(Dead and Buried is a series where I look at defunct online games and ramble on my experiences and thoughts on them.)
David Sirlin – those who know that name probably remember it from his work on Super Strip Fighter 2 Rainbow Accent Core George Lucas Special Edition, but like most people
who aren’t Super Robot Wars fangame creators, being defined by modifying the works of others was not where he would like the end point to be. Sort of.
Nowadays, Sirlin is more active in tabletop game design, but he has had several stints in creating videogame IPs – such as Kongai, his very first foray into the market.
For better or for worse, Sirlin is, how shall I put it, not very original as a creator. This isn’t really meant to be a criticism – you could say nothing in the world is original when you get down to it and the main reason that something appears as such is usually because of ignorance of the works that influenced it such as with the case of hit 90s Anime of all time – Tom and Jerry.
Most of Sirlin’s works generally involve taking a solid base game and putting his own spin on things, generally aimed towards the more competitive angle of things – this man made a game named “Chess 2” for cripe’s sake. But the particular base game chosen for this exercise is… interesting.
Some aspects of Kongai should be familiar to those with experience with its inspiration – for example, the game involves teams of either 3 or 5 characters, each with a movepool of 4 abilities, but the battles are one on one despite the team setup with free (but risky) switches.
Where Sirlin added his touch is taking inspiration from fighting games with mechanics such as distance/range, where each attack can either be used at close or long range (sometimes both) with characters able to spend their energy at the start of a turn in an effort to manipulate the distance between the combatants, though in practice I find the particular implementation of the idea tends to heavily penalize long-range focused characters.
The other thing Sirlin did for the game is remove all the “RPG elements” (in the time investment sense) by having each character be prebuilt from the getgo, fair enough as most competitive Pokemon player would consider the grind to level 100 / perfect EV + IV a chore even with the many tools Gamefreak have added to lower said investment over the years.
He also cut down on all the “perceived complexity” that he saw in mechanics such as Pokemon’s elemental / dual typing charts, which, balance issues aside, would work fine for an exploratory focused casual RPG but forcing players to look up a chart every time they perform an action would be a bit bonkers in any form of quick competitive play, so out it goes replaced with a fairly simple “3 attack elements vs their corresponding elemental defenses per character” system.
There’s also a single energy meter for each character shared between all attacks rather than individual attacks having its own “number of uses”, which works for a game in which long dungeon treks and thus long-term resource management are a thing, but not for the equivalent of a game that’s only focused on a single burst trainer fight.
Something else that stands out to me is the fairly strong itemization – like Pokemon, each character can equip a single item. This holds true in Kongai with a small twist – characters can pick their one item from either a set of generic items or from their own faction based – for example, Pirates can equip Cursed Doubloons which slowly sap their opponent’s health and energy, Vampires can equip Necromantic Tomes that grant their Dark element attacks and the Villagers can add poison to their attacks or shore up their defenses with evasion chance or just pure armor bulk. The items in Kongai are generally design to help the character push a particular playstyle rather than add an arbitrary numbers inflation like in most other games.
At its core, Kongai does seem like a fairly solid idea…
Anyway the game is real dead now.
To understand why Kongai failed, we need to understand the context Kongai was released in. Kongai was released on the platform “Kongregate”, a casual site containing many flash games, usually with f2p monetization elements (a bit of a precursor to the social games we have today).
Kongai was meant to be the lynchpin of the site – how did they go about this? Well, each week, Kongregate would run a special “challenge” in a non-Kongai game – challenge being in quotes being all it takes to accomplish most of the challenges is a bit of time investment and its actual intent would be to act as “soft advertisement” for the game in question.
The reward for completing these challenges would be a “card” – a representation of either a single character or equippable item (I should mention that this game does not use “cardgame” concepts like deck-building, drawing/discarding and so on – it’s purely a visual element to represent collectible items)
So characters would play those games and then return to Kongai to test out their newly earned cards, creating a perpetual loop. So what’s the problem?
Starring Taki from the Soul Calibur series
The first thing that would probably look like a very obvious mistake in hindsight – the majority demographic of Kongregate would be the casual audience who just want to burn some time at work instead of getting highly invested into a game that’s almost purely competitive in its appeal. While its character designs (done by UDON, a company that has worked on the visuals of many promotional artwork for Capcom) could likely draw in some curious onlookers, the general “low budget” visuals (the attack animations are about as sparse as Pokemon Netbattle!), lack of single-player support (campaign or special game modes such as randomized dungeons in games like Hearthstone) or story/lore to keep the waifu/husbando crowd around for the long run meant that Kongai just bled out players as time passed.
The particular method of unlocking new characters also led to some wonky issues with the balance – with the way it’s designed like a fighting game, different characters have their own strengths and weaknesses. Ideally they should all be balanced, but in practice this is of course an impossible task so there are of course good and bad matchups, like in a fighting game.
The issue about being beholden to the scheduled unlocks is that depending on when you start playing the game, you might not have a good team that can take on the “meta” characters – the two characters pictured above happened to be very popular characters who are very hard to handle if the player doesn’t have the tools available (even though they’re very reasonable if you do have said tools) and I can only imagine the frustration of many players who quit when constantly matched up against them. Kongai does offer the ability to pay real money to purchase the cards you want directly, but they’re extremely overpriced and the value of spending money definitely plummeted as the playerbase became leaner and leaner (amusingly enough, the designer himself believed the prices were “reasonable”).
Also when the game became too unpopular to upkeep any longer (based on monetary income), the challenges stopped, cutting off the supply of free cards and dooming the game entirely.
The last factor in Kongai’s demise is a bit of a subjective one. The higher level players would probably argue otherwise and I have no strong feelings on the validity of the statement to be presented…
But Kongai has a reputation of being too “luck-based” for the average player.
As a general observation, competitive videogame players are highly risk-averse. You could probably spend an entire essay trying to psychoanalyze why this is the case – perhaps they feel that if the purpose of a competitive game is to figure out who is superior then luck would only obfuscate who the “most skilled” is. Simply take a gander at something like the Smash community where tripping is considered one of the biggest mechanical blunders of the series while competitive play tends to consist of all items turned off with stage selected as Final Destination – a completely featureless plain, all in an attempt to minimize the effect of luck.
The Satan Clause
So it is that in competitive Pokemon, evasion modifying effects are banned from use as a general rule. On the player’s end, when setting up a Pokemon’s movesets, 100% base accuracy moves are almost always preferred to the less accurate but higher base power moves, such as Thunderbolt to Thunder. There are very rare exceptions such as Weather based teams (Rain based teams for example erase the accuracy disadvantage of Thunder) or if you desperately need elemental coverage in a Pokemon that doesn’t have access to the usual bread and butter moves but in general, Pokemon competitive battlers do not want to miss.
Boku no Popo
Kongai, on the other hand, absolutely revels in its luck-based aspects. Your average Kongai move hovers around the 90% accuracy rate – a rate which would cause your average Pokemon player to convulse on the spot in agony. There are also characters intentionally built around luck-based elements, such as Popo, a character with an innate dodge chance with his signature slingshot attack being worthless half of the time with the chance of randomly critting for triple damage.
Adding to this, there is a little change to how switching works that heightens the luck element in Kongai – where in Pokemon, an attack would still hit a unit switching in, only in this case the new Pokemon instead of the one that was just switched out, in Kongai, an attack on a switching character will whiff entirely costing the attacker valuable energy, a resource that is significantly less adundant than move PP in Pokemon.
Instead there is a new command named Intercept – when used on the turn the opponent switches, it will prevent them from switching AND deal 35 damage, which on most opponents is roughly half of their HP. This action does absolutely nothing if the opposing player doesn’t switch, of course.
Mighty No. Ryu
It’s a very powerful action if you guess right and high level players can supposedly make these guesses accurately through sheer intuition more often, but for most players it definitely just felt like a game of chicken. One of the most popular characters in the game, Yoshiro, is notable solely for a single attack with a 100% hit chance that can hit fleeing opponents, removing a large amount of the guessing game that usually follows the process. The fact that he’s so commonly used by players seeking to bypass an entire mechanic of the game might speak something of how well it’s received.
Some competitive Pokemon players have tried to argue in recent times that the accuracy/evasion rules are relics of an ancient time and the meta has shifted drastically since Red / Blue and thus should be allowed. I wonder if they would in fact feel the same way after playing Kongai?
Either way, the perceived element of being too luck heavy likely chased off a significant segment of the competitive market – perhaps its for this reason that Sirlin primarily moved into tabletop game design, as tabletop players tend to be much more tolerant of such elements due to the medium’s roots.
What’s the final legacy of Kongai? Not much, I’m afraid. The game is currently languishing on its original platform, half broken with bugged card images. No one has shown any interest in porting the games to other platforms, whether its original creator or fans. I guess Pokemon having a massive marketing multimedia juggernaut is just too much of an advantage for an IP in having a constantly fresh stream of new players that Kongai could never achieve but I feel like this game could probably get a fresh new start with a rerelease that just unlocked all available characters for free.
Strangely enough, the one thing that did make a jump out of this game is the character of Onimaru – the Hannya Samurai big guy has shown up in just about every other game in the Sirlin’s Cinematic Universe (TM), yet none of Kongai’s other characters have made the leap. Why was he chosen for the very important role of being the brand’s mascot? Beats me.