Accessibility and Complexity in Fighting Games

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Accessibility and Complexity in Fighting Games

Posted by CJ Wilson

7 Jun, 2021


I’ve written about fighting games more than once, and I’m a huge fan of the genre. Thanks to its increasing popularity and the surge of new fighting games, its future looks more exciting every day.

Part of that future will involve making the genre more accessible to new players. Although some titles, like Tekken, are intuitive enough for anyone to pick up quickly and start to play, others can be frustrating for new players. One obstacle is the necessity of getting used to fast-paced strategy and tactics. Another is the fact that a newbie must compete with players who have a lot more experience.

However, the most persistent hurdle is the difficulty of inputting direction. Fighters are notoriously difficult for newcomers, simply because it’s so hard to get your fingers to input the inputs with sufficient speed and precision. Doing so is hard enough when trying to input a basic combination with solid timing and spacing; it’s doubleplus hard  when we get into command inputs. Especially for 2D fighters, command inputs are a staple of the fighting game genre. Generally, they consist of motions with the d‑pad, left stick, or whatever else you use to move, with an attack button tacked on at the very end. (Pro tip: the best time to press the attack button is usually at the very last point of the movement input, just as you let go.)

These command inputs come in a wide variety, and they are used in conjunction with difficult combos. Proficiency doesn’t come easy, and newbies can become frustrated when it’s a struggle to get their character to do even basic movements.

Pros vs Newbies

The fighting game industry is aware of the problem. Although some developers say “screw it” and stick to worrying about their input-savvy original fanbase, others have been experimenting with ways to lower input difficulty and make games more accessible to new players.

The problem is that lowering input difficulty takes some of the fun of the game for many longtime players, who thrive on the challenge. Lowering input difficulty can also lower a game’s skill ceiling, i.e., the limits to what an extremely skilled player can accomplish. Worse, these changes can also decrease the flexibility of the game and the options available to players. If developers aren’t careful, they wind up attracting newbies at the cost of making their game too shallow to keep long-time fighters and pro players entertained for very long. An excess of accessibility was a major criticism of Street Fighter V.

Let’s look at three ways fighting game developers make their games more accessible to players, the benefits of these methods, and their downsides.

Masher Mechanics

A common and incredibly frustrating term tossed at the players of fighting games is “button masher.” The idea is that playing these games is as simple as mashing buttons and seeing what happens. Or, hell, chewing on the controller and watching pretty lights do things on the magic box.

Conferring a veneer of plausibility upon this mischaracterization is the way that some newbies limit themselves to button mashing without really knowing what they’re doing. They may wonder why pressing square seven times in a second doesn’t do anything different than pressing it once. (Hint: your character needs some time to complete the darn attack, dummy.)

Some developers, though, are exploiting this tendency. King of Fighters 14 and Dragon Ball FighterZ both include systems in which, by mashing square or triangle, your character can complete a basic but satisfying combo, complete with a special move at the end. The benefits are obvious: giving new players such an easy yet functional combo enables them to focus on learning the other elements of the game while having something to fall back on. Moreover, these combos are pretty and they are satisfying; newbies will get a dopamine rush that will draw them further into the game.

The problem is that masher mechanics are limiting and can deter players from engaging in high-level play. Having single-button combos locks out other options. You can’t switch, and the usage of a button is now dominated by this single combo. Having an easy but effective combo also makes it much riskier to try fancier, more satisfying, more effective combos. So players of middling skill end up repeating the same combo over and over. It’s easy to fall back on, and they have little motive to try anything more creative. The game quickly palls.

Increased Input Time

The explanation of this way of making games more accessible is more technical. In any fighting game, time is divided into frames, the single photos that make up the moving picture of your game displayed during discrete fractions of a second. To pull off combos, you must input certain buttons within a certain number of frames of the previous move. In old games and in new ones catering to pros, the window is super-short, and it includes the notorious one-frame link.

Increasingly, though, the size of that window is being widened by several frames.

The difference is only a fraction of a second, but it has a huge impact. Look at Street Fighter V. The window having been widened, it becomes much easier for new players to pull off cool combos without relying on button mashing. Great. The problem is that the widened windows also limit your options. If you have more time to continue a combo or input an input, then the amount of time you’re locked into that combo increases, and the game is more likely to read an input that you intended differently as a continuation of that move. To some extent, simply widening that minimum window means that the super-quick combos favored by pros are no longer even an option.

Flexible Combo Systems

A stellar example of a game with flexible combo systems is Under Night In-Birth. The game can be seen as offering a more complex approach to the masher-mechanics solution. But instead of giving you one-button combos, flexible combo systems like that of Under Night In-Birth give you a simple combo system that can be used in a myriad of ways. Let’s say you have, in this order:

  1. Light attacks.
  2. Medium attacks.
  3. Heavy attacks.
  4. Specials.

With some exceptions, a flexible combo system allows you to chain moves from one tier of the list to more moves of the same tier, or to go down the list. The key is that you can’t go up that list. Specials usually end the combo. Missing a move also ends the combo. This means that you could throw in three light attacks, then a medium attack, then a heavy attack, then a special. Or a light attack, then a heavy attack, and end it there.

Knowing that this simple system remains true across characters gives newbies the luxury of functional combos as well as the joy of creative flexibility. They can become sufficiently acclimated to the game to start doing command inputs without getting completely pounded.

This isn’t to say that Under Night In-Birth is a newbie-friendly fighter game. Other design decisions preclude that characterization. But its combo system is a great example of lowering input difficulty without sacrificing complexity.

The main problem is that the combo system can still be too complicated for newbies. Indeed, its flexibility is more likely to be exploited by pro players. Newcomers may at least be able to play the game thanks to that flexibility, but experienced fighters will use it to widen the gap between themselves and the newcomers.

Other Options

Of course, developers have other ways of lowering input difficulty that I have not mentioned, including single-button specials, solid tutorials, and entirely original fighting game mechanics like those found in ARMS. But I hope I’ve given you an idea of some of the options available to you if you want to get into fighting games but have been intimidated by those tricksy inputs.

Fear not. Developers are trying to open the door for you.


About Author

CJ Wilson

CJ Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist specializing in game writing, journalism, and non-profit work. His writing expertise includes gaming, law, nature/environmental writing, literature, and travel. As a novelist, he specializes in character-focused fantasy and sci-fi.

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