Complex Motions in Fighting Games

Honestly, my write-up on Bayonetta has revived this idea once again. Should all games be accessible, or should some games remain aloof to the needs of the average gamer?

I think there’s a few aspects to this discussion that we don’t really take into an account. I’m not talking specifically about genre, since the term has become all but useless in many ways with all the cross-disciplinary approaches to games nowadays (take the phrase “RPG elements”, for example, and you’ll see what I mean), but I mean something similar. “What is the objective of the game?” seems like a better way to phrase the question. What kind of experience does the developer want to represent, and do the mechanics support that experiential quality?

We can see Bayonetta has accessible controls because the game requires quick reflexes to dodge attacks. Being able to miss an input would be downright cruel in that sense, as the game basically requires dodging in nearly every situation and mode (even on the motorcycle and missile stages). The game, though, works around this design by making every enemy attack different; by doing this, and throwing in different timings, sounds, and appearance, the single button dodge isn’t an issue because the player has to adapt to their circumstances in order to correct implement the dodge.

However, fighting games also require splitsecond timing to take advantage of opportunities the opponent has presented by lowering his defense or making a bad guess. Shouldn’t this work just like Bayonetta with one button press to implement a damaging, punishing combo? Perhaps not one button press, but at least a simplified motion would instantly grant access to players who wouldn’t otherwise play the game. As David Sirlin, Street Fighter Tournament player and card/board game designer extraordinaire, says about his balancing of Street Fighter II HD Remix:

Inside Street Fighter, there is a wonderful battle of wits, but many potential players are locked out of experiencing it because they can’t dragon punch or do Fei Long’s flying kicks, or whatever other joystick gymnastics. I’m reversing the trend. There’s only so far I can go with this and still call it SF2, but wherever I could, I turned the knob towards easy execution of moves. Let’s emphasize good decision making—the true core of competitive games—and get rid of artificially difficult commands.

This will get more players interested in the game, eventually leading to more competition. It will also get players past the awkward beginner phase faster and into the intermediate phase where the interesting strategy starts to emerge.

There are some players who wrongly believe that this “dumbs the game down.” Actually, the opposite is true. Experts can perform special moves already, so the changes listed below have very little effect on them. Experts will care about actual balance changes such as hitboxes, recovery times, new properties for some moves, and so on. Making special moves easier, however, just allows everyone else to play the “real” game without needing to develop hundreds of hours of muscle memory just to perform the moves. It’s actually sad to hear that some players think that their ability to execute a 360 command throw is why they are good, as opposed to the actual strategy of getting close enough to the opponent with Zangief to land the throw.

Another wrong-headed comment I often get is that easier controls don’t leave enough skills in the game to separate good and bad players. The statement is absurd. Easier special moves don’t change the strategic depth of the game at all (and the actual balance changes in HD Remix hopefully increase the strategic depth). Furthermore, there’s no shortage of nuance for experts. Does Cammy’s dragon punch beat Fei Longs? It depends on exactly who did it first, which means that 1/60th of a second timing is just as important as ever. So is positioning, spacing, the difficulty of performing combos, and the skill of reading the mind of the opponent.

I’m all for more people playing Street Fighter and fighting games; heck, Street Fighter III’s inaccessibility was really the death of Street Fighter back in the later 1990s. But there’s a certain feel to fighting games, specifically 2D ones, that seems to require that kind of pinpoint accuracy.

Think of this as two different stages of reward. First, one has to develop the skills with a joystick necessary to actually do all the moves, and perform them under pressure. That might be a huge task, but this teaches most players (and me, from personal experience) how to use a arcade stick. It teaches the player how to use it, hopefully allowing them to become fluent in the transition from controller to stick. When you finally learn a combo with complex commands and actually apply it in the game, it’s truly satisfying fist-pumping moment.

Now, let’s say that same player just decide he’d pick up the stick and take the easy input route. He can do the mind games, certainly, but he’s not as proficient with the controller as the former player will be. Perhaps, over time, he’ll learn, but he’s already been given the proper tools necessary to win against players of a similar skill level. Once he comes to bear on higher level players, they’ll still have more advanced techniques than the one with less skill, so inevitably he’d have been better off to learn the hard way.

Now that we’ve established an FGC (fighting game community), they’ve already hit that level of mindgames and yomi, reading the opponent. So dropping the barrier of entry just makes them even more competitive, more likely to react correctly because they NEVER miss the easy inputs, and dominate the game.

So yeah, that would be the case with a modern fighting game. If games were developed with Sirlin’s issues in mind, however, I don’t think that would be much of a problem. Most 3D fighting games are like that, specifically Soul Calibur’s easy inputs. But even SC has Just Frames, moves that have to be performed on a specific frame even in a 60 FPS game. The same goes for Virtua Fighter and Tekken.

It seems everywhere you look, fighting games continue and will continue to have complex motions just by nature of design. I don’t think it’s so much habit or not messing with success, but simply because learning the motions seems essential to the game. How do you simplify a dash motion, (double tap forward or bacK) for example, or parrying (pressing forward/downforward at the frame the attack hits)? Are these considered hard moves, and should the frame timing be extended for everything? I think simplifying the motions is a slippery slope. Take SFIV’s easy inputs, which make it confusing to perform a fireball while crouching because you may just get a dragon punch motion instead. There’s a middle ground, to be sure, but fighting game developers don’t seem to be interested in this. They’d rather the new player learn the conventions of the game over time. It’s an interesting set up, and weirdly dated. I admire their tenacity; you have to dedicate yourself to my game in order to play.

Anyway, I’m not sure there’s a great answer for fighting games on this front. It’s not like reading opponents is easier than the inputs, either. Really, then, the question remains: how much time do you want to invest in one game?

As a Christian, I should be for a more egalitarian approach, but I suppose that’s the same problems you can take with church, as well. If you just give people all the information right from the beginning (hey, about predestination, guys…), then they’re not going to get it right away. Learning takes time, and even if they’re given the tools, that may mean they skip a step in their Christian walk, or perhaps opt out entirely. I’ve seen it before, and it’s heartbreaking. John Calvin attributes this to different levels of faith. In studying Scripture, it’s not a direct one to one process that you read it once and understand it once and for all; if that were the case, there’d be a lot more of us out there, I bet. But being a Christian takes time, effort, and energy to truly understand it all, and even then we’re barely scratching the surface when it comes to an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God. As Calvin says himself about Scripture,  “…we subject our intellect and judgement to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.”

You know, like proof-texting, that oh-so-dastardly appeal to one portion of the Bible or another to prove a point. It’s done by Christian and non-Christian alike because they haven’t read the whole library and seen that passage in context of the whole narrative.

So yeah, difficult fighting game commands are part of the learning process of understanding the game mechanics. Too easy, and we’ve got something brainless and easily manipulated; too difficult, and no one will play. Who knows what the right answer is here.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.