How to do revenge mechanics right: Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite's Space Stone

They're probably here to stay, so how do we design them to make both casual and competitive audiences happy?

Posted by John 'Velociraptor' Guerrero • May 23, 2019 at 7:47 p.m. PDT

Especially since CYG|Daigo Umehara shared a few brief thoughts on the matter with regards to a Street Fighter 6, the fighting game community has nudged the evergreen topic of revenge mechanics more towards the front of the communal conversation.

Revenge mechanic implementation has become a particularly sticky subject because of how hard it is to balance them. You want to give losing players an opportunity to come back for a big fireworks finish, but you don't want to make their means of doing so so strong that it becomes the focal point of basic strategy. I do not envy developers that are tasked with walking this tightrope, but I do want to point out a particular revenge mechanic that I think serves its purposes well: Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite's Space Stone.

I'd first like to better lay out the specifics of what a revenge mechanic is and you want out of one. What we're talking about here is essentially reward for getting hit, often manifesting via some kind of super powered attack or enhanced mode characters can access when they're on their last leg.

I should probably clarify that revenge mechanics fall within the greater realm of general comeback mechanics, (such as the Super Combos of Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo) the crucial difference being that the former comes about as a result of taking damage as opposed to performing moves or being on the attack.

Street Fighter 4's Ultras are one of the most commonly-cited examples of this, but you can go back a full ten years before to 1999's Tekken Tag Tournament and find the Netsu Power system as an even earlier example.

While revenge surely wasn't the norm for fighting games back around the turn of the century, they've become an incredibly common staple of the genre in modern times.

I'll also note that Marvel vs. Capcom' 3's X-Factor and Dragon Ball FighterZ's Sparking Blast are kind of oddballs here because both are available from the start of the round, but the fact that they become stronger based on how many characters you've lost puts them far enough into the revenge category for our purposes.

Players that are of more traditional, competitive fighting game roots (like Daigo) are often not too keen on this type of mechanic because it has the potential to detract from the true showcasing of skill between two players thanks to unearned boosts or second chances.

Looking at Street Fighter 5's Balrog from the game's second season, we see a rather extreme example of this. Balrog's V-Trigger would put him in a state that was so powerful that it would often times feel like the sole decider in the outcome of a match. No matter how much life he had left, once he gained VT he could KO his foe via a series of vicious 50/50 situations and frequently steal rounds away.

Here's a quick clip of Rohto|Tokido experiencing just this. You'll see why Tokido famously said that "the round doesn't start until Balrog has V-Trigger."

Click images for animated versions

Marvel vs. Capcom 3's X-Factor is another good example as it was not at all unheard of for teams to be based around the use of X-Factor (Dark Phoenix, anyone?). In both of these cases the mechanic in question was later regulated to have less overall impact on match outcome.

Developers put these mechanics into their games because they want to make their products fun for as wide an audience as possible, and fighting games' relative difficulty and lack of pulled punches for greener players have made them one of the more niche genres.

In this current climate of eSports, where goals are to grow both player bases and audiences, it's very unlikely that revenge is going away any time soon. With that in mind the next logical step is to try to identify what the best practices are so that both general and hardcore audiences are as happy as possible.

Instead of trying to invent some new approach, I'd like to simply point to one example that I think was handled particularly well, namely Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite's Space Stone.

The Space Stone is one of six possible Infinity Stones that players can choose to equip, and creates a box around foes that they can not move out of when activated. The enclosed player must fight from this restricted area until the Infinity gauge timer hits zero.

Check out this sequence between Ninja Nam and Ronan Healy from CEOTaku 2018. Ronan is losing by a good margin, uses the Space Stone to make things interesting again, gets some use out of it, but isn't able to make up the deficit:

Click image for animated version

There are two specific reasons why I think the Space Stone works so well for both sides of the fighting game fence.

Significant, but not a Death Sentence

Especially amidst the chaotic and movement-heavy atmosphere that characterizes MvCI's gameplay, this technique gives a clear advantage to the player using it. Upon first seeing it, I recall thinking something along the lines of "Oh that's a death sentence for whomever winds up inside," but was pleasantly surprised to find out that wasn't always the case.

It's certainly true that many have fallen while inside the confines of the Space Stone box, but plenty of times have we seen encapsulated characters survive and even go on to win. The fact that MvCI is a two character game also helps in this regard, since aggressors might spend their revenge reward on killing one, but still have to deal with the other after.

This is a win for the competitively-minded, who still may be a bit peeved that they have to jump through a somewhat unearned hoop, (or box) but can still see their skill as the major factor in determining outcomes.

It's Visually Obvious and Clearly Raises the Stakes

One of the central purposes behind revenge mechanics is to facilitate and encourage those "the underdog came back and took it all!" type situations for audiences to appreciate, especially more casual ones.

The way Capcom executed the Space Stone quickly and efficiently conveys exactly what's going on even to those who have never watched a single round of MvCI. You might not be able to recognize a tightly-linked combo or an expertly-timed interrupt, but almost everyone can recognize the fact that the guy who was just winning is now trapped inside a box and must fight in a limited capacity.

This is key given the eSports goal of fighting games as a spectacle. The narrative is very important for keeping things interesting, but general audiences might not be aware of what exactly is going on upon revenge mechanic activation. Perhaps the character's fist ignite or they gain an aura, but that still tells very little about the of what they're now capable of or why it's significant.

The Space Stone potentially makes for very unambiguous climaxes or turning points in the narrative, and it's not too hard to see how such a move could be the difference maker between someone flipping the channel away from ESPN 2 or sticking around to see how things play out.

It does seem apparent that having a selection of just a small handful of general options to choose from (Infinite's six Infinity Stones) makes things potentially easier than giving every character their own unique buffs (V-Triggers in Street Fighter 5). It's not to say that the latter can't work, it just leaves a lot more room for imbalance and error.

The main focus right now is to better understand why a particular revenge method works for a game. A Space Stone box works for Marvel Infinite, but most likely wouldn't mesh well at all with most other types of games within the genre.

This is by no means an exhaustive discussion on what goes into making a revenge mechanic both balanced and exciting, but having a strong example is a wonderful place to start.

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