Interview: Community, Creativity Drive Brawlhalla's Development
Take a successful formula, add your own unique spin, and then make it free-to-play – that's what Blue Mammoth Games has done with Brawlhalla, and the results have been spectacular. The game is adored by nearly everyone who plays it, with a 93% positive rating on Steam and an extremely active subreddit. It's fast, it's fun, and it's great for both amateur button-mashers like myself and hardcore competitive players alike.
MMOBomb got the chance to pose a few questions to Brawlhalla Creative Director Matt Woomer, who took the time from his busy pre-Thanksgiving schedule to let us know how the game was conceived and what makes it such a well-loved product.
Jason Winter (JW): First of all, congrats on the open beta! Anyone who glances at Brawlhalla knows that it's inspired by that-which-shall-not-be-named-in-case-Nintendo-feels-like-cranking-up-its-lawyers. Other than being free-to-play, what did you look to change about that formula to make Brawlhalla stand out?
Matt Woomer (MW): Thanks! Yeah, we’re very excited to finally be in open beta. It’s been a long time coming, and we’re delighted at the response we’re getting from players. Yes, we definitely get compared to Smash Bros. – it's an occupational hazard of being in a genre with an 800 lb. gorilla. And obviously, it’s a great compliment to us to be compared to such an excellent game.
We want Brawlhalla to stand out as a fighting game first and foremost by being fun. We’ve probably spent more time working on (and arguing about) that crucial moment-to-moment feel of moving, attacking, and countering than all other features combined. It’s a million tiny decisions, and because we are always working on new characters and weapons, it will never be done.
Beyond that, we have three priorities for Brawlhalla:
First, we want Brawlhalla to have the best online experience of any fighting game. From the networking model, to server locations, to social features, to ranked play, our goal is to make Brawlhalla stand out online. We still have work to do, but we’re committed to it.
Second, we want Brawlhalla to have the best community of any fighting game. Regular updates are key there. A game that is living and growing helps the community more than anything else. We also have to keep involved ourselves, whether on forums or Reddit or streams. Competitive play is a big part of community too, so constantly balancing and adding features to support high-level play is important. Even though only a small percentage of players play at the highest level, those players are critical parts of our community.
Third, Brawlhalla has to pull new players in right away. From art and gameplay down to install times and system reqs, we need to have anyone pick up the game and be having fun within minutes. Taking the team to conventions has helped a great deal there. Nothing motivates a dev to tighten up new player experience like 48 straight hours of watching people pick up the game for the first time.
JW: You're in open beta right now. Sure, no online game is never really “finished,” but what steps do you need to take to get Brawlhalla ready for its formal launch?
MW: You are right – our model, even more than most online games, means Brawlhalla will always be getting new characters, new levels, new game modes and new features. So really for us, formal launch is less about specific features, and more about polish. When we get to the point that we feel the gameplay is polished, the UI is polished, the online experience is polished, then we’ll talk about a formal launch.
JW: I love the aesthetics of the game. How did you settle on the art style and the Norse “feel” of the overall storyline of legends fighting in Valhalla?
MW: Thanks again. We work hard on it! The art vision of Brawlhalla is to make every screenshot feel like a frame of classic hand-drawn animation: painted backgrounds behind inked and colored animation cels. Obviously a totally hand-drawn look is impossible given the massive animation and art requirements of the game, but we’re always working toward that goal. The trick is simple – just have amazing artists who love 2-D animation and let them run.
To be honest, the setting just flowed naturally from the name, and the storyline flowed from the setting. Also what more natural way to have cowboys, pirates, aliens, and Vikings fighting together? If we hadn’t done Valhalla, I think we would have had to have them be crazy people in Halloween costumes.
JW: You've already got a pretty full roster of legends, having just added Ember recently. At what rate do you think you'll add new legends to the game?
MW: We’re not sure yet. A character every five or six weeks would be a great pace. But we can’t force it – we want each new character to really add something to the game.
JW: I'll admit, I'm a little surprised by how large and dedicated the Brawlhalla community is. Just glancing at the Reddit shows a ton of activity. What's the best or most unexpected thing you've ever heard from a player, or from the community in general?
MW: We love our players. Seriously. Love. I’m not just saying that. I probably would say that even if it weren’t true. But it is true. They are amazing. The arc of development of the game has been a slow bend toward collaborative development with the community. Now basically all aspects of development from feature priorities to bug fixes to new characters and weapons are driven by a steady back and forth with the community.
Favorite thing? I don’t really know where to begin. Whenever anyone puts up fan art it always gets posted in our internal forum, so that’s awesome. Boo and Fate’s tier list last week was awesome. The top plays and montage vids are always great. I love listening to the tournament shoutcasts. The replay system plus gfycat have yielded amazing results. I could go on and on.
JW: The competitive scene for Brawlhalla is really great, and I see a little bit of tournament talk on the Reddit, but I can't quite tell if they're player-run or officially sanctioned. Do you have plans for a major e-sports push, with sanctioned tournaments, prizes, etc.?
MW: All tournaments so far have been player-run. And there have been some amazing ones. In fact that’s an excellent example of where the community interest has helped guide our long term strategy for the game. So what I’m saying is, stay tuned!
JW: Brawlhalla does something that's almost unthinkable in any game, and that's offer refunds of in-game purchases. How was it decided to offer this?
MW: Well, to be completely honest, we are not a big studio, and handling refund requests on a case by case basis is just not an option now that we have so many players. So we had to choose between no refunds ever, or let players do it themselves as long as they don’t abuse it. We chose the latter, and so far so good.
JW: Finally, a little personal preference: Who's your favorite legend? And who do you hate being matched up against?
MW:: Wow, that’s like asking who’s my favorite kid. I do like Bodvar, because Bear! I’m always pushing for more over-the-top signatures like that. I’m old and slow now, so fast weapons like sword and katar are hard to handle. Asuri chews me up.
Thanks again. I really appreciate you guys!
JW: Thanks, Matt!
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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