So here we are in 2013 and I have recently taken interest in a variety of fighting games, most would consider 2013 a bit late to the party as the fighting game genre was one of the first to take off. When I say I have recently taken interest in fighting games I am not saying before 2013 I never played any fighting games, in-fact quite the opposite is true. Prior to 2013 I owned many fighting games including but not limited to Soul Calibur, Smash Bros and Street Fighter. The difference between now and then is that I have started to take these games seriously.
Most of you will be familiar with what I mean when I say “Taking a fighting game seriously”, we are all mostly guilty of doing the opposite at one time or another. There was the days when you would go to a friends house or an arcade to play some interesting looking fighting game but because you didn’t know how it worked you would press random buttons in random combinations that would on rare occasions result in flashy looking combos or special moves. Chances are a lot of you still do this because it is fun when among friends to appear skilled at something you have barely played. Up until 2013 I was guilty of this on most games, Soul Calibur probably being the best example. The one notable exception to this was Super Smash Bros where I would argue to some degree I could play relatively well. At a similar time to Brawl’s release fighting games started having decent online components, brawl was my first experience of playing fighting games online and it wasn’t a good one. The players I encountered online where all far more skilled at the game than I was, this came as a surprise because locally I was without doubt the best of my friends at the game and we played a lot. In the years between Brawl and 2013 I experienced this feeling again and again as I tried to take fighting games online only to be trumped by all but the worst of players.
At the end of 2012 Playstation All Stars Battle Royale released and I jumped right online, this was my first experience of a fighting game where playing online was actually fun and for some time balanced. Over time I continued to play the game and found myself heavily invested in the ever-changing meta-game, I was skilled enough to perform combos, plan around players and execute kill confirms. This was around the time when I realized that many of these components which served to give the game depth were similar to components of brawl that I was at the time blissfully unaware of, components that had no effect to offline play but made online play impossible. Fast forward to mid 2013 and the meta-game of Playstation All Stars begins to turn sour, balance issues are incredibly evident and the gap between good and bad players has widened substantially. I decided that armed with my new knowledge of how fighting games work some titles I previously abandoned might be playable, soon after I started playing Mortal Kombat (2011). Examining movesets and learning basic combos was my focus, after playing through the story I decided it was time to try my luck online. I’m sure most of you can guess what happened next, I played 10 matches, I lost 9 matches. I decided to look up some advanced tech online and learned some interesting high damage combos (I mean Kombos *cough*) online, once again I was bested online. Even the worst of players, those who simply press buttons without blocking could easily beat me at this point.
So where was the middle-ground? as a new player you will inevitably lose against the players at the top, as a player in the middle you will lose against the players at the top and may be matched equally with those below you (because spamming is hard to counter). I concluded that the investment required to get good at these kind of games is simply not worth the time and end-result. As such 2 person fighting games are mostly flawed, games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat are not easily accessible to those who try and take them seriously. 4 person fighting games are slightly better but also mostly flawed in this respect, to some degree my friends who were barely able to perform in other fighting games could at least hold their own and occasionally perform in Playstation All Stars (at least in FFA).
So now that Ive talked about why fighting games are flawed for online play how can we help to make them more accessible? Here are some of my thoughts on the topic.
- Evolving meta-game – Its important to keep the players at the top guessing, find out what makes them so much better than others and change how it works. This benefits the players in the middle.
- Perfect Imbalance – Although we all strive for a game with perfect balance it would only benefit players at the top. In saying this to much imbalance can ruin a game, Kratos and Raiden (Playstation All Stars) are examples of characters who’s imbalanced nature ruin a game.
- Better match making online is important to prevent players being matched with players of too much skill. This is an issue that I have personally had to deal with at both ends. Matching bad players with good players is a lot of what ruins online for most and prevents people developing their skills. Sadly modern ranking systems don’t do much to accurately gauge skill, some form of intelligent skill accessing system is needed.
- Luck is a big part of what makes a game fun online, it should never be such a big factor that players will feel screwed over but it should be evident enough that on occasion un-skilled players will have their moment of glory. This benefits players at the bottom and in the middle, it also puts less pressure on match making.
The above is in my opinion crucial in making a game that plays well consistently, at the moment its very difficult for new players to start playing a game later on in its life cycle. Once meta-game is played out all that remains is the absolute top players, anyone who tries to get into the game will be heavily put off. 4 person games as mentioned above do a much better job of solving this purely because of the nature of the game and personally I would love to see more fighting games taking this format, we still consider games like this to be smash bros clones purely because very few people have attempted to make games of this type. There was a time when 2 person fighting games were considered street fighter knock offs but now we have many games with a myriad of unique combat systems.
Currently a player who wishes to be good at a game or enjoy its online component has to enter at the start of the games life cycle or invest a lot of time with little satisfaction. I have high hopes that fighting games will work in the future to combat this issue and cater less to the older fans, new games need to be consistently accessible. For the moment my eyes are focused on 2 titles, Divekick and the new Smash Bros. Hopefully in the coming generation we will see some better attempts at games in this genre.
NOTE: Obviously the developers of a game cant keep changing meta-game forever, by the time a game has been played out it should be as close to perfect balance as physically possible. With good match making and some luck components in games it should remain to some degree accessible. Another smart option would be to add both competitive and simplified online play. A simplified game mode may prevent good players from using advanced tech and put less emphasis on skill. Just an idea..