Fighting games are hard!

Today I want to talk about the difficulty of fighting games, using the recent Twitch-based Annihilator Cup as the main case study.

Traditional fighters, by which I mean your Street Fighters, Guilty Gears, and Mortal Kombats, are games that many people know or have heard of, but not nearly as many people actually play. This is usually because of the difficulty curves — that’s right, there are multiple — that come with the genre as a whole. 

There has been a fair bit of conversation on social media recently about how these games can be hard to get into, and I think it’s worth talking about that in detail. I love fighting games as a genre, but there are things they could be doing better — so let’s explore that further!

Note: There is NSFW language in some of the tweets and clips, but we’re all big boys and girls here.

Fighting Games Are Hard

The Annihilator Cup

The Annihilator Cup is an AT&T sponsored event in which a large group of the biggest streamers on Twitch compete in a variety of different games. They play a new game each week, and towards the end of said week, they fight against one another and earn points depending on where they place. The games on the list this time around were Apex Legends, Dead by Daylight, Halo Infinite, CS:GO, and Street Fighter V. 

What’s interesting about SFV being on this list is that in the case of some of these streamers, it would be their first (or at least an early) encounter with the game. Whenever a fighting game on Twitch is pulling in a large number of viewers, it’s almost always because there is a big event going on in which the best players in the world are competing. But the nature of The Annihilator Cup gave us a proper look into the struggles, the rage, the confusion, and the rewards of fighting games when you’re first starting to explore them. 

So there are two cases from this event that I want to dive into a little bit deeper, the first being from a streamer nicknamed Noko. Christian “Nokokopuffs” Felicianois is known for his skill in Apex Legends, so this was his first time taking a fighting game even remotely seriously. I suppose we can look at Noko as being the embodiment of not only the rage fighting games can induce, but also the emotional response that these games can provoke. 

Thanks to @Emezie for clipping this

Noko mentions that in Apex you load into the game and simply point, click, and shoot — super easy, intuitive, and pretty much anyone can do it. While that is 100% true, you’re still going to get bodied by better players who know what they are doing, regardless of the game. I do understand the point he is making here though.

Fighting games being harder to get into is something that developers have been trying to resolve for years now with easier combos, input buffers and the absence of motion-based special moves; it’s not an easy fix because it seems for every person you please, you upset someone else. 

For those who are familiar with Street Fighter V specifically and play the game regularly, you’re probably aware of the fact that, in comparison to older Street Fighter titles, SFV made an effort to make the game easier. With that in mind, this event provided a valuable look into just how scary these games can be when you’re a new player. Once you’ve overcome the typical hurdles of the genre, it’s all too easy to forget how the game once felt impossible to you. All these feelings and emotions that Noko was going through during The Annihilator Cup are things that literally every fighting game player has experienced. 

On the opposite side though, we can see this clip of a streamer called Jericho who is doing some of the combo trials and actively trying to learn and understand the mechanics of the game. You can see on the side that he has the inputs on so that he can see where he might be going wrong, and after evaluating that for a second he proceeds to do the combo and pops off. While these games might make you hate them at times, they can also produce some of the most rewarding feelings in the entire medium. 

Fighting games from a beginner’s perspective

All this was a really great opportunity for a lot of experienced fighting game players to see the struggles of players unfamiliar with the genre, so it’s worth pondering the main difficulties that new players encounter. These are the kinds of things that veteran players don’t even think about now, but as a newer player some of them might seem completely absurd. 

When you first load into any fighting game’s tutorial you will be met with the “normal” buttons — these are the attacks that typically serve the same purpose across the whole roster; your punches, kicks and perhaps throws. Most people can handle this — press a button, something happens.

After that come the special moves, and this is where new players will hit often their first hurdle. If we use Street Fighter as an example, to do a Hadouken you need to perform a quarter-circle forward motion and press a punch button on your controller. This might not sound all that difficult, but I promise you will have some trouble with making sure you get the exact motion or pressing the punch at the correct timing. And once you’ve nailed the Hadouken, try your hand at a Shoryuken Dragon Punch for even more frustration.

After a bit of practice, you’ve got your Hadouken and your Shoryuken down, so now it’s time to learn some combos. After an hour or two (Optimistic, based on my experiences – Ed.) you’ve locked down some simple combos and you’re ready to jump into a match… but uh oh, you’ve loaded into the match on player 2’s side of the screen, and for some reason, your Hadouken isn’t coming out and you’re sure you’re doing the motion correctly. That’s right, your character is now facing the opposite direction, so now you need to reverse the input in order to do the move you’ve been practicing.

It’s crazy when you start to break it down at every level just how insurmountable these games can feel. Even the traditional “You Lose” screen can be a big demotivator for a lot of players — not that we’re suggesting it be replaced with “At Least You Tried” or anything.

Finally, there is the growth mindset that is demanded of fighting game players: if you want to improve, you’ll have to accept that you are going to get your ass beat for hours before you start to get noticeably better. Fighting games have a sort of reverse bell curve to them; once you start to understand the game more and you find yourself thinking more about the actions you’re making rather than just reactively pushing buttons, you’re going to start getting your ass beat again as you try to put those thoughts into practice. 

It’s a truly unique genre in that sense, and I don’t know if developers in the genre will ever truly come up with a solution to these kinds of problems.

It was certainly fascinating to see Street Fighter in the hands of such huge online personalities, but I don’t know if how difficult they made the game look actually helped with getting more people into the genre. I guess we’ll find out come the release of Street Fighter 6!

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Conor Evans
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