I want to challenge & redefine conventional wisdom among gamers that classify fighting games as “button mashers”. What is a button masher? It sounds like a game whose mechanics are opaque, controls unidentifiable and randomly “mashing buttons” a more effective strategy than attempting to master their arcane mechanics.
In many respects the learnability of fighting games has improved, with character specific training guides in Third Strike Online, Super Street Fighter IV and an in-depth tutorial in Guilty Gear XRD. These are great for explaining the inner workings of the game but I have yet to see a game which directly communicates the evolution of strategies used by its players, also known to many as “the metagame”.
In redressing the mis-conception of button mashing, I argue that fighting games are geometric debates. The conflict of agenda is mediated by the interaction of geometric arguments known as “moves”. A move is an action that changes the game state and is triggered by a previous game state or the “input” of a player controlling the game.
Every language has base components. In fighting games, there are typically attacks, movements and defenses. Collectively these are known as “moves”. The most common move is simply “neutral”, which is a lack of input. Like a rest in music, neutral is used to pass the game state forward without modifying the player’s character to leave options open.
Like sentence structure, moves are only possible within the right syntax. Most attacks, movements and defenses are only available from “neutral”. Others, like standing up to recover, are only available after being knocked down. Grammar varies from game to game. Standing up after being knocked down is automatic in some games and input-dependent in others. Players adapt their conceptual model of grammar from game to game but most games have the same conventions in the kind of “meaning” their geometric debate explores.
Sentences & moves by themselves have no context, except perhaps as poetry. When two opponents debate with words, a moderator can evaluate their arguments and decide a winner. In a fighting game the system programming moderates a winner but not by internal feeling – a winner is declared by evaluating geometry.
Suppose you and I are playing a fighting game. I strike low with a sweeping kick. Simultaneously, you input a hop to make your character jump and kick mid air. In the geometric evaluation, my argument misses, yours succeeds. You are awarded some advantage for successfully making an argument by the game’s mechanics.
Interestingly, there is rarely a “best” argument in a fighting game. Which arguments will be validated or invalidated by the game’s mechanics is primarily determined by what argument the opponent presents. This necessitates a dimension of prediction.
If there was only a single “win button” argument, the game would not be popular. Geometric arguments must have strengths and weaknesses in order to provide interesting, meaningful gameplay. Uncertianity ensures repeated play.
As the arguments players test receive validation & invalidation, they develop strategies and learn which arguments work well in which situations. Collectively, players develop the metagame.
Critical to the development of satisfying geometric debates and an interesting metagame is giving player’s the control to deceive other players. Fighting games usually allow deception through speed, making moves too fast to react to.
Players will organize their metagame analysis of the game into distinct sections, similar to “Opening”, “Midgame” and “Endgame” in Chess. If the transit time between different game states like “Neutral” and “Rushdown” is too slow or very predictable, then the game will devolve into a stalemate as any attempt at changing state will provide reaction time for the opponent to respond to. Fighting games usually handle this with branching options: after Move 1, Move 2, Move 3 and Move 4 are all syntactically available inputs.
Geometric debate designers must take care that Move 2, 3 and 4 are all viable & not viable depending on the input of the other player. In a way, fighting game developers are designing an ecosystem out of their language. Players will attempt to break the balance and reduce unknown to predictable. Fun gameplay is found at the borderline where what moves are predictable or unpredictable is in constant evolution.