“Are there such things as “tiers” in fighting games?”

Post that sentence in any fighting game forum, and watch the sparks fly. Every fighting game fan has a stance on this issue (the answer’s YES, OF COURSE!), but for those who are unfamiliar, here’s a little background.

Tiers, theoretically, are unofficial, ranked lists of a game’s fighters. Often put together by professional gamers, a tier list claims to evaluate, from an objective standpoint, which fighters are the ‘best.’

Competitive gamers create tiers from minuscule subtleties that the casual gamer would not notice. Take frame data, for example. Players will count the frames of animation to determine the speed of a punch or kick, and thus, can objectively determine which fighters have the most ‘priority.’ Players will also count the frame advantage gained when a punch is blocked or dodged – how big is the window to launch a counter move?

Game developers will often keep a close eye on this meta-game. Via updates, they will adjust frame rates and individual moves as needed. This, of course, reignites the forum debates. Who got buffed? Who got nerfed? What’s the tier list now? And so forth.

“But wait,” you might interject. “I play [insert favorite character] extremely well. I can beat all of my friends! Plus, her virtual boobs make me feel tingly all over. Why is she ranked so lowly?”

Emotions and personal favorites, theoretically, do not figure into a tier list. Instead, a tier list posits that if each character is played to his or her absolute, fullest potential, some characters will consistently win over others. At the highest levels of professional, competitive play, gamers will practice diligently with their high tier characters, and thus give themselves the best chance of advancing in a tournament.

Human beings are naturally competitive – it’s a Darwinian precept that has kept our species thriving. Human beings will make a serious competition out of anything, regardless of whether it was meant to be one. And no one – absolutely no one – in the fighting game universe proves this more fervently than Super Smash Bros. fans. Never before, in the history of fighting games, have a group of fans tried so hard to make a party game into a competitive experience.

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Maxime Bruno, better known by the Internet handle ‘Vigilante,’ is one of those fans. Bruno is a leading member of Project M, a modded attempt to ‘balance’ Super Smash Brawl and bring it more in line with its predecessor, Super Smash Melee. Initiated in 2010, the Project M mod is available for free on projectmgame.com - the 3.01 version launched in early January.

“Before Project M was even a thing, our founding members were fiddling around with Brawl's coding to try and recreate Melee's Falcon in Brawl's engine,” Bruno says. “This started off as simple curiosity to see just how far Brawl’s modding could be taken, but they soon realized that given enough time and effort, almost everything could be edited.”

Project M uses Melee as its chief source of inspiration, and the creators see their target audience as encompassing all Brawl fans, both hardcore and casual.

“Some who support this project are in it for the thrills of competitive smashing, while others are party smashers who just like the more responsive feel and the new content of the game,” Bruno says. “There was certainly a large demand for a faster-paced game, and we felt that we could accomplish what was needed to provide that experience.”

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‘Fast paced’ was a signature component of Super Smash Melee, which was released for the GameCube in 2001. Its speed and hair trigger controls took dedication to master, and its advanced tactics, such as Wavedashing and L-Canceling, took practice to use appropriately.

When Nintendo released its sequel, Super Smash Brawl, in 2008, it was met with critical and public acclaim. Today, Brawl is considered one of the greatest video games on the Wii – a game that was arguably worth the price of the console. Everyone seemed to love Brawl - everyone, that is, except for the competitive fans, many of who continued playing Melee instead of switching over.

From this particular subset of fans, the complaints were numerous. Many of these gamers decried what they saw as a ‘dumbing down’ of their franchise, meant to pull in new, amateur competitors. Wavedashing, for instance, was removed. The fighting itself was slowed down, which made for a less hectic, easier to control experience.

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More notably, however, the levels and characters endured a surgical critique on Internet forums. Some characters, such as MetaKnight, were outright banned from some tournaments for being too powerful. Levels were also banned, some for favoring long-range fighters over short-range fighters. Random, collectible items, such as the Donkey Kong hammer, were derided as game breakers rather than minor assists.

But what was the proper solution to this? Adjust something even slightly, and it could be exploited in some unforeseen way. Ban or remove a feature entirely, and the game could become a dull, colorless slog, robbed of the whimsical flavor that makes the Super Smash Bros. franchise so beloved. Fans could be harsh as well - the Internet is no place for kindly worded feedback, and it’s one of the reasons why Project M keeps its development close to the vest.

“I remember when one of the developers was excited to share an idea with the public about Bowser,” recalls Owen Schneider, also known as ‘smk.’ “He showed some concept art of Bowser armoring through an attack. Suffice to say, the public didn't seem too pleased with the idea, and were skeptical, if not entirely disrespectful, towards the developer who posted it.”

“This incident pushed us away from being open to the public about character design. And now, you can see the end result in Bowser today. He has armor frames on many of his slower moves, but the character isn't overpowered like many posters thought would be the case.”

If the developers are a little sensitive, it’s only because Project M is comprised of meticulous perfectionists - no concern is too minor, no detail is too minute to overlook. When Project M released Version 3.0, they also released a ‘changelist’ for all the characters that received minor tweaks. Here is a partial list of changes to Sonic the Hedgehog:

  • Neutral Air hits one frame sooner and stays strong slightly longer. The Initial hitboxes were slightly increased in size, and knockback on all hits tweaked to aid in comboing and late-percent kills.
  • Neutral Air animation tweaked for polish
  • Back Air has increased start up reminiscent of Brawl's, and increased damage and knockback on all hitboxes. IASA window starts two frames earlier.

These changes are both aesthetic and practical, and this degree of attention is given to every character. The original Brawl roster had 39 characters, but Project M adds two characters, Roy and Mewtwo, to bring the total to 41. With its additional characters, additional stages, and additional play modes,Project M has become its own entity, more a sequel to Brawl than a modification.

Nintendo, to their credit, have neither commented nor responded to <i>Project M</i>, and they have not taken any punitive legal action. It’s a hopeful sign – that a fan game, that shows so much respect to its source material, is being permitted to exist and thrive.

“We have not been in direct contact with Nintendo at this point,” Bruno says, “But we really respect them as developers, and that is why we are only providing legal methods of playing Project M.”

“We encourage everyone to keep supporting Nintendo. We try to respect their intellectual property and treat it with as much professionalism as possible.”

It’s impressive, truly, that Project M has been able to maintain this professionalism consistently. What started as a casual collaboration between a few people has blossomed into a complex, multi-layered organization.

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“We communicate 100% online - though there are occasions where we're able to see each other in person,” Schneider says. “But those instances are rare, and only come up at major tournaments that are hosting Project M as an event.”

“Back in 2010, there wasn't much of a structure to our team. We were very small, maybe 10-15 people at the time, so there wasn't really quite a need for specific roles. Most people fell into their roles based on what they were able to do and felt like doing. Right now, our structure is far more specific, from playtesters to coders to content contributors to artists to animators. Of course, since this kind of work is still something we all do in our spare time, it's still far from how actual development teams work.”

“I’m a senior PM developer and also a graduate student pursuing my Ph.D.,” says Shawn Yeldell, also known as ‘Shell.’ “Research, teaching, classes, and reading can take 55-70 hours each week, all while getting compensated with a stipend that works out to less than minimum wage on an hourly basis.”

“Many other developers are also currently involved in some kind of education, be it high school, undergraduate, or graduate school. Unfortunately, we’ve had several release dates land right at the end of fall or spring semesters, just when many developers are trying to take care of finals. This is part of the reason we’re somewhat infamous for releasing updates at the very last moment – sorry about that. Hopefully, everyone can understand how busy we are and pardon our occasional tardiness.”

It’s a sobering realization to see all of this impressive work, and realize that it was done for free and released for free – a massive undertaking that demands so much, and financially, offers nothing in return.

“Mods are born from love,” says Bruno. “We love Super Smash Bros. Many of us have poured an unreasonable amount of our free time into this series, and a mod is a means to create more content – to prolong and enhance the replay value of a game one loves.”

“Our greatest motivation is a desire to create a game that we will enjoy playing for a long time. We greatly appreciate all of the fan support, and we are thrilled to see Project M in large-scale tournaments, gaming circles, and homes all around the world. Our motivation, however, is mostly intrinsic. We just enjoy what we do.”

For more information on Project M, and to download the latest copy of their mod, visit projectmgame.com.

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