Tuesday, November 10, 2015

My Emerging Love-Hate Relationship With Modern Fighting Games

How I (and sometimes my hands feel) about fighting games currently.

For years I feel like I could say "I love fighting games" with confidence, but lately, I'm not so sure.  Ever since I attended EVO in 2014, I've been having this feeling that maybe the genre that influenced me so heavily, that made me want to get into the game industry, isn't quite what I thought it was or maybe it has changed into something I no longer find attractive.  Another thought is that maybe I've been playing them the wrong way or with the wrong goals this entire time; however, saying that someone is playing a game "incorrectly" is audacious.  You could argue that most Smash players aren't playing the game the way it was designed or originally intended -- but that would be blasphemous. 
What a silly image, BUT HEADS UP!

Before I start, I want to write a quick disclaimer that these are just my opinions and reasons that I personally don't get as much enjoyment out of the genre that I used to.  This is not me dooming the genre or up-and-coming games like Street Fighter 5.  Instead, it's a slight explanation as to how I approach the genre from a design perspective, albeit it is rather atypical.

What I "Hate"


More frustrated or bored than hate to be honest (also, that's not me).
  • Bland single player experiences and over emphasis on online multiplayer
  • Weak narrative and even weaker delivery of said narratives
  • Repetitive theming
  • No more surprises
Now, the items I listed are actually all extremely unimportant to what a fighting game actually is and probably needs to be.  I know this, but I feel like there was a time when fighting games at least attempted these features; however and again, I feel like they no longer do because they don't have to.

 

 Bland Single Play and Online Multiplayer



I almost forgot about Soul Calibur 3's Night Terror, which was a terrifying surprise.
So before "good" online multiplayer was possible, I felt a lot of fighting games, at least more prominent ones, had a lot of extra modes.  Soul Blade's Edge Master Mode comes to mind.  The problem now is that a lot of games usually do substandard jobs with this.  There's arcade, training, a few challenge combos and survival maybe, and that's about it.  If you weren't very social or didn't have opportunities to be social, you were stuck playing the CPU a lot.  To me, at the time, this was fine, especially with modes like EMM that created variety.  I feel modern fighters offer so little that eventually going through arcade with each character feels like a chore, especially with the reward -- which I'll go into later.
When online multiplayer became possible on consoles, I appreciated that some games such as Tekken 6 and Mortal Kombat 9 provided fun and unique single-player experiences but noticed that some games like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur were sorely lacking.  And when I first played online modes -- I want to say Dead or Alive 4 was the first game I played online -- I had fun for a bit, but frustration started to take hold from losing so often that I no longer was having fun and I had to ask myself, "Why am I doing this?"  Someone made the analogy to me that it's about the fight not the fight results, similar to the concept that it's about the journey not the destination, but I couldn't help to feel like I was just playing strangers and had no destination in mind.  I wasn't really improving or enjoying myself.  It felt more like wandering aimlessly than enjoying the journey.
But why?

Now you could simply shout, "Well get better!" or "Train harder!" but at my age -- I'm "old" in the eyes of many fighting game fans -- and with the number of games out there, it's just like "Why?  Why keep playing this game I'm not enjoying anymore when I could easily pick up something new in minutes?"
Recently, newer games are showing they are going to have a heavy emphasis on this; Street Fighter 5 and Rising Thunder come in mind particularly.  And you know what?  This is fine.  This is what the audience wants; it's the closest thing people have to the days of the arcade, but you know what?  It still isn't the same as playing in the arcade -- though I'm curious if anyone will make a VR port of Street Fighter 2 where you stand next to an arcade machine and your opponent is next to you in the VR environment.  I think my attitude would maybe be a little bit different if I wasn't a game developer and/or there was a strong fighting game scene in Pittsburgh.  I mention game development because a lot of my free time is spent developing my own games so even if there was a scene, I doubt I'd be able to dedicate a lot of time to it.  I will say, however, that the most enjoyable moments I've had playing fighting games have been playing with people in person, especially friends -- unless I or they hate the game cause then everyone is miserable.
We've all been to this gaming night at least once.

I guess, going back to my design choices comments, because I'm not huge into online multiplayer, I ultimately decided to not include it in Battle High 2 A+.  Okay, the main reason is I have nearly zero online multiplayer experience, but if I really wanted online multiplayer, like CRAVED it, I would have probably either done it myself or sought the resources to do so and been researching how to do it from day one, which I didn't because doing so didn't really interest me.

 

Weak Narrative and Even Weaker Delivery of Said Narratives

How many more times do I have to turn the page to get to the next battle?!

I don't want to criticize the narratives of fighting games too much, because I know that Battle High 2 A+'s isn't the strongest, but lately most fighting games narratives just don't feel that compelling, and when they are, they are poorly delivered.
BlazBlue comes to mind mostly.  BlazBlue has an interesting story -- I won't say it's good or bad -- but it's delivery was PAINFUL to get through.  Having to lose every battle in Story Mode in Calamity Trigger was bad, but then the 20 minute "cutscenes" in Chrono whatever the hell were even worse.  Narrative moments can help give the players of action-heavy games a break; however, I feel they have to be proportional to the content they are intersecting, and BlazBlue just failed at this.  Actually, this is why I didn't player Persona Arena, as I heard it has from similar issues, that and it's an ArkSys game which I always want to like, they look so good, but I just suck at them, but I digress.
Again, Soul Edge and Soul Calibur did a great job with their stories.  Each character has an ending, but also longer bios that you could choose to read when unlocked.  The narrative still isn't tied into the gameplay well though.  And Street Fighter's endings and unique intro scenes are interesting, but the fact you can't rewatch them is a bit frustrating.  I know, from an engineering perspective, it's a minor feature that was probably the first to get cut, but from the animation perspective, it probably sucks knowing these won't be viewable -- at least in game.  Thank, YouTube!

Admittedly, watching Resident Evil 6 cutscenes on YouTube saved (and waste) a lot of time
One game that I felt attempted to do this interestingly -- maybe not successfully -- was Battle Fantasia, another ArkSys game I sucked at!  They had special battles in one mode where you have to perform a unique task to affect the story's outcome.  Some were silly like throw the opponent six times, and they didn't always result in the biggest reward, but I liked the attempt.  I would love a game that tied it even more into their gameplay.

However, narrative doesn't matter realistically in the genre.  Sure, it helps breathe life into characters and probably would affect the popularity if omitted entirely, but knowledge of the narrative has no outcome on the fight and most games' fights aren't determined by unique actions such as performing six throws.  When I brought up narrative once, someone replied that the players in the competitive fighting game scenes create the narrative.  When I watch fighting games on Twitch, I find this interesting and sometimes exciting, but as someone who enjoys writing to a degree, it's a little depressing knowing that most of the will most likely be ignored.
Now when it comes to delivery, I at least attempted to do some of this with Battle High 2 A+.  There are bios, and players can watch the endings if they desire.  If I get the chance in a future update, I'd love to add a deeper story mode, one that maybe has some aspects of Battle Fantasia's story mode in it or in my next game, a deeper mode where what you do in battle actually matters more.

 

Repetitive Theming

Oh great, another scientifically impossible, genitalia-less clone of the main character as boss
Lately, the most popular fighting games themes fall under a category I call 20XX.  It's kind of like now, but some technologies are more advance.  Tekken, Dead or Alive, King of Fighters, Street Fighter, Virtua Fighter, and probably more that I can't think of fall into this category.  It ends up making the thematic landscape of the genre just feel bland.  I feel a few years ago, theming was a lot more varied.  Samurai Showdown, Primal Rage, Star Gladiator, Darkstalkers, all games with unique themes but never really caught or have fallen into obscurity.
Now, not every fighting game is like this.  I applaud games like SkullGirls, BlazBlue, Guilty Gear, and the fledgling CereBrawl for doing unique themes; however, theme, like narrative, doesn't really matter.  Well, it doesn't matter to the actual game itself, but I do feel that theme has a underlying, almost subconscious effect, on the popularity of a game series.  I feel that if f the theme is good, players will more likely be attracted to it initially -- like a book with a good cover.


A track from Cerebrawl.  I mean, that witch character looks so neat!

When I bring this up, my mind goes to Smash Brothers.  If Nintendo decided, "We don't want our characters beating each other up," and decided to make a 100% original IP for Smash Brothers, would it be as popular as it is?  It's impossible to prove either way, and you could argue that the lackluster popularity of similar games like Playstation All-Stars supports the argument that ultimately gameplay is important (or use it to say that nobody likes Playstation IPs that much).
As for my games, I definitely want to branch out in theme.  Admittedly, Battle High doesn't have the most unique theme; it has Rival School and Avatar:  The Last Airbender influences, and you could argue it's borderline 20XX.  Regardless, I definitely want to try and stray away from that in my future ideas, whether it's a fighting game or not.

 

No More Surprises

Look what you've done, data miners!  You've opened all the presents early!  You're still going to get them but it won't be as fun to open them.

Now before I go into this, you could argue that each fight is its own special surprise.  Sure, to an extent you're right; there are definitely surprising moments on streams during certain events, but I want to experience the surprise on a personal level, not vicariously through another player or have it spoiled before I even can preorder the game.  I think a lot of newer games are guilty of this, but fighting games, especially Street Fighter 5, have been pretty bad with this.  I am no marketing expert in any way shape or form, but I'm not a fan of slowly revealing characters and leaving almost no surprises -- or having a campaign that makes me think there won't be any.  To be honest, the Street Fighter 5 data mining incidents makes me feel that some people feel similarly.  Even worse, the information mined was future DLC!  (Unless it's all a very elaborate ruse.)
There are probably a lot of reasons why characters are revealed at big gaming events; it maintains hype, and there are probably marketing deals made between the event and the game publisher -- thanks, James Chen for that knowledge bomb.  To be honest, the long haul part doesn't bother me that much, it's the fact that you know everything upon getting the game.  There are no secrets or surprises really.  People have been streaming the game, all the characters get revealed.  It just takes the excitement out of it -- for me.
This is a rather weak complaint, because, despite my feelings, I know from a competitive aspect, secrets and locked content and surprises are actually problematic.  Could you imagine if there was a character select code for a character that no one knew about at an event like Capcom Cup?!  People would lose their shit!
Anyway, the most prevalent real world example is Shinnok from Mortal Kombat X.  I forget the tourney, but it was almost right after the game's release, and not everyone had taken the time to play Story Mode to unlock him -- because not everyone cares about that -- so a few matches were delayed because they had to find a console that had Shinnok unlocked.  Personally, I'm still a fan of locked content as a reward if said content is unimportant to gameplay such as character colors or costumes OR if players can buy the content without having to do whatever has to be done to unlock the character.

 

Wait, so do you like fighting games?

Replace lift with play fighting games, and I think the analogy works?  Maybe?  I don't know, I'm tired.

I do.  I think a combination of things have affected my love of the genre, one being that I realized don't like what the typical player of the genre likes.  I tried to think of what I really liked, and I thought of this concept of repeated performance with goals.
A lot of games involve doing the same thing over and over with mechanical changes over time while working towards an ultimate goal.  Some games allow for more improvisation and experimentation than others, and I definitely felt like fighting games were a genre that exhibited this.  It definitely is doing a lot of the same things over and over, but there's variety -- brought on through the characters and game's mechanics -- that I found really enjoyable.  When changes were made to a game's systems such as in Edge Master or the Mortal Kombat 9's Challenge Tower, there's even more variety added, and these modes have definite goals.
Maybe sometimes I want a break from the Rat Race in my hobbies.

Now, notice that I didn't say competition is not my favorite part.  And maybe I have been playing fighters incorrectly because I haven't been seeking that.  Maybe I'm just a filthy casual that shouldn't even play fighting games.  Based on my concept of repeated performance, why isn't playing online with new people enough?  Again, one issue is there is no real goal I'm working towards besides the intangible "bettering myself" -- or decals for my user accounts.  Even as small in-game rewards, the varied modes mentioned previously do offer a goal of some kind, they end.  Also, online, the mechanics of the game don't change and though humans definitely offer a different and more difficult challenge when compared to AI, I do find a lot of repeated tactics, characters, etc., and with no real goal it just starts to feel pointless if not frustrating.

 

Unknown Future

That's a little foreboding, isn't it?
Overall, I still want to support fighting games and its community.  I'm going to go into Street Fighter 5 with some enthusiasm for the competitive side -- if I play enough I won't have to pay for the DLC characters anyway.  I'm really intrigued about the future of the genre.  Rising Thunder's business model haven't been released yet -- to my knowledge anyway -- and I simply wonder if it'll work at all.  Street Fighter 5 is going from a product model to a service model, promising no more Super, Ultra, Omega, etc. Street Fighters.  I think it's an interesting time, and could really spell out the future of the genre.
If Street Fighter 5 isn't well received or Rising Thunder is a failure, how will publishers and developers approach the genre?  Will they go back to more classic models?  Try new ones?  Will it be a low point in the genre where publishers and developers are afraid of it?  Even worse, will companies like Capcom pull a Konami and quit the genre entirely?  My biggest fear is that not all players will switch over to a new game just because it's new -- and this isn't a valid reason to do so.  The gameplay itself, the feel, has to be good, and there are some people who aren't feeling Street Fighter 5 so far.  And Street Fighter X Tekken, though new at one time, didn't even come close to replacing Street Fighter 4 and was forgotten almost instantly.  Heck, people still play Melee!
People won't abandon Melee, but they will abandon their CRTs in the hotel lobby. (This isn't from EVO, but this is how one area of the hotel look the day after the tournament when I went.)
And that comes down to what I think has to be the most important part of a fighting game, and though I love the story and theme, the gameplay has to feel good.  This concept is so subjective and so hard to describe and so many things that need to be done well.  The input has to be responsive.  It has to be intuitive but not boringly easy, combos should be exciting but not too short or long.  You have to not mind playing the game over and over again.  It's such a difficult thing to get right, and some games just mess it up so badly, and I won't even say Battle High 2 A+ does it well -- though I hope it does to a degree for some!
Actually, this entire post has been about that.

Going back to the initial question about liking fighting games, the gameplay aspect has always been a part I really liked.  It's more varied and challenging than a simple platformer but cleaner and more focused than a brawler.  There's something about the feel, variety, improvisation, and more, that when done well, I can play for hours against the CPU and though I'm not really improving myself, I'm still enjoying the game, and more importantly, making the time I put into the game, time I won't get back, feel worth it.

 

It's not you, it's me

I like the foam but they are adding less; the espresso is still good though.  DEEP.
In summary, many aspects of fighting games that I really like are polish-level things.  I don't want to pompously sound some special person because of this perspective.  If you feel similarly, I'd love to hear from you, but I'm pretty sure that my feelings, likes and dislikes, are in the minority-- and not a vocal one.  These aspects aren't really that important in the long run, so now that fighting games are focusing less on them, it's fine.  Sure, I'm not overjoyed, but I'm not going to boycott Capcom or anything. 
And there are certain areas that if I were willing to get over like find a community or just focus on getting better or approach the genre with a different mindset, I could maybe find more enjoyment, but sometimes change isn't easy, especially when it's not really necessary.  So in a way, it's not you, fighting games, it's me.
Regardless, the most important part is that developers need to make sure the games feel good, but this is SUCH a hard thing to get right.  Sometimes it just seems like luck (and a lot of hard work).  If the game doesn't feel right, even the most competitive players will pass it by, which is way more problematic than me doing so.

1 comment:

  1. Capcom's capitalism run amok attitude with Street Fighter V just feels even more egregious. What we have here is a decent game trapped in a grotesque shell. supercards wwe

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