Fighting for the Future

Modern gaming rose out of the arcades, and there was no king of those arcades like fighting games. Built by classics like Karate Champ and Yie-Ar Kung Fu, and made into its modern form with the irreplaceable Street Fighter 2, it has been some time since the realm of Skullgirls and Soulcalibur saw serious change. While this conservative approach certainly has its upsides- an uncompromising learning curve and a passionate pro scene chief among them- it pays a price for foregoing modern niceties, too.

With the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One looming on the near horizon, and the Wii U already (potentially) in our homes and (debatably not) our hearts, convenience is the new frontier of gaming evolution. Features like the Xone’s HDMI passthrough, the PS4’s built-in recording, and the WiiU’s TVii among other things are not things that we simply could not do before- they streamline that which we could already do. Innovation is not the focus so much as streamlining and comfort, making games fast, easy, and enjoyable. Indeed, it’s a trend that extends out to the whole of our society, as smart phones and tablets replace the myriad devices that we once required in their stead.

This convenience is not merely on a hardware level- software endeavors to be easier and more friendly, as well. Missteps in our recent past like online passes are being walked back, and services like Uplay and Call of Duty Elite endeavor to make your game experiences richer through additional services. Even second-screen experiences (though I personally find them misguided) are an effort to make interacting with your games friendlier and easier, using interfaces you’re more comfortable with to make new games more accessible. So why aren’t fighting games keeping up with this?

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It’s almost depressing to see what the fighting game genre considers friendly. A mode that simply runs you through every button input without teaching you their worth or usefulness is considered generous, while single player fights teach you habits that are not only useless in real competition, but actually counter-productive. The only real way to learn to play a fighting game is research- there is an excellent community willing to teach you the tricks needed to succeed, and through hard work, you can pick them up. Hard work is the only way, though.

There was a time when I thought that needed to change- that getting good needed to be easier. As my experience with the genre has grown, that stance has changed. I’m fine with the amount of time it takes to become skilled, and how hard it is to get there. The payoff is only as great as it is because of the difficulty of attaining it, and lowering the skill ceiling would only cheapen things. But why should getting started be so impossible? Why can’t the games themselves teach you about how they work?

Less and less does the market tolerate this kind of obtuse design. Fighting games are lagging in popularity among the mainstream, and only major IPs like Street Fighter or Marvel vs. Capcom are able to compete on a major sales front. Even then, Street Fighter x Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 were letdowns compared to their sales expectations. The average price of a fighting game is dropping to budget territory in an effort to retain interest, but the cost of making these games is hardly going down. At a certain point, continuing in this fashion will simply be untenable. We need fresh blood, and to get them interested, we need to make it easy and convenient for them to get in.

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Oversimplifying them is no solution, either. As much as I love Divekick and its incredibly simple two button fighting, it’s no formula for fixing the genre. Divekick doesn’t do any better at teaching players how the game works than normal fighting games, it just massively lowers the skill ceiling to make it a non-issue. To do this to a normal fighting game would strip away everything that makes it special, and to make learning by destroying the whole reason for learning is pointless.

What, then, is our path forward? The answer could lie with alternate pricing models. The MOBA genre has similar issues with skill ceiling and teaching new players, but it flourishes, and this is partly due to how it handles the issue of payment. The two most popular MOBAs, Dota 2 and League of Legends, are both free-to-play, but offer numerous ways to entice you into spending money. Dota 2 offers all its characters for free, but outsources cosmetic items to the community- modders design items for the game, and Valve sells the ones it approves of, sharing the profits with its creators. A similar system could easily be implemented for fighting games.

Perhaps even easier, however, would be to adapt the system that League of Legends prefers. League selects a handful of characters from its roster of over 100 to be freely available each week, and cycles them out for a new handful at the start of the next week. At any given moment, only a few characters are available to you, but if you are patient, you can try all of them for free. Or, if you prefer, you could spend points earned in game or real money to unlock any character for permanent use. Alongside a system of paying for cosmetics, this creates a strong, reliable revenue stream that also feels fair, and not exploitative.

This is what it comes down to- it needs to get easier, either through lowering the amount of external research necessary, or lowering the financial barrier to entry. Next gen fighters like Killer Instinct are just beginning to play with this idea, and I’m very eager to see the results of that little experiment. My concern and my criticism stems from my love, and my desire to see fighting games prosper. There is so little in this world that can compare to the feeling of an intense, close fight, and it’s infuriating to me how many gamers I know who dismiss fighting games when they don’t really know what they’re missing.. The fault is not theirs- they gave it a shot. We need to change to make it more accessible to them. That’s what’s best for everyone.