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Weekly Musings #34 Building a good fighting game
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: March 28th 2005

Last week, we saw an event that the majority of gamers who played Soul Calibur 3 (judging from the console-by-console sales) probably consider something of a betrayal.

Yes, I'm talking about Namco's decision (probably under payment of large bags of cash from Sony) to make Soul Calibur 3 a PS2 exclusive title, at least for 2005.

It's a sad thing. The Gamecube version, of course, had something that no other console could touch; they had LINK. That alone made for some interesting gameplay. They also had glorious 480p graphics and a widescreen option for those who have true widescreen HDTV's. The Xbox version had 720p graphics, no Widescreen, but the most beautiful rendering imaginable. The PS2 version had... well... a crap-ass extra character, Heihachi, and all the problems the PS2 usually has associated with its lack of larger amounts of video memory. Face it; no matter how you stretch it, the Gamecube and Xbox versions, visually, made the PS2 version look like a previous-generation title.

However, the PS2 version still sold well. In fact, for all three systems, Soul Calibur 2 did an incredible job of selling. And I do suppose that, when all is said and done, most of the gamers who loved SC2 and who own multiple consoles (most of us, in fact, have a PS2 in addition to the other console simply because it was the first one released) will probably bite the bullet and buy SC3 on the only available platform.

However, if Sony's thinking that at this late stage, the availability of SC3 only on the PS2 will get someone to buy a PS2, they're probably deluding themselves. It didn't work back when Sega convinced Namco to make Soul Calibur a Dreamcast exclusive, and it's not likely to happen here, in the same manner that Tekken 5 (aka "oh good grief can't they let it DIE already") won't drive any console sales. Sad to say, Soul Calibur and fighting games in general are simply not "Killer App" titles any more.

But why is that? Why are fighting games, after once being the big draw for console owners and arcade owners alike, falling short?

The first part is simple: like RTS gameplay, like FPS gameplay, and like all genres, at a certain point fighting games can get stale. In recent years, companies producing games that were merely "yet another" edition of the same game have contributed to this problem. Capcom and Sammy Studios are the only two companies still doing true 2D fighting titles, and Capcom's biggest blockbusters are behind them. Capcom Fighting Evolution has had a decidedly lackluster response due to a number of stupid design decisions (including not giving players a movelist in the game or manual), and a re-release of two OLD titles in the form of Capcom Anniversary Edition sold better. Guilty Gear titles, for all the weirdness they entail, are more fun to play than Capcom's latest. Big, bad-ass tournament players are still focusing on Street Fighter III and Alpha 3 as their games of choice, and Capcom's forays into the pseudo-3D world with Rival Schools and Street Fighter EX failed miserably, due to Rival Schools' lack of advertising support and EX 3's positioning as a Street Fighter-style Tekken Tag ripoff.

Meanwhile, in the world of 3-D fighting titles, players have been simply getting bored. Tekken of whatever edition plays, well, like Tekken. There's not tremendously much to say about it. Dead or Alive iterations sell well, but they're not the reason anyone owns the console they're playing it on; the big thing they have going for them is their counter system. Mortal Kombat's iterations, like Tekken, have never managed to get past the "it's a combo because it's on the combo list" method of gameplay that doomed them from the moment Mortal Kombat 3 first hit stores.

Despite this, Soul Calibur managed to be different. It managed to be fun and enjoyable, as well as well-balanced, in the midst of so many 3-D fighting games that are lacking. How did it work? It worked because the designers paid attention to three things that make a fighting game good.

1 - Unique Characters

First of all, the characters were all unique. Few, if any of them, can be claimed to lack personality. A player's choice of character can be a flamboyant affair - a case of "ooh, you're going to play HIM" rather than "gee, look, another Ryu clone." This uniqueness, which few other fighting games have managed to create (only Guilty Gear has come close) was aided by the game's premise of using weapons, rather than just fists. When every character's got a different weapon, every character will have a different style of play - and it makes a BIG difference in the game's enjoyability and longevity, because mastering one character doesn't make any player a master with any other. Soul Calibur also increased this, but in a good way, by taking advantage of the idea of "stances"; when a character changes how they hold their weapons, their attacks change. Some games (Virtua Fighter 4) toy with this in a few characters, and some take it to absurd levels (Mortal Kombat: Deception), but Soul Calibur does it right by making the stance changes flow naturally from the grip and swing of the weapons.

Making characters unique is important for a fighting game. Even Capcom learned early on that they had to make sure everyone seemed different; the two most similar (Ken and Ryu) were split into two alternating schools of strengths and weaknesses early on. Unfortunately, at a certain point most fighting game manufacturers started to give everyone a set of "default" moves in the name of balance. While it does help balance the game, it also makes it boring; if you know how to play Ken, you're 95% there with Ryu, and with Fei Long, and you're even 50% there with Zangief - in other words, the game becomes boring.

If a fighting game's going to stay fresh, the characters have to remain interesting. Soul Calibur's characters all manage this, fairly well.

2 - A Real Combo System

One of the biggest complaints I have with most fighting games these days is that a "combo" is not a combo because it should be, but only because the game's got a big list of "this is a combo" maneuvers. Memorizing 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-strings in Tekken or memorizing various "combo" setups in Mortal Kombat is a good example; there is nothing in the character's repertoire that indicates, until you magically trip over the sequence of buttons (or look at them online or in the game's movelist/trainer section), that such a combo exists. Equally puzzling is how certain sequences that happen relatively quickly should be a combo, but aren't, because the programmers left them off of the list.

Most Capcom and 2-D titles don't do this any more, and Soul Calibur left it out as well. Instead, for these games, combo moves happen because one move is fast enough to follow from another. In Soul Calibur in particular, this can get exciting. Certain combos only work on larger and/or slower characters, who can't block as quickly or evade to the side fast enough to get away from the second, third, or fourth hit. Certain combos can only be accomplished with a lighter, faster choice of weapon (which lowers the damage dealt), or with a weapon that's got a bit of extra reach. A real combo system in a 3-D fighting game encourages players to use walls, terrain and facing to their advantage, rather than simply throw the first hit of whatever combo they wish and then hit the preprogrammed sequence of buttons for the rest of the damage. And this keeps the game fresh as opponents work out new ways to escape from a given combo, forcing the player to come up with a new combo rather than doing the same one every time.

3 - A "Deep Enough" System

Soul Calibur 2's fighting system, like Soul Calibur and Soul Edge, falls into the category of being "deep enough" while not being too overly complex. Some fighting games insist that the way to have a "deep enough" system is to have pages on pages on pages of combos/maneuvers, all of which have to be memorized. Some, like Virtua Fighter 4, insist that a "deep enough" fighting system is one in which players are expected to input multiple moves in the span of 2-3 visual frames in hopes that they will select the correct counter for what the opponent is doing.

Looking at the state of tournament play today, a different picture emerges. For Street Fighter Alpha 3 and Street Fighter III, a "deep enough" system is relatively shallow; it is "deep enough" because it provides enough depth that it's not always possible to predict what an opponent will do next, and it is "deep enough" because opponents have options to attempt to counter any attack. In Street Fighter III, for instance, an experienced player can "tech hit" away an obvious attack, or even an entire special attack.

Soul Calibur 2's fighting system is "deep enough" because there's always something to do against an opponent. Moves can be avoided by backing away, by circling, by countering with a quicker maneuver, by blocking, or by correctly parrying; each of these limits opponents and forces players to not always be obvious about what attack they may try next. Yes, every character has a couple pages of moves; it's the nature of a weapon fighting system to have these. The point is, however, that even when you've mastered your own moves, a knowledge of the other characters is necessary to properly counterattack. Fighting with a friend in Soul Calibur 2, or any well-designed and properly deep fighting system, is less of a button mashing contest than an arms race, with each trying to figure out new and inventive ways to attack while remembering how to block, parry, and riposte against each other.

Yes, I'm disappointed in Namco for denying us the opportunity to further enjoy Link on the Gamecube when Soul Calibur 3 comes out. Yes, I'd rather be playing in full, beautiful 720p graphics from my Xbox. But it will likely be a well designed game, because the designers have consistently applied these three ideas when making previous Soul Calibur titles. And that means that, despite its being an exclusive PS2 title, it will probably be well received by gamers.

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Weekly Musings #34: Building a good fighting game

Added:  Monday, March 28, 2005
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf


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