Alright, 2D fighting games?  Pretty cool.  They’re also seeing something of a comeback recently, with Street Fighter IV actually doing some pretty good numbers, and lots of folks being psyched for BlazBlue and King of Fighters XII.  But it’s seemed to me for a while that fighting games as a whole have been…well, not aging so well as a genre.

Sure, the visuals keep getting pumped, the soundtracks keep getting grander, and now we can fight people anywhere on the globe at the drop of a hat, but what about the rest of the game?  What about the gameplay, the accessibility of it, and how we learn it?  What about story, our favorite characters, and synergizing all that with the actual game we’re playing?

Of course, it seems the guiding mantra of developers when it comes to the core of fighting games is largely “If it ain’t broke,” and that’s worked well enough up until now.  And while this is a logical thing to think, and hardly a bad attitude to have with game design, the fact remains that it could be done a lot better.  In its current state, most core fighting gameplay is catered to one demographic; fighting game fans.  Which is, again, a business strategy that surely “ain’t broke”, but why should developers settle there?

Ask a gamer with no fighting game experience to do a quarter-circle-punch or a dragon punch motion: Sure, they’ll be able to pull it off after a lengthy practice session, but they’ll still have likely days to go before they can pull them off at will during an intense match, which is practically the bare minimum level of technique required to really participate in a game like Street Fighter.  Don’t even get me started on how tough it is for some non-gamers to even grasp the concept of a quarter circle.

Let’s ignore the baying of some players out there about the “dumbing down” of the genre for now; streamlining a product for accessibility does not necessarily make it any less rewarding or stupider at high level play, but someone somewhere will always make these sorts of statements, period.  As noted in an article I read recently, for the developer it’s all a matter of discerning intent in user feedback: how many players saying these things actually have some sort of actual factual basis to go off of (surely some of them do) and how many players are just entertaining delusions of grandeur wherein they’re smarter and all around better people than the filthy, stupid, and overall “sheeple”-like general population because they’re good at an overly complex fighting game.

The solutions, in my mind, are clear:  Either lower initial investment so that players can enjoy all of the best features of a fighting game as soon as possible (like the fantastic Smash Bros. series, in which most all character functions can be understood by newcomers very quickly and yet the game still provides room to grow in mastery even after years of playing) or someone, please, get around to finally making a tutorial that actually teaches people how to play your freakishly complex game.  I’m not talking a simple “input these commands!” setup, as much as I did appreciate such a layout in Street Fighter 4, but an actual tutorial/story mode treated with the rigors of true game design:  Introduce what your players can do and then drill it into them.  Chart out how players usually learn your game despite so little support on your end, and then rebuild that educational theory part for part inside your game.

Perhaps:  Introduce the player to basic mechanics and simple, one button inputs.  Test them on them, drill the proper use into the player (make sure they understand on reflex that, say, you counter a high block with a Strong Sweep) and then throw them into something simulating a normal battle where they’re forced to use said theory.  Then move on to your special moves, going one at a time, training their possible uses and setting up battles wherein players have to use them to effect at will to succeed.  Basically, why can’t we use the exact same sort of game design theory we would for any style of single player action game?  For every powerup you obtain in an action game, there’s sure to be an adversary or situation that requires you to use it and an opportunity to learn how to implement your new strength throughout the entire game through said interaction.

What about the characters, though?  And (don’t laugh!) the story?  Fighting games are known for their entertaining, sometimes goofy rosters, and where would they be without them?  It’s hardly irregular for players to become ensnared purely by the charm of one character or another over their flat mechanical capabilities.  But why are these stories, at best, mediocre?  Yeah, people don’t play fighting games for fantastic narrative, but would it really hurt to try and save some budget to get a great scribe to pen up something for you?  After all, if there’s anything that’ll endear your players to your game (and sequels!) beyond sheer gameplay, it’s creating characters that they’ll want to come back and fight as again and again.

Not to lie, though.  I know how utterly and completely ancillary story is to a game about beating the snot out of your friends.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to try, and it doesn’t mean that there isn’t massive potential:

Have you ever played an RPG and, filled with rage or sorrow after some pivotal storyline event, sat through the turn based battle ahead of you, knuckles white with the drive to mete out justice, revenge, or lord knows what?  (Well, alright, I’ll admit I haven’t done this since I was a youngster with hormones to spare, but)  Imagine this type of story driven motivation coming down to, say, a huge boss fight in the most visceral, reflex flowing genre out there?  Narrative has a documented effect on how we play, and fighting games are so direct with us that they’re fantastic at bringing out emotions even without meaning to.  So why not let the two walk hand in hand?