What makes a platform fighter good?

September 02 2022

What makes a platform fighter good?

Less than a month after its open beta became available to the general public, MultiVersus surpassed 20 million players. While it’s still a ways away from Brawlhalla’s reported 80 million players, it also hit the 20 million player threshold far quicker than Brawlhalla did.

Of course, the game’s longevity is yet to be determined. But, if it maintains this pace, MultiVersus is well on its way to becoming the most successful platform fighter of all time; at least, in terms of player base and potentially revenue too.

So, what is it that makes this game so successful in building a player base? And, as MultiVersus emerges atop a field of other games in the same genre, it begs another question: What does it take to make a good platform fighter?

If there’s one thing MultiVersus can teach us, it’s that these questions don’t necessarily have the same answer. Platform fighter developers can learn much from Warner Bros. and Player First Games about how to get a game of this kind off the ground in a big way. But in terms of building a truly good, legacy platform fighter, the jury may still be out.

What makes MultiVersus good

Many newer platform fighters outside of the Smash series take after Melee in terms of their emphasis on fast-paced grounded movement options. Interestingly, MultiVersus flips this on its head; while the game is nearly devoid of grounded movement options, it has extensive aerial movement options.

Characters can use two jumps, two specials, and two directional air dodges per airtime. On top of that, characters can cancel out of a dodge with a jump to carry that momentum into their jump. In addition, players have to keep holding down to make their characters fast fall, allowing them to stutter their fast falls and mix up their timings by simply letting go of the control stick.

While the movement patterns this creates are different from many other platform fighters, it has resulted in the depth of gameplay and high skill ceiling that attracted Tyler “mirrorman” Morgan, a Team Fortress 2 professional, former top Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl player, and MultiVersus Evo runner-up.

“I think the biggest thing about making platform fighters good is making a unique movement set that allows players to individually express themselves in how they want to play the game,” mirrorman said. “You see this a lot in Melee [and] Rivals of Aether. You’re starting to see it a little bit in MultiVersus. You can tell when players of these games are good just by watching them move around the screen.”

(An example of the game's dynamic aerial movement from 2v2 EVO winner NAKAT.)

MultiVersus also takes inspiration from outside genres, like MOBAs. The presence of a perk system and cooldown moves adds an extra layer of strategy that many other platform fighters lack. As a result, MultiVersus can be attractive to fans of the genre looking for a truly new experience, as well as more veteran fans that see the heart of the genre as its expressive movement.

But, as far as gameplay goes, MultiVersus still has a good bit going against it too. Liquid’s own Juan “Hungrybox” DeBiedma lamented how dodging is overly safe, creating a game flow that is both mashy — potentially isolating competitive players — and rewards defensive play a bit too much — potentially isolating casual players.

Granted, Brawhalla faced a similar problem in its early days before the developers introduced a dash mechanic that incentivized more aggressive gameplay. Since the game already takes many cues from Brawlhalla, it’s not hard to imagine that MultiVersus could take a similar turn for the better.

As it stands, MultiVersus’ gameplay feels little more than just fine. But here’s the thing about MultiVersus: It has so much else going for it that the gameplay doesn’t need to be any more than just fine.

MultiVersus’ presentation is unparalleled among platform fighters. The unique (and fully-voiced) interactions between characters brings a whole new meaning to the term “crossover platform fighter.” The iconic cast of characters already has a wide reach, made wider by the fact that this game is available on every relevant platform besides the Nintendo Switch — even a mobile port is likely on the way.

“I like the polish,” Hungrybox said. “Cross-console compatibility basically allows it to be accessible to the most people. So to me, that’s a special thing.”

In addition, Player First Games’ emphasis on esports was attractive to Evo ninth-place finisher Daryl “Bugzvii” John, who is a fiend for competitive gaming. In the past, he’s competed in games like Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Fortnite, Knockout City, and even Fall Guys. So, even though he has minimal prior experience with the platform fighter genre, Bugzvii identified MultiVersus as the next big thing in competitive gaming.

“Usually games are like, ‘Hey, if people are interested in esports, we’ll support it and slowly go down the line and see if we could value it as something,’” Bugzvii said. “PFG just came out the woodworks and said, ‘Yo, we want to do esports. We want this to be a big thing. Who’s with us?’”

The NASB problem

Before MultiVersus, Nick All-Star Brawl was supposed to be the next big esports title in the platform fighter world. Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl is, in many ways, a phenomenal competitive game too. It has Melee-esque movement that’s incredibly easy to execute, making it a fun alternative for players who want that aggressive combo system and expressive movement but don’t want to invest hours into Melee just so they can learn how to move.

In theory, NASB is the Melee sequel that none of the other Smash games panned out to be. Hungrybox identified it as the most fun non-Smash platform fighter he’s ever played.

And yet, when the dust settled, all that remained for NASB was a small, niche competitive player base that has become for many the laughing stock of the platform fighter community. What went wrong?

Much of it has to do with the game’s $50 price tag. Costing nearly as much as a fresh copy of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, it was setting itself up for a comparison that would not make it look good. With lackluster visuals, no items and no voice acting, NASB wasn’t finished at launch. With no crossplay, it frankly still isn’t finished, making its high cost off-putting. In addition, mirrorman said his interest in the game waned fairly quickly because it took so long for the developers to get patches through and make important changes.

On all counts, MultiVersus has taken great strides to avoid the same problems that NASB faced. The fact that it is free-to-play alone has guaranteed it far more success than just about every other platform fighter because of how widely accessible it is. In comparison to NASB, MultiVersus’ extensive dialogue and crossplay capabilities speak for themselves.

In many ways, MultiVersus is easier to compare to Brawlhalla. Unlike NASB, MultiVersus didn’t go the standard sticker-price route that Smash went, instead aiming for free and cooperative systems that could build up a casual player base alongside a competitive one. While MultiVersus still has fairly little in the way of casual content, a guild system and raid bosses are reportedly on the way.

“I think if any of this stuff comes to fruition, in a lot of ways, it can help retain a more casual player base that keeps the player count high,” mirrorman said.

In addition, MultiVersus has received updates at breakneck speeds. While this has already caused problems on the gameplay side and could create a nightmarish number of match-ups for competitive players to learn, it ensures that players don’t have enough time to get bored of the game before the next new thing gets added.

“I think the concept of having a new character every two weeks that’s really iconic is really, really important,” Hungrybox said.

The beauty of MultiVersus is that, as a game still in beta, it doesn’t even purport to be finished — and yet, it is still far more complete than NASB.

Two by two

MultiVersus doesn't just borrow from Brawlhalla’s free-to-play model. It also borrows from Brawlhalla’s 2v2 model. For most platform fighters, Singles is clearly designed as the main competitive mode. Brawlhalla is a rare exception as a game where Singles and Doubles seem to receive equal attention when it comes to balancing decisions. Player First Games looks to make the exception into the rule.

MultiVersus turns the norm completely on its head by marketing Doubles as the primary competitive format. While Doubles has fared well on Brawlhalla’s esports circuit, it’s unclear if MultiVersus will keep the long-term attention of players from a more traditional platform fighting background without a more robust emphasis on Singles.

“If I’m being honest, I still don’t understand why they’re pushing 2v2s so much,” Hungrybox said. “If they were able to somehow focus on the one-versus-one aspect and balance the game towards Singles as well, that would be really, really good. I’m not sure it is possible to balance the game properly for both Singles and Doubles so, because of that, maybe the 1v1 meta will always be skewed.”

Nevertheless, Bugzvii said Doubles is a crucial part of what makes MultiVersus so big. Even if the focus on Doubles is somewhat unusual for a platform fighter, he said this format is appealing to players from multiplayer-focused genres like MMOs or shooter games.

Appealing to players from these genres might be what’s most important when it comes to expanding the player base. While many platform fighters would be lucky to break a few thousand players in a day, games like VALORANT regularly exceed a million active users. Perhaps the reason MultiVersus’ gameplay seems lacking compared to many other platform fighters is that it isn’t really made for the platform fighter scene.

Or at least, not only for the platform fighter scene. Given how frequently the developers of the game speak with the scene on social media, it’s hard to say that they aren’t building the game with the community in mind.

Bugzvii sees that frequent communication from developers as a breath of fresh air that will help to keep players continually invested in MultiVersus. Notably, this could put MultiVersus on a better path than Brawlhalla, which has recently faced criticism and seen an exodus of top players due to the developers making questionable decisions with minimal communication.

“I’m not sure about y’all, but I’ve never — and I say never — never seen devs like this, actually talking to their community like normal people,” Bugzvii said. “The fact that someone like Tony, the co-founder [of Player First Games], is casually just answering everybody [on Twitter], nonchalant… It’s just mind-blowing to me.”

For these reasons, Bugzvii is confident that MultiVersus will eventually overtake Smash as the premier platform fighter. On the flip side, Hungrybox asserted that, from the loyalty many fans feel toward Nintendo’s intellectual properties to the game’s unique ability to garner massive amounts of social media impressions, Smash can’t be matched in terms of its longevity and mass appeal.

“Whenever there’s a national tournament, something of it is trending: ‘confetti’ or ‘crab’ or ‘pop-off’ or whatever you want to call it,” Hungrybox said. “Imagine Smash 6 being announced next week. There’s no point even trying to compete with it.”

MultiVersus’s most wise decision might be in not trying to compete. At least, not with Smash. If anything, the title is much more the competitor for Brawlhalla, built from the ground up with a model that Brawlhalla basically beta-tested for it.

The best platform fighter

So, beyond popularity and player base, what is the best platform fighter in terms of gameplay and design? While arriving at an objective answer would obviously be impossible, Hungrybox and mirrorman came to the same subjective conclusion, and one that many experienced platform fighter players would probably agree with: It’s Melee.

The fact that Melee has thrived for over 20 years without any patches is a testament to its incredible game design. In addition, the freedom of expression available to skilled players creates an outstanding experience for competitors and viewers alike.

“The game has a virtually infinite amount of depth where new things keep getting discovered and, even if nothing else got discovered from this point on, it flirts the line between human capacity and TAS levels so eloquently,” Hungrybox said.

(A number of figures in the FGC also see Melee as a great title.)

It’s no wonder that, despite all of the differentiating characteristics among them, many of the best platform fighters seem to start with a foundation of emulating Melee’s free-flowing movement options to some extent. The fact that MultiVersus has opted to go in a different and original direction with their movement system is commendable. It’s also why, for myself and others, MultiVersus is a worse game than those that are more similar to Melee.

However, that same depth and design is part of what makes Melee difficult and keeps it niche. For many, Melee’s high difficulty is a glaring flaw and a big reason why it could never contend for the title of most commercially successful platform fighter. Unless the player has a solid understanding of the game’s movement options and precise execution of those techniques, Melee can feel sluggish to play. Though the skill curve may make for an incredible experience at the top level, getting there is a painful grind that would deter just about anyone toward the “casual” end of the spectrum, especially now that the game is so old.

In addition, MultiVersus has something that, for more than two decades, Melee fans could only dream of: a developer that seems to care about the competitive scene.

“I was very surprised to see that Smash didn’t really get loved by their devs when their community ran these tournaments and stuff,” Bugzvii said.

A mere week-and-a-half after the full launch of the open beta, MultiVersus got a tournament at EVO with a $100,000 prize pool — Melee had to raise money and fight its own developer just to keep its EVO slot. In the entire history of competitive Smash, only three tournaments have received a bigger prize pool; all of them were Smash Summit invitationals where the prize pools were crowdfunded.

“If MultiVersus manages to keep this level of tournament support up long term, you’ll see a large, healthy competitive scene for the game no matter the other circumstances,” mirrorman said.

(Leffen too talks about MultiVersus's approach at least becoming the future of fighting games.)

When asked to describe a theoretically perfect platform fighter, Hungrybox suggested that all the right pieces are already out there — just not in the same place.

“It’s Melee with Warner Bros. being the developers,” Hungrybox said. “That’s literally it.”

And yet, it’s unlikely that any game will ever truly replace Melee. In the minds of its fans, Melee is the best platform fighter that has ever been created and, probably, that ever will be created. Winning over a Melee player is already an uphill battle, much more than winning over a NASB, Brawlhalla, or even an Ultimate player is. So is it even worth trying to make a platform fighter that's as deep, and beautiful, and good in all the same ways that Melee is, when it will never rival the original? This question is tough to answer. It also may explain why MultiVersus is the way that it is.

MultiVersus is no Melee. It’s no NASB, either. Heck, it’s no Ultimate and it’s even distinct from Brawlhalla in many ways. But, it’s a fun, polished, free-to-play experience with an immense amount of developer support and a high degree of crossover appeal, a combination of factors that no other platform fighter has so masterfully employed.

Player First Games didn’t create the best platform fighter ever. Could they have, even if they tried? Instead, they’ve created an experience that is leaving Melee and other similar games in the dust in terms of player count. As it turns out, in a field where Melee’s legacy looms so large, commercial success might be the best thing for a new platform fighter to aim for. Thus far, it’s hitting the mark better than any other platform fighter that came before it.

Writer // Dylan Tate
Graphics // Brenda Cardoso

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