Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Hidden Fight Beneath the Surface

Evolution weekend was a blast. The tournament was fun but it wasn’t my main focus. While most people attend for the tournament and might enter money matches during their downtime, I do the opposite – I focus mostly on money matches and only enter the tournament because I’m already there. The benefits of money matches are that they allow players who might never meet in tournament to compete, and give players who don’t expect to place for cash a chance to make money from side matches. Plus, during downtime while other tournaments are running, money matches provide an opportunity to stay sharp while waiting for your tournament matches.

This year at Evolution I spent almost the entire event in a group with Knixes, MegamanDS and Neo. My entourage had unwavering faith in my skills and side bet on me almost every chance they had. It felt good to know that I had earned the respect of my peers, and their conviction bolstered my confidence. On many occasions I told them I didn’t feel confident in specific matches but that didn’t dissuade them at all. No matter who I played they were willing to back me, and that support meant a lot to me and probably improved my performance. Thanks guys!

One particular match I played was against AG|MarlinPie. It was one of the larger bets that took place Friday night. We battled it out in a first-to-seven and every single match was intense. In the beginning it went back and forth, but eventually MarlinPie caught on and pulled ahead. Soon the score was 6 to 4, making it game point for MarlinPie. Being no stranger to come-back situations I held my ground and eventually won the match, making myself and my friends a decent amount of money. Later in the tournament MarlinPie and I had to face each other in winner’s finals of our first pool.

If you don’t know who MarlinPie is, you’re sleeping on MvC3. He has the best Magneto I’ve ever seen. I’m known for a fast Magneto, with good execution, but MarlinPie almost matches my speed and has some of the best execution I’ve ever seen. On top of this, he also has several Magneto functions that are unique. I’ve said this before, but MarlinPie is the only Magneto player that makes me feel inferior. With proper practice my execution is solid and many tell me that my speed is unmatched, so it’s a rare occasion to come against a Magneto player of his caliber.

As we began our match a decent-sized crowd gathered around to watch, as he is the premier Magneto of the East coast and many say I am the premier Magneto of the West. As is pretty customary at most top-player tournament matches, many people placed side bets on their favorites. My entourage, of course, maintained the same faith in me that they demonstrated the night before. I, however, did not have the same confidence and was actually somewhat anxious. Although I had won the money match previously, it was still only by one game and I knew that MarlinPie was a formidable opponent.

Nervously, I wondered, “Hadn’t they seen the money match last night? Didn’t they know how difficult it was for me?” I couldn’t understand their confidence at the time. Here I was up against a Magneto player who makes me look scrubby and I’m praying that I come out on top, yet they seem completely unshaken. But I later realized that they had only witnessed part of the match. Unlike MOBA games, MMORPGs or first person shooters, in a fighting game all of the in-game data is displayed fully to onlookers and players. Still, this doesn’t mean that all of the sub-surface facets of the match are evident. To spectators, there is plenty of information that isn’t visible.

The mental battle that takes place between two opponents is much deeper than what onlookers can see. While spectators might be able to clearly recognize the solution to one player’s gimmicky setup, the opponent playing the match is in a very different mental state and might overlook it. Or maybe he understands the situation but is intentionally falling for it anyway, in order to groom his opponent into a comfortable state (in long sets this is pretty effective). It is so much easier to analyze situations and pinpoint the perfect defense when you aren’t simultaneously trying to think and execute an offense. While spectating it can often be hard to understand the reasons players make the mistakes they do.

In the money match the night before when MarlinPie was up two games on me and at match point, I was pretty shaken. I held it together to pull out the win, but it took a moment in which I had to intentionally calm myself and re-center my focus. I had to pull my will together to be sure that I played at my best despite the scoreboard. I had several tricks that I had reserved for such situations and I had to use them. It was draining, difficult and it shook me despite my calm exterior. To my friends, it just seemed like I finally relaxed and played my game comfortably, but that wasn’t the case. My focus had actually intensified and I was pulling out all of the stops. I employed the tricks that I used on my friends regularly but had been reserving in use against “outsiders,” and these helped me edge out the win. I had trained him during the set to do specific things and I was now banking on the counters to the responses that I hoped he would maintain. It was a sequence of thought that couldn’t be completely counted on because there was always the chance he would realize I had trained him and throw me for a loop. Each situation was critical because, as we all know, Marvel is pretty unforgiving.

Reflecting on this helps me look at matches in a very different way. Beyond simply watching the setups, I try to understand the mindset of the players – the nervousness that causes the critical execution fumble, or the overconfidence that leads one player to style and give his opponent another chance. So often, I see top players react several times to a mixup and then, as if psychic, change and react to the alternative to the mixup at the same time the opponent does. I’m starting to see the hidden match much more clearly now – the mental tug of war, the solid determination that sometimes creates the dominance that we all love to see. I appreciate the great commentators who try to explain this deeper fight, like James Chen, Skisonic and Ultradavid, who probably understood this long before I did. I can appreciate watching matches much more now, and I don’t have to always try to get in there. When trying to really put myself in the player’s shoes, I can make out some of the hidden fight beneath the surface. With these glimpses inside, spectating can be pretty entertaining.

Monday, June 27, 2011

MvC 3: The Red Headed step-child turned billionaire.

When MvC3 was first announced, I had to have been the most excited I had ever been about a video game. After taking time to think about it, my excitement was replaced by trepidation. What if it isn’t as good as MvC2? MvC2 is my money-maker; MvC3 will be the end of 2. What if I suck at it? What if I’m good at it but it’s boring? All of these questions flooded my mind as I anticipated the “sequel” to MvC2.

When the E3 build was displayed, my trepidation was replaced with absolute disgust. I was looking at TvC2 and I couldn’t have been more horrified. Now if you like TvC don’t get me wrong. I’m not hating on the game and think the game is fine for TvC fans, but I was a mahvel player and the thought that my beloved mahvel would die and be replaced by a knockoff “TvC2” was hard to come to terms with.

I decided to take action. I got on my keyboard and typed every thought that came to my mind. All in all it took about three hours to type but I got most of the thoughts that I wanted out in a thrown-together article. Most people received the article pretty well. Eventually the article got to some of those at Capcom and I was told it was even translated to Japanese for some of those at Capcom of Japan! At Evo last year I spoke with Seth Killian about the article and about the direction of the vs. series. It was hard to keep focused due to the seemingly endless stream of people who interrupted to take pictures with him and shake his hand, but I guess we managed. I left that conversation feeling slightly better but still uneasy.

Every build of MvC3 that I saw was improved from the previous build – which I was happy with – but the game still wasn’t the “MvC3: The sequel to MvC2” that I wanted. It seemed more like “MvC3: The first iteration of a new series” and I was definitely unhappy about that. Why wouldn’t they make a game based off of the beautiful, broken mess that us diehard hardcore MvC2 fans came to love and play for so many years? Why wouldn’t they listen to us hardcore gamers regarding system direction? Obviously we all know what’s best, or so I thought.

It was stated that someone on the development team said “MvC2 was a happy accident. We couldn’t recreate it if we wanted to so we’re not going to even try.” Now as a composer, I take issue with this statement. As some of you already know, I’ve played the piano for about 23 years. Sometimes when playing one of my old compositions I make mistakes and some of these mistakes turn out to be perfectly harmonious. Intrigued by the surprising harmony, I sometimes start on a brand new song based on the fortuitous accident that pleased my ears. The resulting composition sometimes turns out pretty awful but sometimes it turns out to be pretty amazing. Having this understanding, it seemed like a perfectly good idea to take the system and accidental anomalies and functions that we had come to love and make the sequel from them. Maybe it would have been pretty awful, but maybe we could have gotten MvC2.5!

As it turned out they didn’t. They started from scratch and designed an almost completely new system, from the button-layout to the system mechanics, despite the complaints of many of us top MvC2 players and veterans. I was never a fan of three attack button games and they were basically giving us three buttons and a funky macro button. I knew MvC2 changed a lot of things from MvC1, including the buttons, but the game still played very similarly. It was simply a tweak, not an overhaul. I was crass enough to say that Nitsuma had to be presumptuous to knowingly ignore all fo the previous games of the series and start fresh but still assume the name MvC3. I was wrong.

When I finally got my hands on the game shortly before official release, I played for a few hours (the copy wasn’t mine) and fell in love with the freedom. There was almost a complete overhaul of the combo system for some characters, but the changes made most of them more viable. The beasts from 2 that made it back to 3 were somewhat nerfed but still had amazing options. Every other character was viable and my two main characters, Magneto and Storm, were still good. Sentinel was scrub-friendly but manageable, and I decided to pick him up even though I’d never really played him in MvC2. If Mvc3 was the red-headed step-child to the vs. series that I had hated all throughout its development, it had become a billionaire and was now my favorite!

The more we discover about the engine, the more I realize some of the tweaks and limitations are necessary. If it wasn’t for hit-stun decay almost every character in the game would have extremely easy infinites. MvC2 was broken, but not that broken. More and more exploits are discovered every week and I find myself thankful that the limitations that exist are there. It almost feels like providence – like the developers knew about these exploits or assumed exploits would exist and put seemingly unnecessary rules in place to circumvent them while still allowing quite a bit of freedom… That seems to be the perfect recipe for a happy accident.

I was determined to find a game-breaking exploit. I came across an exploit and jumped to the conclusion, “this is guaranteed death on any touch,” but there was a system law in place to keep it reasonable. MegamanDs and I discovered a neat little trick about exchanging and air dashing after the auto-hit to land before the opponent does, which would have been repeatable for many reps provided one’s opponent guessed wrong, like an extended form of Rock-Paper-Scissors. We learned, however, that in their infinite genius, or perhaps a stroke of luck, the developers added a substantial amount of hit-stun decay to launchers, making the exchange whiff after only five reps. I tried manipulating every exploit discovered, besides the obviously banned glitches, to break the game, only to be stumped time and time again by limitations. It was me against the developers and the developers won every single time.

I’ve witnessed, in the very short time the game has existed, the birth of another crazy, over-the-top marvel-style game. At a rate far faster than that of MvC2, people are learning and developing. They’re honing their skills so that even the greatest players have to be careful not to slip. The pressure I remember having in MvC2 exists in this game to the same degree, if not more. Every mistake I make, I worry that it will be my last. I don’t get to scrape by learning matchups with only 12 characters from the game and allowing the sheer dominance of my characters to win matches against all others. I have to learn defense and offense against every character and it feels like a breath of fresh air coming from MvC2.

I find this game feeding that gambler’s compulsion that only MvC2 used to satisfy. If MvC2 was so addicting that many of us called it crack, for the time being, this game is definitely heroine. Magneto and Storm (my two mains) have much more depth than their MvC2 counterparts and I’d bet we’ve only tapped about 55% of their potential. I have yet to miss the four button layout (don’t tell me exchange is the fourth button, because it isn’t) and I actually think this combo system is much more free than that of part 2. This game isn’t perfect – far from it. X-factor is a bit of a problem and if Phoenix can’t control herself, I don’t know how anyone expects us to control her. Nevertheless, as a stand-alone fighter, it is one of the most enjoyable that I’ve played. I’ve decided not to look at this game as a sequel to MvC2, but rather as its own game.

I hope the team behind MvC3 realizes that broken games, though not perfect, take time to unfold into the semblance of balance that we love. If A-groove had been nerfed in CvS2, or if Aegis Reflector and Genei Jin were nerfed in 3S, or if AHVB, Hailstorm and all things Magneto as a character had been nerfed in MvC2, we wouldn’t have had “broken games” that have spawned devoted fans for ten years. I personally hate Phoenix, but I would hate even more to see her nerfed before we realize that she is beatable and “we can control it.”

Overcoming the challenge is where most of the fun is. I liked when random ideas popped into my head in the middle of the day that made me rush back to my 360 or PS3 and attempt what I hoped would be a new part of my anti-Sentinel arsenal. Even positive changes for Storm, like removing the triangle dash limitations from her, making her triangle dash resemble the MvC2 version (as was done with Magneto) would be best left alone. In the beginning of MvC2, Spiral and Strider seemed like two overpowered characters. They could have been nerfed before it was discovered that the gimmicks were limited and beatable with the right knowhow and patience. I hope we are given the chance to realize the downfalls of characters thought to be overpowered in this game. Hopefully we overcome the overpowered with other overpowered tactics instead of nerfs.

Throughout the development of MvC3, many of us hardcore MvC2 fans were extremely critical. We scrutinized everything from the graphics, to the layout, to the system. Our blind passion caused some of us to look at Nitsuma disparagingly. I was one of them and I’m saying now that I was wrong. I tip my hat to him for making such a great game. I couldn’t see his vision in the beginning, but now I’m so glad that he did things his way. Maybe if I actually devoted time to games like TvC and Blazblue, I might have discovered that they were amazing too. I’ve learned from my mistake and plan to keep an open mind when playing any fighting game I get my hands on from now on, be it SFXT, Skullgirls (which has a genius combo engine from a genius programmer) or MK9. I hope Nitsuma knows that Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a job well done and that he has the respect of most of us MvC3 players (minus the incorrigible bad apples). I guess Seth Killian was right all along. They knew what they were doing and MvC3 is amazing, the entire cast… except he was wrong about Thor. Thor sucks!

That was written in April. Fast Forward to June and a tournament called Revelations... Here I am playing MvC3 and money matching everyone who is willing. I have the same stress and nervousness that I had when I first began to pick up MvC2 competitively. The event is fun and ran very well and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I find myself in the finals and I realize that just like MvC2, this game has the potential to make me a nervous wreck. I'm sitting at the edge of my seat with my heart racing a mile a minute and my execution is waning due to the pressure. I thought I had mastered the art of calming myself despite the storm but maybe because I haven't competed for a while, or maybe with a new game comes new nerves. Either way I was anything but calm. Nevertheless, the rush was amazing! I'm very happy I made the trip and I tip my hat to John Nelson and Alex Valle for such a nice event. Looks like I'm in for another 10 years.

-- [Tournament Legacy] Fanatiq