'Bayani' and Ranida Game's humble but heroic development story
"Why is Mabini always seated during the Heneral Luna movie?"
In 2015, actor Epy Quizon, who played Apolinario Mabini in the now-iconic Heneral Luna film, was asked by a group of college students why his character stayed seated throughout the entire movie not knowing that this was due to him contracting polio in 1895. It was a question that shocked many Filipinos online and triggered a conversation on what and how exactly Philippine history is taught in schools.
While the question prompted much-needed dialogue about the state of Philippine education, it also inspired the creation of a now highly anticipated local video game. Indie studio Ranida, spotted the concept artwork of Anthony Dacayo, an architect by profession, on what it might be like if our national heroes were fighting game characters. The studio then partnered with him to bring to life this concept, with the goal of sparking a younger generation to be more curious and learn more about our national heroes.
But the development of Bayani, much like all developer stories, is not a glamorous one. Read enough stories from journalists like Jason Schreier, and you'll realize that the life of a developer is hard and humbling work. An hour-long conversation with Robert Cruz, lead game designer of Bayani, shows that even with passion projects such as this, there's still a lot of hard work and pressure to deal with. For an independent developer like Ranida, time isn't the only thing they need to build Bayani to meet its heroic expectations. They also need finances and popular support.
Considering that the developers had never made a fighting game before, and had no clue how to get started, Bayani is certainly achieving feats of superhuman levels.
Today, Ranida has built a following to help them throughout their years of developing Bayani. Now, they have a fighting chance to make a solid title to offer. They have an early access release of the game on Steam, a Kickstarter past their CA$ 20,000 base goal, and excited players from both the local and international fighting game communities.
"When we released back on June 12, we had a small following in the fighting game community. Currently, the reception is very good. There are a lot of local players and, this is the most surprising part, there are a lot of international players that have played and subscribed and continued watching the development. There are players from Japan, from Canada, from the US, playing the game, or reviewing the game from YouTube. It's very humbling because, for a local dev, it's something unheard of and something we're not used to," Cruz shared.
This level of support and hype around Bayani did not happen overnight. While they were showing off an early demo of the game at a local game convention, ESGS, a player actually shared with them disheartening feedback: "This is not a fighting game."
The verdict was due to the simplicity of the game. In many standard fighting games, there are layers of character movement and mechanics to be uncovered by the players, and the early version of Bayani simply did not have that. The developers, especially Robert, took that to heart and used it as motivation to improve their work.
Recognizing the potential of the concept but the severe lack of fighting game know-how, Ranida enlisted the help of Filipino-American professional fighting game player, Ryan "Filipino Champ" Ramirez.
He provided them with the missing ingredients – the insights needed to work on the "fighting game" elements of the game, such as gameplay balance. Ramirez is best known for winning the Evolution Championship Series in 2012 – the world's most prestigious fighting game circuit – for the game Ultimate Marvel Vs. Capcom 3.
And from then on, they developed a flow that would give Bayani the characters, animation, and gameplay needed to feel more layered and polished.
Putting the pieces painstakingly together
When Ranida started showcasing Bayani in 2016, they only had two characters to show for – Rizal, and Andres. Today, they have a total of 8 characters. If it feels like that count is small for a fighting game, it's the result of painstaking attention to detail, and the desire to craft great characters that stand out from one another.
It's been an almost endless process of creating, building, deconstructing, reconstructing, polishing, and further refining of the characters involved.
"When we make characters, it's a 3-step process. The concept art starts with Anthony, the gameplay idea starts with me, and then the gameplay balance and overall fighting game archetype starts with Ryan. And then it becomes a cycle, going back and forth, back and forth, until we finish a character," Robert divulged. Including creating and recreating the animation and code, the entire process could take months before a single character is introduced to players.
Rio, their most ambitious fighter, took around 6 months to finish, as Ranida released the Mabini-inspired character early May.
But it never just ends with publishing the character. Even today, Robert and his team continue working on their previous creations.
On top of that, the stylistic and technical choices Ranida makes for character animation add to the workload – all of which are hand-drawn.
Have you seen those "Choose your fighter" meme videos where a person mimics a video game character but instead of using weapons they use objects such as brooms and dustpans? Ranida does something like that. They record themselves doing the character moves with household items, which then serves as animation reference.
Despite the bump up in resources after the game grew in popularity, the team decided not to use modern motion capture or mo-cap technologies for digital animation.
"The outcome is actually a lot better. We discussed that maybe it would be faster if we had mo-cap or if we had mo-cap technology. There are certain studios in the Philippines that we can rent for it. We were talking. Is it faster? Is it better? Then me and the artist said, at this point, we're actually better off with what we're doing because of the level of detail that needs to be in the discussion per move."
Mo-cap would have made it faster for the team to build each character. Yet, it could also come at the cost of losing flexibility and detail. When you're creating a fighting game, where movement is the essential focus, every detail counts.
"Body placement is everything in fighting games. If your foot is slightly forward, it means your kicks land faster, but your enemies can hit you harder because a part of you is closer to them. Even the foot stance, how the character is angled, how far the arm is stretched out – it matters. Greatly."
That level of understanding and dedication to detail must be a stark contrast from when Ranida first started working on Bayani. It's slowly paying off with the positive reviews and constructive feedback they're receiving on Steam. They even held a tournament during Rev Major, one of the most significant fighting game events to happen in the country.
Developer crunch happens here too
If Ranida was solely focused on Bayani, it would be probable to see more progress in a shorter amount of time. But as it stands, with Ranida being a small studio, the team needs to deal with crunch too. In fact they may even have to crunch more than the bigger studios we often hear of.
Robert explains that bigger studios may have the luxury of focusing on one title, but Ranida needs to juggle other developments as well to make things meet. Those different developments also require some fair amount of crunching.
"Crunch happens in bigger studios because they have a deadline to meet and investors to please, but smaller studios have a lot more crunch because they have finite resources to spend. This goes for a lot of indie studios."
Robert continues: "Yes, this is a passion project. Passion will not feed you. You want to make this game happen at this level, but you only have this much, so we will crunch to meet that. And it's okay because it's a passion project. But it happens a lot, and not just for us, we've heard a lot more stories from other game studios."
And more work needs to be done to see that Bayani reaches its potential. According to Robert, Bayani will have much more to offer than a versus mode. After their roster of characters, they'll soon introduce a story mode and a multiplayer mode, as well as further polishing and balancing the game before they can declare it as a full-fledged title.
Despite the challenges of development, Robert and his team seem to remain optimistic and are holding fast to the principles that got them to this point in the first place.
Their latest developer blog shows signs of a game continuously being molded to perfection through the feedback loop they've established with the community. And despite the new roadblocks posed by the current pandemic, the team was still able to release their most significant patch earlier this month, introducing the new and long-awaited Mabini-based character, Rio.
Whether some students will learn Mabini's condition will be a conversation for when the game becomes a full release. For now, Robert and the rest of Ranida continue to work hard to give our old heroes new skills for a fighting game worth watching for. – Rappler.com