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Fighting The Good Fight; Why Fighting Games Need Their Arses Kicked [Part 3]
by Daniel Boutros on 04/20/10 12:22:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

Links to part 1 and part 2 if you missed them. Part 3 is below...

No I don't support Man United 

The feeling of victory is our feeling of sensory reward for 'winning' a game's success condition. It might be too vague and nebulous to discuss in isolation and is a big part of tension, which I believe I covered in part 1. So writing this part of my out-loud thoughts on ideas we can explore in fighting games may be quicker than I'd initially planned.

Relief, as I hope you all get to experience daily in your lives, is a feeling that comes as reward for having pushed and succeeded / survived through a stressful task at any level from challenging to painful.

Relief hits you in small waves during the back and forth exchange of a fighting game, bigger during riskier plays, and continues until the big pay off when you win a round, and the bigger -when you win the battle. And if in a tournament, the epic pay-off when you win.

The longer the path to victory, the greater the sense of relief - provided the stress remains. The stress can only remain if the play remains challenging, and in turn, that can only be engaged if the players are still having fun.

Relief = I've beaten a challenge = Feeling I'm being challenged fairly = Communication
Which goes back to the theories based on towing that fine line between challenging someone and flat-out frustrating them to the point where they stop playing.

There are hundreds of pieces you can read on this site about ideas on challenge and frustration and philosophies and strategies on towing that fine line to achieve relief and satisfaction.

Instead of rewriting my take on it, I'll just focus on one key piece of solving that puzzle- communication of mechanics to the player, aka your user interface feedback scheme.

I believe this is the fighting genre's largest, unsolved problem. Why? Because solving this problem would actually make the work more accessible and avoid those issues that the knowledgable enthusiast 'I Play Winner' inadvertently raised in the comments section in Part 1 of this series.

I Player Winner"You shouldn't put the blame on developers as much as yourself with it comes to innovation, [...] with most of the players I've met, bordem comes when their game suffers or it no longer seems fresh. There are always new levels you can take your game -- look at Japanese SFIII: 3s play. To this day those players are still finding out new ways to play the game using the core gameplay engine that was put in place over 10 years ago. Ever seen Remy put 4 sonic booms on the screen at once? Didnt think so." - I Play Winner, comments section of 'Fighting the Good Fight'.

What's the real problem here? Me? The game player? Am I responsible for having to explore every nook and cranny of a game to get the true depth and value out of it?

Using the age-old martial arts adage of "you get out, what you put in", I can answer this with a caveat-soaked "yes".

The problem of appreciation of the game, doesn't stop at my own potential ignorance or dis-interest. The problem is a two-parter, and the bigger part of it lies at the heart of the game design and the sorely lacking visual feedback. I shall explain...

...but first, watch this video:



MATCH 1 - Ryu : The guy in the white Gi vs Dhalsim : The Indian elastic man 



This match looks very straight forward. But there's a lot going on you don't see.

The players know the timings of their characters movements well enough so that they can play at this smooth-flowing state. That takes time and practice and is expected to reach high level play.

They've committed these moves to muscle-memory, plus reactions to very specific scenarios that allow them to create spider graphs of strategies and plays in their mind, executed part-subconsciously and part on-the-fly. 

They've learned the properties of each of those attacks so they know which are blockable, unblockable, their distances and ranges, their distance to decay and other such that is the result of extended trial and error play.

It's fair to say that the time and effort to understand these mostly visually descriptive movesets is a fair assumption to make of the player, as a developer.

The less of this kind of preparation a player has to do before they feel like they're competent to play is another barrier of entry issue, but relative to the targeted audience and a diversion from the topic in hand...

During battle

There are key moments in the battle where without outside instruction, forum trawling and trial and error are the only ways to solve the problems the way they do. One I can illustrate easily is this:

Point 1 - Timecode 2:02

The Dhalsim player unleashes a giant fireball. The Ryu player looks like he should absorb this attack due to the step he's at in his recovery animation, but he unleashes an 'Ex Dragon Punch' which seems to transport him through the fireball and over it, to safety.

To an onlooker who knows nothing about fighting games, or has never visited dedicated fan-forums or faqs, this makes NO sense.

Wake up state? 

So what's actually happening? 

In the game and many other fighting games following the traditional 2D formula, there's an additional player state called 'wake-up state'.

This is an additional state believed to have been originally designed to prevent domination tactics where players might be trapped by an opponent against the edge of the screen.
What a wake-up state does - relative to the move - is gift additional priority over other moves, or 'invinvibility frames' where specific animation frames are set to invincible, either for the entire animation frame, or just a set hitbox space. In the context of when it was created (back in the 16 bit days), the limitations of memory to hardware, and the design problem that required solving, it was a great solution.

The problem is that unless we're taught this, we have no idea that's what's going on. Nothing really changes visually to tell you or the player that you're in an altered, temporarily power-up state (save for the EX 'glow' that happens whenever you use an EX move). 

The only way for someone new to learn this, is through passed-on knowledge from other players or trial and error learning through similar games that have absorbed this convention from days of old. While the mechanic itself works as a concept, this scenario, without the appropriate visual description, is poorly communicated and looks badly realised - I.E, UNFAIR to new players with little patience for the ways of old.

Here is another video: 


MATCH 2 - Ryu : short guy in ripped Gi vs Zangief : tall muscle-bound guy in underpants



Point 2 - Timecode 0:21
Ryu throws a fireball toward the giant Zangief. Zangief spins and the fireball passes through. Visually, it doesn't really make sense unless you make up a logic for it that perhaps Zangief's body is in the background briefly. But that makes even less sense than what I'm seeing. And now I've confused myself. 

Seriously. WTF?


The difference between this convention and the first one, is that this one's harder to argue. Why? Streetfighter 2 did begin by establishing a language of 'if the character is spinning, projectiles will pass through the thinnest part of their spinning body'. At least with this move, and Ken or Ryu's Hurricane Kick, where Ryu's hanging leg would pass through crouching opponents' heads as the move passes over them.

Problem is, they break that convention's visual language when you attempt the same move by Zangief with different buttons and the fireball no longer passes through him.

Chun Li's famed Spinning Bird Kick also carried the same 'pass through' convention, but the move has changed across games. The point is, this convention was positively enforced in the past, more than not, and so became acceptable and somewhat readable.

However, this, the invincibility frames on some moves that clearly look like they should be getting countered at specific moments, and many other case-by-case visually contradictory moments are a source of great frustration for not only new players but older ones too.

Who wants to learn a language that lacks consistency and breaks its own rules? I love Street Fighter and games like it, but I don't like re-learning and re-learning things that visually say one thing and do another.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one who feels this way.


Or is it...?



And that really is my problem with current fighting game design; the visual language in these types of fighting game are reliant on you knowing past conventions, born of a lower time in technological capabilities, and not improved upon enough to the point where the game can be visually readable by an onlooker.

What can I hit and when? How do I know when I have block stun invincibility, or when my block recovery is over, save for just waiting out for when I can move? How many pixels off am I from landing a throw? What do I visually need to look for in the characteristics of a move, to know I can always reliably hit it with this upward travelling punch? Are the exceptions to this rule visually recognisable so I can figure this out?  

Some, if not all of the big fighting game series break their own rules in very specific contexts as illustrated in the Zangief / Ryu example. This is a problem, as you get breaks in the visual language and unnecessary frustration in the player will be inspired, because in that thought economy, the player feels less capable to figure out the game's rules and limits themselves.

The visual language and communication issue, in my opinion, is the biggest barrier of entry, and entry to depth, in the traditional 1 on 1 fighting design. Once that problem is solved, I think we'll see more people enjoying these games and finding them less work to get the most out of.

And I really don't see think it's a major design challenge.

In my view, it's simply looking at all the rules and micro rules in the game and iterating a bunch of visual ideas until you end up with a suite of the most suitable solutions to visually describe states and features to the player without breaking what the intended audience wants and needs from the game.


So much winning



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Jason VandenBerghe
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Dude. I am 100% with you here. Please - say this (all of this) as loudly as you can. Maybe someone will hear, and will make adjustments.

Chris Pasillas
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It is also worth noting that strategic depth, aka keeping the game fresh, can alternatively be achieved with a simple and elegant ruleset. Extremely complicated and detailed game dynamics are not required. Think Chess and Go.

Ed Alexander
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Goddamn, Daigo is such a beast. Though I have to say Iyo's Dhalsim was superb, I've never seen Daigo that pressured before. Great match.

I do understand your points, but I think they could be argued by introducing a whole new set of problems, specifically balancing issues. If visual language needs to maintain a 1:1 with what attacks land, what about Dhalsim then? He now has the longest reach *and* range attacks. With no invulnerability frames, how do you even get close to a turtling Dhalsim?

Do you then cut out his stretching limbs, which he is signature for? What about his Yoga Fires which is also a staple? Even if he has no ranged projectile, his limbs are still ranged. He can just back up and attack straight forward or at the 45 degree angle. And there is no air blocking in Street Fighter, so he can effectively pin you at a range.

Plus knowing what moves have invulnerability frames and when is a hallmark of skill. Knowing how to do them, when to do them and being able to do them at will shows the character as an extension of the player. Without those clutch Shoryukens, what counter could Daigo had to those Yoga Flames? Without those clutch Shoryukens, would Daigo's response have made the match even more exciting as it did?

Rolling isn't a part of Street Fighter, if that is the answer, now there is a whole set of new balancing issues that need to be ensured that no one character can just dominate on an unfair level. Rolling, cutting attacks, air blocks... What do you do?

In my humble opinion, the invulnerability frames are somewhat "too big to fail", that is, removing them introduces even more problems than having them in to begin with. I agree the visual language isn't 100%, but if you're a newbie and you're fighting against pro players who utilize invulnerability frames as a counter, I don't think them not having them would change much. What is the acceptable threshold of visual language being on par with what is taking place on the back end?

James Booth
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I think the main concern here is not removing the invincibility frames of characters (which would be dumb IMO), but instead providing obvious visual cues to new players. Example: "Hey, why did my fireball pass through him? Oh, he 'dodged it'." However they decide to portray the "dodge effect" is up to the developer. The point is that there should be some sort of obvious visual indicator to increase accessibility.

Michael Khuc
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Invincibility is key, whether you're waking up or doing a reversal. That said, games should have a blinking color to indicate if a person is in invincibility. Tekken at least implemented a visual block recovery, which gave a blue glow.

The thing is, people blinking invincibility doesn't look cool. Perhaps an effect can be shown on the character's name instead, but every fighting game really needs a tutorial (the arcade games of old had these, but we don't have them anymore these days).

What I would really much rather see though, is hitboxes. Regularly in a game you'll be surprised to see hitboxes actually connecting. When the hitboxes are actually shown, they're way off what's going on visually. I can see this is very useful for balance, but it's the worst case of barrier to entry in my book. Studying hitboxes as well as frames can take forever.

Sakura's crossup kick doesn't even look like the back foot is trying to hurt anyone. Why is that the crossup kick and not other attacks? Simply because they said so, simply because the hitboxes were designed that way, and there's no way at first glance you'd be able to tell.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

nathan vella
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Daniel taught me to spam jab when sim teleports. now when i play sim's online they often hatemail me after. but i win.

Benjamin Marchand
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@ nathan : if they hatemail you, then it's because they're bad ;)

any char does have an invicibility move at startup that can easily overccome this Dalshim tech. ^^

Daniel Boutros
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Alexander - James is correct. I wasn't addressing the removal of the mechanic. Indeed, I understand it's importance in the entirely cohesive (and highly enjoyable) Street Fighter recipe. What I am calling for is visual descriptiveness to be more accurately communicative, in ALL fighting games going forward. They can retain whatever chemistry they like - old school, new school, whatever... - but ultimately, if they want to remain more open toward the audience without dumbing down anything, then I believe this is the first issue they need to focus on. Street Fighter's challenge was also part in legacy. There's only so much they could tweak without pissing off the very dedicated following. I can't speak for their actual strategy, only what I think it was.

Michael - A coloured blink is still too mysterious. It's a step up from 'nothing', but it's still fairly cryptic and only readable by those used to common game UI language. Anime FX would probably work well (a visual 'forcefield' glow) but that wouldn't suit the style of SF4. It really is a larger 'style' question / answer scenario and not one we'll solve to the final word over a forum, for this specific game.

Ultimately, for any game, this kind of effort has to be planned in from the start. I completely agree with you on the hitbox issue. Though the feature you describe really wouldn't be needed had the actions matched the visuals. However, as a temp solution for now, displayable hitboxes for training mode wouldnt' be a bad thing.

Nathan - Fuck those whiny bitches. If I can get around it, those lazy bastards will have to figure it out how too. :)

Nicolas L
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Please add links to previous part !

Daniel Boutros
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Nicolas - Done at the top of the article per your request. :)

jason serafinowicz
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Daniel: I agree about alienating newcomers. Making a game demand skill, patience and understanding doesn't equate to a game automatically having enough obstacles to put a gamer off. Tutorials and visual/engine consistency are just a couple of fundamentally important steps that would not only help traditional fighting games (SF, Tekken, etc.) attract new players for longer, but also help developers to push fighting games across bold new frontiers without worrying that those aforementioned barriers will deter casual players.


Bob dillan: "I noticed their fight was all about exploiting flaws in the game to prevent the other from performing certain actions, seems kinda like bad design IMHO."

This is only true depending on perspective. SF4 was badly designed if Capcom were trying to make the game accessible at a very deep level to absolute newcomers. If you're not catering to those people but instead to seasoned fighting game players who are looking for a familiar experience, then SF4 is beautifully designed.


As an aside, I would love to see fighting games TRULY harness a whole host of untapped elements at the same time to add new depth to styles and gameplay. For example: physical balance, momentum and gravity, emotion and adrenaline, crowd behaviour and atmosphere, bodily injuries, and so on. These elements have all been touched upon individually here and there in games such as Bushido Blade, Fighter's Destiny and Fight Night, but they so far lack one key ingredient: the *sustained attention* of both brand new AND serious professional fighting game players. It's waiting to happen, it's just a risk most modern fighting game developers aren't willing to take.

Overall an interesting read, thanks Daniel.