Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (But Were Afraid to Ask)


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In this presentation we will examine one of gaming’s most culturally contentious and well-known genres: fighting games. Specifically, this is a historical tour through the genre’s humble beginnings, with games like Karateka and Kung-Fu, right up to the current explosion of online-capable, arcade-perfect 2D and 3D battlers. Our goal is to weave together the development of fighting game mechanics — what are the stylistic and gameplay choices that make a fighting game and how have they developed? — with the concurrent development of their boisterous and exciting but often highly problematic player culture. Using emblematic examples from fighting game’s history — some well-known, some not — we will look at the history of the genre holistically, exploring technological, cultural, and design elements that have brought both the games and the players to their current state.
One of the core concepts we will explore is the idea of fighting games as a meritocracy: that as long as a player is skilled, they can succeed and will be welcomed. This theme runs rampant in both the design of the games themselves, and in the community. Players demand that characters must, in theory, be ‘balanced’ so that skill is the determinant of victory… yet ‘broken’ characters, which are inevitable, can attain a certain cult status. Meanwhile the community expends serious effort mining and observing game data to create things like ‘tier lists’ and ‘frame data’ — efforts towards achieving that perfect ideal of balance. This creates a tension between a culture that demands perfect balance and games that can never entirely offer it.
Overall, this presentation will combine an understanding of the evolving mechanics of fighting games with the philosophical and cultural underpinnings of their player culture to demonstrate how, in gaming, these two factors often converge and influence each other.

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (But Were Afraid to Ask)

  1. 1. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fighting Games (But Were Afraid to Ask) Maddy Myers & Todd Harper No Show Conference Boston, MA -- September 15, 2013
  2. 2. You think... • Technology:
  3. 3. They think... • Technology: http://youtu.be/Hwip7ixaDNE
  4. 4. You think... • Salty:
  5. 5. They think... • Salty:
  6. 6. You think... • Pringles • Curly moustache
  7. 7. They think... • Pringles, curly moustaches, mangoes, the New York Knicks, Häagen-Dazs, and more: http://youtu.be/sZZUMjoxfZA
  8. 8. Fighting Games • • • • Related to/grew out from beat-'em-ups Games of competitive "martial arts" combat Borrows from kung fu/wu xia movie tropes Examples: – Karateka (1982, http://youtu.be/wKqk9kosCs4) – Yie Ar Kung Fu (1985, http://youtu.be/Zh9mPILeuOk?t=10s)
  9. 9. 2D Genre Norms • Street Fighter 2 (Capcom, 1991)
  10. 10. 2D Fighter Norms • • • • Life bars up top Match timer Special moves & Control scheme Iterations with new features – "Super" gauge/moves (Super SF2 Turbo, 1994) – Midair blocking (SF Alpha, 1995)
  11. 11. 2D Fighter Norms • Still visible today – compare earlier shot to games like KoF 13 (SNK, 2012)
  12. 12. 2D Fighter Norms • Or BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma (Arc System Works, 2013)
  13. 13. 3D Fighter Norms • Sega introduces Virtua Fighter in 1993 • Takes place in 3D space w/polygonal models rather than 2D plane w/sprites
  14. 14. 3D Fighter Norms • Control scheme changes – "Guard" button instead of back-to-block – Evade/shift into/out of 3D plane – Ring out victory – "Button series" rather than motion+button • Other than Virtua Fighter games, Namco's Soul and Tekken series other major titles in 3D dev track
  15. 15. 3D Fighter Norms • Soul series: "weapons" fighter, more like VF
  16. 16. 3D Fighter Norms • Tekken series: hybrid of 2D and 3D styles (yes, that's a kangaroo)
  17. 17. Imitators and US vs. Japanese Games • Lion's share of fighting games come from Japan • Early-life US imitators tended to focus on violent content rather than gameplay • Biggest name offender: Mortal Kombat series
  18. 18. Imitators and US vs. Japanese Games • Mortal Kombat series difficulty often more about “cheapness” than technique – Can feel fun to play because visually satisfying, but not fun to watch because technically boring • 3D-”ish” play (block button, series combos) • Not respected because not mechanically satisfying • Series had a huge downslide – Picked back up w/latest game series reboot (appeared at EVO)
  19. 19. Imitators and US vs. Japanese Games • Other "violent but poorly-playing" US fighters from that era • Primal Rage (Atari, 1994): Be dinosaurs! Eat other dinosaurs! Mysteriously cheering cavemen! • http://youtu.be/_aF-HtQ_BcU
  20. 20. Metagame Knowledge • Fighting games have huge barriers to entry • One such barrier: execution – Basic level: "can I physically do this move" – Next level: "when should I do this move" – Even further: "how can I create situations where I can use this move" – Even further still: "how do I maximize efficiency for moves"
  21. 21. Metagame Knowledge • The "metagame" is constantly evolving because it comes from community play • Knowing the basic moves isn't enough – Have to keep up on "the latest" strategies to stay competitive • Parts of "metagame" are not always intended by designers
  22. 22. Metagame Knowledge • The Daigo Parry: http://youtu.be/jtuA5we0RZU?t=20s
  23. 23. Metagame Knowledge • Example: "wavedashing" – Quirk of Smash Bros. Melee physics engine – Found by tourney players, became heavily used in Melee tournament play – Not part of the "default" Melee moveset – http://images.wikia.com/ssb/images/f/f2/Waveda sh.gif
  24. 24. Community-Produced Knowledge • "Frame data" is important to high-level fighting game theorycrafters • Basic measure of speed in these games is frames of animation • Moves have windup, active, cooldown frames, etc. • Knowing how many frames a move takes = able to plan moves/counter opponents
  25. 25. Community-Produced Knowledge • Example: Ryu frame data for Super Street Fighter 4 • http://wiki.shoryuken.com/Super_Street_Figh ter_IV_AE/Ryu#Frame_Data
  26. 26. Specific Technology Uses • Arcade sticks are ubiquitous in the FGC • Many reasons for using – Physiological: easier to do motions w/wrists rather than thumbs – Cultural: hearken back to arcade cabinets – "Norms": everyone uses them, so everyone uses them
  27. 27. Specific Technology Uses • Not using a stick can have various reactions • "Vangief" – Uses Zangief (a weak character) – Uses a pad (abnormal) – Folk Hero status/"underdog" • Players of Hilde at EVO 2009 – Character with powerful ring out combo, easier to do on a pad than a stick – When finalist switched from arcade stick to pad, crowd boo'ed
  28. 28. Specific Technology Uses • Sticks not always about efficiency/use • Example: LED stick -- http://youtu.be/GADymPCP0I • Stick in Rubbermaid container:
  29. 29. Need for Balance • Fighting game culture obsessed with notions of balance • Games are conceived of as skill tests: whoever has the greatest skill wins • Thus balance is required: need to eliminate influences other than skill on match outcome
  30. 30. Need for Balance • Many artificial ways to approach otherwise unreachable "perfect balance" – Patches – New "versions" – Tournament rules and bans – Tier lists – Etc.
  31. 31. Need for Balance • Example: Akuma in Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix • Capcom brought in David Sirlin (author of Playing to Win, longtime FG player) to help fix things – He claims all characters would be balanced • Akuma consistently banned from SF2HDR tourneys for being unbalanced
  32. 32. Balance and Characters • "Tier Lists" are a way to group characters based on in-game strengths • Are not "official" but come from communities based on various construction methods – Usually: # of tournament wins featuring that character • Have a big influence on some games – Marvel vs Capcom 2: 48+ characters, fewer than 12 used in major tournaments • Change over time as the metagame develops
  33. 33. Smash Bros. • Is it a party game or a fighting game? Different players have differing opinions on this • Communities like Shoryuken.com often look down on Smash games • Examining Smash helps highlight persistent issues in the FGC's core playstyle
  34. 34. "It's Too Easy" • Smash has lower (not low, "lower") execution barrier – Universal controls for most moves/characters – Motions are simple (single button, direction+button) rather than complex ("down,down-right,right, punch") • Objections based on difficulty: suggestion that "real" fighting games are hard to do – Legitimates existing community as "experts"
  35. 35. "Items Aren't Fair" • Smash has pick-up items and stages with hazards – Items have strong degree of randomness: when will they appear/what appears – Stages have semi-random events that can influence match (hurt players, etc.) • Return to ideas of balance – These influences are randomness, games are skill tests, randomness opposes skill, must ban items
  36. 36. "It's Not Arcade Perfect" • "Default" Smash has items/stages on, no banned characters, etc. – Unlike most other fighting games, these elements can be turned off • Smash tourneys use extensive rulesets for tournaments – FGC sentiment: if you have to make all these changes just to make it tourney-legal it's not a fighting game
  37. 37. Emergent vs. Restrictive • SRK-style philosophy: only restrict things if you absolutely have to – Prefer "emergent" response to "broken" things: devise new strategies to deal w/it, expand "metagame" • Smashworlds-style philosophy: remove elements that will hurt the skill test – Effectively about removing randomness and protecting players from "unfairness" • Differing strategies but same endpoint: moving toward "perfect balance"
  38. 38. (False) Meritocracy • Belief in balance/search for perfect balance predicated on the idea that games are "about skill" • Secondly, on belief that games are about determining who has the greatest skill • Assumption: only skill matters, everything else is secondary
  39. 39. (False) Meritocracy • Idea of meritocracy blinds FGC to problems with diversity and its own behavior • Example: "there aren't many women in FG tournaments because none with skill are competing" • Ignores factors that might prevent women from: – – – – Training against other skilled players to improve Feeling safe in a masculine-coded, "rowdy" space Feeling like they can enter a tourney at all Etc.
  40. 40. Paying Your Dues • Community has strong "you have to pay your dues" feeling – you just have to put up with it until they respect you • Example: "09ers" at Shoryuken.com – Big influx of new people b/c of SF4 in 2009 – Existing forum people highly unfriendly/actively want to push new people out – New people who "paid their dues"/sucked it up could stay
  41. 41. Cross Assault • Sexual harassment of woman team member results in her forfeiting competition so she can leave • Example of how meritocratic system doesn't work/is ignorant of influences – Woman player with demonstrated skill still can't compete b/c of harassment outside the game • Harassment wasn't just one person (Aris Bakhtanians) – Responding to "stream monsters": fans watching the show/responding in chat
  42. 42. Class and Ethnicity • Financial barrier to entry – Consoles cheaper than computers – Easier to share consoles etc. among group – Fight sticks aren’t cheap but are de rigueur • Different ethnic breakdown than many competitive communities – Primarily Black and Hispanic • Arcade space/urban space has influence on community’s public behavior
  43. 43. It Goes With Everything • http://youtu.be/4qwKCQ4M2Nw
  44. 44. Wrap-Up • FGC has some good points – High energy, infectious at its best – Games can feel awesome/be really fun to watch • But: room for strategy too, not just reflexes
  45. 45. Wrap-Up • HOWEVER: – Obsession with balance/meritocracy – Overwhelmingly hegemonically masculine playerbase – Defensiveness vs. other gaming communities (especially e-sports) • All of the above encourage bad, exclusionary community behaviors – Especially to those viewed as outsiders • ESPECIALLY to women
  46. 46. Wrap-Up • Community espouses idea of “anyone who wants to can come and play” just like in the arcades • Hopefully community will start to grow up and put that idea into practice
  47. 47. Thanks for coming!