Cardboard Armor and Crayon Swords
With bad press going back to Adam and Eve, snakes are generally viewed through a negative lens. But they’re fascinating creatures and a wonderful part of nature. Other forms of human thought have had a more positive outlook on them. For instance, a snake is entwined around the Rod of Asclepius, creating a symbol often used to represent medicine and healing. Some pieces of fiction also treat snakes better, such as the Kung Fu Panda movies with Viper as one of their heroes, and the game Snake Pass where players take on the role of Noodle the eponymous snake.
“Snakes get a bad reputation for being scary or dangerous,” said Kai Nyame, director of Serpent Showdown. “I think that having snakes in our game is a fun and humorous way to reframe the way that people see snakes!”
Serpent Showdown, a project from the Advanced Games Program at the University of Southern California, is an all-ages arena fighter where snakes playfully duke it out.
“Two classroom pet snakes have escaped their cage and are playing around after school has ended. They’ve heard about epic battles with armor and swords, and they want to try it for themselves,” Nyame explained over email. “So, after all of the students go home, they make themselves some costumes with craft materials and pick their ‘swords’ out of the crayon bin to get ready for battle!”
Change in Workflow
Gameplay from Serpent Showdown was livestreamed on Twitch during the USC Games Expo, an annual event celebrating the work of game design students. Due to COVID-19, the expo went online like GDC and other gaming events.
Nyame said it also forced her and her team, Persuasion Game Studio, to remotely work on Serpent Showdown one month before it premiered at the expo.
“We knew that stability was going to be paramount in making sure everyone had a smooth transition. Leaving voice chat open during work periods also helped people feel comfortable chatting about their days and checking in on each other,” Nyame shared. “I think that our team has been a lot closer in the last few weeks than we were before we switched to remote development.”
Designing a Friendlier Snake
Besides being more fair to snakes, the game also focuses on them due to comedic potential.
“We thought that there was a lot of humor in dressing up snakes in armor, and expecting them to battle,” Nyame shared. “The idea of a snake trying to hold a sword, or face off against an enemy in such a human manner was really interesting for us.”
Along with costumes and weapons made out of a classroom’s arts and crafts, the snakes were made to look appealing in other ways.
“The design of our snake characters took quite a bit of planning. We knew already that some people wouldn’t like snakes, so we focused on making the snakes as cute as possible,” Nyame said. “We made the eyes really big and gave the snakes hilariously expressive eyebrows! We did a lot of user testing with our Usability Team in order to make sure that the snakes were coming across as goofy, friendly, and cute rather than scary, intimidating, or creepy.”
Researching Reptiles for Some Edutainment
Nyame added that they also asked players what sort of snake colors and names they would enjoy. “Our purple snake ‘Grape’ is one of my personal favorites, and is really popular with younger audiences.” According to Nyame, even “the cool ‘Striker’ snakes were also designed with maximum cuteness in mind!”
Besides entertaining a younger audience, Serpent Showdown also tries to educate them. The livestream of the project’s gameplay showed that little facts about snakes were sprinkled in between fights.
Nyame explained that those snake facts came from research Persuasion Game Studio conducted during winter break. “I think that a lot of the facts actually surprised the team. We definitely learned a lot about snakes ourselves!”
Making a More Approachable Fighting Game
Just as Serpent Showdown tries to be kinder to snakes, it also tries to make fighting games more welcoming to everyone.
“Serpent Showdown was designed as a fighting game for all ages,” Nyame explained. “The team really wanted to make a fun action-style game that let players battle each other, no matter their skill levels.”
Nyame said that while brainstorming, several members of Persuasion Game Studio drew upon childhood memories of playing fighting games at family gatherings or with siblings. “The idea that we could make an experience like that was super important to the whole team.”
To do this, combat was simplified in Serpent Showdown. Nyame said that the team started with a single basic attack, then added an easy defensive move to counter it. Then there was another defensive move to counter a new throwing action. Finally, they incorporated the ability to evade with a dodge roll.
Welcoming Vs. Intimidating
“Keeping the game easy to learn and simple to understand was important because we knew that complex fighting games are harder to teach to younger audiences,” Nyame said. “In Serpent Showdown, the humor in our silly snake theme can give new players a less violent introduction to fighting games, while still providing all of the fun and excitement that the genre has to offer.”
She added that making the game’s graphics cute and upbeat helped mark it as more family friendly. Persuasion Game Studio was clearly laser-focused on making Serpent Showdown more accessible than other fighting games.
“The fierce competition encouraged by current fighting games can be really intimidating for younger players, and these games don’t often create a welcoming environment for new players to enjoy the game,” Nyame added. “We wanted to create an experience that could teach these players the basics of fighting games, and let these beginners play against more experienced players.”
Snakes Waiting to Strike
During the game's livestream, players discussed strategy while their snake fighters circled each other and looked for openings. Comparisons to boxing and fencing were even made about Serpent Showdown.
“I think there’s a misconception that fighting games are all about attacking and constant combat. In many fighting games, there is a level of strategy and tactics that actually requires quite a bit of down time. Serpent Showdown is no exception,” Nyame explained. “In making a game that could teach fighting game tactics, we wanted to encourage players to learn how to bide their time. Similar to fencing, when a person attacks, they leave themselves open to a counterattack. In Serpent Showdown, we teach some of these concepts in our combat mechanics.”
Reaching the Next Generation
In their pursuit of an all-ages fighter, Nyame shared that Persuasion Game Studio playtested at Westridge Middle School. She described it as a great opportunity to observe how young players would react to their game. Nyame and her team saw young girls having a good time. “Watching them learn how to play fighting games from Serpent Showdown was really validating.
“I remember one student was talking to her friends after playing, and said that she hoped that one day, she could make a game as cool as ours,” Nyame shared. “To realize that your team has become role models for a younger generation of game developers is really humbling. We left the Westridge testing day more inspired than ever to make a fighting game that everyone could enjoy together!”
Are you interested in Serpent Showdown? What are your favorite fighting games? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.