Fantasy Strike ranked mode is a rough simulation of this excitement. We do not build out entire brackets before the tournament starts, as you normally would, because that would greatly slow down matchmaking. We’re not willing to make that tradeoff. So instead, we build the brackets on the fly. First match, you’re matched randomly with anyone else in your league (bronze, silver, gold, etc). If you win, you are then matched with someone else in your league who also just had one win. Because the brackets are built on-the-fly, you are never waiting around for a bracket to fill, or for other matches in the bracket to finish. You also have no time pressure in that you could play your first match now, then your second match tomorrow if you like. It has all the flexibility of a standard queue, but the exciting texture of a tournament.
This kind of thing has barely been attempted before in fighting games, most notably by Street Fighter 4. Our system is so much easier to understand though, and has great UI to support it. There’s no need for multiple kind of points and arcane formulas. Here’s the complete breakdown of the rules:
If you win, you get one star for a first round match in a tournament, two stars for a second round match, and three stars for a third round match.
If you lose, you lose a star.
Get enough stars and you go up in rank.
In bronze league (the lowest), if you lose, you don’t lose any stars.
In diamond league (the second highest), you do not gain a star for winning a first round match. This means in a full diamond league tournament, the total number of stars given out EQUALS the total number lost by its entrants. There’s no grinding here. You have to really be better than everyone to advance in this difficult league.
In master league (the highest), we dispense with the stars and just show you your actual rank amongst all players. For example “you’re 3rd best in the entire game.” Winning and losing is governed by standard elo.
This system is easy to understand, easy to see what’s going on when you see the score screen after a tournament, gives everyone a sense of progression (even bad players!), gives everyone a real challenge (hello diamond and above), and reveals the harsh truth to the elite players.
Full disclosure: Mario Tennis uses a similar system of on-the-fly tournaments, but we were not inspired by them. Our system was already in development long before their announcement. We think it’s really cool they did it too though. (And again, this style of ranked play is practically non-existent in fighting games.)
Team Battle Format
Many other fighting games have a team battle. But none of them work the way it does in Fantasy Strike, and these details matter a whole lot. The very specific way it works is actually innovative and is a general contribution to game design that many other games could use.
The standard way to handle a competitive mode is players use double blind selection of their characters for game 1, then the winner can switch characters in game 2, then the winner of game 2 can switch characters in game 3.
That system is pretty good, and for a couple decades I had to defend it against new players who would point out issues and come up with other systems that were actually worse in ways they didn’t realize. The good of this system is that if you can play multiple characters, you get to. And that if you end up in a lopsided matchup, you do not have to stay in it. But the bad part is counter-picking, and more importantly, the effect that has on the matchups actually played.
I built a fighting game career on counter-picking. That is, picking a character specifically suited to beat my current opponent. I did it, I think, WAY more than average. I play multiple characters in every fighting game I play so I’m always able to do this, even at the pro-tournament level. I say this to remind you that I am no stranger to this. Quite the opposite.
Is it bad though? Well, the effect of it is bad. The part where you get to switch out of a bad matchup, that’s fine, but the net effect of the whole thing is as follows. Players generally end playing mostly a small set of matchups only, and it’s the set of most unfair matchups in the game. In a 3-game set, whoever loses game 1 will switch to the most unfair matchup they can for game 2, then either game 3 will be that same lopsided matchup, or if the other player won game 2, then they switch to the most lopsided matchup the other way. Over time, as players learn more characters, well over half the matchups played end up being the same few most-lopsided ones over and over.
Even if a game were impossibly well balanced and had like 100 matchups that were all 5-5, but 20 matchups that were 6-4 or 7-3, then you’d hardly ever play the 5-5 ones compared to the other ones , even though at first glance MOST of the game is the fair ones.
Notice that this isn’t just about poorly balanced games. Even the best balanced asymmetric game will suffer this fate. And if you remove the execution barrier so that learning new characters is just the strategy part (rather than strategy + execution) then the problem becomes worse. Even more people will counter-pick more often and things will devolve even more extremely into just a few matchups—the most lopsided ones in the game, whatever they are.
Furthermore, it creates a very brittle system for game balance. Imagine a character that has all 5-5 matchups, except ONE very unfair 9-1 matchup (oops). There could be 20 5-5 matchups here…or 30 or 40 or however many characters, but all it takes is ONE bad matchup to torpedo that entire character in the competitive metagame. In a game with standard counter-picking, that player will face that unfair matchup most of the time. As the game matures, they could get closer and closer to playing that one matchup in 100% of their sets, once the rest of the community is wise to this counter-pick. That’s pretty miserable and you’d hope such a character with almost all fair matchups would be more viable than that.
Fantasy Strike’s particular brand of team battle solves this. You do not play a small set of the most unfair matchups. Instead, you play an even spread of matchups across your characters and theirs. You are not locked into a single unfair matchup the entire time (as you would be normally without counter-picking). And if, theoretically, some character existed that had one bad matchup but all other fine matchups, they are still completely viable. These are incredible properties for a format to have. And furthermore, though you do have to play three characters, it’s impossible to lose the match without getting to play your “best” character. So if you do lose, it means you played your best character and lost, so blame yourself and not the format.