(Metagame Archive) “How Did Those Guys Think of That?”

By Brian Hacker

One of the questions I have always been interested in is how humans come up with creative ideas. Countless times while watching films or reading books, I am struck by an idea, and I have no idea how its inventor could have had it. In domains where I have no expertise, like music or cooking, this can be especially puzzling, because I can’t even imagine the steps one could take to attain the mastery to be able to have such ideas! Game design is a field where I know a thing or two, so hopefully I can write coherently about the creative process inside it. This article is for those who want to understand where the ideas came from for a Vs. set that I recently worked on, Marvel Knights.

Brian Wilson, Feels, and an Inspiring Top 8


Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, used to describe his composition method as attempting to first intuit “feels,” which were short pieces of music that evoked a particular feeling. These “feels” would become the basis of a song, one that often had many different arrangements in it that would still use the same “feel.” I think that my process in game design is very similar.

While preparing to be the lead designer on Marvel Knights, I judged a Top 8 match between Craig Krempels and Nick Little. I noticed that both players were having awful turns with the initiative. Often, a big character would attack a smaller one and be stopped by an Acrobatic Dodge or have the attack stopped entirely by an exhaust effect. Both elite players were focused on canceling the initiative of the other player, meaning the effects that did this were probably among the most powerful ones in the game. At that point, I got lucky and intuited a “feel.” I wanted to open up Vs. for both the player with the initiative and the one without, so that you could either play off your initiative or not, depending on your strategy. This would be the “feel” that I would try to bring out in the first Vs. set I would design.

Hidden Area Found

The next steps were to find ways to do this. Perhaps players could hide characters from being attacked, so that they could ensure some number of attackers even when they didn’t have the initiative. These ideas led to the concept of the hidden area, where players could hide inevitable attackers.

Now, as a deckbuilding strategy, it would be possible to guarantee attacks at the cost of having nobody home to defend. I also wanted ways for people to have attacks on non-initiative turns and ways to play an even more defensive strategy if they wanted. Maybe they could just try to counterattack and reinforce, rather than maximize their initiative attacks. This corollary strategy would be the basis for the Crime Lords team, which would master controlling an opponent’s attacks and reinforcing its own characters. Those themes would be very strong when you didn’t have the initiative or when you wanted to leave extra defenders behind.

A Sharp Turn in a Loner’s Direction


While I was thinking about the idea of playing when you don’t have the initiative, a strange idea occurred to me. What about playing with one character and only one? While this wasn’t an idea strictly associated with the “feel” I had wanted to generate about breaking up the initiative, I got excited by this new “feel,” and I hoped that it would be possible to generate a whole team around it. 

If a player were rewarded for playing with only one character, this would generate the earlier concept that I was looking for, where the player with the initiative would forgo having more characters to attack with (and to stun the opponent’s characters with), and instead have just one character to use. This idea became the X-Statix team, which received huge bonuses for using only one character, a theme that reinforced the “feel” of breaking the initiative, but in a non-linear way. This also reflected the thematics of the X-Statix team, where many episodes revolve around petty squabbles to be in the limelight, but the members also have the ability to accomplish much as a team.


R&D Team-Up

There were strong ideas for the Marvel Knights team that were circulating in R&D before the team had a coherent identity. New team-up strategies were being looked into, both by enabling the team to see play alongside other teams, and also by having the mercenary nature of the Marvel Knights themselves represented by characters that would be strong outside of a team setting.

The ways that we shaped these elements included the mechanics where you search for team-ups, where characters can easily gain affiliations of other teams, where specific team-ups give alternate bonuses, and where the Marvel Knights team excels at teaming with teams that aren’t currently in play.

My partner in the design of the set, Dave Smith, anchored the set by making the Underworld team work with a KO’d-pile dynamic, something that was both exciting because of its newness in Vs. and more straightforward than all these weird themes with the initiative. This helped make sure that the set would interest people who didn’t want to bust open the initiative and wanted instead to focus on combos (Witching Hour) or their own goals involving the discard pile (Strength of the Grave).

Not All Platinum Hits

Many of the songs Brian Wilson made were arranged around the “feel” that interested him, but they weren’t all solid, great completions of his musical “feel.” Likewise, many of the ideas I had around the “feels” that I wanted to explore were pretty shoddy. In addition to the “first attack” and “last attack” plot twists, we also had characters that were able to attack before the normal attack step or after the normal attack step. This idea would have changed the initiative, because characters would have been given an opportunity to attack before any other characters—a sort of quick-strike ability. It proved too hard to balance, and characters became difficult to design fairly. I tried a keyword, “hunter,” that granted a character the power to exhaust to attempt to stun an attacking character. This worked great at breaking up the initiative, but it made all the characters with hunter too focused on this mechanical idea, not to mention that it was too swingy and all-or-nothing. We tried one-turn team-ups, and they were awful at addressing the problems that we were trying to solve. The point is that there is no easy way to tell the difference between ideas that stink and ideas that are solid just because they seem inspired to you. Everyone in R&D, myself included, put a lot of hard work into making sure that the games played with Marvel Knights felt the right way. That hard work helped to weed out the crappy ideas and accentuate the good ones. Hopefully, that hard work also translates into a better game play experience. And maybe, just maybe, we came up with some ideas that have you wondering, “How did those guys think of that?”


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