Rants & Ravings: Content, Not Controls

Hey there everyone! After a hiatus due to school and whatnot, I’m back again with a writeup on something that has always been the center of much controversy in the FGC. In fact, ever since the days of Street Fighter Alpha, people have railed against how “dumbed down” the new fighting games were getting. Yes, decades ago, the fans weren’t thrilled with making games more approachable for newcomers. We’ll look at some of the history the fans reaction to increasing the accessibility of these games and I’ll offer my opinion on what I think the ultimate solution is to accessibility.

“This game caters to noobs and is scrub friendly!” We hear sentiments such as those time and time again. We know that developers are putting in the effort to make fighting games more accessible and what that usually leads to is simplified inputs, less complicated and less gameplay mechanics, reduction of the skill ceiling and more. When Super Street Fighter 4 came out, all I read about online was how it was so easy and how Street Fighter 3: Third Strike was a much harder and more technical game. Mind you, at the time, I didn’t even know what a one-frame link was, let alone how to perform one. I didn’t know frame data and option selects. All the things that were necessary to learn in order to play the game with even a decent level of competence, I found incredibly complex and yet people were saying that SSF4 was easy. Yet, this type of attitude goes all the way back to the 90’s.

A couple of months ago, EventHubs had an article that reached back through the archives of the alt.games.sf2 news group. In this quote grab from EventHubs, it really shined light on how, as times went on, games were slightly altered to make them a bit easier to approach than the ones that came before and people weren’t exactly thrilled. “SFA2 has a lot of scrub-friendly features” and "Scrubs have a hard time doing Supers in pre Vs. SF games because of the double motions it requires and you can see them trying to do it from a mile away." I mean, hey. The more things change, the more they stay the same, after all.

Even in my relative small amount of time playing fighting games competitively, I have seen games become simplified. I’ve seen SF4 go to SF5 complete with the removal of one frame links and option selects. I’ve seen the happy accident that was Super Smash Bros. Melee and subsequently, I’ve seen the developers purposely lower the skill ceiling of Smash Bros. games. I have seen the Vs. series simplify the controls in the transition from MvC2 to MvC3. But why is all of this happening? Simply put, at the end of the day, these video game companies are businesses and their goal is to sell as many games as possible to make as much money as possible. Accessibility seems to be what these companies think will bring more sales, but if SF5 is any indication, that’s not the case. Its simplified gameplay should have brought people to the game in droves, right? WRONG.

In order to adequately assess what we are dealing with, there are two questions that need to be answered. The first question is “Is simplification of games a bad thing?” This is a hard question to answer because it’s subjective. However, I think that sometimes it’s a good decision and other times, not so much. As I mentioned in the paragraph preceding this one, Super Smash Bros. is incredibly unique because of its gameplay systems and control scheme. The barrier of entry is extremely low. Because the barrier of entry is as low as it is, it is extremely accessible to newcomers who want to fight it out as their favorite Nintendo superstar. However, Nintendo and Sakurai deliberately lowered the skill ceiling. Melee is, dare I say, beautiful because anyone can enjoy it at any level. People who don’t play video games enjoy Melee as well as people who play it competitively. The game that arguably requires the most tech skill to master is thoroughly enjoyed by people of all skill levels. Smash’s unique blend of non-traditional fighting gameplay allows it to do so. The decision by the developers to make the game more “accessible” by lowering the skill ceiling was, in my opinion, an unnecessary if not plain awful decision. Smash Bros. is probably the one game series where you could increase the skill ceiling and people would be okay with it because it doesn’t really affect low level players who play to have fun and throw items around on the screen. The situation is a little different for a more traditional title like Street Fighter.

Street Fighter has featured some pretty complex system mechanics over the years, but for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the Street Fighter 4 series and Street Fighter 5. The Street Fighter 4 series featured one-frame links and a Focus Attack system that allowed you to dash cancel out of normal or special moves. It also had option selects and proximity normals which added more layers of complexity to the game. What was really nice about the Focus Attack system was that it allowed players to add depth and creativity to their game. You could make attacks that are normally unsafe safe, you can extend combos or create and execute tricky setups. Admittedly, as a newcomer, this mechanic was particularly difficult to get the hang of because of its execution requirement. Combos were also difficult to learn because I could not understand one-frame links for a long time as well as the technique, plinking, that helps you be able to perform them with greater ease. Street Fighter 5 has some design decisions that I was pretty okay with. In my opinion, the removal of one-frame links was fine because I didn’t think they were necessary even though I had eventually become proficient in performing them. However, I did not like the V-system in lieu of the Focus Attack system. The Focus Attack system gave the Street Fighter 4 series charm and identity, things that Street Fighter 5 lack. What Capcom should have done is make the Focus Attack system easier by making it easier to perform, which is exactly what Arc System Works did with its Roman Cancel system in Guilty Gear Xrd. In addition, because Street Fighter 5 is still a traditional fighting game, it is arguably just as hard to approach as any other traditional fighting game. Capcom has lowered the skill ceiling without lowering the barrier of entry and has thus created a game with a lack of identity that the community reluctantly embraces because of the Capcom Pro Tour.

The second question is “what is the real solution? How can these companies create a product that hardcore fans will enjoy and sell like hotcakes?” The answer to this question is a lot simpler. Simply make a game with a plethora of content that looks good. That is why people buy video games. Especially given the fact that they have a 60 dollar price tag. This is where I tip my hat off to NetherRealm Studios. NRS' games always have a truckload of content. If we look at their latest two offerings, Mortal Kombat X and Injustice 2, these games are packed to the brim. MKX features The Krypt, Challenge Tower, The Faction War, a full fledged story mode and more. If you aren’t a fighting game veteran, you can still get your money’s worth. Injustice 2 ups the ante with a full fledged story, character gear that you can use to upgrade your character, the multiverse game mode, guilds, the mobile game and not to mention the fact that it’s a gorgeous looking game. NetherRealm Studios’ games sell millions of copies every time they release because of all the content that’s in their games. They didn’t have to change gameplay and make it simpler and they didn’t have to lower skill ceilings. In fact, you can argue that NetherRealm Studios has increased the skill ceiling for their games as the years went on. They just made a great game with a huge amount of content. What’s the most important thing to note about this is that all this content is available at launch! This is in stark contrast to Capcom. SF5 at launch had no arcade mode, no online lobbies, no story mode and only 16 characters. It was a piss poor launch at best and Capcom paid the price. Even though SF5 had 1.5 million copies sold initially, the rest of the public wasn’t sold on an incomplete product and it only continued to sell 100,000 more units through the next nine months.

So what’s the final verdict, 2Tall? It’s this: making games more “accessible” by lowering the skill ceiling is a generally bad practice. It results in games losing their charm and is unnecessary most of the time. Sometimes it’s a good thing to do, I don’t mind some things being made easier and in some cases, I welcome it. But generally, you don’t want to remove things that grant people mastery over a game, especially when they’re ready and willing to put the hours in. A good practice is making sure that your game is stuffed with content. Content is what sells games, not controls. People will go out and buy a game they aren’t great at if it’s filled with content and cool things to do. This has been proven time & time again and we have the fine folks at NetherRealm Studios leading the charge.

That’s it for today, people. I’m glad I had the opportunity to write this article. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while but I’m glad I was able to share it with you all. I think we’re heading in the right direction. Capcom seems to be learning from their mistakes and will (allegedly) be handling Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite much differently than they’ve handled SF5 and things seem to be going in a good direction. Let’s just hope everyone follows the NetherRealm route and focuses on what really matters at the end of the day: content, not controls.

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