Slayers for Hire is an upcoming platform fighter that features a unique cast of characters ranging from a baseball player to a dragon. Each character is designed to feel unique, with the dragon playing like a boss character. Currently in Early Access, plans for the game include a story mode and mod support.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Meta Games founder Ryan Gilbrech to discuss the game’s inspirations, how some of the planned features would work in a free-to-play environment, and more.
Me: What inspired you to create Slayers for Hire?
Gilbrech: I used to be a competitor in Super Smash Bros. Like, kind of all of the games, but mostly Melee and Brawl and Project M, which is, like, [an off-shoot] fan mod. Those are the three that I’ve played the most.
At the time that I first quit my job to go back to school and do all this stuff—this was like 2014 and Rivals of Aether was not a thing. The next best thing after Smash Bros. was, like, PlayStation All-Stars Battle Arena, whatever it’s called. As interesting as some of the mechanics are in that game, it was a far cry from being something that I would want to play half as much, or even like one one-hundredth as much as the Smash franchise.
So I was just like “you know, it would be really cool if there were more games like this.” Now, the term is “platform fighters.” I hear “Smash-like” is another way to describe it, kind of in that realm of “Souls-like” games. I was like “you know, it would be really cool if we could play these types of games online, have leaderboards, have, like, just a fresh take on how they can be played because it’s pretty underexplored.” Especially at the time. Even now. There are a few more games, but not really.
And Nintendo’s consistently unreliable when it comes to online play.
Right, yeah. [laughs]
So yeah, that was kind of what inspired all of this. Kind of going down that trail is that, when I first did it, I went back to school. I actually got an MBA. I was like “I’ll teach myself the rest” and I worked on a solo project for about two years. Then an opportunity for investment, to, like, do this thing for real, came up because, through my college, they had an entrepreneurship center and they were like “oh, you oughta pitch at it.” So I did and that went well and that’s how we’ve gone so far.
Now, I’ve recently pitched again and that went well again, so we’re getting a real budget again to really work through all of the current problems in the game, which there are, admittedly, very many [laughs], and figure out what it’s going to take to make this thing truly awesome.
To clarify, it was a solo project back when the name was not Slayers for Hire?
Yeah. Originally, then, the idea was Homestuck and Smash Bros.-type gameplay. Because I have the same birthday as the main character in Homestuck and I was already a fan from Problem Sleuth, the thing that the author of that had made, something I really liked. So I followed along with Homestuck. I was like “wow, this thing is kinda popular and it would work pretty well, so.” I have, like, a 70-something page design document with Homestuck characters and mechanics and how it all would work.
At the end of the day, I remember talking to even Homestuck fans and I was like “yeah, I’m making, like, Homestuck and Smash Bros. put together” and they were like “Smash Bros.?” [laughs] So I was like “yeah, maybe that’s a sign that I should just do original characters.” [laughs] Which I’m glad I did, but it was funny.
What made you decide to go with this setting, where you are playing as characters that you are supposed to slay another character that you can also play as?
I kind of imagined almost like a Saturday morning cartoon type of thing, where it’s like, at the end of the day, nothing truly gets resolved and they’re just like “ah, I’ll get you next time, He-Man!” [laughs]
But the inspiration for all of this actually was—I don’t know. We kind of meandered into the current iteration of it. I haven’t totally abandoned the roots of this, but it was originally more of like a Princess Mononoke type of thing, where there’s a lot of themes of technology vs. nature and connecting with your roots vs. technology being a double-edged sword and how the two things have a hard time co-existing, so, like, there’s the city and there’s the outside area where there’s more nature, right? And, as the city grows, the nature is kind of absorbed into it.
There are actually a lot of themes that I want to explore, once we are able to tackle the story mode, involving that. So, in Princess Mononoke, another thing that they do is that there are these guardian spirits that kind of personify the wolf god or the god of the forest, that kind of stuff. The idea, originally, was that, each of the characters, other than, I guess, the dragon, would be the champion of one of these guardian deities and they would be bestowed with a special power or something. So, like, the Boxer’s tattoos would be given some kind of magical ability or something or The Archer, the bow and arrow, from like the wolf deity or something. Stuff like that or the jacket of the Artist. That kind of stuff.
We haven’t gotten to really explore that, but that’s generally where all of that came from. At some point, it was kind of funny to think, like, it’d have a sort of almost, like, Ghostbusters type of feeling. [laughs] The city is full of these kind of dragon problems and there’s this run-down office downtown that’s like next to the pawn shop and an old lady comes in and is like “hey, there’s a dragon that’s in my air conditioning” and “alright, I’ll go ahead and take it on.” [laughs]
So that was the original vision?
Yeah, yeah. [laughs] So, like, in the main menu, that’s their office. The idea is, like, over time, as the team grows and they get more outstanding contracts and the story progresses, the office will get less rinky dink over time. It’s a growing world.
How would you fit the story in, since it’s primarily an online free-to-play fighting game?
Right. Well, I’ve got a lot of ideas. I don’t know exactly which ones would be the most feasible to take on. [laughs]
Metroidvanias are basically my favorite type of game and I’ve always wanted to have some kind of a multiplayer Metroidvania story mode type of thing, which sounds about as ambitious to me as, like, “I’m going to make the next World of Warcraft.” [laughs] But, like, we already have the movement. We have the netcode. In theory, we should be set up to be able to do something like that, so I would love to basically create a Metroidvania that’s, like, online or local co-op-able, play as all of the different characters. Kind of like Subspace Emissary in Brawl or Adventure mode in Melee. That kind of stuff.
Is there anything from traditional platform fighter gameplay in particular that you have aspired to “fix?”
Well, there’s a lot of, like, in the weeds stuff. The main programmer is this guy Schmoo, who’s, like, a technical genius in terms of his understanding of how the different Smash games work on a technical level. You know, I’m a very details-oriented guy, too.
But there’s some stuff where, like, for one, Schmoo and I really, really enjoy Melee a lot and there’s a huge difference in the game feel between Melee, which was the GameCube one—it’s like the second in the series. It was long ago, but it’s still played today because it’s a very tight, fast game feel. It does a lot of stuff that’s really fun and interesting. The newer Smash games just take it in a different direction. It’s still really fun. They’re still, like, some of my favorite games, but I don’t play them as much because, I don’t know, there’s something about the fast-paced movement of Melee that has been really cool.
But it’s also [that] I’ve been playing that game competitively for, like, 13 years and, you know, I’m still not super consistent in all of the things that you can do in that game. There’s just so much about the game that is just brutal. You mess up for even a frame and you do something that will get you killed instead. [laughs]
So we’ve got a lot of quality of life things. Mostly, we just wanted to give platform fighters our own flavor. One of the big things, actually, was that we wanted to take sort of a Guilty Gear or even, like, Melty Blood—where the character designs and the gameplay of those characters kind of remind me of something like Dota, where, like, you hear about what this character does and you’re like “what the heck? That’s crazy!”
So we wanted to have that core, tight movement that’s not quite as brutal with our own ideas on how the games can be played and then add in just super over-the-top characters that are absolutely crazy.
You’ve really talked up the “creativity” aspect in the marketing. What design decisions have you made to facilitate that?
Well, I think, first off, these types of games are very expressive on their own. Fighting games, in general, are and, platform fighters, you have a huge amount of control over your movement. So, even just having an emphasis on your movement abilities and having a bunch of different moves that are useful in a bunch of different ways.
I know there’s a common criticism of Overwatch that I remember hearing, which is that, when you pick a character, you’re kind of shoehorned into a single style of play. Like, you do Reinhardt. You do the things that Reinhardt does. You’re not a good player that plays Reinhardt. You play Reinhardt well.
I always thought “I guess that’s okay.” Games can be different, but I would rather have a game where there’s not, like, a specific answer to any one problem. If your character is losing in a situation, then I really like games where you feel like—I might say “oh, well, in this case, I need to block” or, in your case, you might say “oh, I need to bait this out” and run in and run out with this move. So, like, just naturally, the way that you approach these games and this lightning fast pace will create your manifestation of your own personality and creativity and stuff.
There’s also some kind of in the weeds stuff, as well, in the way that the combo game works and your ability to recover and all that kind of stuff, where you’re not, like, funneled into just doing [it] the one way.
I think a good example within Smash is that—if you have seen in Smash 4, especially, for the Wii U—there were a lot of characters where their combos—Mario is, I think, the biggest example of this, where his combo was you do up tilt like seven times and then you do up air. So, like, you jump and you up air, up air, up air, you land on a platform, up air, up air, up air, up air, up air, up B, and that’s your combo. It’s just, like, almost every character in almost every situation, if you can land an up tilt, that is your combo. [laughs]
The character could do more creative, interesting things, but there’s no point. This is, like, a zero-to-death combo. There’s no point. It’s impossible to mess up, impossible to get out of. [laughs] I don’t know.
Plus, we’re trying to make the characters each have at least one mechanic where, like the Slugger’s baseball is, I think, the best example just because it was the progenitor of this design philosophy. We added this in, where you have the baseball and you can hit it with all of these different moves. Without really hardly adding anything to the game, it’s like, suddenly, that mechanic on its own completely redefines every move in the game and how you would approach that is going to be very different from anyone else. Mechanics like that are, I think, where we really try to push the creativity aspect.
You mentioned that movement abilities are kind of the focus. I did notice when I played that you can really recover a lot easier in this than in other games. You can go all the way off-screen and consistently recover. Is there any particular reason that you decided to go that route?
Honestly, it was just kind of a result of the way we made the kits to be fun first. A lot of the things that I find fun are movement-oriented and so it ended up kind of being where it’s like “wow, I guess this idea really makes for a very strong recovery.” [laughs] I know a lot of people struggle to recover with the Slugger at first and then figure out, if you figure out a few things with how to wall jump and stuff, his recovery becomes absurd.
Actually, it would be good to be able to nerf that potentially, but, I don’t know, it feels like taking fun out of the game. I want to make sure that we would nerf recoveries in a way that makes them more fun. I know that a common complaint with the Artist is that you can kind of just, like, go way up high into the air and stall out with the cloud and kind of take your time getting back. [laughs]
So yeah, no, it wasn’t a deliberate decision to make recoveries really ridiculous. [laughs]
Do you feel that the fact that you have to be a little bit more deliberate with your knockouts possibly improves the formula?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily. It’s probably not where I would want the final iteration of recoveries to be. I feel like the biggest problem right now with the recoveries is that, because there are so many options for recovering, you can outright avoid a lot of situations, so there’s no danger, really. If you are aware of all of your options, then it can be very hard to pressure somebody because they can just kind of avoid you using the one of, like, four ways you can get back.
I would rather that result in an interaction because, like, recovery stuff in the other Smash games—I think Melee, especially, is one where both sides really go all in a lot of times and, even if somebody has an overwhelming advantage, if they mess it up, they’re probably dead. [laughs] That’s so exciting.
At the moment, I don’t think it’s bad. It’s not highest on my priority list to fix and there are actually some benefits to it that are kind of strange. For whatever reason, the current flow of combat in teams feels really good to me, even though we didn’t design around it at all. I think being able to recover—recovery being I don’t want to call it, like, slow, but it’s not like, immediately, you’re back on the stage—allows for creating a bunch of two-versus-one scenarios. I don’t know. The flow of it feels really good to me and I think having good recovery is part of why.
The dragon is much larger than the rest of the cast. How is that going to work?
It’s going to be very different from anything else. Kind of, the idea is it’ll feel like you’re playing Master Hand or something. When we were coming up for the design for how his moves just, like, look and feel, Dark Souls bosses are really the ones that come to mind. Almost all Dark Souls boss attacks, across the board, everything is telegraphed in some way, so it’s, a lot of times, barely reactable. But, especially in the later Dark Souls games, the trick that they do is that they use very similar telegraphs that have very different timings. So, like, if you immediately react to anything, you just roll, but, [if] it was the attack that takes like half a beat longer, then they catch you out of your roll.
Beyond that, you can also create chaos. He can summon these minions. He can grab platforms out of the air and just create this whole boss rush or boss fight feeling to what’s going on.
I just love the idea that, like, you’re wailing on him, just absolutely dominating this guy and then he’s like “get away!” and he smacks you and you go flying off the stage.
So it’s all going to be telegraphed very clearly?
Yeah, for the most part, it’s one of those, like, you really don’t want to get hit, but you’re trying to sneak your attacks in because he can take a lot of damage. That’s the general idea.
In our current version, he’s not able to jump. He can kind of rear back and use his long tail to go up higher in a stance where he’s up higher in the air and he has different attacks, so that people can’t just, like, camp him and drop bombs on him or something.
Does that mean he won’t be able to use platforms?
Mhm. That’s the idea. He would grab them, but he wouldn’t be able to jump up onto them. So he would be a very different character.
I’m just trying to picture how that would look in combat.
Well, he’s very large, so his attacks would just naturally hit most areas. I’m saying “telegraphed,” but not, like, a full second telegraph where you can just, like, “oh, okay, I’ll just move to the other side of the screen” type of thing. Depending on the strength of the attacks, it would be anywhere from like a quarter-second to a half-second type of thing, whereas most fighting game attacks come out in anywhere from five to ten frames, usually, which is, at 60 frames per second, a sixth of a second or a twelfth of a second or whatever. Usually, they’re very, very fast.
I don’t know. He’s very weird and he’s kind of an experiment. I think he’s going to be fun. Like, I’ve played much worse designed, without players in mind, [laughs] of controlling bosses before and it’s still pretty fun to me. But yeah, this is going to be version 1, like alpha version 1.
So you feel that you’re going to have to iterate on it?
I’m thinking that’s likely. We can use references as much as we want and, so far, our track record has been pretty good for, like, “let’s try something that’s really out there and I hope it doesn’t break the game and is really anti-fun.” It’s like “oh, it turns out it worked out fine.” [laughs]
But yeah, he’s just so weird. I really wanted to take advantage, to the fullest, of—there’s kind of been this meme in Smash, “you can’t have Ridley in Smash because he’s too big.” When they put Ridley in Smash, they just made him small. [laughs] The problem didn’t get solved. It’s just like “oh, whatever. We’ll just make a mini version of Ridley.” It just felt like a missed opportunity. It’s like well, why not? Why can’t you make a character that big? There are no rules. [laughs]
So that’s part of the reason that you made that character?
I mean, for sure, it was a big inspiration behind it, but also, it’s fun. I really like playing asymmetric Mario Party mini-games where it’s the one versus three and you’re the giant mech boss trying to stomp on everyone. I just don’t think there’s enough of that.
You told me that you had picked up funding and had been re-examining the game a bit recently. Can you talk about that a bit more?
Yeah, so, we recently, within the team, had a few meetings talking about, like, let’s look at the current state of the game, the things that we have currently planned, the things that we would like to have planned, and then re-look at “is there anything that we would want to re-do?”
Some of the main things were in the presentation. It’s not as cohesive as we would have liked and it’s not as unique. I feel like it’s one of those cases where each person is very talented. You know, I’m very proud of the team, so I’m biased. So I can say, like, each person on the team is very, very talented and put their best foot forward for each of the pieces, but we didn’t exactly have an art director to try to make sure [that] everything was as cohesive or, like, based around a specific visual style. Team Fortress 2 is one of those, where everything in the game is built around the idea of evoking the feelings of those ‘50s advertisements, those hand-painted ‘50s advertisements. “Eat an apple and smoke a cigarette, Johnny.” [laughs]
So we never really had that, so that was one of the big things that we were trying to figure out. “Okay, what could we do, as far as that goes?” In addition to that, there’s a lot of VFX, sound effects, music—the entire gamut of the game. We’ve been looking at getting a shader for it.
Some of the other big things we looked at were, like, our current gameplay loop and our new player experience, the latter of which is practically non-existent. It’s like anti-good for new players.
It’s pretty bad. So we want to have a real tutorial and a real training mode. Obviously, be able to fight computers and, hopefully, also, have a classic arcade mode where, at the end, you fight the dragon type of thing. There’s just a lot of polish stuff.
Another thing is looking again at the mechanics. So stuff like our current blocking mechanic, where it’s got the built-in launcher, it’s a little contentious.
I did think it was a little weird that I was forced to attack right after blocking.
Mhm. You can cancel it out in weird ways. It’s not the most intuitive thing in the world and I think every person’s experience, mine included, is that, when you first play with it and you first see it in action, it’s like “this thing is broken.” [laughs] “This thing is extremely strong.”
There are reasons why I really personally want there to be very reliable and strong defensive options, but, you know, it was mostly an experiment, so we’re taking a look at stuff like that to say “can this be done better? Do we even need this? Is this helping?” Those are the main things that we’re looking at re-examining.
I saw that you’re planning to have character packs and cosmetics after launch. Is that the extent of the monetization that you’re planning?
Yeah, and I’m even thinking again about character packs. At least for the time being. Like, until we have enough characters where it kind of feels like it makes sense to have character packs. If there are six characters and half of them are locked away, that feels kind of awkward. [laughs] So it may just end up being the cosmetics and battle pass type of stuff.
I think battle passes could be really fun, where, like, part of it goes towards a big tournament or something. I don’t know. I tend to like them in the games that I play.
I think the one main benefit of battle passes is that they encourage people to come back.
Right. Like, it’s a “reason to play.”
I think about that a lot in terms of games in general, but the current state of our game is that we actually have a fair number of people who are really passionate about the game and have a lot of fun when they play it. There’s no reason that makes you just kind of like “oh, I’m bored. What should I do? I’ll jump in and I’ll play.” That’s one of the things with better matchmaking and stuff like that that we’re working towards.
Is there a rate at which you’re ideally hoping to release new characters?
Yeah, I think that the current plan is around four per year, but, if we can get things going even moderately well, I would like to do about six per year. So, like, one every other month would be pretty tight.
And I don’t know if there’s, like, a maximum limit on the number of characters. In Smash Ultimate, you’ve got a ludicrous number of characters and I’ve heard some people, I don’t want to say, like, complain that there are too many, but there are drawbacks when you start getting so many—on a competitive level, at least. If every single character is viable, then there will always be some amount of match unfamiliarity. [laughs]
That’s a big problem in Tekken, actually. In Tekken 7 now, there’s a ton of characters. Every character has, like, 60 to 100-something moves and they all have different purposes. Some are useless. Some are punished with, like, specific frame data.
So, like, that kind of feature creep, or character creep, could be problematic in its own way, but I don’t think we’re in danger of that in, like, the immediate future. [laughs] I don’t think that happens until you’ve got like 60 characters in a platform fighter or 40 or 50 or something. And that would be a long time, right? [At six per year,] that would be 10 years before you got [there]. So probably not a problem.
How are you planning to balance mod support with the free-to-play business model? If people can add their own skins, how are you going to encourage cosmetic sales?
Well, what I’d really like to do is sort of the thing that Dota had done, where you’ve got the marketplace of cosmetics and people can, like, create their own and they can make money off of their ability to do it. Mod stuff is kind of—the way I see it, it’s kind of just going to happen either way, you know? Even in League of Legends, people just make mods with their own crazy cosmetics and they’re doing fine. [laughs]
I don’t know. I also really like how Rivals of Aether released, basically, the tools to create your own character and release it on the Steam Workshop. There’s a whole lot of meme trash, and meme gold, but there are also some really serious attempts at making characters that you actually potentially could see being a part of [the true Rivals of Aether roster].
So I don’t know. I don’t have strong thoughts on how we’re going to implement that stuff. I just know that Schmoo and I, especially, we just like mods. I think they just make games cooler.
So it’s really going to be a kind of play it by ear situation.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s kind of its own world, right? When we first released the very first alpha, the closed alpha—this was like, I guess a year, a year and some change, like a year and four months or something—there were some people who were like “oh, mod support. That’s cool. You guys are cool with mods” and they infodumped a whole bunch of stuff [laughs] and created their own custom skins and stuff, which was really cool, actually.
I don’t know. I think, if people are passionate, then they’re creating value for your game. I think that’s a thing that you should reward or, you know, celebrate.
What made you decide to roll a custom netcode solution?
I actually have to give a huge shoutout to Blank, Blank Mauser, who is our network programmer. When we first started working on the game, he helped us get a ton of stuff set up. Blank was the lead developer on Earth Romancer, but then Schmoo and two of our animators also worked on Earth Romancer, which was maybe not so lovingly coined as the “furry Smash Bros. game.” There was a playable demo. I thought it was really fun. Obviously, fun enough that I hired the team. [laughs] Once they decided to put Earth Romancer on hiatus, I picked them all up.
But yeah, Blank had really looked into netcode-type stuff and he explained a bunch—it’s complicated—and he said “there’s this group out of Germany that does rollback. They’re going to be the next GGPO.”
Without getting really technical about this stuff, the main distinction between our netcode or, really, it’s the German engineers’—Quantum is the name of their netcode, Photon Quantum—is that GGPO, which is really well-known and recently went free for developer use, is peer-to-peer. So, like, I connect my computer directly to yours and this is actually perfect in any kind of 1v1 game. The problem is, if I’m connecting my computer to yours and we’re both connecting to a third person’s and all three of us are connecting to a fourth person’s, then what happens is it’s much, much, more likely—like, exponentially more likely—that you start getting more and more packet drops, so, like, it stutters more.
The big difference between Quantum and GGPO’s peer-to-peer is that we’re using server-based. So, like, if one person’s connection is really crappy, then it’s totally fine. Only that person’s connection is hindered by it because everyone else is connected to the server and that is what’s relaying everyone else’s controls. That one person might jump around a little bit, but, for the most part, everyone else, when they’re playing the game, they’re not starting and stopping and stuttering and all this kind of stuff. They have a very smooth experience. So we can have three players, four players, beyond. Like, I think Quantum can have like 80 players or something on. So I don’t know. We might try that out at some point, do a battle royale. That would be pretty fun.
You did say on the store page that you were planning to have time-limited modes. Why not a battle royale?
Yeah, right? I don’t know. I’d love to at least give it a shot. It’d be pretty fun. If it doesn’t take too much work to give it a shot, why not? It could just be fun as a casual way to spend the night.
I don’t know. I think there’s so much potential with this type of game. You really could make a MOBA version of it. There’s this game called Awesomenauts and I used to play so much of it. It’s basically a platformer and a MOBA put together. I was like “man, this game was so much fun.” Imagine if you had, like, half the mobility options of a game like Smash Bros. or Rivals or any kind of platform fighter. Just have a MOBA game mode and it would be so sick.
But, to wrap up your question, by the way, this kind of thing is what Brawlhalla uses because there’s so much free-for-all and team play in Brawlhalla. They’re not using Quantum, but they and Quantum have independently mentioned that, like, “oh yeah, they’re basically using what we’re using” in terms of the overall structure of it. But they’ve not collabed or anything.
Slayers for Hire is available on Steam Early Access for $9.99.