Thursday, September 11, 2014

Copycat Culture, part 4...

Last year Tencent turned the fighting game community upside down. Benimaru Nikaido and Terry Bogard, two star characters from the King of Fighters series appeared in Xuan Dou Zhi Wang / King of Combat. Up until that point the game was considered a wholesale rip-off of the KOF franchise by the fighting game community. Many of the characters looked and played like those from SNK games. Even the visual style, the aesthetics of the game, looked more like a KOF title than any other fighting game franchise. Whether Tencent paid an outrageous amount to get the two characters to appear in their game or whether SNK was building bridges to adapt King of Combat to Japan or see an exclusive KOF title made for China was not known. The developers at Tencent had done an amazing job of creating 3D models of Terry and Benimaru based on their sprites featured in KOF XIII. Whether this was because SNK shared 3D assets with the Chinese studio or whether they had done this from scratch was not known. Of course based on the accuracy of the models I would lean towards SNK sharing those characters with the Chinese. The look of the sprites in KOF XII and KOF XIII was very distinct. They were some of the highest quality figures ever featured in any 2D fighting game.

SNK wanted the visuals on their series to set a standard that could not be topped by their rivals. They had been rehashing sprites through most of the '90s. There was little progress made with the technology from the first KOF game in 1994 all the way through KOX XI in 2005. The majority of those games simply added an extra frame of animation to the sprites and added more intricate backgrounds to the stages. Players could tell that the graphics were getting very stale. When the company began planning out KOF XII they knew their graphics system was in dire need of an overhaul. So they started from scratch using a patented Dot Art technique. The system of creating the sprites and animations that had been employed by SNK, Capcom and their peers was outdated. It took a long time to correct errors in the game, especially during the crucial balancing process and redrawing sprites was slow and time consuming. For KOF XII the studio built a 3D engine to help with balancing the fighting engine and 3D models of many of the main characters for artists to work from. The programmers could balance the game on the fly and decide which animations needed to be recreated in sprite form. The studio then rotoscoped or traced the 3D models by hand and created an entirely new sprite library. The end result were sprites that were more colorful, more detailed and leagues ahead of the competition.

Tencent had managed to do a very good job at recreating the visual style of the Dot Art characters. Through careful use of textures, lighting and modeling the company was able to preserve the 2D aesthetic that SNK had worked so hard to achieve. The game community wondered who was ultimately responsible for creating the thousands of frames of animation required for the characters post KOF XII. The level of quality that SNK achieved was amazing but how was the company able to turn around those games while working on other titles at the same time? The hours that would be required to draw each and every character was astonishing. There seemed no way that the company could keep the franchise on any sort of timetable without help. Many wondered if the studio had outsourced their workload to another studio, perhaps another company in Japan or even China which would have been more cost effective.

Each character in KOF XII and XIII had hundreds of frames of animation associated with them. This was much greater than any other fighting game ever released. Most studios pushed a few dozen frames of animation for any special attack, SNK surpassed that count just having a character perform a standing animation. This achievement was not the only thing that SNK could show off. The sprites in their engines could be customized somewhat by players. The clothing, skin and hair colors could all be adjusted. The hue, saturation and brightness of the characters could be changed making each character look very different than the base model. SNK also had a rendering engine that illuminated sprites differently between levels. It could make the sprites appear as if they were fighting in the shade, direct sunlight or even at dusk. These were some of the rendering effects that Shanda was trying to achieve in KOF World before it was cancelled. Many wondered if Shanda was the studio that SNK had outsourced their sprite creation to. All of the features in KOF World seemed to be based on an engine that was more advanced than that used in the fighting games. Of course once the project was cancelled few outside of the company knew what became of the developers or assets they had been working with. That was of course until Tencent announced that Xuan Dou Zhi Wang would feature one of SNK's biggest stars.

SNK World began development in 2009 with Shanda and SNK Playmore as partners. The game was cancelled in 2011 much to the chagrin on the fighting community. Xuan Dou Zhi Wang appeared at the end of 2013 and was developed by Jade studio, one of the four main developers under Tencent. The space of time between the end of KOF World and the beta of King of Combat was enough to develop a solid fighting game. Especially one that had all of the insight and nuances from a King of Fighters release. It Tencent was not using talent they had poached from Shanda then they certainly did a good job of copying everything they were working on. The lack of originality from Tencent would be called out again and again by the gaming community. Yet it would also serve to show how selective that community was when it came to calling out western studios for doing the same thing. It can all be boiled down to a fighting panda bear. The next blog will show why.

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