Considering that I’ve mentioned that I classify execution as an “ambiguity sauce” – meaning, a cheap, bad way of introducing ambiguity/uncertainty into your system, you might be surprised to know that I have an extensive background playing fighting games, as well as other real time games.
In fact, I’ve played far more hours, more seriously, of real time games in general. The games I’ve played more than any others, hours-wise, would be Super Smash Bros. (N64), Super Smash Bros. Melee, Team Fortress 2, Doom, Doom 2, Quake, Warcraft 2, Starcraft, Warcraft 3, Starcraft 2. I don’t think any turn-based game has come close to to catching up with those yet.
I’ve also had numerous 2D fighter and 3D fighter phases, but these have been steadily declining as I’ve gotten older. When I was 12, I thought that the huge move lists and difficult-to-execute inputs were “cool”. In fact, this is the whole reason that anyone really liked Mortal Kombat over Street Fighter, the latter being a vastly better game but the former having “fatalities”, a sequence of the game that simply allowed you to show the other player that you had memorized and drilled a sequence of button presses. That brings me to the state of the genre as I see it.
I see the 2D fighter and 3D fighter worlds as very stagnant. Now, people who play these games seriously and have never stopped – these are “fighter people”. To them, the differences between 2012’s Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 vs SNK vs Tatsunoko and 2013’s Capcom 2 vs Marvel vs Pokemon Mega Battle vs Little Mermaid are huge. To them, the addition of a new bar, or the subtraction of a bar, or the addition of some kind of move you can do that swaps an on-screen bar with another bar – these are the kinds of changes that most people would expect to see in a sequel, but this group has been conditioned to see additions/subtractions as something akin to from-the-ground-up innovation. It’s just the same as a “metal-head” being able to listen to hundreds of nearly-identical heavy metal albums – when you reduce your perspective to a small, narrow field, small differences pop out at you. This is fine to do sometimes, by the way; we should all be able to do this to appreciate small differences, because sometimes the small differences do really matter.
But if you take a step back and look at fighting games as just another kind of game, they’re… kind of all the same. One of the best ways to point out how they’re mostly all the same is to point out a few examples that are actually different. The two that quickly spring to mind for me are the well-known Super Smash Bros. and the less-known PSX game Bushido Blade. A big thing that makes these games really, fundamentally different is that their goals are different. Their goals are not to “reduce the HP sack to zero”.
Firstly, what is the formula? I’d say it’s one really solidified by Street Fighter 2:
- Hit Points (Health Bars)
- Flat, rectangular stage
- A certain ratio of character size to stage size
- Jumping (specifically, high enough to clear another human being’s head)
- high and low attacks
- a LARGE number of moves
- Special moves that require complicated button inputs
- Asymmetrical forces
Later additions to the Formula included “more bars and counters” for special, super special, and super ULTRA special moves, and a number of other features such as Street Fighter 3‘s parrying system. The 3D fighter added, basically, a “side-step”, that’s roughly equivalent to a special kind of dodge (a circular kick or other circular attack might still hit you, for instance) and a few other proclivities, but the basic gameplay kernels are the same. (EDIT: I should also mention that most 3D fighters do add a ring-out thing, which is an excellent addition… it just needs to be supported by more of the system)
I mentioned above two games that I see as really having broken the formula – Bushido Blade and Super Smash Bros. In Bushido Blade, the goal is to land a single killing blow. Most of a match will be trying to either knock his weapon aside to get a clear shot, or moving around and zoning. Some matches take several minutes to complete, but many are done in under five seconds. Further, the game has some other very interesting concepts, such as disabling an arm or leg – crippling the opponent for the rest of the match. I’m not really endorsing this feature, as it does have a power-snowball issue with it, but it’s interesting, at least. This is a neat way for health to actually mean something to the current game state beyond just “who has more health”. Finally – and I’m not sure this is a good idea, but it’s certainly innovative – there are a number of weapons in the game, and characters, and you can pair any weapon with any character. Certainly interesting, although probably difficult to balance, especially given that the weapons range from a small knife to a super long polearm weapon.
(Before I go on, there are also some creative entries that could sort of be considered in the fighting-game genre and do things differently. One of my favorite examples would be a PSX game called Poy-Poy, a game that I’m always hoping I’ll have a reason to mention).
Super Smash Brothers
Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 64 is probably the most sophisticated and advanced game design approach to “a fighting game” that has ever happened. Before I explain why this is, know that this is not a shining endorsement of this game on the whole. I’m fully aware of some major higher-level problems with the game such as infinite combos (combos that, once you get the other player in them, you can hit them repeatedly and they have no way of getting out), some character balance imperfections, and Z-cancelling (the cooldown on a few big moves can be cancelled by tapping Z at the right time; most probably a bug). Also “little hops” are bad in that they’re very hard to execute and extremely important to use.
But those are higher-level issues, most of which could (and really, should) be fixed in a patch of some kind (perhaps a 2nd Edition could be released on the Wii store or whatever). Even if you hate Super Smash Bros. though, that’s fine. What’s important to recognize, though, is it is a game that had a tinge of a design philosophy behind it.
Super Smash Bros. is a game all about positioning. Everything you do either makes you, or your opponent change position (the one exception being the “block” move). If you attack, it knocks your opponent back. If you dodge, it moves you. Obviously, if you move, you’re changing position. Those are basically all you can do in the game. The objective is to knock the opponent out of the level (basically to some lines that are off-screen).
Instead of “hit points” that you have to reduce to zero, there is a resource that is explicitly tied to positioning – “Damage %”. I don’t know why they used a “%” symbol, because nothing in particular happens when you reach 100, except that I guess it gets quite likely that you’ll die around 100%, but it can go way higher than 100, so it’s not really a “percentage” of anything. Regardless, what it is is a number that increases the amount you’ll get knocked back when you take a hit. Further, taking hits increases this number.
What this means is that you have a very dynamic health system which means a dramatically different thing based on where you are on a given level. If you’re already up high, you could be killed with maybe just 60% damage if the other player knocks you upward.
Instead of a rectangle for a stage, stages have some level of variation to them (unfortunately, most of them have random hazard effects, and even more unfortunately, they can’t be turned off, which is something to look at for the 2nd Edition!). Levels have platforms and ramps and other shapes, as well as moving objects that you can stand on or bumpers or other environmental factors.
This chart shows how I think the series progressed after the original game came out. They basically started “backing off” this design and moving towards being a regular fighter. Granted, they’re still more different than most MvsCvsMvsM 2D fighters are from each other, but they’re moving in the direction of sameness.
When they released a sequel to Super Smash Brothers for the Gamecube, all of the moves became a little less about “changing the opponent’s position”, and a little bit more about “just increasing his damage %”. Further, positioning simply matters less because of air-dodging (in place or in a direction of your choice!) and more “directional influence”, where you can tilt the controller in a direction you’d like to move even if your character is technically out of your control. Hitting characters feels less like hitting a baseball with a bat and more like hitting a beach ball with a wiffle bat.
And then the next sequel, Brawl for the Wii, just totally went all-out on ruining that original vision. Now the game is best described as “trying to push a bowling ball towards your opponent by whipping it with a shoelace”. It’s spammy, flailing nonsense, and just to make sure that everyone knows that the developer is only interested in making a great babysitting tool, they included random “tripping”, where your character falls down on their face some small percentage of the time that you try to run. This disables any would-be apologists from being able to defend this game, which is actually pretty nice.
The Potential Fighting Game is a direction that I personally want to explore with a future game. I don’t have a design document or anything, but I do have a way of thinking that will guide me to eventually write one.
To me, all of the Smash Bros. games, while much simpler than even Street Fighter 2 (one of the simplest 2D fighters), are still too inherently complex (mass inherent complexity being another ambiguity sauce). There are too many different unique moves you can do and too many characters. In short, to play well, you just have to know a massive amount of numbers and shapes and basically just rules. This, more than anything else, turns me – a person actively interested in playing a fighting game – off from wanting to learn to play new ones at all.
What I wish designers of fighting games would realize is that you don’t need to do that! You have continuous space and continuous time! That means you already have a huge possibility space to work with, right away.
Do this mental experiment with me. Imagine that we have two characters who can walk left and right, attack, block, and throw, on a continuous space. Attacks beat throws, throws beat blocks, and blocks beat attacks. This is sort of the most basic concept behind most fighting games, and already, we do have a game, albeit not a terribly interesting one. But now imagine how much emergent complexity you get from adding maybe just one or two more moves (maybe a jump, a longer range slower attack, and a fireball). Assuming these moves have interlocking relationships with the previous three, that’s a huge amount of emergent complexity. So that’s something to consider right away.
But there’s an even better approach, which Smash Bros. seemed to be considering, but didn’t really go all-out on. What if you just had one attack, but it was totally directional? Meaning, depending on how and when you use it, it had a totally different effect?
My favorite example is Captain Falcon’s aerial-up attack in the original Smash Brothers. It’s a reverse-flip bicycle kick style move. This is easily the most rich, interesting move in the game, because depending on when you use it, you can knock the enemy almost any direction. So that’s just one move, but by using continuous time and space smartly, you get a whole range of effects (if you designed it right, it could be 360 different degrees of effects). They, of course, took out some of this functionality for Melee, and the move is more of just a “I deal damage to you now” move.
This is just an example of the kinds of emergent complexity that you can get with smart design. I don’t think the original designers of Super Smash Brothers even knew quite what they had, a point which is proven when you look at the directions that they went.
Again, the original game has many flaws, but none of these flaws are because of these good qualities that I mention. They are simply flaws in a 1998 console game that had no way of patching itself, and nothing more – an anecdote. People in the fighting game community tend to believe that things will always be the way that they are now, which is probably the most self-destructive elements of that subculture.
Back to Regular Fighters
To this day, fighting games have been really held back by a desire to “simulate a fight”, when they have the potential to just “be a really great game”. They will have to be conscious of the problems of execution and of mass content to ever achieve that, though.
Asymmetry can be exciting and interesting, but it can also be a cheap tool of simply overwhelming the player with content so that it delays the finding of optimal strategies and also just keeps the “excitement of something new” alive for longer. Content is cheap, though, and all you’re doing by adding 40 characters is two things: ensuring you will never balance this game, and delaying people from discovering how bland your system really is.
There is also no excuse for complicated button inputs to execute a move. If I have a move, and it’s an option, it should be made as easy to input as possible. This is a 100% hard-line RULE of game design, not a guideline If you need the move to have a delay to it, put the delay in the animation, or have the person have to hold the button down for however long before the move executes. Again, players should never, ever, ever “fail to input” something. Even if it’s just one button, that’s still going to happen, but as designers, it’s our responsibility to make sure this happens as rarely as possible.
There’s also no need for 3 different punches, let alone all the ducking and jumping variations on those. I think a Street Fighter character must have upwards of 30 different unique moves, all of which with their own hitboxes, priority, frame-count and damage boxes, which, if you want to play seriously, you simply have to just sit down and drill and study. Again, “drilling and studying” is going to happen sometimes in almost any game, but the last thing you want to do as a designer is arbitrarily increase the complexity to force players to do that. You can achieve more with fewer moves if each move has more in-system meaning. Less is more.
Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope that I can be a part of bringing the world a new generation of fighting games that are smart, elegant, dynamic, easy to learn, difficult to master, and that can stand the test of time.