Interviewer’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Rushdown Revolt is an upcoming platform fighter that also takes a fair amount of influence from more traditional one-on-one fighting games. It has its roots in the canceled platform fighter Icons, but changes quite a bit about the game’s more Super Smash Bros.-like formula. It features characters and stages that will be familiar to Icons players, but offers, among other changes, a much different style of gameplay that utilizes health bars, one-directional shielding, and a unique mechanic called Sparks.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Vortex Games founder Chris Kovalik to discuss where Icons went wrong, why he decided to continue development of the ill-fated game, how Rushdown Revolt is different from Icons, and more.
Me: I quickly glanced over the blog post that you put out when you announced the new name. Beyond “iteration,” do you have any more to say about why you poured your life’s savings into rebuilding an incomplete game?
Kovalik: It’s a really, really heavy question, right? Why have I been doing what I’ve been doing for the last two years? What made me decide to do this?
It’s one of those things where you just have this feeling, like, this is what you’re meant to do. This is the moment in my life I feel like I’ve always been waiting for. I’m somebody who has grown up playing video games way more than I should have been, especially in high school. I was addicted to games like WarCraft III and World of Warcraft. For me, games were this escape.
Now, with Wavedash, I felt like I had this fulfillment where there’s now a part of my life that will always be connected to games. When Wavedash shut down, I wasn’t ready to let that fulfillment go and here was nobody who could step up and keep the game going, and so I felt like this is just what I have to do now.
What gave me confidence in the idea—because I am a business person first, I came from Wall Street—I was thinking that one of the biggest problems Icons had was an identity problem. It wasn’t clear what this game was intended to do that was unique to it. There was this game mode—honestly, its creation is a mystery to me. I don’t know who came up with it or when, but it was inspired by crew battles in the Smash community, where you’re rotating through a team of players. In, like, 2016, there was a prototype of this mode that caught the eye of a lot of our beta testers, but we were never able to iterate on this mode and get it to a place where it really felt like a feature-complete idea. One of the ideas that I had was [that] that will be the focus of the game. That will be an identity.
That idea ended up not being correct. I think the identity of the game is actually now that we have Sparks and that you can move faster than you’ve ever gone before and it’s more expressive and more combo-centric than any other fighting game out there, but it didn’t really matter what the idea was. The thing that gave me confidence was I wanted to make a fighting game that was going to have a unique identity and that gave me the confidence to take the plunge. It was just about going on the journey to finding out what that unique hook would be.
Just for clarification, you said “we” when you were talking about Icons. Were you involved with Icons?
This is a really good point because, for people who are not very close to the story of Icons, you might assume that I was part of the design team or the leadership of Icons, or you might assume that I had absolutely nothing to do with it, and neither one of those is true. I’m in between. I was an investor of Icons. I was somebody who was a co-founder of Icons, but I was just kind of their business investor, board of directors-type guy. I wasn’t involved in the creative decisions. I wasn’t involved in anything any more so than any of the other investors of the company were.
So, while I was there from day one—or even day negative one because I had the same idea to create, you know, Icons or a next-generation platform fighter at the same time as my co-founders did—I didn’t really get to have the game be made that I wanted it to be, honestly. There are a lot of things about Icons that are disappointing to players, but also disappointing to me. So I felt like there was room for redemption.
You were involved in some way with Icons, but do you feel that it was worth taking what they had made and building on that, rather than simply starting from scratch?
That’s a really good question and I don’t think we’ll ever know the answer to that because we just don’t live in parallel universes, but I think the idea of inheriting Icons, for all the good and all the bad, was that worth it? I think that there is a perception that is shakeable. I think, if you look at the most recent trailer and you look at the way that players have come into our Discord over the last two years, everyone comes in skeptical, as they should be, and then, once they see the game and they see that it’s got a direction and it’s got an identity, players are very excited about it.
I think that, if you’re looking at inheriting the good and the bad together, I feel like the good is permanent. It’s a real foundation. It’s a real game engine. There are real characters. There was a foundation for the rollback netcode. There was a foundation for all of these pieces that we were going to need anyways and the negative part is something that I think is changeable and something that we can fix.
To me, if I had to say, was it the right choice? I don’t know, but it certainly looks like it was a good choice.
You said that you didn’t get the game that you wanted to make. Was there anything in specific that you thought that Icons got wrong?
[With] the concept of the game I wanted to make—you know, I’m a business guy first—one of the concerns that I had was “what is the marketing angle for this game?” That came up very early on, when I saw early versions of the characters, who are very similar to other fighting game characters. I was asking the team the question, completely legitimately, “are these moves temporary?” Like, I don’t actually know how game design works. Are these, like, placeholder moves and then we’re going to replace them? The answer was “no.”
So I was worried about the game’s identity very early on. I know that there were a lot of problems, from the player’s perspective, with monetization and those were things that I, too, felt about the company before these things were announced. At the end of the day, even though I am this Wall Street guy, I’m a player first, right? I spent thousands and thousands of hours on World of Warcraft. I felt that we weren’t letting people play the game. We were basically putting a paywall in and saying “hey, you can’t explore these areas. You can’t play certain characters.” That kind of rubbed me the wrong way, but it wasn’t my call to make. There were financial justifications for these things, there were assumptions that players would be okay with it, that, ultimately, the board, as a collective group, stood behind and I was a part of that.
But there were definitely a lot of mistakes and I think that that’s one of the things that we’re trying to carry with us: the idea that, as long as we run things by our players, we’re not going to be making those kinds of mistakes. So everything that we do, everything that we will ever do, will be run by our players first before it gets put into the game and that includes monetization.
I’ve already, going back two years ago, been running monetization ideas by players and I can tell you right now [that] there’s no way that this game will be free-to-play anytime soon.
As a business guy, seeing the success of a game like Brawlhalla hasn’t changed your mind on that in any way?
Brawlhalla is a great example because the question of whether a game should be free-to-play or not is not whether or not free-to-play works. The question is whether or not your game can sustain a free-to-play [model]. I think the mistake that a lot of people make when they make a game free-to-play is they think that what they’re going to be monetizing in a free-to-play game is going to be spent on by, you know, half of their players or, you know, a quarter of their players will try the game and they will decide not to buy it, but then three-quarters of the players will buy something, and that’s not the case. The reality is, in a free-to-play game, 1% of players are actively buying things regularly.
When you have to design a free-to-play model around that idea, people get in trouble, right? Sometimes, studios will come out and say “well, we don’t want to have something that only 1% of players will want to buy, like a skin. We’ll want to paywall something that’s much more essential to the gameplay experience” and that’s where all the backlash comes from.
If you’re going to go free-to-play, you need to have either a ton of money behind you, like something like Apex Legends, or you have to be like Brawlhalla, where the game’s been out for a long enough time [that] there’s a healthy community, a healthy playerbase and the studio can survive off [of] 1% of players paying for things. We’re not Apex Legends, so we’d have to go the Brawlhalla route, which is, if we want to go free-to-play and do it right, we have to have a really healthy community first.
This may be a difficult question to answer, as somebody who wasn’t part of the dev team, but do you feel that Icons’ lack of identity may have been because of the team’s origins in modding Smash?
This is a really complicated question. I don’t mean any offense to the dev team. I don’t mean any offense to my co-founders, Matt and Jason.
At the time, I was really bitter. I felt like there were very preventable mistakes. I felt like this was something that they were just too in love with Smash and they were too in the weeds to understand what would be marketable as a meaningful difference. I felt that they genuinely believed that having Kidd’s shine come out three frames later was a meaningful enough, marketable difference to the game.
But, in hindsight, I think what really happened was these guys, Matt and Jason, felt like they’d achieved their dreams. They had a game studio. They were going to make a platform fighter. This is a dream come true for so many people out there and I think they just really didn’t want to screw it up. They were scared to take risks with character design. They were scared to rock the boat too much. I think that they had so much reverence and so much respect for the game community and for the players that they were just terrified of taking chances that they didn’t feel like they needed to make. I think that that’s ultimately what lead to so much being derivative, so many of the designs being safe, because they were validated and proven in other games.
I think one of the differences between that type of thinking and now is, instead of relying on other games to prove that a design is good or bad, we want to figure that out for ourselves. Having our Discord community of players, there’s over 3000 of them now, we’ll run ideas by them and it’s kind of like it just goes into a blender. Ideas get shredded up and started over so many times, but whatever makes it out the other side is a pretty tried and true idea, especially when you do this iteration over iteration over iteration.
The primary mechanic in the game, Sparks, could be so toxic and so silly. It’s like turbo mode, right? How could you build an entire game around that? Well, it’s just come down to iteration. There’s been so many iterations on this idea, how to input it, what things can cancel, can’t cancel, what’s the timing for that? How do you make something that’s that fast actually rollback netcode reliable where there’s not all these crazy rollbacks?
It’s gone through a lot of change and progress, so we’re like “you know what, we’ll take the risk and we don’t have to be scared of our players getting mad at us or saying that these designs suck because we’re going to involve them in the process.” I think that that’s the change for us and what the problem was for them. I think they were just scared.
So, in other words, in your mind, going this indie route is only worth it for you if you go and do something new with it, whereas they just wanted to fix what they saw as wrong with Smash.
I think that that’s a decent simplification, but I would make a little twist to it, which is they wanted to make the game that they wish Melee was and I want to steer us in a direction that makes a brand new, thrilling platform fighter. Period. I think that that’s the twist. They wanted to make the best Smash game they could. I just wanted to make a really new and exciting platform fighting experience. The scope was broadened.
If you were to sum it up in a few words, how is Rushdown Revolt different from Icons?
Nothing is the same. It’s a brand new game. That’s how I would compare it to Icons.
It’s a completely different game. The characters are familiar, but that’s it. The game is completely different. The gameplay is completely different. The Sparks mechanic changes absolutely everything about ways that this game is played. The health system and the way that we have knockback bans make the game so much more consistent, but also labable.
It’s just a completely different game. We changed the defensive options in the game from a bubble shield to a one-way shield that is now cross-up-able.
I think that the way we describe our game is we’re trying to make the most electric, the most combo-centric, and the most expressive fighting game, so, if I had to compare this to Icons, I would say [that] it’s way more electric, it’s way more combo-centric, and it’s way more expressive than Icons was.
How exactly does the Sparks system work?
So a Spark is a resource that will appear a little bit foreign to people at first, but, once you get the hang of it, it’s as intuitive as dribbling a basketball or footwork with a soccer ball. It becomes second nature to you. It’s almost like breathing in this game.
Essentially, every time you hit somebody, you get a Spark. You can hold onto it as long as you’d like. Whenever you want to spend it, you can cancel out of your ability into a new move. That move can be a special attack, if you’re on the ground; it can be a jump, if you’re on the ground; or it can be a rush, if you’re on the ground or in the air. Rushes are [airdashes].
So, if you hit someone, you knock them forward, you get a Spark, you then spend it by rushing after them, you then hit them again, and the cycle continues. Essentially, you can have these neverending combos—super flashy, super fast combos—where you can unleash three or four attacks in a single second because of the Sparks system.
The skill ceiling in this game is incredibly high, but it’s accomplished with this mechanic that’s actually extremely simple and intuitive.
What inspired the non-standard health system?
It comes down to the game’s identity. How will people look at this and say “what makes this game different? How do I recognize that it’s different? What are [the] hallmarks of its identity?” So one of them is we are, as far as I know, the only platform fighter with a health bar. I kid you not, that was one of the motivations.
But it gets a little bit deeper than that. I think health bars are a lot more intuitive for players. If you think about how many games in the world use health bars and you compare that to how many games in the world use percent systems, it’s like 99.999% use health bars and I think we wanted to make the genre of platform fighters as approachable as possible and that’s just one example of a thing that we could do to make something that was already so familiar, so digestible, even more so.
It’s actually ironic because, if you think about the identity that Smash wanted to carve out for itself, it wanted to not use health bars so that it would stand out and it would have an identity [separate] from fighting games and now, we’re doing the opposite to distinguish ourselves from Smash.
I also noticed that, when your health bar depletes, there are three icons that appear on the health bar. How does that system work?
So that’s the end-game. I think one thing that’s really interesting about the way Rushdown Revolt works is that the game almost plays like it’s in phases. You have the early game in green health, the mid-game in yellow health, and then the late game and end-game. End-game is what happens when your health goes to zero and, instead of just dying when your health hits zero, you are kind of put in this last redemption state that we call end-game, where you’ve got three soul points.
The idea is that, instead of hit points or health points, your soul points will [take] one damage no matter how strong or how weak of a hit you get hit with. It gives this kind of increased intensity and tension for spectators and for players that doesn’t normally exist in platform fighters because there’s just the knockout mechanic.
We didn’t want it to go no health and then you just die. We felt like part of the fun of platform fighters is there’s always one more chance to get back. So that was our implementation [of] a health bar system that was still genuine to the player’s expectation for what a platform fighter should be like.
So you designed a system that will hopefully facilitate moments like that famous Street Fighter video.
I noticed that there’s a decent amount of variety between characters. What was the design philosophy for the current cast?
It comes back to the topic of identity again. With the game, we wanted to have an identity. For the characters, we wanted to have an identity. What’s really funny is that, if you had this conversation with me two months ago, the characters actually would have been very similar. We had been, up until that point, very focused on the gameplay and making the gameplay as polished and as smooth as we could. Then we realized [that] a lot of the characters play very similarly. You know, just hit the opponent as much as you can, spark as much as you can, the end.
We felt like that wasn’t as expressive as we wanted it to be. We wanted to come in and say “well, what’s a mechanic, what’s a character ability that we can give each character to really make them stand out and feel like they have more of their own identity, more of their own personality for playstyles?”
I think it started with Afi [and] Galu. We thought about Afi [and] Galu as someone who was the closest to having their own identity. They had their own character that they could interact with and play very differently from any other character in the game. So we said “if that’s the benchmark that we have to hit, how do we get a swordfighter there? How do we get the guandao user there? How do we get our witch character there?”
We iterated on it—like I said, it went into the vortex, our cycle of feedback with our players—and what we came up with were these thematic ideas that were consistent with the idea of the character at that time. Weishan’s a strong warrior, but now he’s got more of a Berserker bend, where, the more hits he takes, he shrugs them off with his down special, so why not make it so he actually spends health to increase the strength of his attacks? Or Zhurong, who’s this combo queen, what if we gave her [an] ability that dramatically changed the way her combo game worked and made it much more interactive and removed her temper mechanic instead of this?
It was really about trying to accommodate and facilitate new ways of playing Rushdown Revolt with each character, so you feel like “hey, I have this option I didn’t have with anybody else.”
It’s interesting to me which ones you selected to highlight because, when I played, the two that stood out for me the most were Afi and Galu and Ezzie.
Yeah, Ezzie’s gravity lock, I think we also wanted to create buckets of play, if that makes sense. Someone like Weishan is very straightforward. You can supercharge your attacks. For someone like Zhu, it just happens automatically. For someone like Xana, we’re starting to climb up a complication curve here. You can only use her signature mechanic, her Cargo Rush, when you’re grabbing somebody. And then, even further down the line, you have people like Afi and Galu and Ezzie, where you need to think about these complicated setups, but it allows you to do things in the game that are really bonkers and really fun, but it requires preparation and setup and strategy on behalf of the player to really execute them.
And I think that that’s okay. Again, we want to have depth and variance in play, and so, not every ability is going to be as straightforward as a Zhu or Weishan, but some will be really complicated in terms of the amount of effort and strategy that you have to put into them.
What made you decide to go with making Afi and Galu two separately controlled characters that you swap between, rather than something closer to, say, the Ice Climbers?
So that idea was already handled, initially, by Icons. They had two characters that you would switch places and park them between each other. In the Icons variation, you would only really switch between them once every eight seconds and, to me, in a game where entire stocks are lost multiple times a minute, it felt like it was too slow.
So what my focus on redesigning Afi and Galu was “how can we make the fact that there’s this separate statue much more interactable and much more engaging?” It started with 1. Being able to hit the statue to reposition it and 2. To be able to activate an ability at any time with their meter.
That was basically it. There were many, many other iterations. We had it where, when Afi and Galu [were] sliding, [they] would actually have a hitbox on [them], but that proved to be very, very centralizing in terms of gameplay. People would just basically play tennis with the other statue and we had to take that one out. But we really just wanted to make the other statue a core part of the play, rather than a trap that you have to set every eight seconds.
I’ve seen in several places now that people are particularly skeptical of the claim that you don’t have to get bodied to learn Rushdown Revolt. What mechanics facilitate that?
I think that that is an ambition. I don’t think that that is a claim for the game right now. That is our objective. I think that there are initiatives that we’ve taken that really ease that burden to get into the game and I would point to the most successful of those so far, which is Gauntlet mode.
So the idea of Gauntlet was “let’s make a lobby where you and your friends can all hang out together and just take turns wailing on each other, just as like an expedited Friendlies mode,” but, if you add this twist to it, where, every time you win a round, your health doesn’t replenish, now, suddenly, someone who’s dominating will get whittled away at. So, even if you’re twice as bad as somebody, instead of playing one-on-one and losing every game, you’ll actually be able to take stocks off of them in a Gauntlet rotation much more frequently than never.
So we’ve kind of eased that burden on players and, if you think about the intangible aspect of having players sit in the Gauntlet lobby together, you know, you’re watching the play. If you get beat by a Zhurong and you play Weishan, and then the guy who rotates in after you plays Weishan, you can see how that other player is fighting against someone who you just lost against and you can learn by watching players as you’re playing. I think that it’s this really rich environment for collaboration, for fun, for people to just hang out together, and I think it helps people learn the game in a way that they don’t normally get to do.
There’s much more planned like that. I think Tag Team is another mode where, frankly, you can get carried by people. Tag Team is going through iteration. I would say [that] it’s not nearly as polished as our one-on-one gameplay is yet, but we have just as much ambition and excitement to take Tag Team very seriously in the future.
I think that having a team mode where “hey, you don’t have to get bodied because you can play on my team” is an attractive opportunity for somebody. In fact, that was the reason that I started playing League of Legends. My friend said to me “don’t worry, I’ll carry you.” That was the first reason I started playing Fortnite. My friend said to me “don’t worry, we’ll carry you. We’ll protect you.” So the idea of giving new players the security blanket of a teammate, I think, is going to be really important for the future of Rushdown Revolt’s tag team feature.
And, as far as training tools, that’s actually the focus for our first week. For our first week of open [Alpha], the theme is “learning Rushdown Revolt.” How can we make the game as easy to learn as possible? What toggles or tools or training mode tools would you like to see to make this as learnable as possible, so [that] you don’t have to get bodied? We’re really looking forward to the feedback that players have on that theme.
So you’re saying that you’re mostly looking at adding modes that facilitate learning, rather than just putting in mechanics that keep people from getting bodied as much.
I think that that’s right because, if you say you want to make a game where newbs don’t get bodied, you’re talking about a party game. You’re talking about a game of RNG, where, even if I’m better skilled than you, I could still lose. That’s not what we’re trying to make here. We want to make a game that is as thrilling as it is daunting.
If we water down the core gameplay to where newbs can come in and anybody who’s invested hundreds or thousands of hours can lose, that’s not rewarding. That’s not worth putting in the time. We want to make a game where every second you put into learning Sparks pays dividends because you’ve now mastered the core mechanic of the game and you can play any character in the game any way that you want.
I don’t think it makes sense to say “we want to make a game where you can walk onto a basketball court for the first time and win an NBA championship.” That’s not the game we’re trying to make. We want to make a game where, if you make it to that court in the first place and if you perform [well], it’s exhilarating because of how difficult it is to do those things.
As far as preventing people from getting bodied, it’s about facilitating that learning in a way that is fun, rather than this grind.
And your [Alpha] sessions are really going to play into that.
Our [Alpha] session for week one is focused on learning Rushdown Revolt. How do we make this game as learnable as possible? How do we make it as easy to pick up as possible? What are tools that you’d like to see? What are game modes you’d like to see? What are features you’d like to see? Any ideas players have, we want to build on that and prepare it for week two.
When would week two be?
With the launch of the game, we have our Kickstarter that’s going on for 30 days. I would like to have week two go live before the end of the Kickstarter, but I cannot guarantee that.
So the [Alpha] moniker isn’t a precursor to an Early Access phase?
I think that it is. It’s just a multi-phased [Alpha]. It’s happening over the course of several weeks. Then, whenever our players think that we’re ready to have an Early Access release, then we will pull the trigger and do that.
I see. So you are going to do the Kickstarter, then Early Access, then release.
I saw on Twitter that you’re going to give Rushdown Revolt a more distinct visual identity from Icons. What are the plans for that?
[In terms of] visuals, if you look, this game doesn’t look anything like Icons today. I don’t think that there’s a day anymore where we think we need to make this game look less like Icons because it already doesn’t look anything like Icons. What we’re more focused on is making the game look more like Rushdown Revolt. So there’s UI that needs to be improved. [There are] the menus that need to be improved. [There are] the gameplay elements, the hit effects. Everything is under constant iteration and, at this point, we’re thinking “how do we make the game look more like us, rather than anything else?” There are so many elements left over that we still need to iterate on and there are elements of stuff that we’ve created, but we created it at a time where we didn’t even know what our game was going to be like yet.
So you are planning to redesign all of the characters at some point?
Yes. I would say everyone’s going to get a redesign, visually, and we’re also going to have new characters.
Is the business model just planned to be the initial buy-in? Are you going to have DLC characters? Are you going to have, like, a battle pass at some point?
It’s too soon to say exactly what we’re going to do because we are thinking about new characters, either for free or as DLC, or skins, for free or as DLC that people can pay for. I think we’re really focused on accomplishments. We really want to make achievements in the game, where you can unlock things that aren’t normally available to people, and we don’t want all of the cool things just be “do you have a credit card?” to get it.
I do know that the game’s going to be paid and, if you get an Inner Sanctum edition version of the game, which you get from our Kickstarter, that you’ll get all future DLC characters guaranteed for free. But we might end up making them free at some point, where new characters are just kind of included or you have to pay to unlock them or there’s a way to grind to unlock them. I don’t know, but we will, like I said, run everything by our players first and make sure that it feels fair and feels right.
What made you decide to roll your own rollback netcode solution?
First of all, when we got Icons, it already had rollback netcode included in it and, so, for us to basically strip it out of the game and every facet of the game that it’s currently latched into and then reinstall GGPO, would just be an effort to kind of achieve parity from where we already were. So that didn’t really make sense, just practically speaking.
But there are some unique things about the netcode that we have, which are that, essentially, because we were building on a foundation with an eye to support online multiplayer, we’ve got rollback netcode for six players online right now and we have this dynamic save state feature, which I think this is unique to us in the world right now, where players can join games or leave games mid-game. The way that rollback normally works, that’s not possible, so there’s a special effort that you have to take as it relates to save states that will allow you to have a new player enter combat mid-game and that’s something that we needed to have with our Gauntlet [mode].
So a lot of the development that’s gone into the rollback netcode has been focused around facilitating the Gauntlet mode, for example?
That’s right. And be streamlined for, like, six players playing together in a three-on-three Tag Team.
For the people that are still going to look at Rushdown Revolt and see Icons, is there anything else that you wanted to say in regards to getting them to trust you?
There’s “are we Icons?” and “should you trust me?” Those are two separate questions. I think, if you say “are we Icons,” I’ll just link you the trailer and you can make your own judgment. This is not Icons by any stretch of imagination. The game’s been in development for nearly two years, which is almost as much as Icons was in development before we even started.
The game’s completely reworked in terms of the engine. It’s got brand new mechanics, brand new gameplay. For anybody to say “this is Icons” would be basically saying the same thing as, like, “hey, Project M is the same thing as Brawl.” Would anybody actually say that? Not really, right? So I don’t think there’s any question that this is Icons anymore and anyone who’s adamant that it’s still Icons, I think, is entitled to that opinion, but I would just disagree with them.
For the second part, “should you trust me?” I think that I am, first and foremost, somebody who does not want to do the world wrong. I’m somebody who cares a lot about not just my team, but my players. When I see someone not having a good time in our game, my first reaction is to reach out to them, ask them why they’re not enjoying it and how I can make it a better experience for them.
I think that what we do here is the collective will of our players. So, if you trust your peers, you should trust us, but that’s ultimately up to everyone to decide for themselves.
Rushdown Revolt is set to begin alpha testing via Steam sometime soon, with a Kickstarter launching around the same time as the first week of alpha testing. In the meantime, you can sign up for access to an NDA’d build via the official website.