Sam Strick and Clayton Grey of the indie studio Laboratory put their game Judo on Steam Greenlight recently. In the description, they reveal the game’s odd inspiration: the rolling and throwing in Super Smash Bros.
Struck by the idea, Siliconera decided to grab Sam and Clayton by the Judogi and flip them over into a mean grapple in order to squeeze some answers out of them. Well, it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but we did throw plenty of questions about Judo at them.
In the interview below, both Sam and Clayton explain how a hardcore match in Super Smash Bros. Melee inspired them to create Judo, the reaction the game has had when they took it to PAX Prime in an arcade cabinet, and their upcoming Kickstarter campaign.
First off, please introduce yourself by telling us who you are, what you do, and letting us know what experience (if any) you have in creating games.
Clayton Grey, designer: We’re Laboratory! We’re a two person game development/publishing company based in Seattle, WA. We design and publish both digital games and tabletop games where the action meets the narrative. As for me, I’m Clayton, I run the business end of Laboratory and do coding and design.
Sam Strick, designer: And I’m Sam, I do art, code (not as well as Clayton), and design.
Clayton: We share in game design duties, but Sam is definitely the über-designer between us! We design differently, and I’d say we bring different design expertise to the table.
Sam: Clayton and I sharpened our teeth making web games for a bunch of different companies for a few years, seeing them from start to finish. Some of the companies were quite small, and at those companies our duties ranged from coding or art to design and testing.
Clayton: I know Sam grew up making lots of little games himself, and I was really into the mod community till I decided this was what I wanted to do it professionally. We both went to Parsons The New School for Design to study games, and that’s where we met!
Sam: As of a couple years ago, we’ve been doing Laboratory full-time and it’s been incredible. We’re excited to make our first foray into the PC (and Mac) gaming world.
Clayton: Hopefully the first of many! We’ve made a lot of different kinds of tabletop games so far, and we’re hoping to have similar diversity on the digital end. We pride ourselves on our versatility as designers, so we have a lot of different kinds of games we’re really looking forward to sharing with everyone! We’re starting small here. We’ve made a lot of good, small games. We’ll be working on some bigger things soon!
Thanks! With that done, could you tell us the basics of your game Judo? What is it? How does it work?
Sam: Judo plays like a vintage sports game at a modern pace. Conceptually it’s inspired by the spacing and movement of the rolling and grabbing in the Super Smash Brothers series – and it works very similarly. You can walk, lunge, roll, and grab. First to three points wins, fall out of the ring and you’re disqualified.
The rules are really simple, but gameplay gets fast, and spacing is complex. The ring is quite small so edges are always on your mind, and it’s quite easy to get from one end to the other. There aren’t different characters, everyone is working with the same variables – so player skill isn’t based on memorizing a roster, it’s about speed, solid tactics, and keeping a cool head.
Interesting. You say that Judo is inspired by the rolling and throwing in Super Smash Bros. What about it in particular inspired you? And how has this translated into your game?
Sam: I’m a big fan of Super Smash Bros Melee, and throughout my time playing I’ve regularly had friends that played Super Smash Bros. Melee professionally. I’d usually turn to them for tips but often times I would just have the beat down laid on me. One day, I asked someone I was playing with regularly if we could play Final Destination with just the joystick and the Z button, no jumping.
Sometimes in a more amateur match you may end up spending a couple seconds rolling around trying to grab each other. I’ve always thought that was a great moment – it’s all about spacing and guessing where your opponent will end up, and getting there first to initiate a grab – but that moment doesn’t usually happen when you’re playing a hardcore match. Our grab match was intense and fun, and I thought it’d be nice to boil that moment down into a game.
It ends up being surprisingly heady, learning a friend’s habits, modifying yours, playing the edges, knowing the distance of each form of locomotion. Judo is about that moment in games, rolling and grabbing in Smash, getting up from a knockdown in Street Fighter IV, predicting an opponents boost in Virtual On—spacing, reflexes, and catching your opponent when their guard’s down.
On the Greenlight page for Judo, it says "The Rules are Simple, Mastery is Not." So what, in particular, makes Judo hard to master?
Sam: Judo only plays with the Left, Right, and the ‘grab’ button so you won’t be looking down at your controller – even if you’re not an avid gamer. Pressing the ‘grab’ button initiates a grab, and holding it puts you into your Judo Stance where you can roll if you tap a direction. Double tap a direction while standing to lunge, and hold a direction to step. The controls are exceedingly simple. Knowing when to implement what move is the key, and learning about your opponent is a big part of that.
If your opponent rolls behind you, do you roll behind them and initiate a grab? But that gives them some time to react… So maybe they’re far away enough that when they started their roll, if you lunge back you can keep them in front of you when they exit their roll, which will keep their back to you. Maybe turning around on the spot as they roll and grabbing will work better because their roll will put them really close to your back. And all of that thinking changes if your opponent is near an edge. Being able to read distance per frame, and knowing when to execute what takes a lot of focus and time to perfect.
I’m also confident that our AI for the single player Career Mode will get players up to speed on techniques and spacing. Each AI Judoka you fight has a bunch of variables that change how aggressive or defensive they are, and what moves they prefer to implement when.
You’ve taken Judo to conventions (well, PAX Prime at least). What has the player reactions been like? Did you have any valuable feedback while showing the game off?
Clayton: Yes, that’s indeed the one convention! It’s funny because we’ve primarily made board games, or at the very least, that’s where we’ve found the most success. While we were prepping, I was pretty insistent that we build some arcade machines to show off some of our digital games around our tabletop stuff. I think it almost killed us getting everything together in time, but it was definitely worth it.
Player response at the convention is the whole reason we’ve decided to finish the game! We brought a bunch of games, and the thing that was most surprising was how much people liked Judo. We actually didn’t think it would get much love. But there were a bunch of people who stopped to play it and came back to play it again, and they were the players who we expected to like the game! That was great.
Sam: Many of Judo’s biggest fans at PAX were coming straight from Super Smash Bros. 4 at the Nintendo Booth. They noticed the similarities right away and set about learning the flow of a match. At one point, the Judo cabinet was down and a group of Smash players came by asking where it went. They seemed genuinely distressed it was missing!
To reiterate, we probably weren’t going to finish the game – but the reaction at PAX was far beyond what we expected. Since then, based on player feedback, we’ve tightened up gameplay as well as the animations, and have made huge improvements to the single player AI. Often players would comment on what moves should lock you up and what states should be grabbable. We took down notes and implemented as much of their feedback we could for the alpha.
Why have you decided to use a lo-fi art style in Judo? Is this out of necessity or, perhaps, nostalgia?
Clayton: Sam drew all of the sprites, but I can speak to the conceptual: Definitely not necessity! Computers these days are monsters, even the ones in our pockets. Nostalgia is definitely part of it. There were a lot of sports games made in the 1980s that were ostensibly about the sport they claimed to represent, but there was always some kind of conceit during that translation that made it weird. Judo is in that vein. Mechner’s Karateka is a strong touchstone spiritually as well. There’s also something to be said for the simplicity it affords aesthetically.
Sam: Nostalgia is a major factor. I’m a big fan of Jordan Mechner’s Karateka and the movement in Prince of Persia is amazing. In terms of pixel art, I’m also heavily inspired by the motion and design of Out of this World (also called Another World). Back in the 80s, so called ‘realistic’ sports and action games created realism through movement, not graphics – and I wanted to nod to that.
But I also love the pace and low-pixel count of many new games like TowerFall and Super Crate Box. Since working on The Strongest (one of our iOS titles), I’ve really liked working in as few pixels as possible; and Judo is a combination of my love of pixel minimalism and retro aesthetics and movement.
Is the multiplayer mode in Judo for local-play only, or does it have online capabilities too? What is the control set-up like in local multiplayer – can we remap buttons, for instance?
Clayton: Local-play only right now. Honestly, it’s a couch game. It’s a great game to sit down and play with friends as a lite social experience. The interactions are simple enough that even new players can have fun rolling around.
As for controls, you assume too much! The game’s controls are very straight-forward: Forward and backward and one “Judo Button”. On a gamepad all of the face buttons map to the “Judo Button”. Sam touched on the specifics earlier, but there’s not really a need to remap. Each player needs their own controller. Pretty vanilla stuff. As for keyboard, we’ve experimented with a few different layouts. We prefer controllers strongly, but we’re looking to let two people play while sharing a keyboard in a pinch.
How much funding will you be looking for on Kickstarter and how will the money be used if successfully raised?
Clayton: We’re asking for $5,000. That’s pretty low by Kickstarter standards, but we have the basics of the game in place. We’ll be offering the game for $5 (50% off) for the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, so we’re hoping it’s a no brainer for the people who’d love this game. We’ve also run multiple campaigns in the past. I back a ton of projects myself. I love Kickstarter. We wouldn’t be here without it!
It’s two things really: making sure we have an audience, and ensuring we have time to do the work. To the first point, if we can’t find 1000 people who would really like to see the game, then maybe it’s not what we should work on. That said, we feel pretty confident that there’s an audience between people who enjoy niche fighters and cheap fun couch games with friends. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be moving forward with this.
To the second point, we’ve been doing Laboratory full time for two years, and it’s been a real struggle. We can’t afford to do the work to finish the game without funds to make it happen. The money just gives us the ability to set aside time to work on this project versus a different one. We’ve got a busy year planned!
Do you have any plans for bringing Judo to more platforms other than PC? And when do you expect it to be completed?
Clayton: Just Mac and PC as of now. We just launched our Steam Greenlight page for the game a couple days ago. (Please vote!) We’d love to bring it to more platforms, but that would require a lot more money and time. The budget doesn’t account for that. If for some reason we end up very over-funded, aside from some cool “want to have” features, we’d definitely love to being someone else on to port the game to more platforms! There’s also the possibility of more platforms after launch as well. We’re playing that part by ear.
We’re planning on delivering for PC and Mac in June. We’re actually hoping to deliver a little earlier, but we’ve learned from past experience that it’s better to assume it will take longer than you want. So that’s a very safe bet on our part.
Sam: Judo is designed to feel like a video game, and we’d love to have it on some real video game consoles if player reaction permits!