Developing Chess Fighting Game Checkmate Showdown

BadRez Games' Mathias Theys and ManaVoid Entertainment's Christopher Chancey and Antoine Bordeleau told us about the challenges of creating Checkmate Showdown and morphing classical chess pieces into 3D animated characters. 

Introduction

ANTOINE BORDELEAUCheckmate Showdown is actually a collaboration between two Montreal-based indie studios – ManaVoid Entertainment and BadRez Games. Both are members of the Indie Asylum, an incubator/accelerator hub for indies that we founded in 2017. 

BadRez Games is one of the most recent studios to have joined the collective, and we’ve been working together on Checkmate Showdown ever since they came in. The studio was built around one idea: to make top-notch indie fighting games. One of the founders – and game director on Checkmate Showdown – Mathias Theys actually is a competitive Mortal Kombat player, so it’s in the very DNA of the studio to build out tight, precise combat that stays approachable to newcomers to the fighting genre. 

ManaVoid Entertainment was founded in 2014 and grew from a 3-employee startup in a basement to a 40+ strong creative powerhouse working on multiple projects in parallel in that short time. We shipped Epic Manager in 2017 and proceeded to launch Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan on PC and consoles in 2021. The studio aims to blend known genres and styles into brand-new experiences that will feel both familiar and refreshing to players. As one of the founding members of the Indie Asylum, our studio is all about collaboration, making inspiring (and sometimes wacky!) games in a fundamentally human way. We’ve also launched Purple is Royal, a spin-off company that handles everything marketing-related for our titles. ManaVoid is working on both Checkmate Showdown and Roots of Yggdrasil at the moment.

Checkmate Showdown

CHRISTOPHER CHANCEYOne of the biggest challenges in game design is coming up with mechanics, systems, and rules that are coherent and easily tutorialized so that players can get into a game and start developing their mastery and autonomy as fast as possible. 

With Chess, there are over 600 million people in the world who already know the rules so this is already a big plus! I was a big fan of Archon and MK Deception growing up, which were already tactical chess-like games, and this is an idea that we had on the back burner since around 2015. Once Queen's Gambit came out and competitive chess came back to the forefront on YouTube and Twitch, we knew we had to act on our idea.

Chess is the ultimate strategy game, and although fighting games are more on the execution side, there's a ton of strategy there too. The mix of genres became a natural one. The game development challenge we had wasn't in its design but in the execution of two perfectly balanced competitive games mashed up into one!

Mechanics

MATHIAS THEYSWhen starting this project, we wanted to make sure of two things: having a strong link between the strategy part on the board and the combat sequence, and NOT having a game where the only part that mattered was the fighting. Of course, Checkmate Showdown being a fighting game first and foremost makes it so the fighting part has to have a bit of an advantage over the chess part. 

The first things that everyone says when we talk about the game are always: "Aren't you afraid the games are gonna last too long?" or "Okay, so I just have to be better at combat and not care about the chess game?". We wondered the same things when starting to work on this project. We answered those issues by making the pawns non-fighters. They instantly capture and are instantly captured. That gives them much more power than every other piece that has to go to a fight and win it to ensure capture. 

If you want to stop your opponent from using a piece you know they master, you want to take them with your pawn on the board. You can even take your opponent's king with the pawn. That is where the mind games on the board can be effective. 

Making that choice gave us many advantages throughout the development: you avoid repeating pawn vs. pawn combat, the matches aren't too long because half of the pieces on the board don't fight, and it also reduced the scope by removing one fighter to design. In the case of a small production like ours, it does relieve some space and time for the team to focus on other things. 

My favorite feature that cements the link between the two genres is definitely the tag assist. Whenever a piece is defended by another piece, or if you could have used more than one piece to attack an opponent, you can use that piece to help you in combat. The assisting piece can be summoned several times throughout the fight and helps your fighter by extending their combo, providing additional damage. Assists have been a way for fighting games to extend players’ creativity. You can make so much more damage using this feature. 

Additionally, when you attack, you want to have an advantage during combat. What's the point of attacking otherwise? When you attack one of your opponent’s pieces, you are rewarded with a reloadable credit of your piece's ultimate attack. This is a high-damage attack (30% of health) that is generally safe and that you can also place inside a combo. 

We wanted to give players more options in combat as they position their pieces wisely on the board, and we wanted to make it more elegant than just giving a damage bonus or a health bonus.

This advantage can make a huge difference, even for two players that don't have the same level in combat. We actually saw this happening in a local tournament that we held: a non-experienced fighter player beat an experienced one, thanks to using their pieces carefully and making sure they are the one attacking most of the time. 

We knew we had something there when that happened.

Development

MATHIAS THEYSWith Checkmate Showdown being our first fighting game in what we hope will be a long line of fighting games, we had to build everything from the ground up here. That includes our own basic experience and our knowledge of how to actually make a fighting game. Usually, the process would be straightforward: you design the move set of your character, based on what they look like and what their in-game intentions are, and then you create the rigs/animations, add visual effects here and there, the sounds, and it's done. 

Unfortunately, it is not as simple in the case of a fighting game, especially when it is your first. We have had so many reviews, and reworks because we realized some moves were too strong or not interesting enough. Sometimes you realize there is a hole in your fighting mechanic. A lot of things can go wrong in balancing. 

What we eventually did was that we designed a lot more moves and options than we would have for every character, so we could choose which ones we would bring to the next level, and which ones we would give up. 

As a small team, we tried to maximize the reuse of our visual effects systems and sounds as well. It has been a challenge, but we learnt a lot during this process.

Characters

Morphing classical chess pieces into 3D animated characters has been a huge challenge while making this game. At the beginning of the production, we wanted to have more abstract characters. As long as each character had a reference smart enough to relate to their piece, it would help us build a more diversified roster. When you think about the king, you think about the crown, when you think about a knight, you think about a helmet, armor, and a sword. 

But on the chessboard, you recognize the king by the cross above his head. And the knight is not even a knight, it is the actual horse that a knight would be riding. When we realized it was harder than we thought to build complex characters with different body shapes, facial animations, etc., we decided to take a much simpler approach: how about just turning traditional chess pieces into humanoid fighters?
With that in mind, players could, in the blink of an eye, recognize which character was which piece when looking at the board. And it was the smart choice to do in our context: simple and efficient. 
We wanted each character to have a specific fighting archetype associated with it, and we tried as much as possible to find a fit with how they play or look on board. Take the bishop, for example, it usually is the piece that you don't see coming and walks through the entire board in one move. It is also the piece that you can easily take out of your initial layout. We made it the rush down. Fast and strong, with advancing attacks. It made sense for us. Another thing that we took time to think about was the special moves of each character. We made it so that in the fighting game, special moves would look like the moves that pieces can do on the board. 

The bishop has diagonal attacks, and the knight's projectile trajectories are shaped in 'L'. It was a fun chess reference to add to the fighting part of the game.

Feedback

ANTOINE BORDELEAUThe response we’ve seen is truly incredible. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read retweets of our ads saying, "Finally, Chess 2", "What the fuck is this?!" or "Finally, someone brought back Archon!". I think we have something truly unexpected that players are resonating strongly with; we’ve seen these kinds of chess-mixed-with-whatever-else before, but the fact that we’re committing so strongly to authenticity in the mix of genres seems to be eliciting a lot of excitement, both in the chess and fighting game fan communities. 

And let’s be honest, we kind of got pretty lucky with the timing on this. While we foresaw the rise of chess streaming and its overall popularity bump, we couldn’t dream of announcing the game the same year as all of the big fighting game franchises come out with bombastic new projects and a firm commitment to creating a new golden age for the genre. That’s serendipity for you! 

The FGC has truly been an incredible community of people to work with up to now, with top players and organizations reaching out organically to know more about the game and the Discord server taking a life on its own almost overnight. It’s kind of a marketer’s dream come true: you just write down "Chess meets Fighting Games", and most people automatically get the concept. You show them 15 seconds of gameplay and they’re like, "Ok, I need to play this NOW!". 

Challenges

CHRISTOPHER CHANCEYTechnically speaking, online multiplayer is always a challenge to pull off. Syncing frames when players are making split-second decisions is tough for any company, let alone an indie! That being said, the biggest challenge we put on ourselves was to make the game fun for the hardcore players of both genres. Fighting games and Chess players are extremely passionate and competitive, if we messed up one or the other, we would be flamed by the communities.

We're really proud to say that we've managed to make it work, having playtested with pros in both spheres we know we've got something special in our hands!

MATHIAS THEYSFrom a production standpoint, we’ve had two major focuses that have driven the project throughout its whole development: making sure we always have a minimally playable version of the game, in case things go south financially (and it can when you are an indie dev studio), and having the best online experience we can. 

For that second focus, the answer we had was to use rollback netcode. When you make that choice, it completely redefines the way you make your game, technically. And it affects every part of it: the code, the animations, the visual effects, the sound, and even your design choices. And none of the game engines on the market are ready for rollback netcode. You have to make it from scratch and hold it up for every feature you make in the game. Online games are hard to do. Fortunately, this project set the bases for every other online fighting game that we will do in the future. 

Another thing that we learnt and that we will reuse in the future: when you make a fighting game, you have to think about most of what every different character can do before you enter into production. Generally, when you make a game, you use the preproduction phase in order to make one level, make it good, and it has every flavor the game can offer before you enter full production. 

So in our case, what we did originally was: let's make one character, make it good and interesting, and spin-off from this character as we into production. Alright, lesson learned: we will not do that in our next projects. As soon as we started adding more characters to the game, it completely broke the balance with the first character. 

When you do a fighting game, try to make sure to think about your game and characters as a whole before moving forward.

ANTOINE BORDELEAUOn the marketing side of things, we have been learning a TON from this project. We’ve never seen such a quick influx of attention on a soft announcement before, and we had to adapt and react very quickly to make sure we weren’t losing any momentum or opportunities. The FGC is a different beast altogether than "regular" indie communities, they’re a really passionate bunch and it’s been awesome (and a bit overwhelming) to get so much feedback on every single aspect of the game coming at us from all sides, all the time. Couldn’t dream of a better team to sustain the community, and our brand manager Kev Chancey has been an absolute beast in dealing with this exponential growth. 

We’re learning how to communicate efficiently with these communities, we’re learning more about expectation management and I believe everything we’ve worked on for this project in terms of pipelines and marketing rollout will be more valuable than any marketing masterclass we could have attended.

Mathias Theys, Game Director & Studio Lead at BadRez Games

Christopher Chancey, CEO of ManaVoid Entertainment

Antoine Bordeleau, Marketing Director at ManaVoid Entertainment & General Manager at Purple is Royal

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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