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Rising Thunder - How We Learn Fighting Games and Why It's a Problem

Angelo M. D'Argenio | 1 Sep 2015 19:30
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There is a problem with fighting games. People aren't playing them. I don't mean that copies of Street Fighter IV are gathering dust on gamers' shelves. I mean that, even when most gamers are sitting in front of a fighting game, pressing buttons, and trying to defeat their friends, they aren't playing the game in a meaningful way.

Hadou-Can or Hadou-Can't - Can you throw a fireball?

For evidence, look no further than the humble fireball. A simple motion, quarter circle forward followed by a button, is something that many gamers are incapable of doing on command. But in any high level fighting game match, fireballs, dragon punches, and far more complex special moves, are used every few seconds. Being unable to perform these motions locks a player out of important tools that are necessary to play the game the way it was balanced and designed.

Enter Rising Thunder, the latest project from former Capcom designer Seth Killian and the Cannon brothers, organizers of EVO, the world's biggest fighting game tournament, and creators of fighting game netcode GGPO. Currently in alpha, Rising Thunder takes the traditional fighting game input scheme and simplifies it to drastic degrees. The game has three normal attack buttons (light, medium, and heavy attack,) and three special attack buttons, which allow you perform special moves like fireballs with a single button press. Throws are mapped to another button, and supers are mapped to another.

There are no motions in this game whatsoever. Supposedly, everyone can do everything that a character can do the first time they try the character out. Rising Thunder's purpose is to reduce the barrier of entry to fighting games while still providing a deep and engaging experience. But does it succeed? Is it even approaching this age old fighting game problem in the right way?

Chess and Mechanical Transparency

Is Chess without knights really Chess?

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To answer that question, we first have to look at what makes fighting games fun in the first place. Killian has described the genre as "high-speed chess" where the primary goal is to out-think the opponent. Every exchange of attacks is a battle of wits, as you use the correct attacks that counter your opponent's attacks and keep you safe at the same time. Players use spacing and pressure to force the opponent's hand and put them in a disadvantageous position. Yes, your eventual goal is to deplete the opponent's life-bar, but the meat of the game is how you get past his defenses. When you think about it that way, it does sound more like chess then the button-mashing fest that is the popular perception of the genre.

Killian then asks us to imagine a game of chess where your opponent says something like "I'm a player who really doesn't know how to use the knights, so I just let them sit there." Most people would say this opponent doesn't actually know how to play chess, but this is exactly what people are doing when they say "I play fighting games but I can't throw a fireball." They aren't playing the game because they can't use all the pieces.

If chess was designed in a way that made you unable to move a knight until you played a certain amount of games, we would say it lacked "mechanical transparency." The mechanics of the game are obfuscated by the game itself, until you pass a certain barrier. Similarly, when the method to throw a fireball is too complex for a player, the mechanics of the fireball are obfuscated by the game. The player doesn't know how and when they should use the fireball because they can't even perform the move in the first place; they can't even touch the piece.

But input complexity is only one aspect of fighting games that leads to a lack of mechanical transparency. There are tons of other mechanics, from combos, to mix-ups, to simple move utility, that are hidden from the player, and not necessarily behind an execution barrier! When the player doesn't understand how or why to use these mechanics, all he can do is mash buttons and hope something works, and that is where button-mashing comes from.

This is where Rising Thunder stumbles. It tells you how knights work and sends you off to capture the king, but we still don't know how bishops, rooks, and the queen work. On the surface, Rising Thunder seems a simpler game due to its one button specials, but at its core it shares many of its systems with Street Fighter, and with them, many of its barriers to entry.

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