Why fighting game execution is hard for new players

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I figured it would be useful to write a little bit about where most new fighting game players often stumble with fighting game inputs.

The reason I’m writing this is because most new players have a hard time describing what they’re struggling with because they have no idea how the games work, and most experienced players can tell you which inputs they found hard to get used to but are usually not very good at describing why they were hard. So the new player says “I feel dumb, why is this so hard for me when everyone else makes it look so easy?” and the experienced player says “oh you just gotta practice.” While that is true, it doesn’t really answer the question of why is this hard, and if the new player cannot find an answer to that question, they probably won’t stick around long enough to power through.

So: Reading this will probably not help you suck less, but it’ll give you better words to describe why you suck, and I hope that demystifying the reasons as to why you suck will at least help you feel like these nebulously difficult physical puzzles are at least something that you can improve at. Also, I’ve written about this a little bit already in Why fighting games are hard, so feel free to give that a read if you want more background.

#1: When you do something, you have to wait until it finishes

Fighting game characters have dozens of different actions they can perform. Each of those actions has an animation that lasts a certain amount of time, and the general rule in fighting games is that those animations cannot be interrupted by any of that player’s inputs unless something lets you “cancel” the animation. So when you’re controlling a fighting game character, you’re telling them to do something, waiting for them to finish, then telling them to do something else.

Most mainstream games these days try to minimize this whenever possible and instead take as a starting point that the best way to immerse a player in the experience is to make the inputs feel so directly connected to the player’s will that there is no gap between the player’s brain and the character’s actions at all. In order to do that, they’ll allow pretty much any input to override anything that the player is doing at the moment so that the player feels like their input is always respected. That way, the player gets to keep a continuous connection to the character. You’ll see other real-time games do stuff like channeling states for actions that require a long startup for a big payoff, but in general, they try to let you interrupt stuff if it won’t break anything or make the character’s animations look broken.

Traditional fighting games generally don’t give you this kind of control over your character because you need actions to have a certain amount of committed time associated with them or else the decision to do that action means nothing. Weaker attacks take less time to do than stronger attacks take, just like more powerful spells in an RPG or a card game take more mana to cast. If you could cancel into and out of anything at any time, you’d need to find another way to make a player’s decisions matter if you want the game to be fun, engaging, and deep. (For example, the Gundam Vs. series lets you cancel into and out of anything at any time, and costs those cancels with the Boost Meter.)

Since most other video games don’t require you to learn the length of all your actions’ animations in order to do stuff fluidly, new fighting game players will often find that controlling a fighting game character feels muddy and restrictive, since the character doesn’t respond to their actions as consistently or immediately as characters in other video games do. They’re not used to only being able to control their character in fits and spurts, and they’re not used to having to wait to finish doing something before their character will do something else.

Personally, I think this shit is dope as hell. It’s actually a pretty good analogue for actual fighting, where you also need to learn to shift your weight, rotate your hips and shoulders, and swing your limbs, all in discrete committed chunks in order to execute a proper punch or kick, and people often have a hard time doing that at first, too. But it’s not just hard for new players because it makes timing windows more challenging. It’s actually because the paradigm for fighting game control is dramatically different from most other video games. Let’s talk about this some more.

#2: Controlling a fighting game character is closer to issuing a series of instructions than it is moving your character’s body

If you have never played QWOP, stop what you’re doing and play QWOP.

When you move your body around in everyday life, you probably don’t have to think too much about the basic actions you’re performing at a muscular level. When you raise your hand to scratch your head, you’re flexing and relaxing a bunch of different muscles in rapid succession, but you do not have to think of it at that layer of detail in order to perform the movement — you just will your body to do it, and it figures it out for you. It’s often not until you get into stuff like weightlifting, dance, or yoga that you realize how much more your body is capable of doing once you’re able to more subtly control and direct your body. Similarly, when you get fluid with fighting game inputs, you’re not thinking too much about the individual inputs that give you each move in a combo, because you know how to just do them all together.

Before you get there, though, fighting game characters feel kind of stilted to control. Since you have to wait for animations to finish before you can issue new commands, you kind of have to think of your inputs as a series of instructions that you’re issuing to your character, then waiting for the result, then issuing more commands. It’s kind of like if your Starcraft units or MOBA heroes had to finish executing the first order before you could give them another one.

When I see a new player playing a fighting game, I’ll often spend some time looking at their hands to see how they’re controlling the character. If the player holds directions for longer than they need to, like holding up-forward to jump forward instead of just tapping it, I find that it often indicates that their mental model for controlling the character is closer to one of continuous control (the way most video games do it) instead of the input-result-input pattern that fighting games use. Conversely, if new players often return their hands to neutral (or back/down-back) after starting an action, that’s a good sign that they’re more comfortable with controlling their character.

The reason this is important has to do with how the player understands their actions as starting and ending. If a player thinks that their jump input needs to be continuously applied (in the same way that a jump’s height in a Mario game is related to the duration of the button press) then they’re probably thinking of the end of the jump as the end of the action, and if they want to do something during the jump, like double jump or air dash or block, they’ll need to stop pressing up-forward before doing whatever it is they need to do. This complicates the motion rather significantly, because they have to learn how to do the next input from up-forward rather than neutral, and if a special move input or something is involved then it might get misread.

More comfortable fighting game players will just jump with an up-forward tap, which gives them more time to see how the jump will result, and prepare to do the thing they want to do during the jump. This is because if you think of the jump as something that is initiated with a single up-forward input at the beginning of the jump, then you can get your hands ready to do the thing you want to do next while the jump is still in early startup. And of course, this isn’t just true for jumping — experienced fighting game players are looking at the screen, breaking it down in terms of anticipated future game states, and breaking their next steps down into a series of orders that look roughly like “double tap forward, wait for 20ish frames, tap up-forward, wait 9ish frames, press heavy kick, then see what happens next” like their fighting game character is a really finicky computer.

Of course, this is something that I think is cool as hell. You (a human) are performing physical actions intuitively (by using your thumb on a d-pad or your hand on a stick or your fingers on a Hitbox), and the controller turns those physical actions into explicit instructions (dash, jump, kick) performed by your character, which forces your opponent (a human) to interpret those explicit instructions and perform their own physical actions. It’s like fighting through Google Translate. It’s hard to learn at first, but once you’re comfortable doing it, it feels pretty good to do.

Which brings me to the next hard thing about fighting games.

#3: Coordinating your left hand inputs with your right hand inputs is also hard

So in addition to fucking with when your inputs are received and respected in #1 and #2, fighting games also force you to coordinate the timing of your inputs between your left and right hands. Like I said in Why fighting games are hard, most other video games limit inputs to directions and button presses, separate the function of your left hand (move around) and right hand (point and act), and avoid letting your left hand’s inputs affect your right hand’s inputs.

For example, when you’re playing a first-person shooter, you step left with your left hand and pull the trigger with your right hand, and the coordination between the two determines whether you hit your shot or not. In a fighting game, you input left with your left hand and press the attack button with your right hand, and depending on the timing and the situation any of the following might happen:

Left, then attack:

  • You blocked an opponent’s attack, and your attack input was eaten by blockstun
  • You took a step to the left, then did your standing attack

Left + attack at the same time:

  • You do your standing attack, unless…
  • …your character has a command normal on back/forward and attack, in which case you do the command normal

Attack, then left

  • You do your standing attack, and your left input was eaten by the attack animation

Not only are the outcomes pretty variable depending on the order of the left and right hand inputs, but in most of the outcomes at least one of the inputs was ignored! That’s a pretty big difference from other games. And the differences are often pretty major in terms of timing, too — maybe you got block (0f startup, variable recovery depending on what you blocked), maybe you got your standing attack, and maybe you got a command normal that probably has a lot more startup and recovery than your attack. All those different outcomes might be unexpected and confusing to the new player, especially if they don’t even realize they aren’t coordinating their left and right hand inputs poorly, and the wide variety in subsequent outcomes from what they think of as a simple direction + button input can be pretty jarring.

Of course, this all gets even gnarlier when we start taking into account stuff like contextual inputs (ex: Tekken’s “while rising” stuff) or special move inputs like the venerable quarter-circle forward. When people look at the down, down-forward, forward for the Hadouken, they’ll usually treat it as simultaneous inputs by the left and right hand and do down + punch, down-forward, forward. This usually won’t work, and then they are left confused and frustrated, because literally every other game they’ve played has treated direction + button inputs as something to be performed simultaneously. Instead, they have to learn to think of inputs not as discrete actions performed in an instance, but as a series of inputs of indefinite length that must be fed to an interpreter that only gives you the thing you want if you perform it to its unclear technical standards. Personally, I usually tell new players to think of the left hand input as “handing off the motion” to the right hand, which sometimes helps.

This kind of thing, by the way, is likely why Smash players often find special move inputs to be unnecessarily obtuse even though high-level Smash often demands that players do a lot of even harder shit. While Smash does eventually force you to time your direction and button inputs, it’s usually not a stumbling point until players learn their character’s attacks well enough to intentionally want to do, say, a forward air vs. neutral air. And since it takes a while for new Smash players to even get that far in the first place, it often feels more like a new thing to learn and master, rather than a barrier preventing the player from getting the thing they wanted.

This stuff kind of reminds me of doing jutsus in Naruto. Not every fighting game relies on this stuff to the same extent, but I definitely get more physical satisfaction out of playing the games that emphasize this heavily.

#4: All of this shit is relative to the opponent’s position

It’s hard to block someone sitting on your head.

Watching new players do combo trials and seeing them realizing that they’re one step closer to doing the things they’ve seen good players do on streams is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with new players. Then I see them try the combo in a real match and realize they’ve never practiced it on the 2P side. Seeing the look on their faces once they realize that learning combos is actually closer to twice the work they thought — because you have to learn the inputs on both sides — is also one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.

No matter the controller, directional inputs have some pretty noticeable differences on the 1P side and 2P side because different motions will have you pushing and pulling for different inputs, which will use different muscles. Even on a Hitbox, you’ll be using different fingers that have different amounts of control and speed. Yeah, over time it’s all learnable, but even strong players often have notable gaps between their 1P and 2P execution consistency. Irene told me that even professional illustrators will often compose their work in ways that allow them to execute within their comfort zone when it comes to pulling or pushing the pen to draw a line.

So not only are you having to deal with all the weird stuff we’ve talked about so far, you also have to flip the direction of all those inputs every time you and your opponent change sides. When your opponent attacks you during a side switch, you have to switch your direction to block. I think a more modern game genre probably looks at that kind of thing and says “yikes” but we took that shit and said “Nope, this is Gameplay” and built a whole bunch of other shit on top of it. Crossups are cool as fuck! I get hype as shit when I see a good player get mixed because I didn’t block that shit either. The fact that part of the attacker’s advantage is the ability to force the defender to block in an ambiguous direction, and use their tools to misdirect the opponent is awesome. Most games do not give a player this much ability to disrupt the other player’s ability to do things, and for new players this can often hit particularly hard.

Hm, that’s worth talking about in its own right.

#5: Your opponent’s job is to not let you play the game

Compared to most other video game genres, controlling a fighting game character effectively is hard. The thing that makes it even harder is that the other character in the game is coming for your ass, and every time they hit you, they put you in a stun state that temporarily disables you from doing anything even if you successfully blocked it. If they press the right buttons at the right time, then you don’t get to press buttons for a while. Yeah, maybe we’ll give you something to do with Burst or DI or damage reduction or whatever, but you’re not gonna get to attack for a little while. And we both know that no one buys these games to block.

Perhaps the one thing that all fighting games can agree on, across genres, is that if you get hit by a good shot it should hurt. Every fighting game hurts in a different way; the Haohmaru standing H tastes different than a Zero lightning loop or a Fox up aerial but holy shit do they hurt. When you’re getting whooped, it feels like you didn’t even get to play. This is, in general, something that most video games try to avoid. Because of the salt.

Of course, for many of you reading this, the salt is what gives the games flavor; you don’t get the high highs without the low lows. But new players usually don’t have quite the jaded palates that experienced players have. And that’s understandable. The games are hard enough to play without another player trying to make it even harder.

Different fighting games have different recipes. Different players have different preferences. You may find that your tolerance for pain in games, like your tolerance for pain in food, gets higher over time. You do not need to enjoy getting your butt kicked to have fun playing fighting games, but — as in martial arts as well — it certainly helps. Sparring is more fun when a good shot earns a smile.

I hope reading this gave you some better words to describe the stuff you’re struggling with, or the stuff you see others struggling with.

New players may also look at all this and say, “This is garbage, why would I want to do all this just to play a fighting game?”

And honestly, all I can say is that if I had sat down and looked at all the stuff you have to learn how to do before I got into fighting games, I probably wouldn’t have decided to get into them either. But this genre is fundamentally about seeing how far people will go in order to win a virtual fistfight between karate men or Sailor Senshi or Jackie Chans, and I think that’s beautiful.

How far would you go to beat your friend’s ass with Spongebob?

How far would you go to beat the world’s ass with Spongebob?

Would you like to find out?

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-patrick miller