Learning fighting games: piece-by-piece

You know, how you learn everything else

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Skullgirls is hard, but its excellent tutorial and training mode break the game into pieces, all the way down to the very fundamentals of fighting games.

There’s an idea that fighting games are particularly harder than other games, and I’m not going to suggest that this is false. A game like Super Mario Bros. or Animal Crossing obviously has a lower skill floor than Street Fighter. But it’s still odd when I hear, from friends that may be deeply engrossed in difficult genres like MOBAs or MMORPGs, that fighting games are “too hard” for them to play or learn. The learning process that someone applies when learning anything is always going to be the same- the difference is just the amount of tasks and actions that must be processed and executed simultaneously.

Let’s take a game like League of Legends, the most popular esport title at the time of writing. In the typical Summoner’s Rift game mode, you are one player on a team of five, against another team of five. Your team’s objective is to work through several layers of automated defense in order to blow up the opponent’s base, while halting the enemy team’s attempts to do the same. Your character can fulfill one of five roles- top laner, mid-laner, jungler, DPS, and support- which are separate from the six actual archetypes that the characters are assigned- marksman, tank, fighter, mage, assassin, and support. Your character also has a hotbar with several spells and passives that get augmented as you level up, and you can add further abilities to your toolkit by purchasing items that also have both active and passive effects. There are nearly one hundred and fifty characters, which equates to an astronomical amount of matchups. The functions of the automated defenses and the unaffiliated monsters on the map must also be considered as both teams compete for the resources that defeating each one grants.

That’s a lot! A League player is keeping track of an absurd amount of information during a thirty-minute game: which resources are up and down, their experience and gold, their minion farm, how each of their teammates are doing, the opponent’s position and status, and everything on their hotbar. Learning all of that takes a lot of time, and due to the pressure-cooker nature of gameplay, there is demand for new players to do so very quickly, lest you incur the wrath of your frustrated teammates. In my opinion, League takes just as much effort to learn and get good at, as a game like Street Fighter or Guilty Gear does, where you only have a fraction of the characters and system mechanics. So why are all my League friends so much more comfortable in that environment than they are in a fighting game?

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I haven’t been in the Rift for ages, so even the little things always look completely new to me.

The obvious answer is that they’ve spent so much time in League and not a whole lot of time in fighting games. New League accounts are locked into playing against bots until they hit level 20, so the majority of their time at the beginning is spent learning the fundamentals in a safer environment with players of equal skill (or experienced players grinding smurf accounts.) After a while, they’ve built up their ability to process most of the information available to them on the Rift- ideally, they’ll feel comfortable in at least one of the five meta roles, will have proficiency with a handful of characters, and will be able to work well in a team. The rest of their playtime in PVP will be spent growing their champion pool, learning other lanes, and optimizing their builds. It’s not too dissimilar to how most schools teach math until college. Once you’ve built up the basics of addition, multiplication, division, and the order of operations, algebra is the next step.

It’s also not too far apart from how learning fighting games goes, and I think understanding that mindset would make fighting games seem more accessible. The gameplay might be faster from moment to moment, but approaching the learning curve is no different than how one would play any other difficult genre of game. Approaching the game with the fundamentals and then slowly integrating other, more complicated system mechanics makes it much easier than trying to process all of… this… at once.

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Even I don’t recognize some of those meters!

Think about learning a game like Super Smash Bros. It can be basically any entry of the franchise because even though the different quirks in each engine update allow for unique physics and advanced techniques in each game, the core gameplay hasn’t changed much. Smash is predominantly a four-button game, five if you use a jump button in lieu of the tap jump. A covers the entire gamut of your normals- your tilt (strong) attacks and your Smash attacks, depending on how hard you press the control stick- and B covers all of your special moves. The L and R buttons both allow you to block; pressing it in the air gives you an airdodge, and holding it on the ground along with a direction allows you to roll or spotdodge. Z is the grab button but it’s more accurately a grab macro: Smash has a two-button grab achieved by pressing the shield and attack buttons at the same time. As mentioned before, you can tap up on the stick to jump, or you can press X or Y. There are also other shared macros that can be changed or rebound in later games, like the A + B Smash attack macro and the Smash or tilt attack C stick macros.

Learning your offensive gameplan in Smash is fairly simple. You might have some difficulty learning how to control your thumb strength enough to get tilt attacks instead of Smash attacks, but you’re generally only going back and forth between two buttons. Adding jumping to your gameplan is also a necessity since a lot of your time in that game is spent off-stage, learning how to recover and get back to ledge. From there, learning how to block and avoid attacks, and integrating grabs into your play, will take a bit more effort, but soon you’ll be familiar with the basics of your character, which can translate to most of the cast. Once you’ve grown comfortable with your main, you can then start incorporating whatever major movement techniques into your play. Since wavedashing, L-canceling, and perfect pivoting are all mainly animation cancels, you’re not learning any new buttons so much as you’re learning how to press the buttons you know faster. Beyond the controller, since the only universal meter is the percentage health, the visual language on the screen is easy to understand and there’s not much to process.

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The only things you have to be aware of on the screen in Smash are: your opponent’s position, the timer, the percentages, and the stock counts.

Despite that, Smash still has a high skill ceiling because learning how to do everything listed subconsciously and consistently takes a lot of time and practice. The inherent design means it’s easy to get into, but you have to integrate everything into your gameplay cohesively in order to actually be effective against your opponent. After all, competitive Smash is known for having a high actions-per-minute on par with that of Starcraft. The way that people can learn how to micromanage all of these different actions simultaneously is through a technique we all employ daily called parallel processing- the ability of the brain to do many things at once in a single action. While I’m typing this article up, I can put letters into Word without looking at my keyboard because, through years of use and training, I can remember the placement of all of the keys in QWERTY configuration. Knowing how to spell all of the words I use- and knowing which words I want to use- also increases my words-per-minute rate. It’s the same for League or Smash. After having practiced every individual gameplay component, players can piece them all together seamlessly. By starting with the easy stuff first and then moving on to the harder stuff bit by bit, the “whole” of the gameplay becomes easier to digest. Parallel processing makes all of those meters on Chad’s side of the screen relatively more comprehensible!

For an easy-to-understand example, I began with Smash, a fighting game with very few difficult inputs and not a whole lot of information on the screen. Smash isn’t the only game I’m experienced in, of course; I’ve gotten very good at Pokkén Tournament DX, and I’m learning Guilty Gear Xrd Rev2 now. Both of those games have higher skill floors and ceilings than Smash due in part to more complicated inputs, stricter buffering systems, unique combo mechanics, and their trademark game designs. That being said, the principles of parallel processing that allow you to learn these games remains the same, so diving into them from the ground up makes mastery less of a lofty goal than it might seem to an outsider.

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We have more to process here than we did in Smash. There’s health, Burst meter, assist meter, round counts, the timer, and the Phase transition.

Pokkén has three attack buttons (Y for light, X for strong, and A for special/Poké Moves,) a block button, a jump button, and a button for assist calls. After that, there’s three important macros: YB for grabs, AX for counter attacks, and L + R for Burst mode. You have to be able to manage your Burst and Assist meters, and you have to learn your movesets in both Field and Duel Phases. Furthermore, the counter attack dash cancel (CADC) is a crucial movement technique that is flat-out required to be successful against other players. The way you piece all of this together is similar to how you would employ parallel processing to learn Smash, and this is even encouraged by the game’s emphasis on learning the attack triangle mechanic. Normal attacks beat grabs, grabs beat counter attacks, and counter attacks beat normal attacks; you are rewarded with things like critical hits and more hitstun for playing the triangle effectively, so a lot of your fundamentals are developed around learning it. From there, you’ll learn how to integrate your assists and your Burst mode into your normal gameplay. Finally, once you’ve grown comfortable with meter management, you can practice CADC until it becomes second nature.

Guilty Gear is so far one of the hardest fighting games I’ve ever tried learning, and likely one of the hardest modern 2D fighters apart from certain tag-in fighters. There’s five buttons of increasing intensity- Punch, Kick, Slash, Hard Slash, and Dust- with several macros, meters, a one-button grab, multiple defensive options, Roman Cancelling, and a unique Gatling combo system. Furthermore, every character is completely unique and it could be argued that they’re each playing a totally different game from the rest of the cast.

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Here we’ve got: Health, RISC, Burst, Tension, and a timer. Jam also has a unique gauge where she can stack buffs for her specials.

Learning Guilty Gear was when I had to accept that I wouldn’t get good at the game right away, and that a lot of major systems and mechanics would go completely ignored. At the beginning, even getting acquainted with my character was a task I had to take very slowly. I got used to the properties of all of Jam’s normals and how they linked together in Gatling combos, and then I learned about all of her different specials moves. I spent a lot of playtime before I even used her Hochifu command counter regularly. I didn’t even begin incorporating major universal mechanics like Roman Cancelling (or anything involving my Tension gauge) until I was comfortable controlling my character. I think it took me about two-hundred hours before I was attempting Blitz counters, Dead Angle attacks, and my Dustloops. Only then did I finally start trying to lab specific situations like blocking Ky’s 236D 236H oki.

It may seem daunting when I put it that way, but all of that step-by-step practice results in my ability to use parallel processing to put all of what I learned together against other players. I know my options in neutral, I know my bread and butter combos, how to extend them with Roman Cancels, how to end them in supers, when to use my special moves, and which options to use when I’m blocking. Most importantly, I can do all of this and make it look impressive to someone watching who knows very little about the game. In the same way, people who play MOBAs like League or MMOs like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XIV are able to do things like manage their hotbars or group coordination after having played from level 1 and worked their way up. The only difference between those genres and fighting games is that, at “level 1” of a fighting game, you have access to your whole kit. Guilty Gear doesn’t lock away the Burst meter until you’ve hit enough hours of playtime, it’s already there waiting for you on the screen. Instead, it’s up to you to learn everything in the game at your own pace. Starting at the bottommost building blocks and then working your way up to the harder stuff is how you “level up.” In that way, learning how to play fighting games is no different than learning how to play any other game, or learning any other multilayered discipline. By consciously applying the principles of parallel processing, genre newcomers can overcome the learning curve and dive right in to an incredibly fun, flashy, fast-paced series of games.

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Yeah, Deku. Maybe you should have started with “not blowing my arms off” before firing off raw level three supers like a scrub.

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Nathan “Lite the Iron Man” Dhami can be found on Twitter (@LiteTheIronMan,) on Twitch (twitch.tv/litetheironman,) and at your local.

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