Developed by a core team of just two people, CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling
represents a blend of old-school wrestling games infused with new tech. With this being VICO Game Studio’s first Unreal Engine-powered game, we spoke with Executive Producer David Horn and Lead Programmer and Producer Eugene Tchoukrov to see how they handled the transition.
With CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling being the studio’s third wrestling game, what have you learned from the first two titles that you’ve built upon for CHIKARA?
Executive Producer David Horn: Well, the first game, Action Arcade Wrestling, was done completely by one person. The team who worked on this game only came together during the development of the second. So, there was quite a bit of education needed to describe the vision of the first game.
By the time we were ready for the third, CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling, we had already experienced many of the pitfalls in developing a wrestling game, especially one that includes a creation suite. Once wrestlers can be created by users, an entirely different approach needed to be taken. Every decision must be widened to allow for almost any possibility of content. There’s a good amount that needs to be abstracted; almost like writing a play without knowing any of the main characters.
With varied wrestling games throughout the years, were there any titles that you particularly drew inspiration from?
Horn: WWF WrestleFest was our main influence, but our game really draws from elements of a lot of wrestling games that came out in the 90s. The darker lit crowd was inspired by WWF WrestleMania for SNES and the over-the-top moves were inspired by Saturday Night Slam Masters. We were also inspired to marry the elements of those games with grappling systems from the 64-bit era.
What’s interesting, at least to us, is that saying our game is an arcade pro wrestling game seems to be a very specific niche. However, within that genre, there has already been a wide spectrum of game styles. The aforementioned WrestleFest was very “arcadey” but it was still grounded in real-world physics, as opposed to WWF WrestleMania Arcade, which literally had a wrestler’s arms morphing into razor blades. The more recent WWE All-Stars, on the other hand, sort of struck a middle ground between realism and being over-the-top.
Separating itself from most other wrestling games, CHIKARA features power-ups that enable temporary stat boosts and allows players to perform superhuman abilities. What drew the studio to include those elements?
Horn: Well, even the original WWF game for the Nintendo saw characters getting power-ups, albeit very bizarrely. There have been other instances, mostly in the Japanese games, where players would earn certain items to get certain boosts. I remember as a kid playing M.U.S.C.L.E. for the NES and random flashing orbs would roll into the ring to make your character more powerful for a time.
Once we started to play around with the idea, it snowballed into “how could this not only work in the game, but differently for each match type?” For instance, during a battle royal, if you see a person trying to eliminate an opponent, looking at what power-up you might want to steal can determine which wrestler you help.
What drew the studio to the game’s cel-shaded look?
Horn: Once we started experimenting with the look, we decided to go with the cel-shaded aesthetic. For one thing, it made it easier for users to generate content since they didn’t have to worry about spending so much time making realistic versions of wrestlers. Secondly, it really fit the genre we were going for; for instance, when you look at the game and its cel-shaded appearance, you know instantly that it’s probably not a slow simulation game. And finally, it completely fits the theme of the CHIKARA wrestling organization, as they’re known as being a “comic book [that’s] come to life.”
With the game featuring hundreds of hand-made animations, can you touch upon how you created them?
Horn: We met an amazingly talented animator named Erik Novak during the development of the second game. We contracted him to do a majority of the animations for CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling. We were very blessed to work with him.
One of the crazy parts about making a Pro Wrestling game is that once the animations have been… well… animated, you’re about 10 percent done. The animation then has to be imported, categorized, and converted into an Anim-Montage, and assigned another animation for the “receive” counterpart. Then that move has a reversal which then, in turn, has a “reversal receive” move to go along with it. Then each move has branch points to define reversal points, sound effects, rope bounces, special effects, points in the animation where tables, wrestlers, or other surrounding entities will be impacted, and more. Suffice it to say, it’s quite an undertaking.
With the free Wrestle Factory suite that you’ve created for the game, CHIKARA features some of the most robust character customization options out of any wrestling title yet. Can you talk about the importance of this inclusion and explain how you implemented it?
Horn: We didn’t want to release a wrestling game without a create-a-wrestler mode. There are some games that decide not to, and we totally get that, but we felt that we could create something that could really branch us out into some creative areas that indie wrestling games might not always go. When you look on YouTube and see a match between superheroes and/or old-time wrestling favorites, you might think “that’s pretty cool for being a small indie wrestling game” because not many of them have in-depth creation tools.
But to take things a step further… seeing a match between a soda machine and a pencil? Now we’re getting the “Wait… What?!” reactions, and that always makes us smile. We’re showing folks things they’ve never seen before in a wrestling game or with user-generated content in general.
Lead Programmer and Producer Eugene Tchoukhrov: [Regarding the character customization feature,] we implemented it as a separate, special build of the game to help us streamline development and iteration, and to make sure that the codebases are in-sync, which is very important.
We wanted players on all platforms to be able to download and enjoy creations made by anyone else, which meant that we’d need a unified pipeline for these creations across all platforms. This was probably the most important piece to test and verify before we committed to developing the creation tool. We had to develop three parts of the game simultaneously: the creation tool (the bit that allowed the actual creation, which included texture processing, morphing, accessory creation, move list preview/setup, serialization, metadata generation, and uploading), the server-side (the bit that stored uploaded creation, processed queries, and retrieval), and the game-side parts (the bit that downloaded and loaded creations into a match). It was an interesting and challenging few months putting together the initial versions of these three creation system parts.
Considering this is the studio’s first UE4 game, how was the transition to the engine?
Tchoukhrov: Having a AAA level engine at our disposal was fantastic. We no longer had to spend time reinventing the wheel putting in basic pipelines or rendering back-end stuff. We pretty much hit the ground running in that regard. Having source [code] access is probably the best thing about UE since it allowed us to fix bugs in the engine immediately, tweak core parts of the engine to our needs and, most importantly, add critical features to our game—like the morphing of NvCloth assets.
What made UE4 a good fit for the game?
Tchoukhrov: As mentioned earlier, having a AAA level engine that was easy to work with was tremendous. But it was the ability to start making the game right-away and having complete source access to tweak the engine to our needs. It has saved us countless times when we ran into a pesky bug or needed to add a unique feature to the engine.
Do you have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Tchoukhrov: DataTables. They are awesome and we use them everywhere to make as much of our game as dynamic as we can. It makes adding new modes a breeze and makes tweaking gameplay quick and easy. Oh, and Blueprints are cool as well!
Eugene, as someone with cerebral palsy, can you talk about what it’s been like to have a healthy and robust career as a video game programmer?
Tchoukhrov: It has been a pretty interesting ride so far and I’m very much enjoying it. I don’t think it has been too different from anyone else’s career in this field, to be honest. Sure, I work around physical hurdles to do what I do best, but at the end of the day, I’m doing it all because I love it; because seeing a bunch of lines of code turn into a suplex on-screen makes me smile, and because seeing other people play and enjoy the game you put countless hours into is an incredible experience. It makes the effort to work around the physical hurdles all worth it.
The game features a streamlined two-button control scheme. Can you speak to why you went with this accessible approach and elaborate on how you designed the combat system in general?
Horn: The two-button control scheme comes directly out of the arcades. Folks didn’t have the time to learn a complicated system of buttons after they put in their quarters. So, we wanted to capture that and further separate our game from what’s out there currently. We looked at games like Super Smash Bros to see how we can get the most out of it. We were able to lean on the fact that our game is played on a 2D plane. Adding modifiers for the directional buttons/arrows allowed us to expand what we could do.
What was the biggest challenge developing the game and how did you overcome it?
Tchoukhrov: The fighting/move system. Wrestling games are up there as some of the more difficult games to put together due to the myriad of scenarios that must be accounted for and handled correctly during a match.
The studio did a lot of work to create realistic rope and cloth physics for the game, even going as far as creating a plugin on the Unreal Marketplace. Can you shed some light on what this work entailed?
Tchoukhrov: To create the realistic rope and cloth physics, countless late nights were spent reading whitepapers with very long physics equations and figuring out the best way to convert them into working code. This was followed by more late nights converting the working simulation code into much faster SIMD code which was “fun…” and then adding multi-threading to the simulation, which was even more “fun.” Early on in the game’s development, [we] rigged up a simulated rope with collisions to test out as the ring ropes and it looked fantastic. We were using static animations until then. This little weekend prototype evolved into what is now a multi-platform soft-body simulation system that can simulate rope, cloth and volume-preserving soft-bodies (this is a recent development that is releasing as a free update soon). This plugin has been used in a number of games, most recently in Deliver Us The Moon. It has been super exciting and humbling to see how other games utilize the plugin.
In addition to contributing to the Unreal Marketplace, did the studio leverage anything from it?
Horn: The initial cel-shading came from the Marketplace as did several of the particle effects. The Marketplace was great for a small team because it really allowed us to be educated quickly. What we mean is that instead of spending tons of time understanding everything about UE’s particle systems, for instance, we could purchase something that was close to our vision, dissect it, and then use that information to create our own original Material.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about CHIKARA: Action Arcade Wrestling?