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Privilege is a Super Meter: A Fighting Game Analogy

The concept of “privilege” is a tricky one, because it’s extremely apparent to those who lack it, and yet often unnoticeable to those who possessed it. And given the dominance of the white male in gamer culture, others have attempted to make video game-based analogies to help the unaware comprehend “privilege.” But the most prominent comparison, the idea that being privileged is like playing a game on easy mode, is ineffective for multiple reasons. While its simplicity gets the point across easily, it’s also pretty antagonistic and liable to make people defensive. “How dare you say my life is easy, just because I’m a man?”

So I propose a different analogy: being privileged is like starting each round of a fighting game with a full super meter.

Not everyone is familiar with fighting games, so this bears some explanation. Typically, when you start a match, both characters have full health, maybe somewhere between zero to 50% super meter, and placed at a neutral distance where neither has an automatic leg up on the other. Super meter is a gauge that, when sufficiently full, gives access to powerful moves that can aid players in various situations.

A full super meter at the start of a round does not guarantee a win. It does not replace or remove the need for skill, hard work, or experience. It can be squandered to the point of being useless. Some players might end up perpetually unable to truly take advantage of it. However, even if it never gets explicitly utilized, the presence of that full super meter at the start of each round influences player and character interactions from top to bottom. Just by its existence, that meter affects how your opponent perceives you.

If all you ever do is fight other people who also start with a full meter, you might never notice that there’s an issue. But as soon as you fight someone who doesn’t have this perk, the dynamics change. Imagine two players with the exact same talent and skill, playing the same character, but only one of them has that meter. The two should be able to do the same things, but one starting with more resources makes it so that what should be even exchanges are always potentially lopsided. The player with the super meter has access to additional options. That means not only does it let that player get out of tight spots they wouldn’t otherwise, and press advantages that they already have, but when only one person has that starting meter, a “neutral start” isn’t actually neutral.

That’s the thing about privilege: it subtly affects how you are perceived in the world and what you are thought to be able to get away with. It doesn’t automatically mean those who are privileged have a leg up in every situation compared to those who aren’t, but its influence permeates aspects of life big and small without anyone even having to try. It’s why assuming that everyone is on a level playing field is the classic sign of someone who is privileged and unaware of it, but also why it can be so hard to grasp for those ignorant of its existence.

“Flukes”: Competitive Rigor vs. Sustainability in Esports

The question of whether or not to stratify different groups of competitors occurs in any competitive setting, but it tends to be ground zero for debate in gaming even more than in traditional sports or fields such as Chess. For this reason, a recent tweet by veteran League of Legends and Overwatch commentator MonteCristo lamenting the lack of “pros-only” tournaments for fighting games garnered a significant backlash.

There’s one core reason for the negative response to MonteCristo: those who consider themselves part of the fighting game community tend to consider the ability for “gods” and “mortals” to meet in open competition—and for god slayers to emerge at any moment—as one of the strengths of fighting games. In particular, people latched onto the use of the word “flukes” as evidence of the esports works being afraid of “true competition.” If esports could be compared to tennis, then to the FGC a world of invitationals (and nothing else) would be akin to the pre-open era of tennis—when pros and amateurs were not allowed to compete against each other at major tournaments.

However, having followed esports for over ten years now, I’ve noticed that this seeming incongruity in values stems from a difference in what aspects of competitive gaming are prioritized. Is it about competition and camaraderie, or competition and sustainability? While the two are not wholly incompatible, the esports side has long expressed a desire for recognition, expansion into the mainstream, and eventually a reverence similar (but not necessarily identical) to traditional sports. With respect to this, figures in esports have emphasized the importance of “narratives,” and seeing how big a deal they are is very telling as to how esports tends to try and achieve sustainability.

In 2010, StarCraft II ushered in a new era in esports, and tournament circuits such as GOM Starcraft League in Korea and the US-based Major League Gaming were established to give players a chance at competition. While there were many differences in their formats—GSL participants played only a handful of matches per day over the course of weeks and months, while MLG pitted hundreds of players against each over a single weekend—both came to the table early on with a certain goal in mind: to create stars.

GSL created a distinction between the cream of the crop (Code S) and the almost-greats (Code A), where players from the latter could earn the right to be promoted to the former. However, in the first few incarnations of the GSL, it was purposely made difficult for players to fall out of Code S. Essentially, the players who performed the worst in Code S had to compete against the best of Code A in a potential changing of the guard. The number of players who dropped down to these “Up and Down Matches” was restricted, and the Code S players could still end up defeating the hopefuls from Code A and send them back down. The reason? To make sure that recognizable faces remained on camera so they could establish fanbases, and by extension garner a sense of celebrity—to be people that fans and players could remember and look up to.

This was also the reasoning behind MLG‘s seeding system for its multi-tournament season, which saw players who did well at earlier tournaments get byes into much, much later stages of later league tournaments. Going on a tear in your first tournament could pay off down the line. If a player earned a top-32 spot in one tournament, they could keep getting place into a high spot for the next, and then play just well enough to not tank out, it meant a stable spot for increased visibility.

Eventually, both GSL and MLG revised their formats to encourage less ossification of brackets and more chances for rising stars to make a name, but that still doesn’t erase the fact that their initial versions tried to create a delineation between the “Pros” and the “Joes.” Central to all of this was the idea that “good narratives draw viewers in.” What better way to encourage a good narrative than to have a consistent cast of “characters” for the audience to know and root for?

Examples of the benefits that heroes and heroic narratives provide to competition are numerous, but one that stands out in particular is the story of basketball legend Larry Bird. At the time, basketball was seen in the US as largely a “black sport,” and thus had a relatively small white audience. Larry Bird helped to change that, as could be seen from one nickname of his: the Great White Hope. Was this racist? Yes, to a degree. Did it also help pull basketball into the mainstream? Yes it did.

(Is there a comparison to be made between this example and the fact that esports vs. FGC exists along something of a similar divide in terms of racial demographics? Also yes, but that discussion will be for another time.)

Narratives do not have to be manufactured whole-cloth. Seeing an underdog defeat a champion, or watching a winner cement his place with an undefeated streak happens just from competition existing. However, in a world where visual presentation can often be confusing to those unfamiliar, presenting these bouts as being between humans with wants and desires and emotions (especially simple ones like anger) can bridge that gap. So it’s no wonder why esports organizations frequently try to control it through player perception, delineations between pros and amateurs, and so on. But one question that arises is, does setting things up so conveniently end up compromising the integrity of competition? The answer is that it can, but it largely depends on severity.

Take professional wrestling, which has been predetermined for many decades precisely because the promoters understood that most audience members cared more when the wrestlers had charisma. Famously, when a bland 1940s wrestler named George Wagner dyed his hair blond and became the arrogant and effete “Gorgeous George,” his antagonistic demeanor drew audiences in droves to see him in the hopes that they’d get to witness George getting destroyed. Pro wrestling isn’t a true athletic competition precisely because it becomes easier to control the narrative and get viewers invested.

But even in a legitimate sport like mixed martial arts, the desire for narrative can influence decisions. While the results of matches aren’t fixed, the media and advertising machine surrounding MMA are there to try and produce the best narratives they can, either by using what’s there or cooking up some controversy. That’s because they know that narratives make people care. Athletes will be brought out to drum up a sense of animosity between the two. Is it real? Is it fake? Does it matter if it sells tickets? A guy like Conor McGregor, who’s naturally antagonistic but also an amazing fighter, puts butts in seats. People are eager to see him be on either the giving or receiving end of an ass-kicking.

At the same time, leaving things to chance can be scary for those who have substantial amounts of money riding on the success of their investment. Conor McGregor is in some ways the ideal, but he also has a tendency to get himself in trouble and make the UFC look bad in the process. One can even compare those blunders to the number of players caught blurting out racial slurs onstream. Just because someone’s a winner doesn’t mean they’re a good spokesperson, especially if they have no media training and are just kids plucked out of online lobbies and given an environment to train in. When there are so many variables at play where something can go wrong—quality of the game itself, image of competitive gaming to the outside world, the perception of “nerds”—it’s understandable (though not immune to criticism) why teams, tournaments, and organizations would want to control what they can.

The divide between FGC and esports, or the perception of it, has largely to do with community vs. respectability. The former looks inwards, and believes that having a solid core, a group of passionate players who can weather any storm together through a love of competition, is paramount. The latter looks outwards, and aims to establish itself as a permanent fixture in the world, something that cannot die because it has the size and backing to keep it going forever. The two are not irreconcilable, but finding a balance (if a balance is desired at all) requires parties that can trust each other to not abandon the other side’s principles.

What People Want Out of Competitive Games (Part 1)

The purest image of the competitive gamer is the person who “plays to win.” Whereas other players might decry a particular move or strategy as “unfair” or “overpowered,” the true competitor uses every tool available. But while this is the ideal in a certain sense for how a competitive gamer should behave, I find that it’s not actually a reflection of reality. If it is, it’s a reality that has long since passed.

Since the proliferation of the internet in the 90s and into the 2000s, the image of what it means to be competitive in the world of games (particularly fighting games) has been defined by two different resources. One is David Sirlin’s “Playing to Win,” which discusses what it means to not be held back by concepts such as “honor” or “aesthetic.” The other is Seth Killian’s “Domination 101,” which positions opposite the true competitor the figure known as the “scrub”—the player who constantly makes excuses, refers to things they lose to as “cheap,” and chooses to complain rather than learn. Within reason (so no foul play), both are based around the idea that what matters most in competition are the words “YOU WIN.”

Both Sirlin and Killian have changed over the years. Sirlin became a game designer who has to take a greater range of players into account. Killian is now a community veteran, old and wizened and less fiery. However, at the time these series of articles were written, both were most certainly what the Magic: The Gathering developers call “Spikes.” According to the developers of Magic: The Gathering, players of their card game can be roughly divided into three different archetypes. In contrast to the “Timmy,” who loves to make big plays using the highest-damage tools, and the “Johnny,” who loves to innovate new strategies and employ unorthodox tactics, the Spike is defined by the tendency to simply do what is most effective and efficient to beat the opponent.

Because of those articles, I believe that the stereotypical image of the competitive player, in fighting games especially, became the “Spike.” However, what’s curious is that, when you look at even the highest levels of play, that undiluted competitive mentality does not seem as dominant as one might assume. The greatest fighting game player of all time is Umehara Daigo, but in his book The Will to Keep Winning, he writes:

Tournaments are a playground for people who practice for growth. It’s where they show off their achievements. Once I made that realization, I finally started making continued growth my goal, rather than winning. Games enrich my life by allowing me to grow as an individual, and that’s what motivates me to keep on going.

Going from a different angle, Super Smash Bros. Melee player Mang0 has discussed how he’s had to balance changing his playing style to suit more recent developments in his scene with staying true to himself:

What’s clear is that even the best players in the world aren’t necessarily subscribe “pure Spikes.” While anyone who goes to a tournament to get as far as possible is a Spike on some level, hybrids such as “Johnny-Spikes” or “Timmy-Spikes” exist. This is even acknowledged by the Magic: The Gathering developers. However, what I believe is that, not only are “Timmy-Spikes” present among competitive gaming communities such as the FGC, but they are about as prevalent as pure Spikes, and in some communities are the greatest population.

Where once even the biggest competitive gaming communities might have been incredibly niche and might have indeed been comprised of mostly Spikes, I think that world has changed immensely, due to online play, greater publicity, streaming video such as Twitch, the concept of eSports, and so on. Going from the strongest champions in the paragraph above to the lower levels of aspiring competitors and eSports spectators, it is often the case that many people care just as much (if not more) about how victory is achieved than whether it happens at all.

While few people, be they watching or playing, can say they have no investment in wins or losses, what competitive games provide for a great number of players is a feeling of power. This might come from the look of the game itself, or from how it plays. A pure Timmy, at their most extreme, wouldn’t mind a loss, provided he managed to land a breathtaking combo that squeezes the life out of the opponent. They fight for the highlight reel, to be turned into a 30-second Twitch clip or gfycat. Keep in mind that this is not necessarily a “scrub” attitude. Timmy-Spikes, while they most certainly want to win, would prefer to win with style.

There are certain games, I believe, that even encourage Timmy-Spike mindsets more than others. These include the Guilty Gear series, the Marvel vs. Capcom series, and Super Smash Bros. Melee. What they all have in common is that the flashiest, most impressive-looking techniques tend to also be extremely effective in high-level play. Techniques that make you feel like unbridled energy is coursing through your veins, things that the common gamer might never achieve reliably, become yours to control and command, and they just so happen to carry a lot of visual oomph.

None of what I’ve mentioned in this article is fully an “eSports” or “video game”-exclusive phenomenon. People want to see and experience glory, and that image of grand triumph as a dramatic moment is etched into the human experience. It might just be that, because video games are a relatively new form of competition in an age where media and personal interaction become increasingly blurred, we’ve seen eSports grow much more rapidly and visibly than other forms of competition, even if it’s still small potatoes compared to soccer or boxing.

Yowamushi Pedal: Brains, Heart, and Body

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As a sports manga and anime with an enormous cast, Yowamushi Pedal is home to a variety of characters designed to contrast with each other in terms of personality and approach to competitive bicycle racing. This certainly applies to the first-years when the series begins, as all-rounder Imaizumi Shunsuke, speedy Naruko Shoukichi, and high-cadence protagonist Onoda Sakamichi are all differ from one another significantly. In looking more closely at these three characters, however, I find that they resemble professional fighting game player Laugh’s theory of the Three Fighting Game Player Archetypes. My aim here is to elaborate why I believe this to be the case, and which archetypes apply to these three.

As described by the video above from Core-A gaming, the three categories of players are brains, heart, and body. While this distinction is not exclusive to fighting games or even gaming or competition in general, I find that Yowamushi Pedal with its theme of cycling has a lot of parallels with fighting games. Although fighting games are typically 1-on-1 matches and bicycle racing is shown to be a team sport on the biggest stages, the emphasis on how a human being competes through the use and fine-tuning of their equipment is a point of commonality. At one point, a character in Yowamushi Pedal even talks about how, unlike other sports, you don’t need to be the biggest or the strongest because what matters is how you work with your bike. Replace that with “joystick” or “controller,” and the similarities start to become clearer.

In the training camp arc of Yowamushi Pedal, where the characters compete to see who will represent Sohoku High School in the Inter-High National Tournament, club captain Kinjou purposely messes with the first-years’ bicycles in order to challenge them to work on their major weaknesses. In doing so, he reveals the archetypes that Imaizumi, Naruko, and Onoda embody.

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Imaizumi is a “brains” type, or someone who relies on superior knowledge and study to win. When Kinjou removes his ability to shift gears, it initially throwsImaizumi for a complete loop. Just as a brains-based fighting game player knows frame data like the back of their hand, Imaizumi had up to that point relied on his optimal knowledge of gear shifting to tackle any level of slope while cycling. Although he eventually overcomes this flaw during the training camp, his sheer joy when he’s finally able to reunite with his cherished gear shifters shows just how much the “heady” part of bicycle racing factors into Imaizumi’s approach to the sport.

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Naruko, then, is a “heart” type, who prefers to “feel” things out. In fighting game terms, this is someone who is confident they can outmaneuver you in unorthodox situations and “mind game” you. His advice to Onoda to surprise Imaizumi with a technique in a previous race, as well as his own “Sprint Climb” maneuver, are indicative of a similar quality. At the training camp, Kinjou removes his lower handle bars, thus limiting Naruko’s ability to adapt and be as creative as he’d like. Unable to do things “in the moment” as a result, Naruko is forced to work around it.

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That leaves Onoda as the “body” type. While this might not make sense given how Onoda is the “heart” of the team, that’s a different kind of conception of heart as a spiritual center. Instead, the reason why Onoda is a “body” cyclist is because of the fact that his high cadence is the linchpin of his riding style. Just as a “body” type in fighting games always has things like technical precision and perfectly executed high-damage combos to fall back on, Onoda’s ingrained ability to raise and lower his cadence like the pedals are an extension of his body lets him overcome situations where he might be “strategically” beaten. And just like the other two, when his ability to freely pedal as quickly or as slowly as he’d like is interfered with, he starts off feeling utterly helpless.

Imaizumi the brains, Naruko the heart, and Onoda the body. Together, they create a complete being, which is perhaps why they work so well together. What about the other characters, then? I’ll leave you to figure them out.

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Attack of the Imoutos – BlazBlue: Alter Memory

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Fighting game anime do not have the best reputation. While we’re not at the absolute depths of the 90s and such wonderful stinkers as Tekken and Battle Arena Toshinden, most of the time the individual stories you experience by playing each character one at a time in fighting games are all mashed together into a paste. The result is that characters do not even have enough screen time to properly showcase their already flimsy narratives, and what carries a fighting game anime to any kind of success is enough flair for the characters’ personalities to shine through in their limited actions.

BlazBlue: Alter Memory is not the worst anime in this respect. Based on the popular BlazBlue fighting game series, the fighters themselves are designed to be as bombastic as possible, and while the story is convoluted to no end it seems very intentional. The narrative and presentation of BlazBlue: Alter Memory revels in its anime aesthetic to the point that it ironically suffers from not being as beautiful in the animation department as its source material because they can’t be as meticulous compared with the intricate sprite animations used in the games. I have to admit that I’ve barely played the games, but from what I can read the anime successfully captures the fact that the story involves alternate timelines, powers that are ridiculously vague in their function, and a seemingly endless stream of little sisters.

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Ragna the Bloodedge is our white-haired, Sugita Tomokazu-voiced protagonist with a beefy sword. His little sister Saya was killed in the past, and he swears revenge against the man who did it. However, he keeps coming across girls that appear similar or even identical to Saya. There’s military police officer Noel Vermillion, who is arguably the series’ secondary heroine. There are robots that come possibly from the future (or something?) who have her face. Even one of the main villains turns out to have connections to Ragna’s little sister. I had a passing idea of the narrative of BlazBlue before watching, that time travel was involved, and that it is basically the Guilty Gear series with the anime dial cranked up to 13, but I didn’t realize that the story is basically Super Kyon (from Suzumiya Haruhi) and his deluge of imoutos.

When people use the term “anime fighter,” they’re referring to games like BlazBlue, and while it’s often associated with certain game mechanics such as air dashing and elaborate combos, the aesthetic is also important. BlazBlue, and by extension Alter Memory, takes all of the popular little trends in hardcore anime of the past seven years or so and throws them together to make something gloriously confusing. You have Catgirls and actual cats. There’s a 12-year-old looking vampire girl who’s a fan favorite. Yandere are seemingly everywhere. Angst and ninjas and flourishes of power are presented in such obtuse yet highly cinematic ways that Bleach creator Kubo Tite would blush. The sheer importance of little sisters in BlazBlue is not surprising, then, given just how increasingly prominent they have been in anime, manga, and light novels.

I think if there’s any major flaw of BlazBlue: Alter Memory, it’s from the fact that it’s an anime in the first place. This doesn’t seem like the kind of story you’re meant to experience by just watching. Rather, I think it’s supposed to kind of wash over you as you back in the aesthetic environment of the world and its dynamic characters. Maybe I should play the games more.

You can watch BlazBlue: Alter Memory on Hulu.

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[Apartment 507] What’s Up with Anime Characters in Fighting Games?

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This time on Apartment 507, I explore the idea of the “anime fighter” and all of its surrounding meanings and associations. Hope you like air dashing!

A Beginner’s Guide to Understanding the “Neutral Game” in Fighting Games

Introduction

If you ever look into the world of competitive fighting games, people will throw out terms such as “neutral,” “advantage,” and “disadvantage,” all of which appear to be (and are) key terms to understanding fighting games on a deeper, fundamental level. Often their meanings can come across as obtuse and rather abstract, and what exacerbates this confusion is that people make the mistake of trying to explain neutral before explaining advantage/disadvantage. This is why I’ve written this article. Advantage/disadvantage are much easier ideas to understand compared to neutral, and once you get those two down, the concept of “neutral” follows along more naturally.

Advantage, Disadvantage, and Neutral

So, imagine you’re in a fight. Would you rather be punching someone in the face, or getting punched? Most likely you’d prefer the former, a position where you’re at an advantage.

However, this idea extends more to than who’s getting hit. Would you rather be backed into a corner, or backing someone into a corner? Would you rather be standing with your back towards the edge of a cliff, or forcing someone towards the edge?

All of these positions involve someone who has fewer options available to them. The guy with his back to the cliff or the wall can’t go backwards, of course, so he has to fight his way out or somehow get around. However, this also makes him relatively more predictable. In contrast, the person forcing the opponent towards the edge can attack if he chooses to, or walk back. He has the luxury of more choices.

One person is in an advantageous position, the other is in a disadvantageous position. “Neutral,” then, is when neither person feels like they have an advantage or disadvantage. Neither one is getting hit, neither has their backs to a wall or has to worry about a 500-ft drop. Both fighters are fully in control of themselves, and their goal is to get the other one into a disadvantageous position.

“Footsies”

You’ll often find characters who are considered to be great at neutral, and these are generally characters that have more or better weapons at their disposal when trying to gain an advantage. In this respect, you might see people throw out another common but also confusing fighting game term: footsies.

The idea of footsies derives from what kids would do at a lunch table. One kid tries to kick another kid’s legs. If a kid misses, then the other kid is free to kick that extended leg. Fighting games are kind of similar. If one character tries to punch another, but he misses, his arm is now extended forward, and his opponent can “punch his punch” back. Or, if he anticipates a punch is coming, he can hit more quickly, preventing the attack from happening in the first place (see also Bruce Lee’s original concept of Jeet Kune Do, the “Way of the Intercepting Fist“). When combined with the threat of a cliff or a wall, two opponents will try to trick the other into overextending or doing something predictable, and retaliating accordingly.

Neutral and Psychological Damage

You’ll also often see people say a character in a game is “bad at neutral,” and sometimes they’re right, but take the statement with a grain of salt because a lot of people don’t understand what neutral really is. They think it’s just about who can more reliably get the first hit in, and then whose attacks can lead to more combos, but neutral is just as much about potential damage as it is about actual damage.

Let’s go back to the example with two people fighting. They’re both in “neutral,” standing at the center of their fighting area. However, both want the opponent to be at the edge of the cliff, because as great as it can be to throw 20 punches at someone, it’s even better to throw one punch that knocks them off the edge of a cliff. The potential for greater advantage, and the fear of getting hit, become tools just as important as who actually successfully connects.

Leaving Off

Neutral is often touted as the most important aspect of a fighting game, because it’s where the game begins, where the mind games originate from, and is the most basic area where it’s necessary to understand yourself, your opponent, and the tools each of you have at your disposal. I hope in reading this that you have a stronger understanding of how you can use it in your own game.

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[Waku Waku +NYC Blog] Natural Selection and Option Selects: The EVO Championship Series

EVO finals Sunday is currently underway! I wrote a blog post for the Waku Waku+NYC blog detailing some of what I think are the more interesting aspects of EVO’s history. Here’s an excerpt below:

The Evolution Championship series, also known as EVO, is the largest fighting game tournament in the United States, and it’s set to return to Las Vegas this weekend. Having been in existence for 14 years through multiple iterations of fighting games, technological changes, and even generations of gamers, what I find most fascinating about EVO is that, true to its name, it is both a showcase of a survival of the fittest philosophy, as well as an example of change and adaptation.

Smash Bros. vs Traditional Fighters and What Lies at the Core of Fighting Games

Fighting games at this point are decades-old. While it’s debatable what can be considered the very first fighting game, what is indisputable is which game is responsible for popularizing the genre: Street Fighter II. That game, as well as all of its upgrades, are the standard by which all other fighters are judged, and it’s had a profound effect on how people discuss fighting games in terms of gameplay and strategy. However, if Street Fighter II is the archetype, there are a number of deviations from it, and one that’s become increasingly popular in recent years has been the Super Smash Bros. series.

Whereas in the past these two communities, traditional fighters and Smash, remained fairly separate (and one even unfairly mocked the other for not being a “real” fighting game), over the past year with the release of the latest Smash Bros. games, this has begun to change. One curious outcome of this has been that, when it comes to Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, a number of notable traditional fighting game community (FGC) members have taken to it, such as EVO Champion Infiltration and commentators Ultra David and James Chen, but it has also received negative attention from many players of Super Smash Bros. Melee, what is widely considered the most technical and mechanically difficult game in the franchise. The reason I believe this disparity exists is not only because of a difference in terms of the games themselves, but also a difference in how these respective communities have argued for what makes their games great.

The arguments made by many Melee supporters as to why it’s the superior game tend to revolve around the slew of difficult techniques that expand the range of possible moves available, as well as a heavier emphasis on free-form combos. The idea is that, while Melee is simple on the surface, being a game that was intentionally designed to be more accessible than the traditional fighting game, it in fact hides layers and layers of complexity. What might appear to be a game that is competitively limited due to its simplicity is in fact only the first step into a demanding realm of technical depth and discovery. Super Smash Bros. for Wii U lacks many “advanced techniques” and is slower-paced, and is therefore seen as an inferior game.

Perhaps this reasoning is a product of the way in which the FGC would dismiss Smash Bros. as a whole as “kiddie games,” but, whatever the case, this is the rhetoric that has been built up from Melee, that simplicity makes way for complexity, and that complexity equals depth. In the documentary The Smash BrothersMelee commentator Prog likens the difficulty of Melee to Starcraft, a game that is also known for its mechanical difficulty that leads to a wider range of options for a player, with the idea that this leads to a kind of expressive freedom (though it should also be noted that the documentary’s director, Samox, chose to include that in the first place).

EG|PPMD—recent champion of Apex 2015, the largest Melee tournament ever—shares this sentiment:

EG|PPMD: Melee allows me to express myself on a very profound level. I am not just playing the character, I am my character. I am not just playing against my opponent, I am communicating with that person deeply and getting to know them on a very personal level and conversing on that level with the game as a medium.

Said differently, the depth and speed of the game allow me to really bring myself out. Competition is also incredibly fun! I would be really surprised if another game gave me this feeling, but that would be awesome if it did happen.

In contrast, the most prominent arguments as to why traditional fighting games are great take the opposite angle. Traditional fighting games are known for being difficult to learn on the surface, due to specialized inputs (quarter-circle forward + punch makes Ryu throw a hadouken, while just hitting the “special move” button for Mario makes him throw a fireball) and complex combos, but the prevailing philosophies are of the mind that the ideal core of fighting games, what makes them really worthwhile and competitive, is a foundation of simplicity and elegance, and that this is what leads to depth.

While the above video is super corny, it reflects the lessons taught by great players such as Tomo Ohira, who is featured in that video and is often argued to be the first king of Street Fighter II in its earliest days. For another example, take the fighting game player turned game designer David Sirlin, who argues that what makes fighting games games truly interesting is the level of mental interactions that come from “yomi,” or reading the mind of the opponent. Others such as Ultra David have argued that yomi isn’t as important as developing and executing a strategy, but the emphasis is still on the idea that technical complexity should ideally make way for something more basic and fundamental. This is what drives Divekick, a stripped-down fighting game that attempts to get to the core of fighters by limiting players to two buttons and emphasizing spacing and reads.

Although what I’ve shown above are not universally held beliefs by either community, I wanted more to show that they exist and are prominent parts of each community’s identity when it comes to their games. I also don’t want to give the impression that the communities believe that complexity vs. simplicity and their relationship with depth is black and white in either direction, nor that the games necessarily reflect the philosophies described above 100%. Rather, it’s more about how people visualize depth, and why the idea of depth becomes so subjective.

As for why all of this matters, there are two points to consider as to why traditional FGC members might praise Super Smash Bros. for Wii U whereas Melee enthusiasts might look down upon it. First, much like Divekick, the Super Smash Bros. games with their simplified commands have already removed a surface layer of complexity, and to many experienced fighting game players this is seen as a positive. Complexity hides an elegance of simplicity and what makes fighting games truly beautiful. These players want to introduce this beauty to as many people as possible, and Smash Bros. allows this.

Second, while previous games in the Super Smash Bros. franchise were developed by its director Sakurai Masahiro with a team that was more experienced in other genres, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U was developed with the help of Namco, which is known for fighting games such as Tekken and Soul Calibur. Although there haven’t been any specific statements made on this matter, I believe that the development team, rather than viewing Melee as their template, looked more to conventional fighting games for ways to add competitive depth to Super Smash Bros. and that the mechanics of the new game reflect this. In discussions with Dave Cabrera, a friend and someone much more knowledgeable about fighting games than I am, he had a similar impression. Ultra David and James Chen also state how they find Melee to be a more momentum-based game similar to the also-unconventional Marvel vs. Capcom series while Smash Wii U is more positional, similar to Street Fighter games.

The result is a clash of perspectives. On the one hand, the Melee community, which has developed its conception for what makes a good competitive game based on Melee and the idea of hidden complexity, sees Super Smash Bros. for Wii U as lacking many of the elements that made Melee great, and that it is therefore a lesser experience. On the other hand, the fighting game community, which bases its standards for fighting games on Street Fighter II and the idea of hidden simplicity, has in this new Super Smash Bros. something that exemplifies that concept while also catering more to their tastes. Whatever the reasoning, it’s clear that there are two different philosophies at work driving discussion.

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The Perception of Balance in RTS and Fighting Game Communities

This post was originally a reply to someone asking about the differences in how the fighting games community and the real-time strategy community perceive the concept of “balance” in a competitive game, and why that would be the case.

My skills and experience lie neither in RTS or fighting games (though I have played both), so I can’t offer any particulars about why balance is regarded differently in their respective communities, but I think it is worth thinking about with more fighting games than just SF4, even if it is the biggest one right now.

I think it might be good to take a look at a couple of fighting games whose tiers are considered to be relatively balanced in two rather different ways. The first is the Virtua Fighter series, a game with a Brood War-like (outside of Korea) reputation, a very difficult game that is considered by its proponents to be more exquisitely refined than any other fighting game out there. According to this, the tier list for the latest iteration, VF5: Final Showdown comes out as the following:

“S: Akira
A: Lau, Jacky, Taka, Lion
B: Everyone else

That’s quite close! Even if one character is considered by far the best, no one is considered to have anything close to a “failing grade.” The message from this tier list is indeed “Imbalances exist in this game but it’s close enough that anybody can win with anyone.” Also perhaps important to note is that VF is considered a series where you do not have time to master more than one character because of how complex they can be. This might mean that, like SC2, switching characters/races is considered to be too time-consuming to be worth it.

Let’s look at another game’s tier list: Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star).

S++ : Rei
S+ : Toki – Juda
S : Raoh
A : Kenshiro / Thouther / Shin / Mamiya / Heart
B : Jagi

While there are now 5 ranks instead of 3, rather than call Jagi “D” tier and Rei “S” tier, they give the distinction of having them be “B” and “S++.” The distinction here is that while some characters are good, others are GREAT. The reason why HnK’s tiers are the way they are is that every character in this game has 100% combos and infinites. In any other fighting game, they would be brutally S-rank. However, in HnK, the top characters simply have more 100% combos and more ways to successfully land them. It is considered so imbalanced that it is balanced.

When talking to people who have played both of those games, I find that the main thing they have in common for why they are considered to be as balanced as they are is that all of the characters always have a good amount of options at any point in the fight. There is always more than one way to win. In a fighting game then, a character with consistently few options is always at a distinct disadvantage unless there is something else to greatly counterbalance that.

I think that the key difference between the Real Time Strategy and the Fighting Game, and why in the former the community is quick to say “things are unexplored” and in the latter people are eager to immediately lock in “tier lists,” is how time factors into the strength of your race/character. Consider that, outside of super meter, in SF4 a character’s strengths and weaknesses at 1 second into the match are about the same as in 50 seconds into the match. A character still has the same tools no matter where you place them in time. In SC2 however, time plays an enormous factor. Building your 10th SCV earlier rather than later does different things to the strength of your army. Losing a single SCV early on is much more detrimental than losing a single SCV in the mid or late game. Building particular units at different times affects the strength of a race tremendously, as does attacking with them. Options fluctuate tremendously based on when decisions are made, and an early disadvantage can ripple forward in time. This is often referred to as a “slippery slope,” where once one starts falling behind it becomes tremendously difficult to make it back. All the same though, that disadvantage can be potentially mitigated by a different timing altogether.

So the difference between having a constant, unchanging set of options and one that changes over time based on your own decisions are why I think that “balance” is approached differently by the fighting game community and the RTS community. Fighting game players can look at the tools a character has and determine how they will do at any point in the fight, and from there they can determine tiers and even be comfortable with the idea of imbalance, even early on in the game’s life. RTS players though have to factor in the timing of their decisions affecting the very strength of their army itself (and the ability to sustain that army), and that added variable is what makes the game feel so “unexplored” and difficult to determine the balance of.

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