Last month, a friend of mine from out of town visited for a few days. It’d been quite a while since I saw him in person, and we stayed up late a few nights just playing whatever we had. After burning through a wide variety of splitscreen and same-screen multiplayer games, the night started to drag. We had played some Marvel vs Capcom (his idea), and it hadn’t exactly been a blast. It was a problem I anticipated, because I was very familiar with it- I’ve invested a lot of time into learning fighting games, and my friend only messes around with them now and then. Patience running low, inspiration struck, and I went to my shelves to pull off a game I’d only ever played single player: Catherine.
Catherine’s versus premise is simple- the two players climb a collapsing tower made of free-floating blocks, and push or pull those blocks to create a path upward… or block off your opponent’s route. The controls are easy to get the hang of, and the game’s flow is almost instinctive- it takes no time at all for you to realize that you could just as easily destroy the other player’s stairway to safety instead of building your own. In your rush to slow your opponent, you throw a block their way before you realize, a moment too late, is crucial to your own structure.. and without its support, your whole side of the tower crumbles. Though you can be doing better, or worse, nothing is set in stone until the moment the ground, literally, drops out from under someone.
A block only needs a single edge touching the edge of another block to stay connected to the tower, so the constructions become wild, and a path that led you up may not work a second time if you get knocked back down the tower. The constantly crumbling base adds pressure as the bottom drops out layer by layer, and the blocks themselves vary in behavior- some are trapped, some are heavy and take longer to move, some will springboard you up an extra few blocks. The right block at the wrong time can make all the difference. Some players act as solitary builders, relying on their fast and intuitive architecture to safely carry them upwards. Others focus on harassment- interfering with the other player’s efforts while staying just one step ahead. There’s no best way to play… other than fast, because no mercy is shown to the slow. It’s extremely easy to learn, but as the saying goes, difficult to master.
Fighting games, of course, also have a simple premise, but are far more complex in execution. Intricate inputs to execute moves, strict and unintuitive timings, and an either intentional or oblivious obtuseness makes them hard to learn, and extremely hard to master. Catherine, on the other hand, never asks you to make any dramatic leaps in skill. You get more fluent with the controls, play more instinctively, your strategy gets more devious, and it all happens organically, without having to force it. It was the one-on-one matchup my friend and I were wanting, while being fun and fair enough that it wasn’t one-sided.
I walked away from my first ever session of competitive Catherine lost in thought. My frustrations with fighting games have been slowly mounting over the last couple years, as is evident in our Rising Thunder discussion (link). I’m sick of the arrogance of fighting games. I’ve lost patience with their cluelessness. On the site Ben, Johnny and I used to write for, I had the unofficial title of “fighting game editor,” but I would probably be okay if I never played one again.
The thing I’ve always loved about fighting games is being driven to learn. There are so many ways to improve in fighting games, and the one-on-one setting drives you to greater heights. You can’t blame an unfair map, or outside interference. It is you against your opponent, and the only thing preventing you from achieving victory is if they outplay you. That purity, that intensity, is as appealing to me as it ever was.
So what’s changed? Fighting games certainly haven’t. You’d be hard-pressed to find a genre half as stagnant as the one Street Fighter built. The truth is that I’ve changed. I used to think fighting games were singular in the pure competitive learning environment they offered- save for high level RTS play like StarCraft, which my brain is simply not built for. In the time since, though… well, I’ve learned about other games. Games like Dota.
Dota is my example because it’s the one I play, but really, it’s the thing about MOBAs in general- they offer a vast amount to learn, and a wide variety of skills to improve on, without artificially adding difficulty to the learning process. MOBAs want you to get better- they’re eager to see you grow, and to that end they keep incredibly precise mechanics to a minimum. Reflexes are a boon, and you are encouraged to combo abilities together, but the genre doesn’t punish you for not nailing split-second timings. Another player with fast fingers might capitalize on your lack of precision, but the game isn’t trying to force that situation.
Listen, I’ve played a lot of Dota. I know how that argument sounds to people outside of the community- I’m well aware of the reputation MOBAs have. To be certain, some of the high-profile elements are presented in the genre in an unintuitive and clumsy way. However, the main impediment to learning in MOBAs is… well, the community, as opposed to anything actually in the game. The negativity rampant in the playerbase is a major problem, but it’s hard to talk about it in a game design perspective. That’s a topic for another day. Player attitudes and reactions are an area of design we’re still just beginning to figure out as an industry, and the problems with fighting games are far more fundamental.
What good MOBAs do is endeavor to make learning easy and intuitive. Every spell or item in the game has a unique sound effect associated with it- even without looking you can identify everything used or cast in a fight (if you focus). Hovering your mouse over an ability will highlight its range on the ground, helping you understand when you can land it… and will also pop up a box explaining exactly how it works. Many characters have voicework tied to how well or poorly you used one of their abilities, as well. Throw Lich’s ult, which bounces around an enemy team like a ping-pong ball whilst doing damage, and if it doesn’t bounce very many times before fizzling out due to a lack of targets Lich will exclaim “Not my best work!” There are issues that remain unaddressed, but the game endeavors to give you feedback and information for every situation, expecting you to step up to the plate. Dota is interesting in teaching moments, not “gotcha” moments.
Really, that’s what these moments feel like in fighting games. When I try to combo light punch -> light punch -> medium kick, and the medium kick doesn’t come out at all because I was a less than a tenth of a second too fast, that is the game intentionally being uncooperative. There’s no reason it couldn’t simply throw out the kick as soon as my character was able to, but it chooses not to. It chooses to slap me on the wrist for not knowing a timing that it never taught me, and in fact hid from me. You meet the game on the arbitrary terms it has set, or it has no problem watching you fail in wholly unnecessary ways.
Worse yet, fighting games seem to think they’re addressing the problem. Every major fighting game release has a tutorial, and lately they’ve been growing more and more in-depth. A patient voice actor talks you through the controls and mechanics of the game, asking you to demonstrate an ability to execute before you proceed. There are also challenges where the game asks you to execute a specific combo in an optimal environment, and sometimes even in-game elements that offer feedback on your execution. For instance, when you are grabbed in BlazBlue, an exclamation mark appears over your character and the color indicates why you were grabbed. Did you try to throw counter (or “tech”) too early? Did you not tech at all? Was it untechable? Each has a different color associated with it. It does, genuinely, help with the problem of understanding why you failed to tech a throw.
The issue is that it’s an earnest effort to help, in a completely misguided way. Learning what moves are in a combo is not hard, and neither is learning to tech a throw. It’s good that the game offers feedback and ways to learn, but it only does so in the most basic areas. The parts of the game that are significantly more challenging, punishing, and unpleasant have no edges sanded off whatsoever- no one is rushing to make the fighting game where combos are intuitive and easy. They just want to make it easy for you to get to the point where you’re stuck in the training room for hours trying to figure out what the timing is on links and move cancels. They are fixing things that aren’t problems, and ignoring the things that are.
It’s an important distinction, because it’s a problem that occurs outside of fighting games. All games want to appear helpful. Even the most punishing of modern commercial games- say, a Dark Souls, or a Spelunky- offer tutorials, and try to make the player feel welcome out of the gate. The primary difference is in how they continue forward. Is the game trying to surface the information you need to truly understand its systems, like Dota does? For all its complexity, Dota never pretends to be anything else. It shows you what it is, then offers thousand tiny pieces of feedback every time you play to help you learn.
Or does it show you enough to give you a running start, and then attempt to obfuscate its mechanics so that you don’t realize how much depth is really there unless you dig? This is something that Blizzard’s new MOBA Heroes of the Storm is guilty of- it presents itself as the simple, friendly alternative in the MOBA genre, but in truth it’s far more complex and punishing than it’s willing to admit- a fact that becomes incredibly apparent the first time you see a significantly more skilled team play a less skilled one. The game is afraid that acknowledging the level of mechanical depth will frighten players, so it attempts to hide it from you until you stumble upon it. Hopefully you’re ready for it by then! These two approaches to mechanical depth are what set a lot of games apart, and form the shape of the whole experience. Dota and Heroes of the Storm should be extremely similar games, but the key difference of surfacing vs. hiding depth turns them into completely different experiences.
So where do fighting games fall on this scale? For the time being, they mess up on both ends. They are clumsy and clueless when it comes to onboarding players with lessons, and then they don’t ever explain just how hard it is to get good, or give you proper feedback to help you do so. The bits of feedback they offer are in the places that are easy. It’s easy to pop up a colored icon when someone does a throw. It’s easy to list how many hits are in a combo, or what moves you should do in what order. But telling you how to do them? That’s tricky, and so they don’t bother. The core structure is of trial-and-error, with no notable help along the way.
It’s an archaic attitude… or perhaps I should say an arcade-ic attitude. It’s easy to see how a genre with its roots so deep in the coin-op days of arcade cabinets and cocktail machines got design like this so entrenched within its identity. To figure out the nature and timing of a combo on an arcade machine would eat tons of time and quarters, so designers were incentivized to obfuscate the workings of their game. This synergizes with the competitive nature of fighting games: if one player takes the time to learn combos, and then starts cleaning house with it, those they play against become motivated to practice in order to beat him. The system rewards designers for being punishing, and the result is things like dash cancels, one frame links, and so much more.
It didn’t help that the origin of combos is a bug. In the testing of the mother of all fighting games, Street Fighter 2, a developer realized that you could chain together attacks without giving the opponent a chance to defend if your timing was precise. The man in question, Noritaka Funamizu, decided to leave them in as a hidden system, reasoning that the timing was far too difficult for them to be a useful game feature. Fast forward, and combos are core to nearly all fighting games made. To remove them would dismantle the very heart of a genre, and to leave them keeps their design thoroughly anchored in a player-unfriendly past.
Some games have actually shown themselves willing to try dismantling that heart. Titles like Nidhogg and Divekick endeavor to preserve the values of fighting games while discarding the various trappings that have become so central since SF2. Even Super Smash Bros could be said to do this, and it is in my eyes the most successful… but even Smash doesn’t quite achieve what standard fighting games do at a high level. Which cut parts of the genre are crucial, and which are chaff? Is there even a good answer? It’s a question that the genre needs to tackle to move forward, instead of just issuing countless reworks of ill-conceived mechanics with fancier graphics.
Were fighting games ever able to work through these issues, and salvage what makes them great out from the burden of artificial difficulty and systemic arrogance, I would be delighted to come back. I still love the fight. Predicting an opponent, forcing them into an unfavorable position, overwhelming their defenses with relentless pressure- these are all fantastically fun elements that no other genre does quite like fighting games. But it seems impossible to me that the genre will ever come out from under their shadow- it’s too far gone, now. It’s lost to me.
It’s easier to play genres built without the sins of the past weighing them down. MOBAs aren’t held back by a need to gobble quarters, and Catherine doesn’t even know what a combo is. Destiny’s more interested in my positioning than my knowledge of animation frames, and Galak-Z couldn’t give a good god damn about jump cancels or option selects. For those of you who will endure the imperiousness of fighting games, I salute you, and I’ll continue to watch the matches you put on with fascination. But me… I’m well out of it, friend.