Why fighting games are hard

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Before I go into this essay, I just want to make it crystal clear that I have zero interest in the awful conversations I’ve seen on the Internet about difficulty in video games. The goal of this one is just to dissect what is hard about fighting games and how that challenge shapes the experience of the people who play them in ways I think are cool because I think pushing yourself to do hard shit is cool as hell. Don’t @ me.

Also, you may want to read my essay on why complicated fighting games are weirdly good for beginners if you haven’t already, as it goes into a bit more detail on the nature of fighting games as different kinds of skill checks.

One of the oldest narrative techniques in video games is to start off by showing the player how impossibly far their goal is. The original Castlevania starts with Simon Belmont embarking on a journey toward Dracula’s Castle, looming in the distance; Mega Man X puts you in an unwinnable fight and leaves you to be saved by Zero, heralded by his cool guitar theme and his charged buster shot.

Fighting games do this too, but without the comfortable insulation of fiction and narrative separating the player from the character. After all, Chun-Li is the strongest woman in the world every time you pick her at character select. It’s you who starts weak and becomes strong, and it is the people stronger than you that show you how far you are from your goal. Fighting games are a humbling experience, and if you aren’t ready for the raw human vulnerability of trying hard and losing in front of strangers and friends, they can feel like too much to learn, too hard to try, too fast for you to ever possibly do yourself.

All of this is because fighting games are hard. Hard like simultaneously learning an instrument, speaking a foreign language, and practicing a competitive martial art. Let’s talk about why they’re hard, and why the difficulty is part of what makes them compelling and even valuable.

“The moves are too hard to do”

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By David Soames.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that fighting game controls are harder to grasp, much less master, than those of pretty much any other game genre. After all, most games do a couple specific things to make their controls less frustrating for new players:

  • Limit any given input to a simple direction and/or button press
  • Reduce overlap between inputs for navigation (thumbstick/d-pad controls) and inputs for other actions (buttons) so the player can easily coordinate their left hand’s actions with their right hand’s
  • Allow the player to interrupt any action with any other action so they don’t get stuck doing something they didn’t want to do

In general, when the player is in a state where their character will not respond to their inputs, they’re not going to like it — an integral part of video game fun is feeling like you’re in such close control of your character that you can project yourself into the game. But in fighting games, that kind of connection with your character must be earned.

Take the humble fireball input — quarter-circle forward and punch. The player must learn that their navigation tool is also a tool for performing attack inputs; they must be able to perform a controlled motion rather than a single directional input; then they must time the input from their right hand to coincide with the end of the motion from their left hand. If the player does not do this successfully, they might get a standing punch (too late on the punch button), a crouching punch (too early on the punch button), or a Dragon Punch (oops, they walked forward first). If they wanted a fireball, they are probably not in a situation where any of these other moves are good ideas, and they will suffer for their error.

This is a level of coordination, intention, and timing that most games will reward but do not require. First-person shooters often reward the player for doing similarly difficult things, but if you don’t pull it off, you might just miss the shot or hit a less valuable target, both of which are less likely to make a player feel disconnected from the game as getting a completely different result than intended.

Why are fighting games like this? Well, rich, expressive melee combat comes from combining the players’ positions and options to create a wide set of interactive possibilities. You need a certain amount of viable attack, defense, and movement choices from any given range for that gameplay to be interesting, and those choices are going to be limited by your available buttons, so building in a set of attacks that are only triggered off specific motion controls is a useful technique for increasing a character’s available moveset without forcing the player to use an entire keyboard’s worth of buttons. Single-player action games can get away with making the controls easier by allowing actions to cancel into each other with few restrictions so the player can always feel in control, which doesn’t work in a competitive fighting game because the committed length of the attack animation is essentially the cost of the action, akin to taking a turn or paying a cost to play a card.

Complex motions aren’t the only way to do things, of course — Smash and Tekken bring up the skill floor for new players by adding more context to moves through positioning and branching chain attack design instead of requiring complicated motion inputs. But the neat thing about motion inputs is that it unlocks new room for combat designers to build moves that players can physically grow into. A Dragon Punch requires the player to start with a forward input, meaning they can’t block while they begin the motion, and with practice a player can speed up their DP inputs to reduce that risky period by a couple frames. A charge special, like a Sonic Boom or Flash Kick, is telegraphed by the charging period, but as players progress, they’ll learn to mask that charge behind other movement and attack options to make their intentions less obvious.

At first, a new player feels clumsy. But over time, they will feel their character moving and attacking with more fluidity and deliberate intention because their hands are moving fluidly and their brain is making more deliberate decisions. It’s a progression mechanic that isn’t tied to a restrictive of arbitrary system like unlockables or experience points; it is the player’s self that is progressing. If the moves don’t feel hard to do at some point, it won’t feel as good when they get easier over time.

“There’s too much stuff to memorize”

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This is kind of true; fighting games give a player many things they can memorize. Frame data, combos, character movesets, and player patterns are all parts of fighting games that will stress their ability to memorize a large set of data, which people usually treat as work that deserves compensation. These knowledge checks are also a progression mechanic, one that I’ve heard dismissed as a meaningless barrier that serves only to gatekeep new players from being able to play the “real game”.

Every fighting game is designed to test a player’s knowledge of the game, and these tests come in different forms. Frame data is important to success in Tekken and SFV because the game creates lots of situations where the outcome of two players’ decisions is determined by who chose the attack that was fast enough to beat the opponent’s choice and heavy enough for the payoff to matter. A game with chain combos, like Guilty Gear or DBFZ, typically doesn’t emphasize comprehensive frame data knowledge so heavily because the attacks can branch more freely into others, so instead the player must study those attacks in combination to better understand their optimal routes or their opponent’s upcoming options.

In general, I find that the intimidating part of learning all this stuff is from a misunderstanding about how people learn to play fighting games. One does not memorize entire frame data tables or learn every combo to start playing the “real game”; instead, the learning happens alongside playing. Trying to memorize everything upfront would be like learning a language by memorizing a dictionary; you might have the information, but you won’t have studied the context to use any of it.

It may be hard to imagine, but just like execution, learning this stuff gets easier over time. This is in part because long-time fighting game players develop a knack for understanding how different games are designed to reward players for studying different sets of information, and can thus efficiently use their time to learn the stuff that matters most. Also, we get better at asking each other about this kind of stuff so we don’t all need to learn it at once. I think people imagine that learning frame data is like studying flash cards, but really, it’s mostly done by doing something you think is good and then someone telling you that it’s not good because it’s -18. (Shoutouts to everyone who knows Chipp’s Gamma Blade is +5 on block because Bears had to tell you.)

“They’re too fast”

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Give Chipp his damn teleport pls

When I first played against a truly strong player, I felt like my brain was overloaded and my hands were unresponsive, while my opponent played with seemingly impossible reaction speed. Fighting games, generally speaking, are too fast for people to easily process and react to, and for a new player in particular it is easy to write off the entire genre as something they’re simply too slow to play.

This is because the complexity of a fighting game comes from giving players room to make choices (go here, do this attack, etc.) that affect each other in real time. By giving them many choices to choose from and little time to decide, the game lets them outplay each other by making better decisions more quickly than their opponent can. If we had a fighting game that was played at a comfortable enough pace for both players to reasonably size up the situation and choose the best option at all times, then the game would simply be a test of who knows the best decision for any situation — essentially, a solvable problem set. Instead, by building out a wide set of options, complicating those options with challenging inputs, and pushing the players to execute their decisions quickly, the head and hands tests become richer and deeper than either of them would be in isolation.

The speed means that a new player will start out feeling stupid, clumsy, and slow, and over time they’ll begin to feel smart, graceful and nimble, perhaps more than they ever have in any other hobby. The games feel too fast because they are too fast, and the task at hand is to learn to slow them down and see them clearly.

“Why would I spend so much time trying to get good at a video game?”

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It’s true: fighting games are hard in so many different ways that a new player is just about guaranteed to feel super wack at first. They will probably get bodied without feeling like they got a chance to play the game, and they’d be right. Not everyone is down for playing a game where they have to earn the right to play.

It took me a while to understand this, personally, until I thought about my early experiences playing first-person shooters. I came up playing lots of DOOM, Marathon, Goldeneye, and Quake; when I went paintballing for the first time, I thought I was going to be about as good as I was in those games. (I wasn’t.)

When some people buy a new fighting game, they’re expecting a game that will make them feel like they’ve secretly got the soul of an epic warrior, a lowkey could-be-badass due to some kind of innate fighting instinct or grit or general video game-playing ability. After all, that’s how most video games work — they’re selling a fantasy that the player gets to feel like they’re participating, rather than watching it happen to someone else. And since most fighting games will more or less obliterate that fantasy within the first ten minutes of training mode, or at least the first match against a real human being, they’re pretty bad for that particular kind of wish fulfillment.

What fighting games are good at is giving you a play space where you and your opponent must make decisions continuously, and as you learn more about how the game works and practice how to do more things, the more effective your decisions will be. I think that there are some people who feel like this is how their life works, that their hard work and practice is rewarded fairly, and those people often want to play video games to get away from the feeling of more work.

On the other hand, I find many people are drawn to fighting games precisely because they want the feeling of their work being rewarded; in their lives, it is rare to find themselves in a space where you can be so cleanly and evenly tested against another human being, without subjectivity or luck or other people getting in the way. (As a martial artist myself, fighting games often feel like a purer test of human skill, because we’re not encumbered by restrictions like weight classes or banned techniques, and we don’t have to worry about going to the judges’ decision.) When I go to a tournament, I find so many people who love the work of self-improvement so much that they’re willing to do it for fun, and in many cases fighting games might be where they find the value of their work is rewarded the most satisfactorily.

Fighting games are not good at delivering on the fantasy of a powerful warrior because we can’t all be Evo champions. We won’t often feel strong. But we do get to feel like we’re getting stronger. It’s about going on a journey of growth from the scrubbiest starting point, feeling your actual human brain and body grow through practice and reflection, and joining others who are on their own paths as well. The milestones and mid-bosses along the way aren’t scripted encounters designed to be just-hard-enough, they’re real people. We all have our own Zero; eventually we’ll all be the Zero to someone else’s X.

This cool shit happens because fighting games are hard. Each one is hard in different ways, for different people, and they should be. I hope that everyone can find a fighting game that is hard in the exact right way they want it to be hard. Find yourself a fighting game that feels like flashcards meets Twister if that’s what gets you thinking about how you’re going to with the runback on your way home.

Find that game that pushes you through the hard, stick with it until it becomes easy. Do this in fighting games, and you may find it easier to look at your life knowing that there are at least some things you can do or have simply by pushing through the hard until it becomes easy. Not everyone out there needs this, not everyone out there wants this from video games, but for those of you who do, whether you’re a day one scrub or a venerable old ‘91er, I’m glad you’re here.

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

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