"It's definitely a different landscape now than it was in the '90s and '80s. It's kind of a bit lonely making a fighting game now, because not a lot of people are doing it.But I think the responsibility for that rests with us and all the people who were making fighting games back then, because what happened was that gradually, the games became more and more focused on the hardcore audience, and we really shut the casual players out.
If you think about chess for instance, a kid and a grandfather can play the same game, with the same ruleset, and understand what's going on. I think through our competitive spirit back then we were always out to out-complicate each other, and make our systems deeper and deeper. It was ok then because there was a wide player base who understood how to play these games, but that's not true anymore.
What we're trying to do with Street Fighter IV is bring them back in. There's not a whole lot of other fighting games out there to compare it to, but hopefully, if we play our cards right and get people back in to the genre, we can blossom the genre itself again and spread things out and get it back to the way it was." - Yoshinori Ono from 2008 Gamasutra Interview
It’s not hard to see why most fighting games today are designed for arcades; most of them are sequels to games born in the arcade, or the occasional new IP like Skullgirls and Blazblue are made by those familiar with that design and so they refuse to deviate from it.
As Ono mentioned, fighting games have over the years tried to become deeper by adding complexity, and games that would have worked well with a controller have since added extra gameplay layers that make using a controller a tough endeavor.
Amazingly enough, many of the fighters designed for arcades aren’t actually released in arcades; Street Fighter X Tekken and Soul Calibur V for instance are console and PC games, yet they’re still designed for arcades. Why is the arcade design still so appealing?
The benefits of the arcade stick
The joystick allows the complex motions for special moves to be executed with relative ease. Simple movements like quarter-circles may not take long to perform on a controller, but more complex motions like 360s (full-circles) for grapples and Z-motions for dragon punches are often performed slightly faster with a joystick.
While these may not sound like they would take long to perform on a controller, the speed that these games demand ensures that every animation frame counts when performing moves. A player usually takes less than a second to complete a jump, so if you want to counter that jump you have to be able to both realize what’s happening and then react to it in that one second; although even with the aid of a joystick it’s still difficult to react in such a short time.
Your best option is for countering the jump-in isn’t to just react to it, it’s to read it; if you can analyze your opponent’s playstyle, you’ll be able to sense when a jump is coming and then mentally prepare yourself to react to it before your opponent actually tries it. With this system reading moves is a much stronger skill than reacting to them, meaning the smarter player will always have an advantage over the faster player. This system only works if the inputs are complex, and the joystick is meant to facilitate those complex inputs.
With the layout of the buttons on an arcade stick, a player typically has four fingers on a different button at all times; so many fighting games only require four buttons due to the assumption that the player is always ready to hit any of the buttons. 3D fighters like Tekken and Soul Calibur may not have the complex joystick inputs of 2D fighters but can still be pretty demanding to players using controller.
Players will need the arcade button layout to quickly switch between the four buttons for fast combos or to perform a slide input, a two-button combo that is inputted so quickly that players perform a ‘sliding’ motion from one button to the next. Techniques such as these are often very difficult for the average player to perform with a standard controller, yet the payoff for performing these difficult combos in a match is substantial because of their complexity.
Can it be more accessible? There have been many attempts at making the traditional design more approachable to the modern gamer, but seldom are those attempts ideal solutions. In Marvel vs. Capcom the player can select EASY mode and have each button correspond to a special move, although the buttons were normally used for punches and kicks so this mode would render those unusable.
In the 3DS version of Street Fighter IV, players can map a special move to the touch screen and simply tap it to use it; this consequently meant that moves which normally required a charge time before use could be executed instantaneously, making charge characters like Guile overpowered and lead to tournament finals of Guile vs. Guile!
The recently released Street Fighter X Tekken included assist gems and quick combos to aid new players. Quick Combos allowed players instantly pull off certain combos by pressing two buttons, and assist gems could be equipped on players to do things like automatically tech throws or automatically block attacks. All of these however required the player use up the Cross Gauge meter, which puts them at a severe disadvantage in the match.
Many of the aforementioned approaches are simply band-aid solution; they are a result of the designers not wanting to change the design of the game, but still implement crutches for new players that if used will ultimately prevent them from becoming good at these games.
The benefits of the casual fighter For some interesting reason, Super Smash Bros. is often seen as something other than a fighting game. I’ve heard it referred to as a party game, brawler, and beat-em-up, but there’s often a hesitation to call it a fighting game because of its simplistic approach and casual design.
Each character has four special moves that are performed by pressing the B-button along with tilting the analog stick in one of four directions. With this approach, it’s nearly impossible to forget how to play the game. In pretty much any gathering of gamers I’ve come across, I’ve always found more people willing to play Smash Bros. over any other fighting game that was present.
Players don’t have the excuse of not remembering a player’s moves or combos when it comes to Smash Bros., having a design that’s easy to remember means having an audience that’s more willing to play your game when the opportunity arises.
Comparatively, I refused to play King of Fighters XIII with my friends not long ago because I had forgotten some of my combos, and this game is only a few months old; I’m not sure how I forgot that Terry can cancel his Burn Knuckle into light Crack Shoot and then follow that with an EX Rising Tackle or Bust Wolf super, I must be getting Alzheimer’s.
Smash Bros. is very much a casual fighter. Not only is the design fairly simplistic compared to the hardcore games, but elements like prat falling (a mechanic where players can randomly trip and fall) as well as character imbalance (the often banned Metaknight) prevent many players from playing it very competitively.
In spite of that design however, it has a large following of competitive players and has made several appearances at the EVO World Fighting Game Championships. For all the reasons this game has to not be played competitively, it still is, and has shown a way that a fighter can be approachable to new players and still have enough replayability for hardcore-competitive players.
It wouldn’t be hard to create a game that would surpass Smash Bros., one that took into account the competitive nature of its players and used that to gain an audience; aside from a few poorly designed Smash clones however, there aren’t many contenders that have tried to dethrone it. Despite my push for more games like Smash Bros., I would not ask for Street Fighter or Soul Calibur to suddenly adopt that design. Those games are successful at what they do and they should continue to do it. The developers behind them however have an opportunity to experiment and create engines that push the genre towards something that isn’t derivative of its predecessors.
It would be nice if there was a break from creating more fighting sequels so that developers could maybe -- and I’m sure this is what publishers would call the ‘N-word’ -- perhaps try a ‘new-IP’ (apologies if that word offends you). I do agree with Ono that fighting games can be more like chess, that a kid and a grandfather can understand a game and enjoy it together, but it seems that most fighting game developers have no interest in creating that game.
Many people see fighting games as a niche genre, appealing mainly to those willing to invest the money for the equipment and the time to learn everything. Street Fighter IV was seen as a resurgence of the genre after it had lost a lot of popularity, but the design of the games has not changed much and they seem to be falling back on old habits. If we keep appealing to the niche, casting away the kid and his grandpa, then we may come to remember why the genre became unpopular in the first place.