[Interview] Throwing High Punches with Mike Z

Top-notch Programmer and Tournament Fighter Mike Zaimont talks to us about his work on Skullgirls... that, and dreams.
Author: Ryan Green
Published: August 15, 2011
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Conventions are truly a mysterious thing. While they can open up opportunities, they can also close many others off. More often than not, things will not go your way, especially at E3.

This year, it caused a bit of both. I had a very brief opportunity to speak with the crew developing Skullgirls -a new 2D fighter heading to your preferred HD console sometime soon- but not enough time to play it or even interview anyone. But we've fixed that.

Mike Zaimont is a man known well in the fighting game circle. Formerly of the now-defunct Pandemic Studios, Mike "Z" works as the project lead on Revenge Labs' Skullgirls. The game has come quite a long way and is said to release this year.

But how did Mike Z come to this project? What makes this game better than the rest in the genre? We asked him these questions and more in our recent interview.

From what I understand, Alex was working on Skullgirls for a few years before you met him and†subsequently†began working with him. Seeing how you are the game's programmer, how early was the game, conceptually?

Mike Zaimont: I began working with Alex [Ahad] in early 2008, and he had actually been working on a version of the game with another programmer before that. There were a few earlier demos, but since Alex himself was only working on the art and characters Iíve been able to redesign the game mechanics from scratch. When I joined, all the existing art was for a standard definition TV screen, so weíve created all-new HD animation frames, but the characters, setting, and plot have remained fairly consistent throughout.

What was it about the project that caught your attention?

Initially, it was simple: Alex and his friends had enough art and animation experience that we might be able to actually make progress. I had an engine that needed art, and he had art that needed an engine, so it worked out pretty well. They had already worked on a demo, so I knew they also understood how much work fully animating a character really is and could handle it.

Were there any fundamental changes that occurred when you came aboard?

Since we completely rebooted the project, pretty much everything changed. We scrapped the old engine and went with a version of my own engine that Iíd been working on since around 1999. We started over with the core systems, and looked at how the game should fit together fundamentally. Good fighting games need a lot of very specific technology and scripting elements, so that has been my focus.

We also developed our unique collaboration style to design the charactersí moves and gameplay - before I came on, the design process was a bit more haphazard.

I guess it wouldn't be unfair to call you a fan of fighting games. You certainly have a history with them, most recently being BlazBlue. What was it about that game that drew you in?

Iím a big fan of Arc System Worksí games, Guilty Gear XX: Accent Core especially. They have always been good at designing interesting play-styles for characters, and when BlazBlue was in beta, Iron Tager was the most unique grappler I had ever played.

There seem to be, from a casual observer's perspective, a philosophical similarity between Skullgirls and BlazBlue. BlazBlue was praised, in part, for having a low barrier for entry, replacing rapid button presses with holds. Was a more approachable fighting game your design goal for Skullgirls, or was simplicity a better foundation for deeper combat?

My primary goal was to make the best competitive fighting game out there, and to do that Iím focusing on strategy and variety of play over difficulty of execution for the basics. People will certainly find things with really tight timing in Skullgirls, but weíre not building the gameís fundamental mechanics around that kind of thing because I just donít think itís fun for most people. Designing a cancel window into a move adds options for gameplay; making it a 3-frame cancel window doesn't add more options, it simply limits the number of people who can take advantage of those possibilities without hours of practice.

Making a game deep for the hardcore and accessible to newcomers isnít impossible, though. A lot of our motions are pretty simple and familiar to anyone thatís played a fighting game, so I think people will be able to jump in pretty easily. Iím also trying to make some of the things that frustrate new players easier, too. For example, I put some code in to make it a lot easier to do 360s because practicing ďchurning that butterĒ isnít much fun.
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