Guilty Gear Strive CBT impressions

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First, a disclaimer: This was a real-ass beta test. We played a version of GG Strive which generally failed to connect players to each other for matches and had no training mode environment. Every play session was characterized by frustration, whether we were trying to explore the game in Vs CPU or get matches in the lobbies. This is important because it is very difficult to separate the feedback from the experience, because critical stuff like “The damage is too high” and “This lobby UX is annoying” feel even sharper when it takes 5–10 minutes to get a match.

I’m not going to go into my opinions on the lobby system and its issues because, frankly, it wasn’t working, and I’ll save it for the survey.

Also, for the record, I wrote this after playing for one evening of Vs CPU practice (Thursday night) and two of the network play sessions (Friday night and Saturday afternoon).

Now let’s talk about the gameplay.

Depth in fighting games comes from the space created by three factors:

  • The number of possible situations both players can be in,
  • The number of decisions each player can make in those situations, and
  • The degree to which those decisions are “unlocked” by a player’s increasing knowledge, executional accuracy and speed, and opponent reads.

The core combat design in Strive has significantly reduced the set of possible situations and player decisions from Guilty Gear Xrd. They have done this by limiting the “gatling” chain combo routes for each character, eliminating air tech, shrinking every character’s movelist, and deleting or modifying a whole bunch of smaller systems (throws, air dashes, etc.) to generally shrink the possibility space. It’s not quite as small as Street Fighter or Samurai Shodown, and some mechanics, like the breakable walls and the Roman Cancel reworks, are actually pretty elegant in how they try to keep some complexity while still simplifying over Xrd.

But: If you are playing Guilty Gear because you like the feeling of playing a fighting game which is seemingly endless, the current Strive beta is not going to feel like this, because you will feel constrained by the game’s limits far more often than you will feel delighted by its possibilities.

This is not inherently a bad thing, mind you. Guilty Gear Xrd is intimidating in its complexity, and that scares many potential players off from even trying to get started. Arc System Works is explicitly trying to bring in new players to enjoy Guilty Gear, and they’ve got a business to run. And while I personally love Guilty Gear specifically because of its complexity, I understand that catering to my personal tastes in this respect is probably not the play that justifies the incredible investment they’ve put into the game’s look alone. If Strive is a game that brings new players into Guilty Gear, I’ll be happy for them even if it’s not for me personally.

The problem is that I don’t think the decisions they’ve made are actually good for people who are new to fighting games. Gatlings, for example, are good for new players because they let them get the basic satisfaction of pressing buttons and seeing them combo into each other without having to think too hard about which buttons they’re pressing. Even if the combo they’re doing isn’t very good, they get to enjoy doing the combo early on, and building up their knowledge of combo routes as they get better.

That is to say, the new player knows so little about fighting games, and has such limited ability to process what’s happening in real time and make decisions informed by conscious intention, that the gatling system actually ends up being more useful to them precisely because they don’t have to think about it until they’re ready for it.

I frequently hear folks throw shade at Xrd for its incredibly dense set of mechanics — stuff like Instant Block, Blitz Shield, Air Tech, 1F OSable throws, character weights and wakeup times, never mind all the character-specific systems — because it’s “too hard to learn”. But in my experience learning and teaching the game, it’s actually really nice to have that much stuff because it’s far too much for anyone to keep in mind at once, and so you just learn them by playing the game over time.

In other words: If you look at how new players actually learn Xrd, the size of the possibility space isn’t really that big an issue because they can’t even begin to take in the big picture to begin with. New players are intimidated by how fast the game is and how long the combos are, and all you need to do is reassure them that they will be able to do that stuff too, and remind them that it’s okay to suck because we all did when we started out, and they’ll be fine.

The changes in Strive don’t do this. By reducing the possibility space in the game, the developers have reduced the power that players earn through experience over time. You can’t learn as many small situational confirms without open gatlings and character weights to create as many situations; you can’t test your opponent on their knowledge and patience in air tech situations without air tech.

This doesn’t benefit people who know nothing about fighting games, but it does benefit people who know a little bit about fighting games. I think Kayin called it best when he observed that intermediate players are the big winners in Strive, because when people who already know how to play fighting games look at Guilty Gear, they can see much more accurately how much work it would take to be as good at it as they currently are at the game they’re playing, and then they say “Uh, no thanks.”

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I feel this the most when I look at what they did to Chipp. When I first started learning Chipp in Guilty Gear XX, I was immediately taken by how cool all his special moves were. Moving around with Alpha Blade and teleports was fun as hell, Gamma Blade let me control the ground and get combos, his Resshou rekka strings gave me an easy combo path on the ground, and invisibility, shurikens, and leaf grab all left me thinking about all the dumb tricks I could play on people. I don’t think I thought about his normals until like, two weeks in, when people started punishing me for doing too much teleporting and Alpha Blading and so on.

When I see baby Chipps pick up Xrd, the learning curve usually goes something like this:

People who are new to fighting games usually start from the special moves because their value is a little more obvious than a normal move. Sagat’s crouching fierce punch in CvS2 is one of the most powerful normals in fighting game history, but it’s not easy to tell unless you know how to test it out, or you have someone show you how good it is. It’s not until you get to be a mid-level player that you learn how important your character’s normals are, because they define how that character plays neutral.

Strive Chipp has lost his teleport and invisibility, and his gamma blade has lost literally everything that was good about it. In addition to generally feeling less ninja-ish overall, he also has to learn how to play and win neutral up front. I fully expect that baby Chipps in Strive will run in, die fast, and change characters — not because he is weak, necessarily, but because neutral is hard to learn, and they’ll have to learn it quickly.

So.

Based on what we’ve seen of Strive so far, I don’t think it’ll hit its goals for new player accessibility, and I don’t think it’ll make existing Guilty Gear players happy. Arc System Works has some time left to change the direction, but probably not enough time to make major changes. I’m guessing that they’ll probably release something that looks more or less like the version we played this weekend, hope that it sells well enough based on the looks, buzz, and rollback netcode to justify further investment, and use updates to build out the stuff that new players and old players want. Remember: The first version of a new fighting game is always the worst one.

Strive will probably be fun. This is table stakes — if you like fighting games, pretty much any fighting game is fun. “Fun” alone is not what motivates us to spend thousands of hours digging deeper into these games. Fun isn’t what gets us to stream, teach, run events, or produce content. Fun does not build a community.

Love does. Love for a game connects us to each other. In an early statement on Strive, game director Daisuke Ishiwatari said “Game is a bridge that connects people.” This is true, and the kind of game you made determines the kinds of people you connect with.

The thing I love most about fighting games is that they can make people push themselves beyond their perceived limitations. At their best, they are capable of generating moments of human excellence that all of us can share in and feel awed and elevated together. Out of all the fighting games out there, I think Guilty Gear is the best at this. And I think that this is what has made the Guilty Gear community to be something profoundly special. We’re all here to be awesome together.

TL;DR: Play Guilty Gear.

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-patrick miller

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