Sunday, August 10, 2008

Next-gen Fighters and the Flow of Combat pt.1

Soul Calibur 4. Street Fighter 4. Virtual Fighter 5. Mortal Kombat 8. GuiltyGearXX Accent Core. All of these games have a few things in common. They're all fighters that have iterated on core gameplay of their series that was established in the last few generations of video gaming. The fighting game genre supports some of the most devoted, skilled, and competitive players around. "Playing to win" is a popular mindset for such players. Unlike traditional single player games where players are given advantages and superior abilities over computer controlled enemies that could never substitute for intelligent opponents, in a fighting game players are pitted against players each

I believe this same "do anything to win" attitude has created vocal groups of supporters that have essentially held back many fighting games from truly evolving. I understand where this resistant to change attitude comes from. For most fighters, becoming competent requires digesting an encyclopedia worth of data. If a sequel to a beloved fighting game completely changed things up, players would have to absorb another encyclopedia worth of data. Unfortunately, by making small changes to to the sequels of these fighting games, old design choices and philosophies are carried over and cemented into newer and newer generations.

While many think it's cool to finally be able to play Soul Calibur 4 online via their next-gen console (Xbox360/PS3), I couldn't help but feel like I was playing an updated Dreamcast game. Some would argue that it's the little changes that have a big impact on the way the game is actually played on a detailed level. But I'm not arguing about changes in the metagame across sequels. My point is the design decisions and mechanics at the core of such fighters could be designed better to create a cleaner playing experience for all types of players. Adhering to the tenet of form fits function, tightening mechanics, increasing depth while reducing unnecessary complexities, and reducing clutter are always ways to improve upon any game series.

A true next-gen fighting game wouldn't simply add more features to a previous game or like so many games, try and copy street fighter. A true next-gen fighting game would look at fighting in a new way inspired by the breakthroughs, trends, and new technologies of the times. Last generation (GameCube, PS2, Dreamcast, Xbox) we gained the experience, and technology to to render detailed 3D graphics in real time. Along with these graphics, combined physics interactions so that models can interact accurately and realistically. It's a shame that Street Fighter 4 changed their hit detection system from using the 3D models to using invisible 2D hit boxes.

I didn't have to look far for the game that I consider the most next-gen fighter. Super Smash Brothers. The first entrant into this series on the N64 simply set the foundation. For an N64 era fighter, Super Smash Brothers was still unlike any other. But, the two sequels together make up the core of what I consider to be the Super Smash Brothers fighting engine. And it is this engine that I will refer two for the remainder of this article.

The following is a collection of the next-gen design features that make up up the core of the Super Smash Brothers engine. While some games have implemented some of these features, none come close to the number that Smash Brothers holds.

  • Simplified controls/inputs. Unlike other fighting games that feature pages and pages of moves for each character that are often composed complex inputs, the moves in smash are composed of at most one direction and one button at at time. The simple controls reduce the core complexity of the game.
  • Rumble Support. Unlike every arcade fighting cabinet and most fighters on consoles, Smash Brothers utilizes force feedback. In a well designed game like Smash Brothers, force feedback has a more useful function than simply providing a more immersive gaming experience. Because the controller rumbles when being pressured from enemy attacks, the player receives an additional source of information to help them time and calculate their next moves. Essentially, the rummble feature is like having an extra set of eyes locked to your character that allows the player's eyes to focus on other parts of the screen.
  • Analog Controls. Most serious fighting game players prefer to use the D-pad or an arcade stick. Unfortunately, the D-pad and the arcade stick are like keyboard arrow eyes. They can only be on or off. And what's more unfortunate is that fighters continue to be designed around these digital controllers. Since the N64, the degree of control over character movement achieved the next-gen leap with the analog stick. Smash Brothers utilizes a wide range of analog controls.
    • For moving, players can tip toe, walk, power walk, and dash all by moving the analog stick different degrees at different speeds.
    • While shielding, players can shift and adjust the position of their shield using the soft and slight movements of the analog stick.
    • In the air, players can move forward and backwards with the same high degree of analog control.
      • The analog movement combined with attacks from the air and on the ground make the attacks analog. Unlike games like Soul Calibur where moves are designed to be jumping, stepping, tracking, or side stepping as well as high, med, or low, in Smash movement is independent from the attack animations. This allows players to adjust the timing and spacing of their attacks using the secondary analogy movement mechanics.
  • Move-input categorization. In Smash, the simple inputs allow moves to be put into clear intuitive categories based on function. There are attacks with the A button, and attacks with the B combined with the four cardinal directions. What's useful about the simple controls is that all the A attacks input directions reflect their function. In other words, if you want to do an up attack, hit up and A. If you want to do a forward attack, hit forward and A. Even the special or B attacks are organized in general categories. This categorization couple with simple inputs allows players to quickly learn the moves of different characters as well as react to dynamically changing situations. If an opponent is approchcing from directly above you, chances are holding up and hitting either attack button will result in some kind of attack in the upward direction.

What it Means to Fight
  • Platformer/Fighter. Smash Brothers is a fighting game that is set in the world of a platforming game, a unique design decision mostly likely inspired by the 2D Mario platforming games. Smashing through the limitations created from 2D stages with invisible walls, the stages in Smash are set floating in the middle of large rings. On these stages are platforms that players can fight on, over, or underneath. Now players can fight on the ground, up on top of platforms, on the edges of the stage, in the air, and even underneath the stage. Smash defines a fight as something that can happen in all directions at any time.
  • The only way to win is with a ring out. Unlike every other fighter, in Smash the player can never be killed by sustaining damage alone. The only way to take out the opponent is by knocking them out through the extremities of the stage.
    • This design gives moves a dual design purpose.
    • Because players must knock opponents off the stage to kill, it's important to properly use strong attacks when the opponent is at a high damage %. Smash attacks generally do the trick. Some characters have killing throws and/or air attacks. These moves are known as "kill moves."
    • In other fighters, whittling down the opponent's health is the only way to win. Because racking up damage is a means to an end, pokes, projectiles, and other low commitment attacks develop into effective and shallow strategies. In Street Fighter 2 Turbo, players can effectively trap opponents against the sides of a stage wtih a succession of projectiles.
    • Having to always knock your opponents off the stage to win opens up the effective strategies for a variety of attacks and set ups. I developed as a part of my Kirby style in Melee. the most number of killing strategies without doing a single point of damage. By using strong stage positioning, and aggressive-defensive techniques, I was able to fight without fighting so to speak.
  • Everything is variable and dynamic. In Smash, the attack strengths and player positions are determined by many factors.
    • stage (edges, platforms, hazards, stage transformations)
    • characters (attacks, damage %, stale-move negation, size, weight, air control)
    • positioning: the exact pose or position of the players down to small details like character footing.
  • Visually based fighter. Most of the information needed to play effectively can be deduced from the games visuals. This includes hit boxes, tech jumps, lag animations, general knock back trajectories, and move strength. If you want to know how strong a move is, just look at how far/quickly the target flies away after landing the attack. Smash plays like how it looks. Unlike games like Soul Calibur where there's a disconnect between a move's animation and its strength (damage dealt)/properties (high mid low), if a move looks like it hits low, it hits low. In other words, form fits function.
  • Commitment. The animation system creates natural pauses in the player's offense and defense. When players land on the ground while doing attacks, they go through specific recovery animations that prevent the player doing doing anything else. Moves don't instantly cancel back into the neutral player state like in Street Fighter. Adding commitment animations and durations to the attacks helps create the flow of combat.
  • The flow of combat is created in part by mechanics that generate push-pull gameplay. In general, stronger attacks require more of the player whether it's charge time, meter consumption, revving up animation, or cool down/recovery animation. The strategies that are available to the player take into account the vulnerability that comes with these moves.
    • Interplay. Interplay is composed of back and forth counters between two game elements. In the case of Smash, just about every move/attack has some level of interplay.
      • Directional Influence (DI). In Smash players can influence the direction their character travels after being hit to try and push themselves into less dangerous positions.
      • Priority of attacks. Unlike most other fighters, the Smash engine allows for most attacks to interact with each other. If two players punch, swing, or kick at each other and their attack animations meet (match blows), both attacks are stopped and the players return to their neutral state at equal frame advantage. This property exists for most ground attacks as well as most projectiles.
        • Ground attacks can match blows with other ground attacks.
        • Air attack with either win or lose the priority battle against other air/ground based attacks.
        • All attacks can match blows with thrown items (except explosive items).
        • The duration of attack animations also determine the priority of attacks. Stopping a smash attack with a jab is possible, but very risky because the jab animation after matching blows will pull straight back while some smash attacks may continue to move after matching blows.
  • Little to no auto moves or auto combos. In Smash, there are no simple strategies/move strings that are guaranteed combos because there are too many factors that determine the stun, knock back, and position of the attacked player let alone the condition and position of the attacker. Even the standard combo that Sakurai mentioned on his blog isn't a true combo. There are several factors and variables involve in the possible interactions to create holes in this "combo."
  • Stale-move negation. In Smash, moves weaken when used in succession. The moves not only do less damage, but the knock back on the opponent is reduced to a fraction of it's original strength. Think of it as if the character's limbs get tired from repeatedly using their muscles in the same way without resting. To give the "muscles" a break, players have to land other moves on their opponent. This design element is significant to keep players from only using their strongest or most effective attacks only.

MISC. Design Elements
  • CHARGE mechanic. I've already written about the genius of the CHARGE mechanic. Smash is designed with a variety of CHARGE like moves.
    • Some special attacks can be charged and then released.
    • All Smash attacks can be charged.
    • Many air attacks have start up animation before the actual attack comes out. If the character lands on any platform/surface before the start up time is complete, the attack doesn't come out. In this way, some air attacks have to have adequate falling time (charge time) before they activate.
  • Fighting Stances. Because Smash is an analog fighter where attacks and hazards can approached from any direction and hit any part of the character's body, every move the player makes changes their fighting stance. It's important to note that all of these stances are natural extensions of the normal gameplay created from the simple controls and precise attack calculations.
    • Many fighters automatically face both players at each other. But in Smash, players are free to use a forward facing stance or a backward facing stance at any time. Because the attack animation accurately represent their hit boxes, the uses of attacks changes depending on which way the character is facing. Ducking is another stance that reduces the character's vertical space and limits them to low tiling attacks. Personally, I used a variety of stances in Melee, I used Kirby's backward stance for my offense, ducking stance for defense, and neutral stance to mix up my other two stances. Brawl added crawling, gliding, and wall clinging stances to Smash.
    • Players can also use specific attacks to change their stances. Kirby's inhale attack is a stance that players can hold. Holding the charge on smash attacks are also stances because of how they change the character's pose while limiting their defensive and offensive options. Yoshi and Captain Falcon's forward smash rear backward before crashing forward. By charging these smash attacks, players can dodge incoming attacks and take advantage of small openings in their opponents defenses.
    • Holding an item is another stance. While holding an item, players can't grab. Depending on the item, the players attacks may be swapped out for a new set of attacks. Grab the beam saber, and many of the player's A attacks are swapped with saber attacks. Dropping the stance is a simple as dropping the item.
  • Nintendo Forms. Smash is a game that is filled to the brim with Nintendo characters, history, and nostalgia. More often than not, animations and attack functions can be traced back to older Nintendo games. Keeping true to the cannon/lore/fiction of Nintendo helps define the form of Smash. In this way, form fits function relies on the history of Nintendo's game to connect to the game's multitudinous functions .
  • Limited clutter.
    • Limited use of invincible frames. Fighters generally give players invincible frames in situations so they don't get completely run over by their opponent. From Street Fighter, to Marvel vs. Capcom, to Soul Calibur, fighters usually give invincible frames to players that are getting up off the ground. Unfortunately, many fighters artificially hamper attacks to prevent players from easily juggling their opponents. In Smash, invincible frames are use sparingly, and because attacks are so dynamic, the core design didn't need to artifically hamper player attacks.
    • Limited use of flashy attacks and excessive graphics. The core of Smash follows "form fits function" very closely. Because the function of moves/attacks can be inferred from the game's visuals, there is no room for excessive graphics and flashy animations. Fighers like GuiltyGearXX, Marvel vs. Capcom 2, and Soul Calibur feature character animtations and attack forms that are often muddled and even swallowed up by visual effects. Though the colored tracers on the Soul Calibur weapons helps players understand how the attacks move through 3D space, it would make a cleaner game if the tracers weren't needed.
    • Limited use of cancels. Move commitment helps create a natural give-take, push-pull style gameplay that makes up the flow of combat. In general, attempting a more powerful move is a greater risk than attempting a weaker move. Usually, the risk involved with stronger attacks consists of leaving yourself open to attack. When fighers employ CANCEL mechanics, this is essentially a destructive move that works against the form and commitment of moves which, in turn, disrupts the flow of combat. After all, why wouldn't a player choose to remove the shortcomings and weakness of their moves if they had a choice. When moves function according to their forms, then adding a CANCEL mechanic would be an abstract addition.
  • Limited abstract mechanics: Smash only features a damage meter which is basically player heath. Stock, time, points, and coins are score keeping devices rather than mechanics that influence gameplay. Many other fighters incorporate abstract mechanis like super meters, tension meters, and guard meters. Depending on the game, these meters can be filled up in a variety of ways that aren't necessarily connected to the mechanics and forms of their gameplay.
  • 3D Hit boxes. Even though Smash is a 2D fighter, the stage and character models are rendered in 3D. In order to keep a tight relationship between the 3D forms and their 2D functions, Smash calculates its hit boxes in 3D. This allows for the player to understand the nature of moves in 3D but then apply them to a simpler scenario by playing in a 2D space.

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