“How do I develop my own playstyle?”

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[People who back my Patreon send me questions sometimes and I like answering them. Please consider joining the crew!]

Dear Pat,

I’ve played fighting games semi-seriously with my friends for years, and the part that annoys me most about playing with them is when I hear them complain about all the “random” stuff I hit them with. It’s honestly not random! But, I don’t really look at guides or copy the combos that the pros do because I want to play the game with my own playstyle, and they’ll complain about it when I win and tell me I’m a scrub when I lose. Copying stuff sounds so boring. Do I have to do all the meta combos if I want to be more serious?

Sincerely,

Fuck (SA3) Twelve

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bloop

Dear Fuck X.C.O.P.Y. Twelve,

This is a great question, and one that I see people struggle with all the time, but rarely talk productively about. So let’s do that! First we’re going to talk about your friends, then we’re going to talk about what you want from the fighting game.

Playing games with friends is a fun time. However, the “fun” we have together is kind of weird — lots of things we do in games with friends involve subjecting ourselves to challenges that can create conflict. Fighting games are notorious for this, of course, but so is Monopoly. Your friends have their own ideas of how people should play fighting games, you have your ideas, and each time you play a game it’s not just about what buttons you’re pressing, but the thinking and practice that went into each button press — whether it’s mindless mashing or calculated precision or anything else.

This collision of methods and ideals and philosophy is part of why fighting games are awesome! It can also be stressful. Normally, when you play a video game that involves challenging a person’s values, the person being challenged is the character you’re playing, not you yourself. In fighting games, you are the protagonist whether you like it or not, and that can feel pretty intense at times. So when it comes to your friends, maybe you’ll choose to hold that shit, get good, and shut them up, or maybe you’ll choose to play fighting games with different people who don’t stress you out. Maybe you’ll do both! You’re the protagonist, and your story will continue either way.

Now let’s talk about self-expression and personal style in fighting games.

Truth is, coming up in the arcade days, it always felt to me like valuing personal choice over determination to win was an incredible act of vanity (and a waste of quarters). Back in the old days, game balance was so bad that it was hard to believe a low tier could ever have a shot at beating a skilled player at all, let alone winning a tournament.

I certainly understand where that attitude comes from; if a player’s “self-expression” is defined by doing suboptimal combos and picking weak characters because they either can’t do the good stuff or don’t want to, it can easily read to others like they’re building an identity around being bad at a game because then they don’t need to expose themselves to the vulnerability and disappointment that comes with trying to be good at a game and failing. This is why no one likes playing with Dan players in Street Fighter; if you win, you beat a Dan player, and if you lose, you lost to a Dan player.

Fighting games have come a long way since then, and so have their players. These days, I only play games that give players room to express themselves in their play, because these are the games that are deep enough to be “unsolved”. Yes, Summit is the best Chipp in Guilty Gear competition, and I take a lot of inspiration from how he plays, but every Chipp player has something to teach me. Most importantly: I am a different person from Summit, with a different brain, body, hands, and set of experiences, and the way that he plays Chipp may be optimal for him, but isn’t necessarily optimal for me.

When I watch Summit, I will study his tools and methods to see how he deals with a situation, try it out, and see if it sticks or if I need to make a few changes to fit me. Sometimes his solution will make sense to me in a way that I love, and other times it’s clear that his methods rely on a toolset I haven’t yet built up, and so I’ll work on the building blocks for a bit before revisiting, or see if a different Chipp has a different approach. And sometimes nothing fits quite as well as my own tools, so I keep them and refine them.

This is creativity in fighting games at a different, deeper level than just styling on someone with flashy unoptimized combos, and it’s an important part of the joy of fighting games to many players. However, newer players often feel gatekept from this part of the experience because there’s so much known stuff out there that they need to get good at first before they feel like they’re good enough to contribute to the toolset themselves. It’s a bit like getting into an MMO when your friends are doing all the crazy endgame stuff and just waiting for you to catch up through the story content.

But: It’s not true. Self-expression and creativity in fighting games doesn’t just come from high-end players innovating. This isn’t really how creative style works in any creative skill! It’s just easier to see in high end players because their play is more visible and more effective. Your personal playstyle is something that you develop as you improve and practice, not after you’re “good enough” (whatever that means).

Think of how personal style and self-expression works in other creative skills, like art, music, dance, writing, etc. — in any of these fields, a novice usually starts to set the foundations of their personal style as a problem-solving exercise that goes along the lines of “I want to make [thing], but I can’t do the [X] required to make [thing], so I’ll need to find another way to make [thing].”. As a young writer, I started out wanting to make video games, but learning to code or even write stories felt too alien to me to feel confident trying it, so I got into reviewing games, which became criticism, which eventually led me to a career in game design and development. As a young Chipp player, I didn’t think I could do the optimal combos, so I learned a bunch of weird resets, and while I eventually learned better combos, I still kept my weird resets.

In other words, your style comes from trying to solve a problem you cannot solve with your existing skillset. Sometimes your style will involve “practicing to do the thing until you’re good at it”, and sometimes your style will involve “finding ways to avoid doing the thing you can’t do”. As you get better, you’ll find alternative solutions as well. All of these solutions to your initial problem become elements of your style, formed by your attempts to work around creative constraints. This is a critical part of acquiring any creative skill early on, but it’s even important for high-skilled people too.

(If you’re in the mood for a pretentious experimental art film that goes into this stuff, check out The Five Obstructions, which is a documentary by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth where von Trier challenges Leth to remake one of his films five times, each time with a different constraint. The first constraint is “remake The Perfect Human in Cuba, with no set, no shot lasting over 12 frames, and you have to answer the questions posed in the original film” which sounds like a Smash competitive ruleset or something.)

So don’t worry, F12. At first, your style might be defined by all the places of your game that lack refinement. I see new GG players use 5D a lot because the long windup gives them time to collect their thoughts and land a satisfying combo, not because it’s the most optimal tool, and while they eventually learn to use it less, they’ll still break it out in the situations they found it to work well. Your style will grow and deepen as you find yourself getting more comfortable playing in certain situations (Justin Wong’s comeback Wong Factor), or as you develop mastery of very specific tools (John Choi’s counterpoke Hadoukens).

All the suboptimal shit you do, all the shortcuts you take, all the not-as-good-as-the-best-combo routes, the oki that shouldn’t work, the calculated panic mash; as you play and reflect, you’ll replace some of it, and you’ll keep some of it and refine it into your own specific dank shit. You can choose to apply your own creative constraints, too! I’ve been intentionally spending less meter on Roman Cancel with Chipp, and it’s gotten me to get more comfortable using his supers and leveling up my neutral instead of bypassing it with Gamma Blade YRC, which strengthens my Chipp overall and given me even more room to play and experiment.

Keep playing, keep practicing, keep learning and experimenting. You’ll body your friends and they’ll complain about it, but when they see you on stream hitting everyone else with the same “random” shit all the way through Grand Finals, they’ll be bragging about how often you hit them with your bag of tricks like it’s a badge of honor. And a new legend will be born.

Thanks for reading! If you found this essay valuable and want to support my work, please do not hesitate to share it around on your social channels, follow me on Twitter, check out my Twitch stream (Mon-Thurs 830PM-1030PM PST), or join my Patreon.

💪😎👍❤

-patrick miller

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