Why complicated fighting games are weirdly good for beginners

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I have spent a lot of time teaching many different fighting games to many different people who have never gone deep on a fighting game before. Over the years, one particularly interesting pattern I’ve noticed is that the people who get into more complicated games like Guilty Gear, often have a better time and stick around for longer than the ones who try with appropriately ‘beginner-friendly’ games like Street Fighter. In addition, the experienced people playing the more complicated games tend to be a bit nicer to new players and more enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge.

Let me say that again: I see new players have a better time with the hard games than they do with the easy ones. This is true even after the last ten years of fighting game development can be roughly characterized as “How do we take these real cool hard games and make them easier to learn” (see Noah Sasso’s awesome GDC talk on this!)

How on earth could this possibly be? Well, let’s start by digging a little deeper into what makes fighting games hard. (Also, shoutouts to the eternal homie Mauve for noodling a bit about this on Twitter the other day, reminding me that I’m overdue in writing this.)

Fighting games are collections of tests

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The first explicit test in a fighting game.

Fighting games are generally designed to collide two players into little tests against each other. When P1 throws a fireball, they’re checking to see if P2 can jump in time; when P2 jumps, they’re checking to see if P1 can see the jump and react with an anti-air in time; and so on.

Fighting game tests can broadly be classified as tests of knowledge (frame data, attack interactions, extensively labbed option selects, etc.), physical dexterity (execution / reaction time), and empathy (knowing how your opponent feels based on what just happened and calling out their next move). Laugh calls them the Brains, Heart, and Body (check out the Core-A Gaming video!); Seth Killian calls them the Head, Heart, and Hands; I’m sure others have figured out different names.

Of course, even though fighting games generally have all of these tests, each fighting game will emphasize these tests in different ways. Guilty Gear knowledge checks come in the form of a lot of crazy situations that will reward the player who has seen them before; Tekken knowledge checks usually look more like memorizing frame data/attack interaction matrices. Sometimes you get really neat skewed fighting games, like Melee, which de-emphasizes knowledge checks (not as much going on in terms of frame data or combos) in favor of dexterity checks (lots of crazy ass execution) and empathy checks (DI / tech patterns), or Samurai Shodown, which also turns down the value of knowing frame data and cranks the value of hard reads up.

Simplifying = more reads

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That Grim Reaper was totally calculated.

So when a fighting game dev wants to simplify their game to make it more approachable, it’s the knowledge and dexterity checks that usually go first. A new player in a complicated game like Guilty Gear or Marvel vs. Capcom has to pass a lot of game knowledge and dexterity checks before they ever get to make a hard read; in Street Fighter, those barriers are still there, but significantly lower; in Divekick, players get to the reads real quickly because there isn’t nearly as much of the other stuff to learn. And in general, that’s the outcome that the devs are aiming for — they want to get players to the “real game” as quickly as possible because that’s where they think the fun part is.

This is because at low-to-mid-level play, fighting game matches usually come down to which player can identify a critical gap in the other player’s knowledge or dexterity and exploit it better than the other. (I’ve won tournament matches because I realized the other player simply couldn’t tech a throw, or anti-air my jump-in, so I just did that whenever I wanted until I won.) Until both players have a baseline level of fluency in a game, playing it will feel less like a noble clash of strength and will and more like a PvP math test. Only once both players are reasonably competent at each part of the game will they get to have the kind of match that they want to have — but in most cases, they won’t even get there, because they won’t want to spend all that time learning to play the game before they can get to play the opponent.

And that’s kind of the core of why fighting game devs often aim to simplify the genre: because people generally aren’t patient enough to learn a super complicated game before they can get to the fun part. So the devs lower the knowledge and dexterity barriers to get the players to the ‘real game’ quicker.

The problem with this approach, however, is that head and hands checks are largely consistent; a player can put in work to get better at them over time, and their efforts will be rewarded. Empathy checks are volatile and player-specific. (Ask yourself how many of your friends you can consistently beat in rock-paper-scissors over time.) Part of the core appeal of a fighting game is that you can get better at them through practice, but when a fighting game shifts too much of its skill checks towards reading the opponent, it’ll start to feel random. Combos, setups, option selects, whiff punishes, frame traps — these are the things that fighting game players learn to reduce the need to make correct guesses all the time.

And as the knowledge and dexterity stuff gets deeper and deeper, they become intertwined with the empathy tests. “I bet you don’t know that sMP is +2 on block” isn’t interesting, but “I bet you don’t know the right play when Danger Time triggers while Zato is standing next to Potemkin and Eddie is out” can be hype as hell.

Fighting games don’t have RPG progression skill trees and stuff because learning to do those things is our progression mechanic.

Winning is fun but getting good is better

So now let’s answer the question: Why do the newbies have a better time with GG? Well, it starts by setting expectations. Veteran Guilty Gear players are fairly upfront about how difficult it is and how much there is to learn, and how long it’ll take before they can even win a match, because they’ve had to put that work in themselves. But they’ll also generally be happy to share their knowledge with the newer player, because they know that they need new folks coming in to keep the scene alive, and that new Guilty Gear players must be cherished and protected and encouraged. (Plus, in all likelihood, that veteran GG player started out as a newbie who learned how to play because another veteran taught them.)

When a new player loses, it’s easy to explain why they’re losing. The veteran player can point to the damage they left on the table by not having a better combo, or the lack of knowledge that led them to mash on wakeup and eat CH Pilebunkers. During every play session, the new player will get bodied, but with their fellow players’ help they should come out of it with a few more experience points towards their next level up. They may not be winning much (or even at all) but they’ll get to feel the steady joy of step-by-step progress each time they sit down to play.

Trust me: Winning is nice, but feeling yourself getting better is, to me, the most compelling feeling fighting games can offer. And in a complicated game like Guilty Gear, you can feel that damn near every time you play it.

Conversely, when a new player gets into a more simple fighting game, they’ll taste that sweet nectar of victory early on. They’ll learn to throw a fireball, then they’ll learn to jump the fireball, then they’ll learn to DP the jump, and before they know it, they made it to Silver! But as they continue to play, the harder it’ll be to find specific knowledge or execution checks to propel them through the ranks. The things they learned to get there are unlike the things they have to learn to get better; the rewarding feelings come less frequently.

The more the game requires them to win on hard reads, the more their sessions feel less like a rewarding treadmill and more like a slot machine. They’ll linger in mid-tier purgatory for a while, and after one particular session, they’ll close the game down and never open it up again. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t just for newer players. I had about fifteen years of Street Fighter experience going into SFV and this was still how it felt to me.)

In other words, new Guilty Gear players learn to value improvement as a day-to-day process with minimal concern for results, and find the fun in seeing their abilities grow. New Street Fighter players will get some of this, but it falls off hard once the path to growth becomes less clear. Paradoxically, because Street Fighter has stuff like a functional ranked matchmaker and a healthy pool of newer players, it gets players hooked on the feeling of winning too early in their development, but leaves them hanging when they stall out later.

By the way, this is basically why many current GG players are antsy about GG Strive’s more-simple design choices; it’s because if you’re playing GG right now, it’s probably because you want a game that gives you a lot of things to learn, so you can have these regular consistent feelings of improvement. I’ve played a lot of fighting games, and I think Guilty Gear has been the best at making me feel like my time spent is worth it. But if Strive doesn’t have enough of the crunchy complexity to make us feel a little bit stronger after every session, it won’t inspire us to stick with it for thousands of hours like we did with the previous games, and it probably won’t get the newer players to, either.

Now, this isn’t to say that simplifying fighting games is unambiguously a terrible thing. If you have to be able to execute a fireball and a DP and understand how projectiles and invulnerability work in order to have fun with a fighting game, a new player better be able to do all that in their first ten minutes. But the joy that fighting games are uniquely able to evoke in people is not the glory of victory, but the satisfaction of finding a challenge, overcoming it, and seeking another — something we’ve known since Street Fighter II.

Ryu been letting us know what’s up since day one.

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-patrick miller

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