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.

Round 1: Normal Moves

Pressing the same button twice gets different results

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Before I go on, I want to make it clear that the following examples are not meant to put Rising Thunder down. On the contrary, I am having quite a lot of fun with it. Rather, I want to contrast its design decisions with decisions made by other games that were also meant to reduce barriers to entry. Each of these games has succeeded and stumbled in its own right, and by examining them next to each other, we can come to a better understanding of the fighting game learning process and what steps we need to take to design a more accessible fighting game.

For example, Street Fighter’s special moves are frequently criticized as being too difficult to execute, but rarely do we examine its normal moves. Conventional wisdom says these moves are simple to do: press a button and they happen. But Street Fighter characters sometimes use different attacks depending on how close they are to the opponent, and these attacks can differ greatly. Some are cancelable and some aren’t. Some have large and disjointed hitboxes, some don’t. Some are safe on block, and some open you up to huge punishes. How do you know what attack you are going to throw? You don’t. You just have to judge what the game considers “close.”

The same holds true in Rising Thunder. The grappler, Talos, has a close heavy attack that is a powerful, mostly safe, combo tool that chains into itself and cancels into specials. Talos’s far heavy attack, however, is a slow unsafe poke that can’t be combo’d into anything. The difference between one and the other is a few pixels of distance, and about 30% of your life in damage if his far heavy attack leaves you open. When you add command normal to the mix (attacks that are executed with a tilt of the joystick along with a button press) throwing the right normal at the right time becomes even more complicated.

Effectively, you can throw any special attack a character has at the press of a button, but you can’t throw any normal attack at the press of a button, and normals are supposed to be the bread and butter of any character’s toolset. This is partially because adding three buttons explicitly for special attacks reduces the buttons available for normals, but reducing the number of normals a character has reduces his options. Commands like the quarter circle in other games allowed you to have access to special moves without sacrificing those options.

Round 2: Combos

Needed to play, hard to learn, hidden from the player

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Let’s take a look at another non-transparent aspect of fighting games: combos. To the newbie, fighting games appear to be exchanges of single moves, but in actuality the majority of your damage is scored by stringing moves together. Think of it this way. Any time you manage to hit the opponent you have won a mind game. Combos, make your mind game wins worth more because they convert a single hit into greater damage by adding on additional hits. A player with combos will have to out-think your opponent less over the course of a match, and thus gives the opponent fewer chances to win mind games of their own.

We have come a long way in making combos easier to understand. Games like Marvel vs. Capcom and Blazblue feature simple “chain” mechanics that allow normal moves of lesser strength to combo into moves of greater strength. You know as long as you are pressing light, medium, heavy, in that order, you usually will get a combo. Games like Under Night In-Birth take this one step further and allow any normal attack to cancel into any other.

Persona 4 Arena started popularizing the “auto combo” button, which makes repeated presses of light attack perform a pre-programmed series of moves. If you are new, all you have to do is score a hit and hammer on light attack to get a decent amount of combo damage. You can always learn your own combos , but the game starts you with one to make the learning process easier. This also gives you example of how moves cancel into each other, and with small iterations on the auto-combo you will quickly learn better combos that do greater damage.

Rising Thunder does none of this. There is no simple universal cancel system. Instead, specific normals can only combo into very specific other normals via Street Fighter style “target combos.” These target combos aren’t told to the player in any way. Instead, they have to be learned in training mode. Outside of target combos, normals have to be “linked” together by timing them very precisely, sometimes within only a few frames. You can cancel normals into special moves and super moves, but only on hit or block. Even then, certain normal moves can’t be special canceled at all… and the game doesn’t tell you which ones. Meanwhile, games like Skullgirls allow you to cancel any normal you have, even when whiffed.

Cancel windows are also very short and early in the move’s execution in Rising Thunder, just as they are in Street Fighter. Since the cancel properties of moves are never told to you, it’s hard to tell whether the move you are using cannot be canceled, or if you are simply canceling it too late.

Killian says that nobody wants to grind in training for six months to learn how to throw a fireball, but grinding in training for six months to learn your combos isn’t much better.

Round 3: Dashing

A problem we already solved yet continue to reintroduce

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What about non-combat commands? Many fighting games, not just Street Fighter and Rising Thunder use the “double tap” input for their short, quick forward move. But many gamers have as much of a problem with this input as they do quarter circles. Luckily, we have a solution which we have already implemented since the days of X-Men vs Street Fighter: The Button Dash.

Button dashing is when you use face buttons (usually two attack buttons) instead of the joystick to dash. It’s one input instead of two, which makes things like dash cancels incredibly easy to do. We have seen button dashing in Marvel vs. Capcom, Skullgirls, Under Night In-Birth, and many other titles, yet modern day games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and yes, even Rising Thunder insist on forcing people to double tap. This is especially difficult for people with hand tremors, like myself, as their fingers sometimes seize up when trying to do the same horizontal joystick movement in rapid succession. The Hitbox Joystickless Arcade Stick was made specifically because motions like this, and quarter circles for that matter, are easier when done on buttons.

And let’s talk about the very concept of dash cancels for a while. This mechanic allows you to spend a resource, usually your special meter, in order to cancel whatever move you are doing into a dash. This can be used defensively by backdashing, but is more often than not used offensively, as a way to cut a move’s wind down time and return to neutral in enough time to extend your combo.

Why require dash cancels at all? Why require the dash to return to neutral? Under Night-In Birth allowed you to do something similar at the press of a single button. Sounds familiar right, turning a complex input into a single button press? Heck, why require a special button press at all? Why not just let one special or normal cancel itself into a new move automatically if you have the resources? Capturing a piece in chess doesn’t require some sort of special acrobatics. It just happens as a result of the rules and mechanics of the game. Fighting games could operate similarly.

More Complexity, Less Mechanical Transparency

The perils of innovation

None of this is to say that Rising Thunder is a bad game. On the contrary, Seth Killian is a brilliant designer, and the game is a ton of fun. However, I am saying that the game isn’t doing what it advertises. I’m enjoying the game only because I already have extensive experience in fighting games, not because it simplifies the learning process in any significant way.

In fact, it’s interesting take on the fighting game genre actually makes the genre harder to learn in many ways. Special moves are on MOBA style cooldowns which means that you can correctly respond to a jump-in with an uppercut, and your opponent can then just jump at you again, safe in the knowledge that your uppercut is now cooling down. You can’t respond correctly twice if you wanted to.

It also has a loadout system which allows you to customize your move-list, but loadouts introduce more complexity, rather than take it away. Now, you can give yourself a disadvantage in a match before it even begins by bringing the incorrect loadout into battle.

Breaking Down Barriers

Solutions to problems we haven’t solved

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So, if Rising Thunder isn’t effectively reducing fighting game barriers to entry, what can we do to solve this problem?

First, we should strive make every move and maneuver easy to perform, not just special and super moves. Use button dashing instead of double tapping. Heck, use combinations of buttons for simple commands like “throw.” Compress buttons so newbies have fewer controls to memorize. There’s no reason “super” needs to be its own button when pressing an attack and a special button together does nothing. Rising Thunder is an 8 button game! That’s a lot! Mortal Kombat isn’t much better at 7, or Street Fighter at 6. It’s actually hard for new players to memorize 8 distinct buttons. Games like Guilty Gear, Under Night-In Birth, and Virtua Fighter have created deep and complex fighting games using only 5, 4, and 3 buttons respectively.

Second, make move utility apparent. When a move has invincibility frames on it, make that clear with some sort of visual indicator. Include frame data and hitboxes in training mode (Skullgirls and Dead or Alive have already done so). Include indicators when you are getting mixed up, counter hit, or reset. All of these have been done in the past, yet, for some reason, we forget when designing something new.

We should also change the way we think of fighting game tutorials. Tutorials are more often than not ignored by new fighting game players and when we force players to utilize tutorials by, say, making them part of a single-player mode, they just get frustrated.

Instead, tutorials should be adaptive, and should be placed where the majority of the action is: Vs Mode. Ideally, the game should watch for common mistakes that you make over the course of a match and suggest tutorials that could help you when the match is over. If the game sees you getting hit by cross-ups it would suggest a tutorial on how to defend against them. If the game sees you mashing buttons, it would take you to a basic tutorial about the importance of not mashing.

Thirdly, fighting games have to be designed such that we, the players, change the way we think about them. In the early days of fighting games, knowing how to do a special move was, well, special. In the very first Street Fighter, a single hurricane kick or uppercut could deplete most of an opponent’s life. Performing one was hard, but that didn’t matter. The controls were bad enough that you couldn’t expect to get one out regularly anyway. Also, they weren’t a core part of the game! Rather, they were a secret that you could impress your friends with.

These days, special moves aren’t special, they are a necessity for even basic play. Yet we still treat them as special. We hide away their commands in move-lists that few players even reference the first time they pick up the game, or ever! We name them and shroud them in special hit effects. Everything we know about fighting game design treats these moves as optional. Perhaps that’s why so many players treat them as optional as well.

It’s like we are designing a chess set, but keeping the knights in a hidden compartment with a puzzle lock.

And finally, we should always strive to learn from the past. Many fighting games have already found interesting fixes to many of the problems plaguing the genre, and we should perhaps consider using their solutions, rather than choosing to be different at the cost of reintroducing those problems once more.

“Learn To Play, Scrub!”

First, be a better teacher

As a final note, a popular response to any designer looking to reduce the complexity of fighting games is that “players should just learn the game.” This has been the mantra of the hardcore fighting game player for ages. Having a problem dashing? Just learn how. Don’t know which moves can be canceled? Learn it in training. Can’t quarter circle? Step up to my level, scrub!

But we have been telling players to just learn for a long time, and it hasn’t been working. Instead of simply telling players to learn, we should examine how we can be better teachers. That’s exactly what Killian and the Cannon brothers are trying to do with Rising Thunder, but one button specials are only the first step in the process, the first move of the first pawn in a long and complicated game of fighting game chess.

What do you think? What would you do to make fighting games easier to learn and play? Let us know in the comments.

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