Teaching yourself to fish
[This essay was funded by my generous Patreon supporters. If you liked this and want to see more, please consider joining the crew!]
I hear a lot of people with opinions on how fighting games are so hard to learn and if they only did this or that they’d get more people into them. I get it. I have tried to teach many people how to play fighting games, and I do think about what would make them easier to learn. It is very hard to learn without people who are willing to explain things to you, and a near-endless amount of patience.
But I think that no matter what, your first fighting game will be hard to learn because you don’t know how to learn a fighting game. Your second is easier, your third even easier still, but people will usually bounce off before they get there. Yes, a developer can make the up-front learning curve a little more gentle to avoid making someone feel hopelessly inept in their first 30 minutes, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the journey will be a smooth ride — and that’s probably a good thing.
Learning a fighting game is a combination of learning a sport, an instrument, and a language, with a little bit of video game on top of that. But when you’re learning a sport, you have a coach; when you’re learning an instrument or a language, you’ll have teachers; when you’re learning a game, you have a tutorial. Fighting games have few coaches and teachers, little established practice, and their tutorials can only teach a small fraction of the game because there’s a lot of game in there.
The game can show you a combo, list the inputs, and explain the rules, but it won’t tell you what you need to do to take that combo and be able to execute it flawlessly in a tournament match. It’s up to you to figure out how to use the tools you have to learn more. At first, you practice the combo over and over, but you keep on dropping it at a certain point, so you focus on just practicing that hard part, breaking the combo up into chunks so you can efficiently practice each part separately before integrating them together.
Then you play against your friend, and they point out that you can’t do it on the 2P side. So you practice on both sides, switching sides when you’ve hit it five times in a row.
Then you play against your friend again, and you ask them what you’re missing, because you spent so much time practicing the combo, but you just can’t remember to do the combo off of a hit in neutral. They suggest using the training dummy’s random block to practice hit confirming, and once you feel comfortable with that you switch it to CPU control to practice your combo against a moving target.
The next time you play against your friend, you land the combo just fine.
If you’ve practiced a musical instrument, you’re probably comfortable with breaking a series of inputs into chunks and practicing them separately. If you have trained in sports or martial arts, you might be comfortable with the concept of increasing resistance to build yourself up to the point where you can execute in a competitive setting. And if you’ve studied a second language, you might be more comfortable with asking your practice partner for tips and feedback on how to improve.
If you haven’t done a little bit of all of those things, though, you’re going to run into each stumbling block and think, “I don’t know how to do this. Man, I feel dumb. Maybe I’m too dumb for fighting games.” At first, you won’t feel like you have the tools you need to figure it out.
This is where many people stop — either they don’t have the tools, or they don’t want to use those tools because they want to just relax and have some mindless fun instead of playing a game that feels like you’re simultaneously playing an instrument, practicing a sport, and speaking a foreign language (all rather poorly).
But maybe you don’t stop. Maybe you power through and figure it out after a day, or a week, and the next time you run into a stumbling block you’ll be a little more confident that you’ll figure it out eventually. Maybe you gather up the courage to ask questions, the determination to find the answers for yourself, and the grit to keep at it consistently. Even if you don’t end up landing the combo, or you can’t figure out the answer, you have still leveled up, and the tools you have are stronger than they were before.
Fighting games are one of the few game genres where the only real progression mechanic is your ability as a player to get better. You have to teach yourself to think about the game and how you can train yourself to play it better, and you have to talk with other people and see how they think about the game to grow your understanding and perspective.
This design pattern is undeniably tough, and most people aren’t seeking this kind of thing when they sit down to play video games, but it is these lessons that have brought us together as a community to learn better, teach better, and build better controllers, netcode, events, and games to play them ever better still.
You’re teaching yourself to fish. That’s the real game. And while it is hard, and many people will bounce off, I think that for many of us the true fun of fighting games is in learning how to learn. When a teacher shows you the answer instead of getting you to find it for yourself, they’ve deprived you of the fun of discovery, and the fun of discovery is where you get the joy and confidence that will keep you going through the next struggle.
That’s why fighting games are hard to teach — whether it’s the game doing it, or another person doing it. Because the way I learn how to do a thing might not be the way that works for you, and even if it is, it might not actually be the best way for you to learn how to do this thing, or the thing after that.
If you just teach someone how to win without teaching them how to work for it, the fun of winning will be short-lived and empty, and once it’s over they might not know how to make it happen again. But if you can teach them to learn, they get to enjoy every small revelation and every new realization as something that they earned themselves. And once they’re comfortable and confident in learning to learn a fighting game, their world will feel a little more open and less intimidating, because every other skill in the world just feels like a fighting game they just haven’t learned yet.
Thanks for reading!