Of all the genres of games I’ve ever played, fighting games hold the distinct “honor” of routinely being poorly designed games.
Every single game developer will tell you that some of the most basic rules to making a good game are that inputs are easy to do and the game can easily explain to the player how to play the game within the first hour or so of gameplay. Throughout my years of playing fighting games, I have found these rules continuously violated by nearly every single title released, be it Street Fighter, Blazblue or King of Fighters. Fighting games these days tend to be counterintuitive, have difficult inputs and are hard to learn, which is everything a developer doesn’t want a new player to experience. Yet somehow fighting games remain the only genre that manages to make every title like this.
For starters, this is the only genre that almost requires an entirely different controller to play (that also routinely costs $90+ for a good one). Granted, a player can try to use a standard pad to play, but there is a glaringly obvious disadvantage that a controller play has. A controller player must be able to press between four different buttons with the thumb, while an arcade stick player can utilize all five fingers to press everything they need. The player’s right thumb can be put through some brutal experiences trying to play certain characters, and things get awkward when the player is using a character like Juri from Street Fighter IV and they want to hold a charge of her Fuhajin while still utilizing her Medium Kick options. (If you don’t understand this, grab a controller and hold down A/X with your thumb. Now try pressing B/O while still holding down A/X.) Most of these challenges can be overcome with practice, but the amount of practice needed borders on the insane and most players would rather move on to a different game if the controls prove to be too much of a challenge to learn within the first hour of gameplay. And owning an arcade stick in itself isn't even a gateway to ease. A player must retrain their controller using skills to adapt to an arcade stick. And even if a player dedicates themselves to strctly controller use, the problem arises that arcade stick inputs are far more universal to fighting games, and the player will encounter times where a controller is not an option. Playing others at arcades, especially Japanese arcades (for those who it's relevant to), can force a player to play arcade stick only. These hard to master controls come in to effect when combos start getting introduced in the mix.
Most combos in fighting games these days are too hard to perform, and too damn long. I get it, it’s cool when you perform an “ULTRA COMBO!!!”, but outside of coolness factor, long and complicated combos are not what fighting games want. The simplest reason long combos are bad is because the player getting combed doesn’t want to sit there and watch their character get wailed on while they can’t do anything for 10+ seconds. Some games, like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, are so bad about this that the average wait time for a combo to finish can be 20-30 seconds. There are no real time games where this is acceptable as good design. The more important reason long combos are bad is that the majority of fighting games do not have universal combos. What I mean by this is that I can’t select Ryu and expect his standard, go to combo (the Bread and Butter, BnB for short) to be the same as Juri’s BnB. Juri’s BnB will also not be the same as Guile’s BnB. Because of this, the player cannot select one character and expect anything to transfer over to playing another character. This is like playing an FPS where every gun the player uses requires a different button input to fire and perform a melee attack. The simple act of wanting to switch characters is a chore in itself as the player will now have to spend many hours again in Training Mode practicing new inputs for another character. Considering how important it is for a player to be able to play at least two characters thanks to counter-picking, the time investment becomes ridiculous just to be able to play on the same level as other competent players. As combo focused as many fighting games have gotten now, it's often a requirement to know long combos in order to keep up with the damage output of the opponent. Learning the input for combos is hard enough, but input difficulty still manages to get worse.
I define the term “ease of input” as while the player is playing the game, at no point will they accidently input the wrong action because it’s far too similar to the input of another action. This is a rule fighting games ignore far too often. Performing Ryu’s Hadoken is Down, Down+Forward, Forward + Punch (named Quarter Circle Forward + Punch, QCF for short). Performing Ryu’s Super Hadoken is QCF x2, then Punch. Now Ryu’s Shoryuken is Forward, Down, Down+Forward + Punch. For a fighting game veteran, this is simple enough. For a new player, this is an input nightmare, and they will frequently get wrong inputs. An attempted Shoryuken may come out as a Hadoken and Super Hadoken may be accidently performed as well. This isn’t even the worst of it. Try to perform Atomic Buster (a 360 degree rotation on the controller + Punch) with Zangief and see if this is a reasonable expectation for a player to be able to do within the first few minutes of gameplay. Then let your brain explode when you attempt Final Atomic Buster (a 720 degree rotation + Punch). And all of this compounds exponentially when the player realizes that they’ll have a harder time doing the same moves depending on if their character is facing right or left. The player must then practice the same difficult inputs for hours facing right, then they must do the same again facing left! Ask yourself if you’d play Final Fantasy, Halo, The Last of Us or Zelda if you still had problems inputting simple actions after 10 hours of gameplay. This is not good control design at all. Making sure to never input the wrong move accidently takes hours of practice and in this generation of video games where controllers have so many buttons, there’s no reason that inputs should be so closely related to each other. And to make all of these matters worse, fighting games frequently possess no tutorials.
There has been an attempt in recent fighting games to include tutorials, but outside of the Skullgirls tutorial, these have been incredibly poor and unhelpful. In what fighting game has the genre’s most common terms like: Frame Trap, Safe, Punish, Ukemi, Command Throw, Frame Advantage and Meaty ever been explained? There are no glossaries in any fighting game to explain universal terms. To learn the intricacies of most fighting games requires the player to make an account on Shoryuken, Dustloop, Event Hubs or Smash Boards and spend hours reading a guide general overview guide for the fighting game they want to play, then they must spend more hours reading a guide for one character to learn how to play that single character competently. Again, what average player wants to spend hours learning the basics of one game?
Some of the diehard fighting game veterans may defend the ridiculously hard level of technical prowess required to play these games as “skill”, but let’s remember what the basics of fighting games are all about: Rock-paper-scissors gameplay, spacing, footsies, zoning and prediction. Where in any of these fundamentals is the ability to perform a 20 hit combo, have perfect input on a single frame or getting a 720 degree rotation input correct every time while facing left an absolute necessity? The original Street Fighter II made a name for itself and invented the genre on these simple fundamentals alone. I can play Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm, which has stupid easy inputs, yet still has all the essential fundamentals of a fighting game. The only skill that needs to be factored in during a fighting game is how well a player can perform the fundamentals.
So why is all of this important? Let’s go back in history and remember that after Street Fighter III, there was a massive drought in fighting games. The entire genre was slowly dying, and even though solid releases like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Guilty Gear and Capcom vs. SNK came out, the genre was not attracting new players fast enough. It took Street Fighter IV to revive the genre to new players after a nearly decade long period of declining players. And let’s no pretend that companies weren’t aware that fighting games were dying. We can see evidence of the dying fan base in new mechanics added to fighting games now in an attempt to attract new players. Why do you think Comeback Mechanics like X-Factor, the Ultra Meter and Pandora Mode exist? Why does Persona 4 Arena have auto-combos with every character? Why did Marvel vs. Capcom 3 switch from four attack buttons to three? Why does Blazblue have a Beginner Mode and originally came packaged with a “How to Play” DVD initially? Why is Celica from Blazblue being described as easy to play and highly recommended for beginners as her DLC selling point? Game devs know that fighting games could just as easily die again if new blood isn’t attracted, and they’re trying to protect against it. Try as they might, longer tutorials and new comeback mechanics are not the solution. Fighting games need to get back to their Street Fighter II roots and simplify the inputs and execution. This is the only way to attract new players. There’s one game out there that proves this theory is true: Super Smash Bros.
It’s debatable if Smash Bros is really even a fighting game, but it’s similar enough to use as a comparison. Every move in Smash Bros is easy to perform. All moves are down with pressing the control in one direction and pressing A or B at the same time. Normal attacks and special attacks are clearly separated. A player will never perform Link’s Boomerang instead of his Forward Smash accidently. (I still have an issue with Tilts and Smash attacks being so similar, but it’s a minor gripe). Moves are universal to all characters. If the player want to perform an aerial recovery special, it’s Up + B. If the player performs an Up Aerial, it will send the opponent upward with every character. A Forward Smash will send the enemy flying forward of the direction the player’s character is facing. A Down Smash will sweep forward and back with (almost) every character. The only thing a player must learn between characters is the different specials each have and their different hit properties of the universal movesets. Smash Bros is by no means a perfectly designed fighting game, but it’s damn near closer to a perfect one than any other fighting game released. Really, the numbers says it all. Smash Bros is the bestselling “fighting game” and has no problems attracting new players. Sure, having Nintendo characters help, but let’s not forget that Street Fighter characters are just as legendary and notable as Nintendo characters. Nintendo characters alone couldn’t save Smash Bros if it was just as hard to play as Street Fighter IV or Marvel vs Capcom 3. Hell, Marvel and Capcom characters couldn’t save Marvel vs. Capcom 3 from dying and its cast even has (good) Hollywood films.
For the sake of the genre’s future, fighting games need to change. The fighting game community and even the game devs themselves need to start to understand that expecting a new player to go into Training Mode for 3-4 hours daily to practice the same inputs hundreds of times and reading online guides on how to play for hours is not acceptable. Final Fantasy XIII gets shit for taking over 20 hours to get to the real gameplay, and I’m not going to give fighting games a free pass anymore when they can take months, not hours, for the player to get to the real gameplay. A well designed game should never take the player months of practice just to play at a competent level. Make fighting games based on the fundamentals, not artificial skill barriers.