The Elegance of Sumo-Style Design

Watching two overweight naked men grab each other may not seem like the epitome of elegance, but my experiences have led me to believe otherwise – rest assured.

Sumo as we know it began in Japan’s Edo period in the late 1600’s. Ronin would meet in ceremonious combat with the admission costs for spectators funding shrines and other civil services. The rules have remained relatively unchanged since then: Force your opponent out of the arena, or make them touch the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. This dynamic has withstood the test of time, and I’ve used it now in two of my games. But what is the advantage?

A Different Kind of “Health”

Consider the modern FPS. One of the biggest changes that games like Call of Duty have made from their predecessors is the concept of health regeneration when out of combat. Compared to the older model of carefully positioned first-aid kits, the modern FPS encourages more frequent combat by reducing the penalty of mistakes, and removing the game dynamic of searching for health pick-ups. Like most design decisions, it is not inherently “better” than the first-aid model, but it does succeed in encouraging more player interaction and combat. This dynamic of “take damage, wait for a moment, start to heal” provides knowledge of how much danger you’re in (how much health do I have), and something you can immediately do to reduce the danger (take cover).

Sumo-style combat is appealing to me because it captures this FPS dynamic in a way that is elegant and spectator-friendly. Think about it:

There is a visual representation of your “health” (your distance from the edge) and an immediate action you can perform to recover (move towards the center of the arena). As players near the edge, anticipation rises as the spectators prepare for the kill, and intensity rises in the players who all understand that decisive action from the endangered player is imminent. Unlike the FPS example, we also gain another interesting dynamic of risk vs. reward; forcing your opponent out of the ring requires you to put yourself at risk as well. Not only does this create a swell of anticipation and nervousness, it also generates more visual motion in the gameplay, which adds to the intensity and skill ceiling (On Rekkage we noticed that matches that didn’t feature fast ships or impulse-based weapons were very pedantic).

But as good as the gameplay is, there is also a downside to ring-out combat.

Tactical Misdirection

In the initial prototypes for Wingman, we learned that ring-out combat by itself can have almost too much predictability. Too often games resulted in exhausting stalemates once players learn to how maneuver out of dangerous positions. This is where we embraced another one of sumo’s rules: a wrestler wins if their opponent touches the ground with anything other than the soles of their feet. This rule fundamentally requires participants to be aware of two separate avenues of danger, and allows for misdirection tactics where one participant can commit to a win condition and then suddenly switch to another for an unexpected blow. In both Rekkage and Wingman, we achieve this with hazards – dynamic environmental elements such as sawblades that cripple or destroy players that lose sight of their surroundings.

And then we made things even more interesting.

One of the more subtle ways that we heavily amplified the effect of misdirection was in an unexpected place: our camera logic. Both Rekkage and Wingman feature very similar camera logic, where all players are kept on screen as the camera moves and zooms dynamically to keep them in focus. But the effect this has on gameplay is that dynamic hazards tend to get lost as players approach each other and the camera zooms in:

Once off-screen, hazards become a very dangerous element. Now, players with heightened awareness can keep track of a hazard’s trajectory and move their opponent into harm’s way at just the right time for an unexpected K-O. This is the exact kind of misdirection we hoped to generate, and by also factoring other game systems (for example, our multi-tracked music increases its percussion layers as players get closer), we began seeing moments of incredibly intensity where it’s easy for players (also read: me) to become tunnel visioned and lose sight of impending off-screen danger.

Just Keep the Balance

Wingman and Rekkage were both games intended to reward skill while also providing opportunities for unexpected upsets. The key here is to figure out the balance your game needs between a predictable, visualized win condition and the alternative win condition if combat becomes stale (or your opponent lowers their guard). Once we found the right balance on each project, both Wingman and Rekkage were creating moments of both skilled victories and crowd-pleasing upsets.

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