Them's Fightin' Herds doesn't quite look like a game you'd expect to see on the main card at Evo. It's not about killer ninjas, martial arts masters, superheroes or villains, or even anime. Its visual identity is more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon, with bright colors and ponies.
In fact, Them's Fightin' Herds started life as a My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fan game. Developed by a ragtag group of fans of the show in Fighter Maker 2, the team faced engine troubles and copyright concerns. Despite these setbacks, the team—dubbed Mane6—kept working at it, and with assistance from some surprising places, it's now a full game.
Not only that, but Them's Fightin' Herds is one of four games accepted as an open-entry title for Evo Online. It will be one of the select few still hosting an open bracket during the world's largest fighting game tournament. It might look like a kids' game, but Mane6 president Aaron Stavely tells me the perception of the game doesn't bother the team much.
"We're not upset about the pony comments," Stavely says in a Discord call. Rather, Them's Fightin' Herds' persistence has shown it's not just a knock-off flight of fancy for fans of a TV show, but a labor of love for Mane6. This is how Them's Fightin' Herds got to Evo.
In 2011, six forum members gathered to discuss the potential of a My Little Pony fighting game. Based around a mocked-up concept of a "Marevel vs. Clopcom," their collective enthusiasm nonetheless pushed them into working with Fighter Maker.
Stavely, who would join the team much later, told me how basic it was in the beginning. Characters and attacks took time to build. But the team kept pushing forward, developing new ways to do things within the Fighter Maker engine.
It wasn't long until their ambitions started outgrowing their canvas. "All the stuff that they wanted to do was already out of scope for the engine," Stavely says.
Under the name Fighting Is Magic, the game started to spread around different circles. But the added attention on forums, articles about the game, and a spot in Evo 2012's indie corner all raised the chance that some corporate entity from on-high might notice it. Even with a chance to make Evo 2013 as a fan-voted game, the cease-and-desist from My Little Pony parent company Hasbro seemed all but inevitable.
"There was never any intention of selling it, because obviously, it's copy-written IP," Stavely says. "They were just going to release it on the internet for free and leave it at that."
A Second Lease on Life
When Mane6 finally received a cease-and-desist from Hasbro in 2013, that should've been the end of it. Despite any goodwill garnered, copyright is a wall that fan games will frequently run into. But Mane6 got help, and from a pretty surprising place: the creator of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic herself, Lauren Faust.
Faust said she was devastated for the team, and offered them new original character designs and a new world for their game. While it still hewed to four-legged fighting mechanics, it would now have a look all its own, crafted by Faust.
It was one miracle, but then came another. Members of the Mane6 team had been in contact with Mike Zaimont, a fighting game developer whose studio Lab Zero had recently built its own project, Skullgirls. Zaimont had his own engine, the Z Engine, and Mane6 wanted to build their new game using it. Fighter Maker had served its purpose, but as Zaimont related to me over Discord, the team was running into quirks of the engine.
Zaimont says he'd been approached by others to use his engine, but what set Mane6 apart wasn't even the look of the game. Plenty of games just have characters that "turn into something cool and punch somebody else," as he puts it. But he saw a little bit of Skullgirls' situation in the team, as well as a devotion to the craft of making a good fighting game.
"It was really apparent from just looking at Fighting Is Magic that they, if given the chance, could make something real," Zaimont says. "They wanted to, they were just being held back by the limitations of the engine that they had chosen, which is all that was available."
Fighting Is Magic
While Them's Fightin' Herds might seem simple on the surface, it's actually doing some incredibly interesting things with the traditional 2D fighting game format. Most fighters in video games are bipedal, human-like characters. Working with ponies ended up providing an interesting set of challenges for Mane6 as it developed Them's Fightin' Herds.
"Our hitboxes are wide and short," Stavely says. "You can do deep cross-ups, because animals have backsides that stretch out into the background."
Just the form of the characters was one of the first major technical challenges the team had to grapple with in development. A sort-of three-quarter stance was the solution, leaving the interesting concept of height and depth without making the characters too wide on the screen.
As development picked back up in earnest under the name Them's Fightin' Herds, the team also encountered another issue: perception. Despite ditching the literal My Little Pony content, it was still clearly an MLP-inspired game. As Stavely notes, this can lead to mixed reception based on how people feel about the franchise, especially its older fandom and "brony" culture.
"People aren't really sure if it's cool to like the talkin' horses," Stavely jokes. Them's Fightin' Herds also had to contend with a genre where players' interest can wax and wane, and popularity is crucial for maintaining a steady playerbase.
But Them's Fightin' Herds had the benefit of already being a solid fighting game, and as the team polished it, those preconceived notions became easier to overlook. Once the game hit early access in 2018, tournaments started to crop up for it, and players began testing it out.
Once someone starts playing an actual round, things start to click. The four-button setup is easy to understand, but each character of the admittedly slim roster of six stands out. Arizona is a calf that uses lasso grabs and charge attacks, grappling in close ranges, but Paprika is a whimsical alpaca that cartwheels and lobs broccoli at opponents. Even Oleander, a unicorn, uses a blasphemous book of spells to zone out fighters.
The unconventional style works in Mane6's favor, making Them's Fightin' Herds stand out. The hardest part, at that point, was just getting people to sit down in front of a controller and try it.
"Even if they don't wanna learn it, we just want people to try it so that they can at least know that we're serious," Stavely says. "That's been our mantra ever since we've been in early access and that's worked for us so far; is that, at the end of the day, the game stands by itself. Once people try it, they see we're serious."
Rolling It Back
Faust's art allowed Mane6 to avoid copyright infringement while also developing a style it could call its own, and Zaimont's engine let the team start to really develop the game it wanted to make. But there was a less-apparent gift in the latter, one that was both immediately beneficial and would eventually lead to Them's Fightin' Herds' big Evo debut: netcode.
GGPO, an open-source netcode for peer-to-peer games, uses rollback networking. Rollback netcode has been slowly sweeping through fighting games as a better alternative to delay-based netcode; rather than halting the action to let each player sync up, rollback will predict an expected outcome based on previously seen inputs until the two game states sync back up.
It can be tough to grasp for some, but the results have spoken for themselves. It's allowed many fighting games, especially those with smaller audiences, to thrive.
"If there are three people that play the game between Brazil and California, you have people you can play. That's a big deal," Zaimont says.
Larger games with more installed communities might see it as a luxury. The fiercest competitions in fighting games are still held locally. But for a game as small and niche as Them's Fightin' Herds, Stavely tells me, it's pretty much required.
"If we didn't have rollback netcode in our game, we wouldn't have a game at all," Stavely says. "So it's really the foundation of everything that we're doing. We wouldn't be here without GGPO. We just wouldn't."
Having GGPO ended up benefitting Them's Fightin' Herds two-fold. When Evo Online was announced earlier this year, the original main slate of games were relegated to exhibitions, while four new titles—Mortal Kombat 11, Killer Instinct, Skullgirls, and Them's Fightin' Herds—were announced as the open tournament titles. Not coincidentally, all were games with solid online play.
Since the announcement, Mane6 has seen a massive uptick in awareness and playerbase. Stavely says the team was approached about Evo Online just days after Them's Fightin' Herds launched out of early access, and combined with being featured as an Evo title, the results have been impressive.
"We had no idea that we were only gonna be one of four games in the lineup," he says. "We thought there was gonna be a whole range of other people who were also gonna get in, who had good netcode. But it was just us four."
Since then, the Fightin' Herds Discord has nearly doubled in size, sales have shot up, and server population is "hitting the roof." Stavely says the team has had to scale pretty hard, pretty fast; but in the realm of problems, having too many players isn't always the worst one to have.
The road ahead for Them's Fightin' Herds looks bright. Popular fighting game personalities like Stephen "Sajam" Lyon have been streaming the game. With a big tournament and a seventh character—a goat, if you were wondering—on the way, Staveley says the team absolutely wants to keep working on post-launch content.
It's hard to imagine that nine years ago, when this team assembled in a Skype call and started building a fighting game based on their shared fandom, any of them could have seen this coming. Them's Fightin' Herds is an original project, with designs from the creator they admired, and an official spot in the most high-profile fighting game tournament in the world alongside the likes of Mortal Kombat.
It's a testament to how driven these developers were to push on, no matter what setbacks came. As Zaimont told me, even in the early stages of Fighting Is Magic, he could tell it was being made by people that cared about every facet of development, rather than just making something that looked cool.
"Those are the people that I support," Zaimont says. "The people that really want, at the end of the day, a fighting game that you can play for 10 years—because they spent enough time thinking about the different parts of it that there won't be anything that stops people from playing it at a certain skill level."
It all came about because of some dedication, the goodwill of others, and the value of still being able to foster a community even when it's spread out and small. Near the end of our interview, I asked Stavely whether he thought this year's Evo being forced online by concerns over the coronavirus would get other developers thinking about rollback netcode for the future.
"I really hope that they're paying attention," he said, laughing a little. "After all their games got kicked out of Evo and were replaced with the My Little Pony fighting game."