Fighting games are getting simpler, and that’s a good thing

Capcom

Amid leaks and speculation, Capcom formally announced the debut of M. Bison and Balrog’s son in Street Fighter 5 this week. Ed’s fighting style combines hard punches from his adoptive father Balrog with — since Ed carries the genes of series villain M. Bison — Psycho Power. The lore is all rather complicated.

The trailer consists almost entirely of crowd-pleasing combo attacks that hit fast and hard. I’m a veteran in fighting games, and my mind instantly began to try to figure out how it all worked. I was imagining my hands making subtle movements and precision taps on my arcade stick. I can’t help it; I’m fascinated by that stuff. Fighting games are all about figuring out systems, and Ed’s fighting style looked interesting.

My brain had it all wrong. Ed’s move list reveals that he will in fact use commands simplified even further from the rest of SF5. Rather than “Hadoken” commands of the type “down, down-forward, forward, punch,” all of Ed’s special moves use simple commands involving only the attack buttons: press a button rapidly, press two at once, hold down a button and so on.

Most of Ed’s moves are controlled by commands that anybody who has handled a video game controller can do. Even the combos he strings together in the trailer are possible to dial in with the attack buttons alone. You could do it one-handed, if you felt like it.

Fighting games are getting simpler, and that’s a good thing
Just tap some buttons, you’ll do fine
Capcom

Despite the ease of his commands, the character (as he was in the recent beta) proves quite robust and challenging. The cost of Ed’s simple commands is that each of those moves is extremely risky, leaving him wide open to attack if he misses. Newbies won’t be killing any pros with this guy.

It’s not a coincidence that Ed’s move list happens to omit the movements that cause new players the most trouble. Players and designers alike have been looking at those iconic sweeps and charges for years, trying to figure out how to make things easier for players without eliminating the challenge and competitive spirit of the genre.

This has been an ongoing process

Street Fighter 2 exploded in the arcades, but after that fighting games very slowly became a niche genre. Developers served a core audience that always wanted more content and more advanced systems, and the games they were making — bursting with content and complexity — started to drift from the mainstream. The Street Fighter series followed this trajectory.

Street Fighter 3, the Street Fighter game you will most often hear “But the best one was…” about, was a cult hit with an audience consisting largely of seasoned genre fans.

And so were most other fighting games of its era. The best and most popular games were unapologetically complicated and designed for core players, and there wasn’t really a way in for everyone else. If you missed the original boat it kind of felt like you were out of luck.

The trend in fighting game design when Street Fighter 4 was made focused on cutting back on the inessential elements of each game, streamlining the design and creating more approachable products. Capcom achieved that goal with Street Fighter 4, sold millions, and brought on a genre renaissance … though ultimately its design flaws were exploited to such a degree that even advanced players had a hard time playing it in competition.

Street Fighter 5 cut down the fat that SF4, plagued with option-select bugs and exploits involving adding extra buttons to your arcade stick, missed. It simplified the motions further, slashed the number of moves and pared characters down to their most essential techniques. It is not a lazy design but rather a thoughtful one, quietly arguing that more is not always better. The intent seemed to be something that felt great and was easy for beginners to try and ultimately master, while providing the complexity necessary for high-level play.

And that brings us to Ed. While the existing characters are interesting attempts to master that less-is-more goal, Ed’s design asks the question of whether we need special move motions at all.

It’s not all about dexterity

Manual dexterity is essential if you want to play fighting games well. Players will always practice obsessively to perfect their technique and execution, whether they are using a console controller, an arcade stick, HitBox or piano keyboard. We even enjoy putting in the work.

Fighting games are getting simpler, and that’s a good thing Capcom

This feeling of mastery is a big part of the genre’s appeal. It’s comparable to practicing with a musical instrument, both in terms of the practice being required to become proficient and the pleasure of getting it right once your muscle memory is locked in. Getting good at fighting games will make combat in other genres feel like Rock Band after you’ve been playing a real guitar.

But it isn’t necessarily the player who’s best at executing combos or special moves who actually wins the game during competitions. At a low level, the player who knows the special moves and combos will obliterate the player who doesn’t. They simply know the game better. At a reasonably high level, however, mastery becomes a given. Everybody involved knows the game front to back and performs those moves and combos with close to 100 percent accuracy. This is when the game changes, and it’s beautiful if you know what you’re looking for.

The game comes down to a conversation without words between the two players during high level play. The skill that wins the match is the ability to read the other player’s intentions from moment to moment and thus identify and defeat their plan. At this level, whether one does a Hadoken motion or presses two buttons at the same time to attack their opponent is nearly irrelevant.

It’s the player who wins games, not the character. A good Ed player with strong fundamentals is going to beat a weak Ken who can do all the combos every time.

Is it more agonizing to see a player lose because they made a grievous tactical error based on a misread of their opponent’s game plan, or because they missed a button press that they needed to make within 1/60 of a second? I’m more interested in the former. So is Street Fighter 5: its streamlined design intends to raise the fog — for spectators and players alike — from the mind games of high-level play.

Is it possible to simplify this genre?

Street Fighter 5 is a relatively easy game, but I’m a fighting game player by training and have these motions burned into my brain from hours of practice. I’m already well past SF5’s minimum level of dexterity.

It’s not easy for people who can’t do a Hadoken or a Shoryuken motion consistently. For these folks, motions like that keep them from ever playing the game in the first place. Everybody wants to beat each other up, but not everybody wants to learn kung fu.

I say this as someone who loves some of the toughest fighting games the most (see me in Guilty Gear): There needs to be an even lower point of entry than Street Fighter. There needs to be a convenient gateway that anybody who’s at all interested in fighting games can enter from without a lot of trouble.

There is a reason the Smash Bros. series has such a large following for casual and competitive play alike, and on a list below “Mario and Link and Cloud and Sonic are in it” — the simple moves are part of the appeal. Developer HAL was thinking about this problem twenty years ago, and Smash Bros. proves that the traditional joystick-motion setup is by no means necessary to make a fighting game. It also proved that if you get rid of that initial learning bump to even perform the moves, you can get your players from novices to competitive in greater numbers.

Fighting game developers are becoming much more aware of the issue, and have been trying to find solutions that don’t compromise the competitive spirit of the games. One approach has been with “training wheels” features that attempt to bridge the gap for new players.

This is a demonstration video of the “Stylish” mode in Guilty Gear Xrd, meant for players who just want to have a good time without the practice. On the left you can see the buttons I’m pressing: at first a single “special” button to do special moves like in Smash.

Eventually I start to do “combos” by simply mashing on the Punch button. In this mode, the game simply takes over for button mashers, stringing together basic combos and even automatically blocking enemy attacks. It’s not a threat to a decent player, and it gets people in the door and interested in a game that looks pretty impenetrable at first glance.

Even the upcoming Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite — in addition to possibly simplifying the difficult Shoryuken motion — looks to use a system adopted by many recent games (Persona 4 Arena, King of Fighters 14) in which players can simply press a light jab repeatedly for an easy combo.

Inevitability – The Simple Fighting Game

Ultimately, this trend is going to come to a single conclusion: a fighting game where every move and technique is done with extremely simple button presses. That game can’t be Street Fighter, or any of the other old franchises where too much is set in stone. You don’t want to lose the fans you’ve been grooming for years to play a certain way, although you can introduce characters like Ed to see how people respond.

But a game that goes all-in and is built from the ground up for a new control style has to be new. That brings on its own problem: Will people play a new fighting game without established characters? New IPs are a risk that big game publishers are distinctly uncomfortable with. Without Mario and crew, Smash Bros. might just have been a historical footnote.

Simplifying fighting game controls is not a new idea, and some of the first people to realize it have been players themselves. Consider the “joke game, but not really” Divekick, which grew from theMarvel vs. Capcom community. That game boils fighting game mechanics down to two buttons: dive and kick. The result is a game that teaches players the importance of area control in fighting games, and they didn’t have to study for hours to get there.

There’s also the upcomingFantasy Strike, which re-purposes characters from Street Fighter and Guilty Gear (a little too closely to their inspirations, frankly) with a simple control scheme.

The defunct indie fighting gameRising Thunder, conceived by the founders of the Evo tournament themselves, used the PC keyboard as its inspiration, rather than an arcade stick. Characters had three attack buttons and three special attack buttons, lined up clear as day on their keyboard. Confusion was immediately eliminated as players knew exactly what was in their arsenal.

Rising Thunder had very limited move sets (there is ultimately a reason we have all these buttons and motions in fighting games), but it had all the core elements of a fun fighting game. Most importantly, it allowed people who had never tried the genre before to instantly jump in and see the appeal of going toe-to-toe with another player on an equal playing field. It allowed you think strategically without getting over the hump of memorizing a large number of complicated motions.

Riot (the League of Legends people) bought out the studio and shut down the game, and I can’t imagine that they are doing anything with that property but reassembling Rising Thunder with their own characters. Building a game in a new genre with characters familiar to millions of hardcore gamers is definitely one way to sidestep the “new IP” dilemma.

The suggestion is somewhat horrifying to fighting game traditionalists — I can’t hide my trepidation myself — but it’s entirely possible that the game that blows this niche genre into the mainstream uses simple controls.

Would it be so terrible for that game to exist? Fighting game players are particular and demanding: Street Fighter as it is isn’t going anywhere. But we literally feed on competition; we need a steady flow of new blood as the scene ages. How bad could it be to have a million more fighting game players?

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