Smash Bros: What Makes a Party Game?

Party Ball

Super Smash Bros. is a fascinating series for many reasons. The first is that it’s one of the only fighting games to really break the mold and do something wildly different from other 2D fighting games. It changes the entire goal of the game from one of hit point depletion to one of damage accumulation and a sort of sumo knock-out. It links the short-term game arcs into a meaningful long-term arc to a degree that many fighting games don’t. Getting knocked away farther and farther distances as your damage goes up changes the way you interact with your opponent in a much more fundamental way than a “super meter” can.

That fact alone is a significant reason for its questionable status among gamers, which brings us to the second reason it’s so fascinating: many gamers don’t even consider it to be a fighting game. Of course, a claim like that begs the question “What is a fighting game?” And if the answer to that is “A one-on-one match where on-screen avatars punch, kick, and throw thirty-six different variations of fireball at each other until one person runs out of hit points,” then no, Super Smash Bros. is not a fighting game. But it’s only the last bit where SSB fails the litmus test. There’s still plenty of punching and kicking and fireballs happening on screen – it’s just that the goal is inverted and made more elastic. It’s a consequence of video game genre names being more focused on thematic elements than how the game actually works. I mean, is there any shortage of “fighting” in Dota 2?

Ultimately, the format of the game isn’t the biggest reason for SSB’s questionable genre status – it’s the word of the creator. In another fascinating aspect of the story of SSB, game director Masahiro Sakurai has often gone on record saying that he had always intended Smash Bros. as a “party game,” and each and every time community forums have violently exploded. “See?? I told you it was a party game! It’s not like actual fighting games where it’s about skill!” “No way, Smash has skill! Just look at wave dashing!” It’s an old argument, one not always even fought on the same terms, but the one thing that at least the competitive players seem to mostly agree on is “No items!” The randomized items that appear all over the place give SSB a wacky sort of flavor. They create the vibe of a party game, but do so at the expense of the competitive integrity of the game. So when Nintendo’s position on SSB is that it’s “a kind of ‘rough’ party game,” they’re sending a message to fighting game enthusiasts that SSB isn’t for them. However, I think in doing so, Nintendo has drawn a false dichotomy: the idea that there are party games, and there are competitive games – there is no overlap. However, that doesn’t need to be the case.

The “Catch-up” Mechanism

A party game, as commonly understood, is a game played socially at gatherings. It’s used as a way of entertaining guests and friends. There are a few generally accepted guidelines for what makes a good party game. They tend to support larger numbers of players, often on teams to encourage cooperation as a counterpoint to competition. They usually do not eliminate players. They almost always have extremely high levels of player interaction to accentuate the social atmosphere. There’s another design element, though, that has slowly crept into the party game playbook, and Nintendo has been at the forefront for years – the catch-up mechanism.

There’s a growing feeling that games need to award more power to players who are behind. The idea is that people want the match to still be close, even if there are wide skill gaps among players (a common situation at parties). It’s an understandable sentiment – even a spectator knows that the excitement of uncertainty is much higher when a team makes a dramatic comeback. Players of games also tend to lose interest in a game when they run out of actions that could possibly lead to victory. The feeling of futility is definitely one you want to avoid in a game. If you can’t make any good moves, you’re not really even playing the game anymore – you’ve already lost.

But consider that the instinct to add catch-up mechanisms may not be a symptom of the leader having too much of an advantage, but rather the match length being too long. The longer that a player spends in the “I cannot win” state, the more the game seems to drag out (just think of the endless looping around an end-game Monopoly board). The temptation is to add catch-up mechanisms to inject some life back into dead game play, but weirdly that can actually have the exact opposite problem: in trying to save an irrelevant end game where the decisions no longer matter, you can instead end up with an irrelevant early game where the starting strategies don’t matter nearly as much as the final moments.

A simple solution that can skip the problem entirely is to take steps to shorten the game. If the game ends before the player runs out of good moves, there’s no reason to include a catch-up mechanism and risk the early game. Players can simply play another round of a game if they wish, making short play-time a non-issue, even desirable among party game players.

Nintendo’s Take on Party Games

With that said, Nintendo seems dedicated to making catch-up mechanisms work. How have they been doing? One of the most infamous examples of Nintendo’s party-game design is the Super Mario Kart blue shell. On the surface, it seems totally legitimate: a player near or at the back of the pack of racers will sometimes be given a blue shell, a seek-and-annoy missile destined for the first-place racer. So the distance between the current winner and loser shrinks – mission accomplished, right? Except that if you really think about the practical application of the blue shell’s design, it completely falls apart.

Let’s look at the classic situation that the blue shell is meant to resolve: an unskilled player is in last place and receives the blue shell. He uses it, hits the first-place player, and maybe a few others in the process, and the gap shrinks. But a smaller gap has no other consequences than just being smaller. A losing player doesn’t have any new strategies because of his position, no ability to capitalize on this smaller gap. He’s taken a single, flat action, and now he’s back to contending with the actual racing part. See, there’s a reason he was in last place: he’s already proven he’s can’t race as well as the player out in front or he wouldn’t have been in last place to start with. In the time it takes him to get another blue shell (or any other item at all, really), the racers ahead of him have plenty of time to reestablish the gap. So in the case of a wide skill gap, the blue shell fails as a catch-up mechanism due to the player’s inability to capitalize on the free boost and convert to a win.

Even worse is the fact that it’s not merely a failure – it actually hurts the game in other ways. Remember, the blue shell is a situation where a player who is effectively out of the running is then given a tool with which he can effect the outcome of the game for the players still contending for victory. It turns out that the blue shell was never a catch-up mechanism at all – it’s a kingmaker device! A game about racing suddenly turns into a game about politics as the last place player decides which of the leaders he hates more and does his best to mess with him from the back. Since a politics game isn’t what the players expect, they react badly to its sudden appearance. Most everyone’s had or at least seen that moment of frustration where a player calls “Bullshit!” on getting blue shelled, and rightly so. The player who was going to win suddenly loses to second place because an unrelated third-party said so. The blue shell is like giving a player a chance to sit at the finish line and trip one of the racers. So much for the social, cordial atmosphere of the party.

So what does Nintendo do to put the party in Super Smash Bros.? The mobile stages that constantly have all sorts of novelty are certainly one way, and the fact that it happens to all the players simultaneously means that it happens equitably. Another large part of the party-game flavor is the items, yet another design element infamous among competitive players. The constant rain of randomized items in randomized locations can really hurt the game’s ability to determine a more skilled player, especially when certain items, like the hammer or the heart container, are extraordinarily powerful. Even the contents of the contents of the items can be randomized: a crate randomly contains a pokéball which randomly contains good, bad, or even useless pokémon.

So at first glance, you might think to call items a catch-up mechanism. After all, players who are behind can at least be given a good item once in awhile for no effort on their part. However, SSB items are very bad at being a catch-up mechanism because they don’t specifically target the weaker player. The random good and bad situations that occur can happen to anyone. In fact, a stronger player can sometimes take better advantage of the random items he gets to further increase his lead. A healing item goes much farther on a skilled player than on a non-skilled player, and being a better player also means you’re grabbing and using more items to begin with. So it’s more accurate to look at items as being less of a catch-up mechanism and more of an injection of pure chaos. Items cause a lot of non-sequitur moments in Smash Bros. game play, moments where you make a series of decisions, and then something you couldn’t plan for happens which causes those decisions to be randomly good or bad. If a player at 200% damage gets knocked onto a heart container that wasn’t there a moment ago, it’s devastating to his opponents. Of course, the chaos only goes so far towards determining a winner, and items become at best an interruption of an otherwise perfectly functional competitive game.

Bridging the Competitive Gap

But what’s the matter with these competitive players anyway? Can’t they just let it go and have fun? The thing is, a question like that draws another false dichotomy: that there’s playing for fun and there’s playing to win, and that they’re somehow different. Rather, one of the qualities of a good game is when playing to win is fun. A player shouldn’t have to go too far out of his way to create fun for himself – playing by the prescribed rules in pursuit of the prescribed goal should be inherently fun. Any kind of social atmosphere can amplify the fun, but the primary driver should be the playing of the game itself. So when chaos happens for no reason and it interferes with a player’s ability to win, it’s natural for him to be upset. He was very invested in the game state, and then things didn’t happen like he expected and there was no discernible reason for it – it was “bullshit!” Asking him to care less about the game isn’t a solution. If he needs to detach himself from the game to enjoy it, it’s a symptom that there’s some level of inherent unfunness that he’s choosing to overlook.

But the dichotomy of “hardcore and casual” gamer is one that isn’t new to the industry, and it’s one that Nintendo, to its credit, is trying to bridge. Masahiro Sakurai recently spoke about his design philosophy in an interview with EDGE, and he said some interesting things about how SSB relates to the fighting game genre:

“Melee’s controls were, however, quite complicated and very tiring if the player really got into it in a serious way. This made the game less accessible for novice players and it basically ended up becoming a Smash Bros. game for hardcore fighting fans. I personally regret that, because I originally intended the Smash Bros. series to be for players who couldn’t handle such highly skilled games.

If tournament popularity was the most important consideration, then I think we would create a Smash Bros. game that included a multitude of fast moves with complicated controls. However, I believe this is actually the greatest shortcoming of fighting games at present, and that is the reason why I don’t do it.”

Where some fighting game fans might say that Sakurai is trying to take the skill out of games, I think he’s saying something much greater: that he wants the skill of his games to be more naturally approachable. He’s issuing a problem statement that fighting games are often too focused on execution rather than strategy, and he’s right. The execution skill-cap in many fighting games is notoriously high. While this can be fine for single-player dexterity tests, competitive games of strategy are about what players should do rather than what they can do.

Execution can sometimes inform strategic decisions – for example, the charge input for Guile’s sonic boom dictates how and when it can be used and heavily informs the way he is played. However, fighting games as a genre seem particularly prone to inserting execution gates for the sake of having them. Just look at the input for Ivy’s Calamity Symphony move as an example of an input that got totally out of control. The principle behind even the basic combo is that once the first hit lands, the victim doesn’t even get to play the game until the combo ends. A game about positioning, space control, and reading opponents gets interrupted by some unrelated button-pressing busywork – it isn’t until the next decision point for both players when the competition actually resumes.

That’s Sakurai’s point, really: he wants people to be able to play the actual game as soon as possible. He realizes that complicated button inputs are not the game – the interactions with the other players are! This is especially important in a party game. Removing the execution bar of entry doesn’t rob a game of any strategic richness or relegate it to “casuals.” Rather it makes any strategic richness that much more accessible. Players precisely pounding out 30-hit combos on opponents is an opaque skill that shuts new players down with thoughts of “I don’t even know how to do that, I guess I can’t compete.”

By contrast, the process of making strategic decisions is far more transparent. Players can easily observe how one game state led to another, and as they make those connections they improve naturally. Games that limit dexterity requirements empower their players to participate effectively rather than withholding game depth behind execution barriers. Even when players witness strategic skill that far outstrips their own, it’s a skill that looks attainable and encourages participation rather than stymieing it. It’s like I said in the beginning: a party game and a competitive game don’t need to be mutually exclusive. In fact both can be better for it: party games would have more depth and feel fair, and competitive games would have less barriers to accessing the depth of decision making.

Remember Where the Party Lies

Super Smash Bros. is a great idea, and Sakurai’s desire to lower the bar of entry is spot on. Despite his intent to make the game accessible, SSB Melee ended up with an extreme execution cap that rivaled any Street Fighter or Guilty Gear game, and that needed to change. However, Nintendo has unfortunately chosen to double down on the chaos. In SSB Brawl, characters can randomly trip and fall over at any moment, creating a huge non-sequitur moment of annoyance while adding nothing valuable to the game. Both SSB Brawl and SSB Wii U feature Assist Trophies which offer an even greater escalation of the chaos, causing everything from a giant game of Pong in the midst of the field to a dog in front of the camera blocking everyone’s view. And these things happen despite the rest of the design’s insistence that a perfectly normal game is going on behind it all. One might be tempted to think that the “casual gamer” actually wants all this chaos, but at least one of them, the self-styled “clueless gamer” Conan O’Brien, said of SSB Wii U, “I, myself, wish it was simpler.” A joke? Maybe. But in context with his very legitimate reactions to the chaos, I’d say there’s an element of sincerity there as well.

Nintendog Block
“I’m sorry, were you trying to play a game?” said the game.

As an alternative to kingmaker scenarios, random chaos, and other perpetrators of “Bullshit!” Nintendo ought to refocus on developing, for example, their handicap system. It’s not wrong of Nintendo to want to give weaker players a boost, but catch-up mechanisms focus on trying to do so after they start to lose. By that time it’s often too late for them to gain any benefit, and you even risk highly skilled players deliberately playing poorly to abuse those boosts themselves. You don’t need to rely on a mess of chaos, which arguably messes with the weaker player more than the stronger one. It’s better to have players use a handicap to acknowledge a skill gap right from the very start with a mutually accepted agreement, and players can even take pride in eventually reducing the handicap while still making a good showing.

I think there’s also a lot to be learned from the rest of the party-game world. For example, a game like Resistance has no inherent chaos – only the game-defining social chaos that potentially emerges from its simple rules. There’s room for skill and improvement, and it’s very approachable since, as a board game, there’s no barrier to entry based on execution. Players are placed on one of two teams, meaning weaker players are potentially paired with stronger players. Since there’s no player elimination, and only two teams to begin with, there’s no such thing as a kingmaker scenario. The Avalon variant even has handicap cards for when one side wins too easily.

Resistance has a lot going for it in terms of its performance as a party game, and it does so because it remembers one simple party-game rule: the game isn’t the party, the players are. See, SSB tries really hard to be a party game, but it does so by trying to be the party all by itself. It throws confetti, gives everyone party favors, and generally relies on this gigantic artificial injection of chaos. Meanwhile Resistance sets the scenario with a simple set of rules, and then turns the experience over to the players themselves as they find themselves in a socially intense game of intrigue, deduction, and camaraderie. The point of a party is to promote social interaction, and a good party game should reflect that. Players won’t have strong memories of pre-canned chaotic elements like a random Pong game, because those happen to everyone. Instead players will remember those master-manipulator moments or those colossal failures committed by their friends – in other words, the things that made the experience unique to them. It’s less about the things that happen and more about what the players do. Those are the things that make a great party game.

Special thanks to strykrr on Twitch for suggesting this topic. If there’s a topic you’d like me to write about, contact me on Twitter or drop by my Twitch channel to ask live.

6 thoughts on “Smash Bros: What Makes a Party Game?

  1. digitalanddice December 18, 2014 / 5:46 pm

    Something to be said about having a massive roster of characters whose moves, while varied in damage/range/timing/etc, all have the exact same simple execution. The only barrier to entry for any character is learning what makes them unique! Just out of curiosity I would love to hear about your thoughts on the Amiibos that are all over the new Nintendo games.

    • The Ludite December 19, 2014 / 10:17 am

      It’s funny you talk about barrier of entry, because the Smash series has it in spades. Having a massive roster is awesome for marketing, but a straight-up cost to the new player who now needs to learn what all of the moves do. Now, unifying the inputs into a standardized set across all characters is definitely an incredibly sensible thing, one that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the fighting game genre still stuck in the dark ages. That said, up/down/sides/aerial/dashing A-Smash A-Tilt B-special Throws Edge-Recoveries multiplied together makes a total of roughly 24 moves per character with variation, which makes a grand total of twelve hundred moves to learn. Yikes.

      It’s not as bad as a Dota-like where all the different abilities have massively different properties and often pretty dire consequences. Smash game moves tend to also be pretty similar in function – an Up-B is usually some kind of recovery attack, for example. Still, consumers love characters, often to their own detriment. A game with a pared-down roster would be easier to learn, and probably just as fun if you can shut up the Fire Emblem fanboy who just can’t bear the fact that he can’t play another game with Marth in it.

      Near as I can tell, the Amiibos (or as I like to call them, “memory cards”) are a marketing gimmick designed to put technology that already exists into little salable toys. They’re basically DLC that you can put into a department store so that grandma at least has some kind of idea what she’s buying for little Timmy. Of course, they contain things that otherwise would’ve been put into the games in the first place, but if you don’t mind paying an extra $406 for your game, go for it. But also make sure to complain on social media that your favorite game didn’t discount by 90% this holiday Steam sale.

      Our culture is weird.

  2. Prof.mcstevie October 29, 2014 / 1:34 pm

    I despise the “humorous” items like the summoning of the Nintendog regardless of my current mood, as an all around negative impact to the experience it seems to lack purpose other than to annoy everyone, something party games do but not so much in one go. Smash bros has always been a fighting game at heart as it is the nature it promotes the best, even having items on you can perform highly technical moves like catching an item thrown at you or playing with the mind game of when to throw the dastardly home run bat at the guy with the reflector. It better supports a fighting game approach than a social experience, any friend of mine who got spiked when so close to the edge will tell you that.

    • The Ludite October 31, 2014 / 10:53 am

      I agree that the game is currently closer to a fighting game then a party game in its current state. However, among fighting games it is the farthest along towards also being a party game. It’s still more accessible than other fighting games, and even just the fact that it supports up to four (and now eight) players gives it a tremendous leg up by that alone. Team play also pushes it more towards that social experience. There’s still a lot to do to make it ideal for parties, but I think Nintendo can get there if they focus on the correct party game aspects.

      • Prof.mcstevie October 31, 2014 / 3:42 pm

        An open multiplayer experience can often be deemed party game material in my experience. Games that don’t seem to be focusing on the party experience you might know, but are so welcoming to new players and allow a variety of ways to play both in modes and numbers of players embrace a new kind of game. Melee, even with its fans lauding it as a fantastic in-depth fighting game, has multiple layers of skill and the %/knockout style of play better suits multiple people, getting hit is not a concern of health bars that wittle away based on numbers, it is the survival of a character from being knocked out. Letting people play for such a significantly larger amount of time than most fighting games lets them explore different aspects and watch their opponent, being a simple control scheme doesn’t hurt either.

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