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Jul112013

« House Of M: A Look Into Super Smash Bros. Community Mod Project M »

Gamers have a certain affinity for titles of years past. In the fighting game realm, it's noticeable with such games as Super Street Fighter II Turbo, The King of Fighters '98, Darkstalkers 3/Vampire Savior and a couple of others. Next to the fighting game community, the competitive Super Smash Bros. scene have their own with Super Smash Bros. Melee, the second entry in the popular Nintendo crossover series.

"To put it simply, Melee got a lot of things right," a consensus response by the Project M team in our e-mail interview.

This team's fondness for Melee led to development of recreating the feeling and experience through the third entry, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Brawl might have looked better and had a bigger cast, the members of Project M were resentful of its gameplay that differed from that of Melee.

Through advancements in the Nintendo Wii's homebrew efforts, the team's efforts are able to be realized with this special mod.

Genesis

For Project M to centralize on gameplay and how it affects the competitive factor, it's interesting to note that members of the development team have varied backgrounds. Some have their combative experience in the scene while others were focused on modding, each of them being a fan of the Smash series.

"I've been playing Melee competitively nearly as long as there have been tournaments for it," senior developer Yeroc said. "My activity level in the community has been up and down at different times, but since becoming involved in Brawl+ turned Project M, I have been much more active in attending tournaments for both Melee and Project M."

Playtester Vigilante_Blade was engaged in the competitive Smash community from GameFAQs and later on in Smashboards, the largest forum hub dedicated to the series. His involvement concluded in 2008 when Brawl released but would revisit the series when Project M was announced back in 2010.

The massive strengths from the Melee iteration of Falco make a return in Project M to reign once more.Jiang, one of the senior designers behind Project M, played Smash casually "with family and friends" up until Brawl where it didn't turn out as well as expected.

"The Brawl competitive scene was not my cup of tea, something about the gameplay wasn't that fun for me, so I gave up on it, however the hacking scene piqued my interest," Jiang said. "The idea of a competitive mod was a bit of a pipedream in the early hacking days of Brawl, fast forward a thousand dedicated man hours and now here we are."

Senior designer Strong Bad has a similar background to Jiang of playing casually but his engagement, since the original Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64, expanded when grinding through the gameplay aspects found on Melee.

"I was then introduced to competitive Melee by a friend from high school in late 2007, and learned a lot about its depth in the months leading up to Brawl's release," Strong Bad said.

Strong Bad was disappointed of Brawl's gameplay as well but a 2008 tournament that featured highly skilled players such as Mew2King, RaynEX and Hungrybox would rekindle his love for Smash and strengthen his participation in the overall community. Strong Bad also was interested in modifying Brawl to be as competitive as Melee and thanks to a video which featured him performing a special throw combo against skilled player Mango, he became part of the Project M development team.

"I suppose you could say 'the rest is history,' from there, but in the past three and a half years working on Project M I've truly found myself as a person, player, and member of the Smash and fighting game community as a whole," Strong Bad said.

Moving Out

During the Wii's life cycle, homebrewing the hardware was a special trade. Along with many different mods in the console's spectrum, Brawl+, a precursor to Project M, was introduced. B+ aimed to create a competitive experience in Brawl featuring traits found in Melee, albeit not feeling exactly like its predecessor. During ongoing development, a core designer behind B+ was tinkering with Falco's reflector move, also called "Shine," which would serve as the inception to Project M and the eventual split from B+ development following.

At the time of departure, the issue B+ faced was that it lacked consistent identify. "By splitting off from Brawl+, the original goal was to let B+ be more free to establish its own identity by letting the Melee-types do their own thing -- perhaps each group would be more productive making their own games, different enough to coexist, rather than working together on something that was too much of a compromise to make anyone happy," they mention.

Instead of trying to make B+ become closer to that of Melee, the Project M team would begin anew and have a specific focus to allow them to develop with a "more stable frame of reference" due to their knowldege in the expansive metagame history and staff members in favor of the game.

For The Love Of The Game

Super Smash Bros. Melee is still being played competitively since its release back in 2001. While Super Smash Bros. Brawl is the most recent entry, it's been argued that Melee is the better game due to many gameplay factors that's null or reduced in Brawl.

One of the major traits found in Melee include the fast speed, unlike Brawl's slower output. Despite the pacing, the team explained that it "rewards an intimate demonstration of precision and finesse even in this often hectic and chaotic environment."

Toon Link (right) has been designed to utilize aspects found from his Brawl representation, Young Link from Melee and classic Link from the original Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64. Ike (left) has been provided greater flexibility to make him less predictable than his Brawl iteration.The Project M team also mentions that Melee's combo system depth allows "emphasizing improvisation over bread and butter due to the introduction of Directional Influence (player movement when launched) as a mechanic and the concept of moves dealing more knockback and histun as percent increases." Opposite to that in Brawl is that the team refer to combos being "non-existent or filled with 'auto-combos' where the victim can do nothing to prevent them or make them more difficult for the attacker."

These traits found in Brawl along with other factors such as tripping, a mechanic which forces a player to fall down when excessively dashing for example, were considered detriments to Brawl's competitive output.

"It’s no secret that Brawl was intentionally aimed at a casual audience," says the Project M team. "What makes Brawl so much different from a competitive standpoint is that the developers seemed to look at the complexities of Melee gameplay, and rather than embrace the existing depth and inherent reward of learning to master that depth, they chose to simply ignore and remove those complexities altogether in favor of a simpler, supposedly more approachable experience."

"The flaw of this reasoning is that removing this depth ultimately does nothing but harm to the long-term enjoyment factor of the game," the team provided.

Skyscraper Under Construction

Along with the mechanics, characters are the other side to what makes Melee, and Project M, tick. A majority of characters staple to the series such as Mario and Fox as well as ones that originally appeared in Melee including Marth and Falco are available to play in Brawl. The third Smash game also expands the cast with new characters featuring Solid Snake, Sonic The Hedgehog and R.O.B..

For a mod to have Brawl feel close to that of Melee, the team still considers the game's additional characters important to the development.

"We look at a character's design in Brawl, and come up with ideas for any changes that need to be made to better fit into the Melee environment," says the team. "After that, we readjust the physics and other attributes to be more aligned with Melee veterans. While that's going on, we start working on actually implementing any of our proposed design changes, and work on tweaking attack stats to be more like comparable moves in Melee."

Before fully certifying a character, the team initiates playtests to determine how they stack up against the rest of the cast as well as discover any bugs followed by any necessary changes. While the overall work of a character in Project M on average takes around 50 to 100 hours, the team worked on the majority concurrently since the announcement of the mod. Modifying a character can vary in difficulty.

As of this piece, a handful of characters are still in development with their own set of challenges.

In Brawl, Meta Knight was arguably one of the best characters of the game due to his fast and powerful tools against the rest of the cast. "We wanted to aim for something that both Brawl and Melee fans would like, so there was a lot of discussion about what design elements should stay and which should go," the team said. While they are staying quiet in regards to what changes are applied, the team did add that his glide ability is now limited only after using his up special move, "Shuttle Loop."

For both characters Ice Climbers and Kirby, their challenges are within the game's programming code. The team considers the former "very difficult" due to the code's complexity involving the computer controlled assistant, Nana. For the latter, the team has to go through modifying Kirby's "Copy" special in order to make it useful, have it work within the Melee environment and redesign a copy move after Kirby inhales a specific character if necessary.

Even meant to create the Melee experience, balance is still a serious aspect that the staff considers. They consider the higher tiered characters and implement them as "gameplay elements" in the mod. "This does sometimes carry the side effect of having to balance to a rather high standard, and the potential for runaway abuse of some of our own designs becomes a constant awareness point for us," says the team. "While we have no intention of nerfing Melee top tiers at this point, we will ultimately do whatever makes the most sense to achieve the best overall balance for Project M possible."

Outside of making characters, the Project M team have a flexible development process. Members of the staff are given the ability to provide different skills which helps in collaboration and to "keep it very fun for everyone."

"We can probably best be described as a Do-ocracy: an idea is voiced, accepted, and tasks identified to bring the idea into reality that are then broken out to volunteers," the team said. "These tasks range from creating new character animations, new graphical effects, the occasional costume recolor or model tweak, and even non-development jobs like website design, advertising and PR work and overall project direction, which is handled by a small group of leading developers."

The Outside World

Jigglypuff's "Rest" ability recieves the necessary high damage capability from Melee now in Project M!For a future version of Project M, the team will add a feature originally made to be an April Fools joke. Inspired by Melee Impossible, a combo video where moves can be cancelled on-hit through use of a GameShark code, Turbo Mode performs very similarly. "We realized on the very same day that we could recreate the code in Project M very easily, and so we wanted to put it into the game somehow," they said. "We always planned to release it once we figured out how to use Special Brawl as the toggle switch for Turbo Mode, and so we went for the "meta" joke as an obvious April Fools' Day prank turned inside out."

With almost three years of development, the staff at Project M continues to work without any contact from Nintendo especially with the announcement of the fourth Super Smash Bros. coming to the Wii U and 3DS.

"Several of us are optimistic that the new Smash, while obviously slightly less geared for ultra-competitive players like Melee and Project M, can still be a fun and enjoyable Smash game, and possibly even competitive in its own way," the team answered.

For the game that inspired the mod, Melee was chosen at EVO 2013 after numerous donations as part of the eight game charity drive. The team is "extremely excited" for its return since its premiere in 2007. Some of the members will be at the event to compete as well as hype up Project M!

"We will be happy to discuss Project M with anybody there," they concluded.

Project M is currently available for public download, as version 2.5b, with a majority of the cast available to play. The upcoming version 2.6 will be arriving in the coming weeks.

Make sure to check out Project M's official website for more news and how to download the latest version yourself! Also check them out on Twitter!

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