Sunday, 21 March 2010

Let’s Talk About: Fighting Games

So, ‘Let’s Talk About’. In posts marked with the ‘LTA’ acronym I’ll try to impart my opinion of how a genre works and plays from my point of view, not subjectively and certainly not backed up with any real facts, of course.

If I wanted to quantify success in something like a First Person Shooter, I'd say it was around 50% skill, 30% luck, 10% weapon choice and 10% memory. Essentially, luck is around half as important as skill in most FPS games, largely due to bullet spread, muzzle climb, recoil and all those other things, not to mention being in the right place at the right time, either spawning in the right place, or merely travelling there. Fighting games however are a significantly different case, in my opinion of course. I’m certainly not a newcomer to the fighting genre, however I will say now that I’m certainly not overly competitive, and my friends generally prefer games focusing on teamwork and co-operation, rather than one-on-one beat downs. So, in short, while I can take on the CPU, I certainly won’t be winning EVO anytime soon.

Essentially, I’m not writing this article from experience with one game, or even one generation of game, so I hope that some thought will be provoked as a result. I own a number of fighting games spanning the PS1, PS2, Dreamcast, and even the PC, not counting of course the many more I have played over the years.

Returning to my pervious statement about quantification of success, I would say the arguably a fighting game can be measured at around 70% skill, 20% memory and 10% tier lists. Now, whilst fighting game fans may argue that ‘tiers’ do not factor in to a skilled player’s victory, largely existing to guide newcomers into avoiding ‘bad’ starter characters, tiers also provide a record of overall victories in tournaments. To the uninitiated, a tier list, as you may have worked out, provides a list of characters, grouped top to bottom in overall usefulness, victories in tournaments, etc. Arguably, calling it a list of ‘best to worst’ is grossly oversimplifying the process, that is more or less its purpose. Suffice to say that often in fighting games, a battle can be won on the character select screen.

Now, as to discussion of the percentages. I have completely discounted luck as a discerning factor of success from fighting games. Although this may seem an odd move, luck is completely discounted at high level fighter play. Each player know exactly what they’re doing, their abilities, where each move will be directed, where it will land, and so on. A good example of this would be the classic ‘staring match’ in old samurai legends, where each warrior could stand stock still, sword sheathed for days at a time, each acutely aware of both their and their opponents strengths and weaknesses until one admitted defeat, without a single blow being made. Somewhat of an extension of the fight being over before it started as I mentioned earlier. Although I will admit that some characters in games have ‘random’ moves, Marvel Vs. Capcom games notably, it is more akin to the ‘spray and pray’ of the FPS, discounting skill rather than relying on luck (this is a bit of a difficult one to explain right).

Insofar as how one fighting game community feels about luck, one needs look no further than Nintendo’s premier fighting franchise, Smash Bros. Be it Melee, Brawl or even the original N64, the law laid down by the big name in Smash, the Smash Boards Forum is that the game must be tweaked to remove any elements of chance or luck. Items turned off, the more ‘annoying’ environmental stages removed and even more technically minded members diving in to the game’s code in an attempt to remove Brawl’s ‘tripping’ element, wherein a running character can randomly fall over. The problem here is that even some senior members admit that they are attempting to set out a list of guidelines that railroad a non-competitive game into some sort of attempt at a true fighter. So what happens when a game is designed to be played in a competitive environment from the start?

Well, you get your Street Fighters, Guilty Gears and King of Fighters, for a start. All of the prior mentioned games are big on the fighting game scene, and players will journey from all corners of the globe, much like the characters in the games themselves, to prove that they’re the best of the best. To a high tier fighting game player, every move needs to be memorized, every frame analyzed and every character strategized. For these reasons, it is often said that fighting games are the hardest type of games to ‘break into’, as the difference between high and low, and even high and mid level players can beggar belief. Often when I see someone eyeing a copy of Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue or King of Fighters XII, I wonder how long it will be before that game is played online, and then unceremoniously dumped back in the ‘used game’ section, due to frustration. Fighting games are heavily based around the so-called ‘meta-game’, picking characters that perform specifically better against others, exploiting the odd glitch here and there, literally playing by using knowledge of the game’s internal mechanics, rather than using knowledge gleaned through playing the game.

Although no game, video or otherwise is free from meta-gaming, fighting gamers do take it somewhat more seriously. Hit-boxes, attack frames, priority moves, all familiar terms to the veterans, but to a newcomer? How are they supposed to know that one character’s beam can shoot through another's? Trial and error, play, play and more play. This, finally, is where the skill percentage analogy begins to make sense. In a FPS for example, it doesn’t matter how bad you are skill wise, by relying on luck, weapon choice and memory, you can oust a much more skilled player, maybe you’ll only kill them once or twice, but compare this to a fighter, and you can see where the problem is. As I explained, a FPS can be broken down 50/50, 50% skill, 50% other factors. However, a fighting game, no matter how good your knowledge of the game, no matter how high on the tier list your character, a player with more skill, be it due to meta-gaming, hard practice or simply through natural talent will always beat you over and over again, due to this 70/30 split.

This is largely a case of having knowledge but not knowing what to do with it. Professional players will only learn as much as they have to, focusing on a tight set of factors and then improving themselves through constant practice. On the other hand, there will always be the players who prefer to point out that one character can punch 0.003 seconds faster than any other, and is therefore better for tournament play. In this sense, a line can be drawn between high level and pro players. High level players will endlessly spout about the meta-game, and will usually win against most others, but upon encountering a truly skilled player, such as the famous Daigo Umehara they will always fall flat.

In a sense, what I’m trying to say is that there’s only one way to be good at fighting games. Play often. Play at home, play online, if they still exist in your country, play in an arcade, play against skilled people, play against unskilled people. It honestly doesn’t matter as practice does, in this case at least, make perfect. If you’re planning on playing a fighter, don’t go online and look up arbitrary lists, pick a character you like and get better with them.

Yes you can learn every single fact about every character, a counter for every move, and you can sit down, reams of A4 paper around you, and proceed to get beaten by someone who never stopped playing the game to post in a forum, be interviewed by likeminded individuals, or advertised themselves as the ‘best player ever’. Often, those with the least personal fanfare and the most drive and determination will be your most dangerous opponents, and that’s why fighting games require probably the most genuine skill of any genre out there.

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