Vs. CPU is underrated

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If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone tell a new player “Don’t play against the CPU, it’ll teach you bad habits!” then I probably wouldn’t bother with the Patreon.

This advice, just like the last essay’s bit on “start out by practicing your fundamentals”, is well-meaning advice that often comes from mid/high-level players who think about all the time they “wasted” playing against the CPU before learning to play competitively and want to help new players avoid that same fate. In particular, the bit about “bad habits” sounds like the lamentations of every single person who learned a couple patterns to crush through Arcade Mode on the highest difficulty, thought they were kinda nice, and then got embarrassed trying to do that shit against a human opponent.

If you’re a new player and you have fun playing other people, great! You’ll learn a lot of stuff very quickly if you stick with it. But I find that most players new to the fighting game genre are not quite so comfortable losing in a 1v1 game as much as you often do in the beginning, and need to get some positive feedback to stick with the genre. This is why I think that Vs. CPU is the most underrated practice tool in a new player’s toolkit, and telling them not to use it risks discouraging them from sticking with the genre because the way they want to play isn’t the “right” way.

So! Let’s talk about why learning with others can be stressful, playing against the CPU is useful, and how it can fit into a new player’s practice routine.

Learning against another human being can be hard

The reason training montages are so popular is because they are much shorter than the actual training period.

The most important thing for a new fighting game player’s future success and longevity is that they get to feel for themselves how fun these games can be. A critical part of fighting game fun is feeling like you’re doing the things you want to do, and they’re working. It is usually a lot easier to get to this point against a CPU than it is against a person, simply because most CPUs are designed to be pretty beatable.

If a new player is playing with another player and they’re having fun, that’s the best possible outcome (and they might actually learn a thing or two). But many new players find the speed of fighting games stressful, and others will have a hard time handling all the Ls you have to hold early on. If you’re telling them that they should only be playing in Training Mode or PvP, then you’re telling them that they need to choose between “practicing” or “getting beaten up” when what they want is “a fun time playing a video game”. Even the people who are 100% fine with getting stomped often feel awkward about feeling like they’re wasting the other players’ time, which is not a great feeling.

Basically, fighting games are about getting in fights with strangers, and it turns out that both fighting and interacting with strangers are skills that require practice to get good at. If I tried to get into a game and it mostly felt like awkward strangers were kicking my ass, I probably wouldn’t stick to it for long. Some people will come to fighting games more ready for awkward stranger fights than others, and those others are probably gonna have a better time playing Vs. CPU while they get their bearings.

Why playing against the CPU is good, actually

Playing against SNK bosses will teach you grit and determination.

Learning fighting games is to teach yourself how to see something happening on the screen, recognize what it means, decide on a response, and execute that response. Since these games are generally designed around the limits of a human being’s physical and mental capacity, all of this can happen at a very fast pace, and for new players, the pace is often overwhelming. (For more on learning to get faster, read this essay.)

In order to effectively complete these loops of observing, orienting, deciding, and acting (AKA OODA Loops), a player needs to learn a bunch of stuff that falls into three broad categories:

  1. Things that my character can do
  2. Things that the other character can do
  3. Things that the other player likes to do with that character

In any given fighting game session, a player is likely learning bits and pieces of all these three things, and as a player gets stronger, their existing knowledge set gets bigger and it’s easier to add to it. If I already know how to play three characters, for example, learning a fourth is pretty easy, because I can likely recycle a lot of my existing knowledge to ramp up quickly. But if I’m learning my first character in a fighting game, I’m also learning all of the systems and all of the movesets and just about everything else from scratch. It’s a lot of stuff to learn and it can be overwhelming to try to learn all this stuff at once — especially if you’re trying to do this while playing another person.

If we start a new player out in Training Mode, they’ll have a clear space to practice the stuff that their character can do. We could ask them to use Training Mode to learn what every character can do, but if they’re new to fighting games, they might too overloaded learning one character’s inputs to worry about anyone else’s. And if they don’t really know what the opposing character does, asking them to learn how to play in a new matchup and how pay attention to their opponent’s decisions is likely to be too much to follow.

With Vs CPU, they can get an idea of what other characters do without having to learn how to do it all themselves. They can play Arcade Mode and see all the endings, or pick specific matchups in Vs Mode, or play Survival or whatever the heck they want. As long as they’re playing the game and having fun, they’re using their time well. Eventually they’ll get bored of this, and that’s when it’s a good time to emphasize playing against other people.

“But won’t they be wasting their time learning bad habits?”

Thank you, CPU Ken, for giving everyone ample opportunities to practice punishing DPs.

Playing against the CPU will get the player more comfortable with their own character’s tools, and it will help them build a decent surface-level understanding of what other characters do. It also has the added benefit of feeling more like you’re playing an entertaining video game for fun compared to “Training Mode”, which, well, the name says it all, really. When you’re new and scrubby, even little wins like seeing the endings mean a lot.

While playing against the CPU, the new player will likely learn some things that don’t really work. This is not a bad thing, really. If you think about it, most of the fighting game experience can be boiled down into “I learned how to do a thing, it worked until someone learned how to beat it, and so I had to learn how to do something else”. CPU opponents can teach you how to do some useful things (like punish Dragon Punches or jump over fireballs); they can also teach you that Dee Jay can be defeated with nonstop Hurricane Kicks, which is not so useful. Frankly, if you put that new player against another new player, they would also be learning similar “bad habits”. Heck, even when the CPU reads your inputs, you’re getting some insight into what the opponent “player” can do that others can’t.

The important thing to realize is that learning a fighting game is not something you do once, it’s something you do over and over and over again as your brain gets bigger and your hands get faster. You might think of a specific play pattern as a bad habit because it gets you punished, but the process of building that habit, testing it out, understanding why it’s bad, and modifying it into something better is basically a core skill of fighting games. If you tell a new player to skip this step, you’re making the learning process a lot rougher than it has to be. I understand that it feels more efficient to just teach a new player The Right Way To Do Everything, but it’s far better for their long-term development if you build their ability to learn (giving a fish vs. teaching to fish, etc.).

Also, the best way to get a new player to avoid learning bad habits against the CPU is to give them some simple things that they can practice, like a decent BnB, so just give them some tips and let ’em rock.

I have said this countless times, but it still bears repeating: The challenge of getting new players to stick to fighting games is not about getting them to be “good” as quickly as possible; it’s about teaching them how to use the tools they have in their toolkit — both in the game and in their minds — to get better. Every time a new player has a session that is frustrating or awkward, they’re one step closer to quitting; every time they have a session which feels fun and rewarding, they’re one step closer to sticking around for the long haul.

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.

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-patrick miller