Remember how Street Fighter 2 was great because everyone could play it? Well here, at long last is where I’d like to start with some commentary on Street Fighter IV. This is Part 1 of a five part article.
Part 1: Execution
I feel my #1 problem with SFIV is the same issue I have with the development of most Vs Fighting games over the years; they seem to constantly try to increase execution complexity & usually at the same time reduce, or at least de-emphasize, other forms of complexity, that I enjoy more. You can see this on many levels in SFIV, and my previous article about complexity covered this too. David Sirlin also covered it brilliantly here and a few more related thoughts here, and an excellent interview here.
Now I’ll say right away that the level of execution needed to play at a high level in SFIV is simply too much for me – it alienates me. This wouldn’t matter so much if the game had good matchmaking and netcode that would allow me to get playable games against people on my level regularly, but it clearly doesn’t have either of these things. Ironically I main Dee Jay in HD Remix these days, a character who in fact has a fair few link combos much like SFIV’s combos, albeit with easier timing, and yet I can’t do them very efficiently even in HDR with Dee Jay. However the difference is that my inability to do these complex combos reliably doesn’t hinder me too much in HDR, whereas in SFIV it feels critical to be able to compete. Of course, despite the fact I can compete and do reasonably well in tournaments at SFII, and for what it’s worth am ranked #436 on XBL at HDR (sadly no other fighting games have non-broken ranking systems to compare!), I’m clearly a sucky n00b/scrub that has to STFU because I can’t do a FADC into Ultraaaa!!!!!11, so, let’s look at who can. At the time of writing I have the full 100 people on my XBL Friends List. These vary across a wide spectrum of players from ‘casual’ gaming friends to hardcore fighting game tournament players. Now one of the “friends” on my FL is actually just a holding account for XBL European HDR players, so I’ll ignore that one, but also include myself for a sample of exactly 100 players.
Played SFIV an Over-Average Amount, based on Achievements: 55 (55% of Friends List)
Got “Proof of Battle” Achievement: 38 (69% of Over-Average Players)
Got “Technical Fighter” Achievement: 13 (24% of Over-Average Players, 34% of those with “Proof of Battle”)
Got “No Challenge Too Hard” Achievement: 2 (4% of Over-Average Players, 5% of those with “Proof of Battle”)
Average Achivements Unlocked on SFIV (based on mygamercard.net figures) = 158.41
“Proof of Battle” Achievement = Play 500 Xbox LIVE battles. (Ranked match or player match)
“Technical Fighter” Achievement = Clear NORMAL Trial in Challenge Mode.
“No Challenge Too Hard” = Clear HARD Trial in Challenge Mode.
The best figure for me to illustrate my point is that only about a 1/3 of players on my FL who took to SFIV seriously enough to play over 500 battles online could even get the ‘Normal’ level Achievement in training mode for doing combos. And don’t forget, you just have to do a combo once ever for it to count for this Achievement, this doesn’t actually count getting good enough to use them reliably in competitive play. Unfortunately I can’t get any statistics on how these players manage to do execution-wise in “real fights” so to speak – this is all just indicators. Whilst there are many possible explanations behind this data (people didn’t enjoy doing the combo mode so didn’t even try?), however you spin it, it’s still incredibly obvious that what Capcom considers “Normal” really isn’t normal at all.
So SFIV execution is too hard for me, and the majority of my FL it seems. But then, are many other players fine with this anyway? Am I actually in some kind of tiny minority here? Were (are?) there lots of original Street Fighter 2 players sitting around saying – you know what, this game is good, but it’s just too darn easy to play. I can execute every move & combo perfectly every time, what would be better was if it was much harder to do the moves. (And if these players existed, I’d hope they were entering and winning every single tournament around to prove how easy it was!), or do a lot more players perhaps feel like, say Chris Bateman here:
“I can’t handle fighting games at all, mostly because of the complexity of the control space. I like a game which gives me a small number of atomic actions and asks me to use them well, not a game that requires me to memorise/learn a complex control scheme”
Think back to when you first played Street Fighter (whichever version). Were people complaining about it being too darn easy to do a 3-hit combo with Ryu and Ken, or were they marvelling every time someone did something like a 2-in-1 combo or a Spinning Pile Driver with Zangief?
When it comes to the sales figures for mass market games, only two fighting games even enter the picture -
Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (SNES) – 6.3 million
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Wii) – 8.43 million
Super Smash Bros. Melee(GameCube) – 7.09 million
So it makes me wonder why Street Fighter, which had it’s most commercial success in the title with the simplest control method continues to add more and more execution complexity with every iteration? (with only a single exception – SSF2T HD Remix). Sales figures for XBL titles are much harder to come by, but it’s well known fact that Street Fighter 2 Hyper Fighting, also one of the easiest SF games to control – in fact easier than HD Remix (no complex super motions) is one of the top selling games on XBox Live Arcade, and HD Remix also sold very well.
What really gets me annoyed though, is that the promoters of Street Fighter IV do seem to realise the fact that most people would prefer simpler controls, and SFIV was repeatedly marketed as “welcoming to newcomers” and to offer “easier execution” – which actually only translated to easier reversal timing & easier to do dragon punches – when the vast majority of the game was about far harder execution. It’s pretty obvious why they don’t actually dare say the truth that this game is similar to SF2, except if you want to be able to do a max damage combo, you’d better be a twitch-stick-skills-demon or practice to attempt to train your muscle-memory for years. So instead they gloss over it and, well, blatantly lie about it. Seth Killian even talks directly about execution barriers here (in SFIII) and doesn’t make any connection that SFIV is really almost as far in the wrong direction here:
Another great tidbit I first noticed from a podcast at Gamer’s Corner here, was that (late in their Sirlin interview) they point out that nowhere in any of the instructions in-game or out of game in the actual manual, does it ever describe what a link combo is. Yet they are there in the “Normal” Challenge Mode, and expected for a player to do them, without any knowledge as to how if they don’t go and search around on the internet as well. The other great point made in this interview is how much worse these link combos end up being in the already pretty dodgy netcode in SFIV.
Now success and popularity can be measured in many other ways, and aren’t the only thing you might be aiming for in a game anyway, and there are clearly a lot of gamers that do enjoy SFIV. It’s the most popular fighting game around right now (other than Smash) yet I still worry that it’s essentially yet another game that spells a pinball-like dead end for fighting games.
“Eventually, to keep the pinballers playing, the games became so advanced that entry-level players faced an impossible barrier.”
And I also wonder how much more successful SFIV would be if it retained some of its flashy crowd-pleasing effects, graphics, characters and yet had simpler execution requirements more similar to those of SFII. What’s also worrying for SFIV is that even for the hardcore experienced players who actively love all of the execution difficulty buried within it, there’s still very little new going on in SFIV, and so they might very well prefer to stick with SFIII 3rd Strike, Marvel Vs Capcom 2, Guilty Gear, KOF, Arcana Heart or whatever other fighter they were playing.
To be fair, you definitely do want some level of execution complexity to make a fighting game fun. In summary ‘doing combos’, or literally just hitting buttons, gives a kind of fun to players – in fact it’s the sole game element of a huge number of ‘rhythm action‘ games! I talked about this a lot more in execution flow before, the trouble is it’s very hard to change this ‘difficulty’ setting within a fighting game for different players. You could attempt to do it with different characters, or with “Easy Modes”, like Capcom Vs SNK 2 EO (“Easy Operation”) on the XBox – yet I’ve never seen a successful attempt at this in a fighting game. Almost all characters are reasonably equally hard to play well (not necessarily win with) at a high level, and most ‘EO’ style modes don’t work because they are either too limiting to use -eg. throwing out semi-random special moves, or actually too advantageous, eg. auto-guarding in between any missed attack, to use competitively, and thus they are relegated to the realm of a training mode, rather than the game proper.
There’s also a few more arguments about having difficult execution, that I saw summed up well in this thread over on sirlin.net.
“There is a case to be made for button inputs that are longer than just “press one button,” because they force you to start thinking about your move a little ahead of time.” – Robyrt
However I’d argue that if you just want to force a time delay, you can instead make the whole move itself have more of a delay, or more ‘startup frames’ perhaps. That way it would take the same amount of time to do for every player, not just those with excellent execution can do it ‘fast’ and the others can’t. Again, it all comes down to what skills you want to test in a game.
However the underlying point that I think is being made here, is that execution limits can actually make a decision matrix more interesting – ie: they can prevent a game to become too “solvable”. I cannot find the reference at this time, but I know this was one of the reasons Sirlin made attacks in Kongai (a game with effectively zero execution tests) usually successful 90% or 95% of the time. I’ve written about this before as I felt it mirrored upper-mid level play in Street Fighter. The difference however in any game with any kind of execution tests is that it will tend to be unsolvable enough by its nature. For example even if a game was just to press the right button out of 4 at the perfect moment, they’ll still be enough differential in players that will or won’t make mistakes, and will or won’t get the timing right; again, see any number of ‘rhythm action’ games that use this as the basis of their gameplay. Still, I think the point about execution tests potentially increasing a decision matrix stands up at all but the very highest level of play:
For example, I’ve been knocked down by Ryu and I’m ‘waking up’ with Deejay. Ryu is standing close to me, but I expect Ryu to throw a fireball for tick damage and to push me away again. I know I can block with 100% certainty, or I can go for a wakeup reversal super which will go through the fireball and kill Ryu..but I know I can only pull it off 30-40% of the time, and if I fail, I take full damage from the fireball and am in a much worse position again.
This decision matrix is a lot more interesting than if it was one button press I know I could always do either move with almost perfect timing. It would always be wakeup super! And the game would totally change as now as a good Ryu player would know to never throw that fireball. Whether this would make a better game or not is another matter entirely…! Note there would still be a valid mindgame here even if both players could do either move perfectly, as the DeeJay player wouldn’t want to waste his super move on a Ryu he was sure was going to block it… so knowing this Ryu may actually want to throw the fireball, as he doesn’t suspect DeeJay will use the super now. Yomi layers everywhere again. (This is exactly why Kongai works as a game in it’s own right, even with no execution tests).
Remember though that these % execution tests are individual to each player. At the very top level of play every single player will be tending very close to 100% execution anyway. Although in games like Street Fighter IV or III, you can argue that the execution level needed is so high, that, under pressure, even the top players in the world make enough mistakes that the decisions are not so clear cut. However once again, this all just leads to a game that tests your execution skills way more than your strategic or tactical skills, as its impossible to calculate these odds that you can do a move in a given circumstance until you try – and if you know its the right thing to do and try but fail, obviously it wasn’t your decision making that failed you!
As a side-musing, it’s interesting to consider why a game might want to test certain skills over others. Most people have some preconceptions about what skills a videogame should test, but there’s actually an enormous scope. For example what about a competitive Wii game which required such physical skills that actual Olympic Athletes were the best at it?
I think personally whenever I can’t perform the main viable & important moves in a videogame at least over 50% of the time, then the execution barrier becomes “too high” for me to play at a high level.
As I commented here:
“It’s a matter of taste really of how much you slant towards the more strategic side of making the optimal decision(s) and the execution side of making it hard to actually perform those decisions – and even take decisions away from players of lesser skills, so they might know what they want to do, yet can’t do it.”
However as I’ve discussed many times here on Agoners, you could also completely ‘fix’ an online videogame for this problem simply by having a wide range of skills in a playerbase and by using good matchmaking. For example I think Street Fighter III: Third Strike is actually an excellent game at my medium level of play at it – but there’s no readily available way for me to find and play against people at my skill level. At least there’s still a small hope that Super Street Fighter IV might manage something along these lines. But the combo system certainly won’t be changed. Should Street Fighter be about really high execution complexity (eg. El-Fuerte’s infinite combo), or is that akin to asking someone to “juggle 5 balls whilst playing chess”? I guess most people’s opinion tends to be determined by how much you enjoy the chess part vs the juggling part.
To be Continued in Part 2…