Fighting games are killing fighting games again

In the early 2000's fighting games died. The serious fighting game players had their 2 titles they adored: Marvel vs Capcom 2 and Street Fighter 3. Both very hard to pick up, a very very steep learning curve, but also very very rewarding for skilled players. And so they played with their gems for years. All by themselves, while everybody else abandoned fighting games.

Until 2009, when Street Fighter 4 revived the fighting game genre. While modernising a nearly dead genre it was also a throwback to earlier days, back to Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter 2 was the birth of the genre. It pitted fighters from around the globe against each other, with great visuals and a great soundtrack. But it wasn't the presentation that punched it's way into the hearts of every player, but the mechanics.

6 Buttons; 3 punches, 3 kicks with different strenghts and attributes. Light attacks were faster, but did less damage. Hard attacks were the opposite. That alone introduced a tactical element into fighting that wasn't present. On top of that the game featured special attacks that required more than simple button presses. But even without special attacks it was playable. And when you got better, you learned how to use special attacks and incorporated them into your gameplay. And thanks to a bug in SF2 linking attacks was possible and combos were born.

Those are the basics known to all and by now a staple of fighting games. But fighting games developed in the direction of longer combos, more mechanics. Hardcore fans would delve into combo possibilites and the different mechanics, but for everybody else it just got harder and harder to pick up a game and just have fun with it. When you fought against a more experienced player in SF2, you know what he was doing, well, somewhat. Atleast you could understand it. In Marvel vs Capcom 2 you got air juggled, DHCed, put into unblockables and you got a presentation of things you couldn't comprehend. What? He was doing wha? Wait..

And that's how fighting games have been for a long time. Until SF4 brought it back; everybody could pick it up and play it like SF2. They introduced new mechanics too, they added Ultras and the Focus Attack, but you could have fun playing against your buddies without them.

In total SF4 has, next to the original staple of mechanics, a super meter(that is mainly used to boost your special attacks by making them into EX attacks), Ultras(which pretty much replaced ultras and gave a rewarding cinematic) and the Focus Attack(that can be used to break through another player's block, while swallowing one hit/for more advanced players it's a way to cancel moves). That's around 3 mechanics on top of the different strenghts, a healthbar, high/low block and special attacks. When listed it sounds like a lot of mechanics, but easy to understand even for newcomers.

After successfully boosting new life into fighting games Capcom felt confident in giving the hardcore fighting game players what they wanted: Marvel vs Capcom 3.

You chose 3 characters who face off 1v1 against the enemies 3 characters. When one character gets KO'd, another one comes in. While waiting for their turn they can assist the point character with attacks. Instead of Street Fighter's timing based link system, attacks can be chained easily, which help the incredible long combos that are possible. You can also block and combo in the air. Next to your healthbar you have a supermeter and you tag another character in by doing 2 supers in succession. And there is more.

It's flashy, bright, colourful, it has the Marvel brand and it's famous superheroes and it has Capcom's own popular characters. But to Capcom's surprise it didn't sell very well.

Still on the high from SF4's success the SF4 team was allowed to bring the 2 most successful fighting game franchises together: Street Fighter and Tekken.

Capcom merged both games mechanics, adding to the basic formula a tag gameplay, in which every player choses 2 characters that face off 1v1, but if one character gets KO'd the round is over, and Tekken-like airjuggles are possible. And combos are now easier and can be extended a lot longer. On top of that they introduced Cross Assault, Cross Rush, Pandora-Mode, Gems(Boost, Assist), Super Charge, Switch Cancelling, Cross Art, rolling after wakeup and Launcher. For newcomers they made comboing easier with ABC combos, but they can't be cancelled into a normal special attack, only EX-Attacks or supers.

Street Fighter x Tekken didn't sell well either. The game that finally brought the 2 most successful fighting game franchises together was no success. Some people might blame the poor marketing(like the embarrassing nightmare of a reality show Cross Assault) and the locked away content(Capcom just now discovered DLC for themselves and don't know how to handle it). Both were handled awfully, but I don't think the poor sale results of both MvC3 and SFxT can be blamed on external factors. There are enough people who don't care about that, because it's a videogame. If people enjoy it, they buy it and external arguments will not stop them.

I think the same thing is killing fighting games that killed them 10 years ago. SF4 brought in a massive new group of followers, while MvC3 and SFxT is aimed at a much smaller group.

Incredible long combos and complicated mechanics are killing fighting games. There are people who enjoy both and that group has been catered to for years. But a fighting game that you can just pick up and that doesn't require a giant bulk of knowledge to enjoy, while also offering a depth for anyone willing to explore is incredibly rare. Infact so rare it's nearly non-existant.

A fighting game has to be rewarding for both beginners and experts. It has to be easy to get into and pull you in, so you want to improve. And every step should be rewarding. SF4 offered that. SFxT pretends to be easy for newcomers with ABC combos, but in the end it's counterproductive. It's important for beginners to have a hard kick that smashes in the face of the opponent. People shouldn't have to memorise a long succession of button inputs to do damage. They want raw damage with little effort. And I have to say, I like raw damage too! I enjoy predicting when someone might try to escape my Bison pressure and kick him in the face, when he tries to jump out. BAM! 10% of the healthbar is gone. By now I can do complicated combos too, but the excecution itself isn't satisfying. Outsmarting the opponent is.

SFxT isn't willing to give that reward. A hard kick does less than 10% damage and thanks to the tag nature of the game you have to do more than 1500 damage in the end it might just be 5% or less of the damage required to end the match. If a beginner plays against an experienced player in SF4 he will do 10% or even up to 20% with a hard attack or jump in sweep. The experienced player does a 15-25% combo. Ofcourse the experienced player is still in the advantage, because his combos are easier to place and his damage output is slightly higher(plus experience means a lot in fighting games). If a beginner plays against an experienced player in SFxT he will do 9% or even up to 18% with a hard attack, jump in sweep or an ABC combo. The experienced player does a 30-40% combo.

And I have the feeling like hardly anyone realises that. SFxT has a lot of problems that need to be adressed, but even if it becomes a game that gets the seal of approval by the Fighting Game Community, it still isn't a good game. The opinions I read are that people are either afraid it's made too easy for new players(what) and might give them comeback possiblities(like X-Factor or Ultra) or that it's too defensive(some people just want to hit buttons and hate blocking). Neither are the real problem.

Capcom redintroduced complicated fighting games with very steep learning curves, but this time they added ABC combos as a mean of accessibility. The only thing ABC combos are doing is to acustom new players with 3 button presses. They don't pull them in, they lock them out of the real game. And the steep curve remains.

If fighting games want to survive, we need more games like SF4. I'm not saying games like MvC3 shouldn't exist(they should), I'm saying fighting games cater to a small group, while ignoring a big portion of players. The most successful fighting game saleswise was Mortal Kombat 9. Not only nostalgia and violence helped it succeed, also simple mechanics. Everybody can play it. It doesn't offer the kind of depth that gives it the legs to stay alive in the FGC, but it does a lot of other things right(like a proper single player story mode).

Street Fighter 4 isn't the perfect fighting game. Like every game it has flaws. But it does things right that Capcom has done wrong since. It seems like they don't learn from their success. I just hope they learn from their mistakes. If Street Fighter 5 is introduced with ABC combos and Gems we will have to wait another 10 years until somebody realises that they should go back to scratch and go back to simplicity.

I have other gripes with fighting games, but this one seems the most obvious one everybody keeps missing in my opinion.

If a developer decides to make a simple fighting game, that also offers the depth for experienced players, good balance(SSF4AEv2012/KOF13 balance would be good enough) and a well made campaign that is more than intro movie, fights, end movie(the arcade experience), and maybe even a good tutorial, I will throw so much money at them. SO MUCH MONEY! But until then we are looking at another demise of fighting games.