Grappling with the Skill Curve: Are Fighting Games Too Difficult?

Fighting games can be daunting when it comes to competitive play, but recent releases are trying to make the learning curve easier.

Ask any gamer what the most difficult video game genre is, and you’re bound to get a wide range of responses. MOBAs require a significant amount of character knowledge, meta strategy, and mouse dexterity. Competitive RTS titles such as StarCraft II rely on time management and large-scale strategic undertakings. Tactical first-person shooters such as Red Orchestra 2 and Insurgency draw on a mixture of precise aim, map knowledge, and communication skills with other players that make them exceedingly difficult to master. But very few genres rely on the mixture of precise timing, muscle memorization, character expertise, and mind games that the fighting game genre draws on.

Fighting games are a classic staple in gaming. After their rise to prominence in the early ‘90s, series such as Street Fighter, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, and Guilty Gear have remained incredibly popular with competitive players around the world. Thanks to the advent of the online arcade matchmaking platform GGPO—and later, Fightcade—players across the globe continue to compete online against one another over games that date back to the late 1990s. It’s not uncommon today to see a crowded lobby in Fightcade, eager to match up for a round of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike or Marvel vs. Capcom.

Yet despite their popularity, fighting games remain extremely daunting for newcomers. Basic combat mechanics such as blocks, counterattacks, resets, and wake-ups can be difficult for brand new players to master. Not to mention, the basic foundation of competitive play—bread and butter combos—can feel extremely difficult for a new player unfamiliar with combos or specials. For newbies, the competitive online experience that so many fighting game fans have grown to love can feel impossible to join. How can a player pull off so many attacks so fast? How is someone able to deal so much damage at once? Sometimes it feels as if “button mashing” is the only useful option in combat.

A Newcomer Changes the Score

Developing a brand new IP for the fighting game community is no easy feat. With so many classic series out on the market, competing with the greats can feel daunting. Yet Lab Zero Games took up the challenge in 2012, and launched their debut fighting game Skullgirls for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The game quickly reached critical acclaim, thanks in part to its emphasis on simple inputs and high damage combo strings.

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Today, Skullgirls’ matchmaking community is as competitive as ever. Just as in other fighters, it can be difficult to break into the game’s online play. However, Skullgirls boasts one feature for newbies that makes the game stand out: upon release, Lab Zero implemented an in-depth tutorial system for learning the game’s basic, intermediate, and advanced mechanics.

As far as training modes go, Skullgirls’ tutorial is extremely comprehensive. Lessons come in multiple segments, detailing everything from blocks to combo chains to punishing moves. But Skullgirls isn’t the only game that benefits from the guide. In fact, Lab Zero’s tutorial system also proves useful for learning other fighting games’ mechanics, too. After all, the block system that Skullgirls implements is essentially identical to Street Fighter’s—blocking while standing prevents air attacks from doing significant damage, and blocking while crouching can protect from crouch attacks. Likewise, air combos are an important mechanic for intermediate players to learn, especially because such characters as Cammy and Chun-Li rely on these moves. Not only is Skullgirls’ tutorial system user-friendly, it’s also incredibly versatile across the genre.

Which begs the question: are fighting games actually all that difficult to learn? While segmented into lengthy chapters, Skullgirls’ beginner’s guide suggests that any player can learn the complexities of a fighting game—so long as they’re willing to put the time and energy into practicing the genre’s basics.

Skullgirls definitely isn’t alone. Fighting games seem to actively encourage players to sit down and study their mechanics. Street Fighter V, for instance, features a training mode where players can practice their fighter’s specials, combos, and critical art moves against a dummy enemy. Bandai Namco and Nintendo’s Pokkén Tournament hosts an arcade mode where players can challenge various AI difficulty levels before heading into online matchmaking. Fighting games aren’t just built on competition between two experienced players. Today’s fighters come with features that give players the opportunity to learn how to play the game from the ground up and cultivate their own playstyle before heading out to face another player online.

A Community’s Dedication

Of course, it’s not just developers that give players the opportunity to learn how to play fighting games. The fighting game community has traditionally been fascinated with the underlying game design mechanics behind their favorite titles.

There’s a reason for this, of course. When a fighting game first launches, players spend hours upon hours learning the way the game’s programming operates—studying how hitboxes work, how frames are read, which moves have longer startup and recovery periods, and how quickly attacks can be executed alongside one another. Over time, the community comes to a consensus about the game’s meta. They figure out how the combat system operates and compare its design to other fighting games. For instance, Chun-Li in Street Fighter V has been favorably compared to her Third Strike iteration, whereas Skullgirls’ assist feature has been introduced in relation to Marvel vs. Capcom’s. Comparisons are important to the fighting game community because they can help players bring skills from a previous release into a new game.

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From there, game design knowledge helps fans put the pieces together during practice modes. Bread and butter combos, for instance, weren’t developed by Lab Zero Games for Skullgirls. Instead, fans figured out the best combo executions through research and practice. On sites such as EventHubs, players can find the fruits of the community’s labor through detailed breakdowns of strategies, playstyles, and combos that have been recorded by the community. Together, each player helps analyze the core mechanics behind their favorite games, and create optimal techniques for succeeding with their favorite characters.

This falls in line with game designer Patrick Miller’s views on the fighting game genre. In his introductory work, From Masher to Master: The Educated Video Game Enthusiast’s Fighting Game Primer, Miller emphasizes that players must learn how to read their opponents and practice executing their own moves efficiently. As he says:

The skills needed to play the modern fighting game completely fall into two major categories; you must know what to do and how to do it. Knowing what to do means building your understanding of fighting games; knowing how to do it means developing your physical ability to produce the motions necessary to perform the right moves at the right time.

By the same token, the fighting game community is fascinated with learning the underlying programming at play in each game. This not just leads to a better understanding of how to play fighting games, it also creates more knowledge for new players to bring into combat. Learning fighting games isn’t just about practice, the community reveals. It’s also about dedication, comprehension, and intuition. Which are three abilities that any person can cultivate over time.

A Genre Built on Challenge

The fighting game genre isn’t necessarily an easy one. As Skullgirls demonstrates, today’s fighters rely on a complex array of defensive and offensive maneuvers in order to succeed in combat. For that very reason, the first few months learning how to play can be downright frustrating. Not to mention, losing game after game online can feel a little humiliating. It’s easy to get discouraged against an expert—after all, one month’s worth of knowledge is useless in the face of someone who has been playing fighters for two decades.

But fighting games aren’t impossible to learn. In fact, they can be quite approachable. Most of today’s releases are built with training modes in mind, and the internet allows players across the world to learn the specials, combos, and techniques they need to succeed in combat. A little research and practice over time goes a long way, as determination leads to success and failures grow into victories.

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So in the end, games such as Skullgirls and Street Fighter V aren’t too difficult. Nor are they too easy. They’re challenges that players are invited to join and figure out through practice. While this can be intimidating for some, learning how to overcome a game’s skill curve can be part of the fun for others. After all, there’s a source of pride that comes from a genre where the difference between a win and a loss is sheer practice over time.

Ana Valens is a freelance contributor.