, Overwatch was a brand new IP. Before that first trailer, we had never met Tracer or Widowmaker. We don’t have all this nostalgia and backstory already in place for Genji. However, we now feel like we know these characters intimately. In reality, we know next to nothing about the Overwatch universe. And yet, much of Overwatch’s success at launch can be tied directly to our connection to it’s characters.
This is something that Wavedash can implement as well. They are building a world and a unique cast of characters. While they cannot lean on decades of nostalgia to carry their branding, they can still create a connection to their world through their marketing. We need to be introduced to these characters. Their voice lines and interactions with each other need to convey a rich history. There needs to be more going on in this world than just a bunch of fighters hopping across platforms punching each other. If Wavedash can do this successfully, it will draw casual observers to the game without requiring that they recognize a character from their childhood. So, while we acknowledge that this is a key piece of Smash’s success, hopefully we can also understand that it is not an advantage unique to Smash. They just get it for free without having to do the leg work.
Nostalgia the House of Cards
As I’ve shown, nostalgia is a shortcut. It allows you to trade on preexisting emotions rather than build your own substance. However, that lack of substance leaves you open to significant danger. Consider Mighty Number 9. this was a game funded and built entirely on nostalgia. It traded completely on the love people had for Mega Man. Obviously, what resulted was a bad, broken game. However, were it not for the nostalgia attached, the game would have simply come and gone. Instead, it has become one of the most hated games in history.
My point here is that Super Smash Bros. could not possibly have simply traded on nostalgia. Love for Mario, Pikachu, and Link would have given the first Smash great opening sales. However, that love would not have sustained three sequels. If the gameplay were not exceptional, the series never would have made it past the Gamecube. Smash is a massive success, but it is not simply because of nostalgia. Therefore, we must conclude that there is something in the core gameplay of Smash that appeals to a massive audience. Wavedash is built on a foundation of love and understanding for that core gameplay. If they are successful at replicating that gameplay and innovating, it would be reasonable to conclude that Wavedash will have the same long term appeal as Smash.
But It’s Too Hard
Lastly, there has been a concerned raised about Wavedash’s devotion to Melee mechanics. Of all the Smash games, Melee has the highest skill ceiling. The gameplay is faster and requires more inputs to compete at the highest level. There’s a concern that a game with such high levels of difficulty will alienate casual fans. I want to approach this from two angles.
First, casual play. Think back to the first few times you played Melee as a kid. Remember all those free for all games on Pokefloats with items on. Were you even aware that wavedashing, crouch-cancelling, or DI even existed? I sure wasn’t. I didn’t even learn about those mechanics until about 3 years ago, and Smash is my favorite game series. What Melee does so well is offer a high skill ceiling, while also having a very low skill floor at the casual level. It’s like all the people that play League of Legends every week, but only ever play against AI. They love the mechanics and the gameplay, and there is a way for them to feel successful without ever having to master the high level mechanics of the game. If Wavedash has a decent single-player mode that can be beaten without using high-skill mechanics, the game will be accessible to everyone. It will only be the highly competitive players that even start to explore those advanced skills.
Second, let’s look at the esports implications. Consider the greatest esport of all time: StarCraft Brood War. This is easily the game with the highest skill ceiling ever. Even playing at a Silver level requires hours of practice and mastering dozens of mechanics. And yet, this was the game that launched esports. It is still the national past time in South Korea. Executed at the highest level, StarCraft is beautiful to watch (if you can get over the ancient graphics). When a game has a high skill ceiling, it creates more depth for the competitive community. It allows for more variance in the spectator experience. It gives average players clear aspirations. Competitive games have the longest lifespans and broadest fanbases when they are accessible to casuals while offering elite players overwhelming depth. This is what StarCraft and Melee have offered fans, and it is this balance that Wavedash will aspire to achieve.
As you can see, I have a great deal of hope for Wavedash. From everything I’ve seen, this team has a very clear vision. They understand the advantages of their chosen genre, and recognize all the potential pitfalls. If executed properly, I genuinely believe this game could change the gaming and esports industry. It absolutely has all the advantages available to become the next League of Legends. I cannot wait to see what happens next.