Simplified Controls in Fighting Games
A look at how they’re implemented, and how they’re balanced
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try out the recent DNF Duel beta for as much as I would have liked. Everything was crashing on the first day, I fell ill during the rest of its runtime, and when I finally got better enough to play the game, my ISP kicked me off the internet for three hours. I did enjoy what little I got to play, although I had some criticisms. Combos felt very satisfying and free form, especially with the Conversion mechanic that harkened back to Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, one of Eighting’s previous titles. On the other hand, the Granblue Fantasy Versus style of movement, combined with the addition of a block button macro, made approach and mixups feel linear. While all the characters in the game felt absurdly powerful (I played Striker and even my relatively simpler kit let me get a lot of damage done,) my means for cashing in on that power didn’t always seem clear to me. I also couldn’t really tell what the difference was between executing special moves with a single button versus the proper motion input, especially since it seemed like I got all my meter back quickly anyway.
GBVS also fell under similar criticisms at its launch for incorporating mechanics such as single-button specials and a block button, and the recent Project L progress update sparked controversial discussions about simplification in fighting games. On the surface, these conversations tend to revolve around whether the genre is catering towards newer or inexperienced players who would otherwise complain about complicated inputs, and why this is a bad thing. Even outside of games like Project L, GBVS, and now DNF Duel, arguments about simplification plague discussion about new games whenever they launch, due to complaints about the genre losing the depth that older titles which came before it had.
We’re not going to entertain all these arguments here. We know why motion inputs, including charge motions, exist- execution is a skill in itself, and gating stronger moves behind a small execution barrier prevents them from being abused while rewarding players for practice. With that in mind, we’re going to look specifically at the paths some games take when they do try to ‘simplify’ their engine or introduce easier controls or mechanics in lieu of balancing around execution. We’re also going to look at these changes and mechanics within the ecosystem they exist in, to understand how they’re implemented, how they’re balanced, and how effective they are at their job. Overall, any change that makes fighting games as a genre easier to get into is a net good- whatever encourages sales and grows the playerbase, even if not all of them stick around, keeps the genre alive. However, while some games can successfully incorporate these design choices, others require further concessions to make them work.
Beginner friendly characters
This isn’t just about characters like shotoclones or those with simpler gameplans. There are also characters that are deliberately designed to be easy to control, featuring tools or commands that require significantly less execution than the rest of the roster. Jack-O’s initial iteration in the Guilty Gear Xrd series is a prime example of this. Jack-O’ uses only two motion inputs, a 236 and an SPD, both of which are on her supers. Everything else is a 22X input (for commanding her houses and servants) or a one-button, one-direction command normal assigned to Dust. When combined with how easy it is to get simple combos using her Gatlings, Jack-O’ is very easy for beginner players to figure out and has only one exceptionally difficult command relative to the rest of the cast. Similar characters in other games include Mai Natsume (whose more difficult commands are all variations of the same 214 and 236 inputs) in BlazBlue Central Fiction, and Giovanna (who only has four total special moves) in Guilty Gear Strive. While these characters all fill specific archetypes, picking them when learning a new game may help you get acclimated to the system faster. There’s very little to learn right away, and whatever there is to learn is easy to pick up.
Single-direction special move inputs
It’s easy to forget that games like Super Smash Bros. technically have been using one button with no motion inputs for their special moves for over two decades. The concept is nothing new, and it’s easy to see that the mechanical depth in platform fighters comes not from the execution requirement of offense or how long their combos go for, but from their movement and how offense is carried out after neutral is won. This is also the case in traditional fighters that implement single-direction special moves. To balance how easily these powerful moves can be executed, the moves themselves must be designed to prevent such spam from being too strong. While there are obvious exceptions, such as the infamous ‘shine’ Reflector in Melee, most special moves are not invincible, are punishable on block or whiff, or are only useful in specific situations, like getting back to the stage.
Pokkén Tournament also had similar low-execution requirements for its special move inputs and made similar balance concessions. In Pokkén, no special moves have invincibility at all- even reversals only have one of two types of armor. Special moves are usually also where your blockstring or combo ends, thus making them punishable on block with improper spacing or timing. Some characters even have additional, specific costs to executing their special moves- Blaziken and Shadow Mewtwo, for instance, spend HP on them, while Mewtwo spends Synergy meter on them. There was likewise a tradeoff implemented in GBVS’s easy command system, where special moves performed with the simple command would come out faster but would go on a ‘cooldown’ where they couldn’t be executed again. This kept the motion commands relevant, making them more useful in neutral and combos, while still giving even experienced players reasons to use the simple commands, such as instant reversals. Melty Blood Type Lumina and DNFD would implement systems that were directly inspired by GBVS’s commands.
It’s worth noting as an aside that systems with one-direction special moves, especially those with specific buttons used only for specials, tend to result in characters with smaller kits overall. This is sort of just how the design tends to shake out, since you can really only get between four to eight directions bound to a single button (potentially as few as 3 since most games have you tap 7–9 to jump and the designers don’t want the jump input to overlap with the attack input) whereas motion inputs can be assigned and reused across multiple normal buttons to achieve different results. Of course, this, too, can be circumvented with clever design.
System macros and shortcuts
Other functions and commands can be made easier to execute in fighting games by assigning those functions to a button or simpler input. One of the most common macros in fighting games is the dash macro. Games like Marvel vs. Capcom, Skullgirls, Under Night In-Birth, and GGST all have dash macros where either two attack buttons can be pressed instead of tapping 66 on the lever, or a specific single button can take the place of the normal dash input. While dash macros aren’t often used for general movement (although they can be, being especially useful for accessibility) they can make combos that require microdashes or airdash cancels much easier to perform. Since you can plink or mash the button macro for a dash, this also means you can get a dash or airdash on the earliest possible frame, often making it even more optimal than regular dash execution. That’s not even getting into macros that let you dash forward while holding charge inputs down on the lever, like in GGST.
A more recent addition, as seen in GBVS and DNFD, has been the inclusion of block buttons in games where you can already hold back or down-back to block. While the main application for this has been making blocking, especially standing block, more intuitive for players less familiar with the genre, it also has other functions. In GBVS and DNFD, for instance, the block button has the more practical feature of allowing you to access rolling or spotdodging- temporary invulnerable states that may also move you forward or backward. On the other hand, being able to hold a block button also lets you take advantage of a feature normally only possible by manipulating SOCD inputs- automatic cross-up protection. Since holding a button to block means you are always blocking with the button pressed, that means that your character will continue blocking in the correct direction even as your opponent jumps over them or passes through them, so the only mixups you need to worry about are high-low and strike-throw. (This even blocks side-switch offense while blocking a persisting attack on the opposite side.) Of course, this also relies on you properly holding the block button in the first place, and you still must block high and low appropriately.
Potential balance conceits
Of course, even though these tools can be useful even for more experienced players, they also create a new set of challenges for the battle designers- and the players- to overcome. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, the detriment to using one-directional special moves in DNFD doesn’t seem to outweigh the benefits. I felt like I would get the one-directional versions a lot on accident (since I didn’t remember my controls off the top of my head) and I would still get something and end up not spending much of my meter. Being able to freely reversal or defend with a simple input or block macro also meant that those situations always had an easy to rely on answer. If my opponent tried for a meaty oki option, I’d just DP through it with one press. If they were pressuring me on block, I wasn’t especially afraid of all the offense I was being forced to hold (and since white life was its own resource anyway, I never feared chip damage.)
While I invested a ton of time into Pokkén and it’s still one of my favorite fighting games, similar issues arose there as well. For instance, since the block button had cross-up protection and blocked all highs, mids, and lows, the only mixup in the game was strike-throw. Defense was instead balanced around the tactical Attack Triangle, interactions between high- and low-profile offense, and guard breaks. Similar concessions are also made in GBVS at the very least, where the block button alone will not allow you to instant block even though it prevents cross-ups. (If you’re holding guard, you must manually time the IB input with back/down back anyway, making holding the button functionally similar to FDing while attempting an IB in Guilty Gear.) Your character’s hurtbox while guarding with the button is also slightly larger than if you were just holding 4/3, making it easier for you to get opened up on the high-low. Likewise, DNFD has a guard meter which will force a guard crush state when depleted, punishing players who hold the block button constantly (although I don’t know if I ever saw this state in my short time playing.) Also in DNFD, spending your meter on special moves without prejudice will leave you in an Exhaustion state where your meter takes a long time to replenish.
Obviously, there’s other solutions, and other games that can take it even further. (Gerald elaborates a lot on Fantasy Strike and how motion inputs affect the Ryu-Guile matchup in an evergreen Core-A video, but I wanted to talk about some contemporary examples that are fresh on the brain and expand a bit on ideas besides just motion inputs.) I think it’s still important to understand why simplified motions and commands are implemented in games, as well as the way they’re designed, so that it’s easier to comprehend the amount of depth those decisions add to the game. I don’t think such choices are totally free from criticism, and it’s okay to not like them and continue playing games that focus on traditional control options instead. However, being able to recognize that such decisions are usually made with their own risk-reward in mind, rather than being wholly free with zero downsides for the player, will allow you to better assess how they function in the entirety of the game they exist in.
As an aside, I’m interested in seeing how Project L balances their simple-input special moves in the future, since it seems like that’s the direction that they’re taking the game in. Unlike the previous examples mentioned, Project L is a tag fighter with lots of air movement, so the potential for creative and exploitative offense will probably be very high. If situations can be created where mixups are ambiguous or unblockable, and they can be carried out without regards to the execution barrier, then defense will probably be hard to play. On the other hand, if Project L has similar choices as previous examples with regards to how defense is carried out, then the attacker will be forced to get clever with how they open up their opponent. Of course, tag fighters in general can get pretty nasty, especially once you finally get the one touch you need, so it may not even matter in the long run.