This will be really long, and I’m going to note right off that while I do play fighters competitively and very often I wouldn’t call myself good by any means. However I’ve seen a lot of folks try and fail to pick up fighters as well as many succeed, so here are my thoughts on the subject. Please read the whole thing if you want to comment on it, and if you do comment I’d like it to be constructive, if you can.
Essentially fighting games have barriers to entry as far as competitive or even enjoyable casual play goes. This is natural for a lot of games, even non-competitive games in some cases. The problem the barriers pose is different for each game, but for fighters it can be very large, and I think this problem is almost entirely based upon presentation.
Think about playing some Call of Duty game. The first level in the single-player will always teach you everything you need to know, such as how to pick up a weapon, how to fire a weapon, how to aim, how to run, etc. The game’s inputs are pretty easy and there are sometimes a few techniques that weren’t intended or something like that, but basically you can learn what you need to enjoy the game by playing that first level (and usually get better at the game by playing further on).
Now think about booting up Super Street Fighter IV, having never played a fighting game in your life. You go to arcade mode, thinking that’s the story-whatever mode that would fill up most of your time not spent playing with friends or online guys, and then being thrown into your first match. You don’t know what the controls are, because nothing told you. If you’re generally up on game design, you’ll probably jump straight to the configuration menu to see what buttons do what, and probably the move list to learn how to do other shit, but you may have issues with certain inputs, like understanding the shoryuken input or 360 motions; however, you’ll probably be okay because you’ve played games before and can associate inputs with actions on screen quickly, and you might even figure out a few basic system things by trying buttons. If you’re much more casual of a gamer (maybe you never found something that interests you), however, you’ll probably have none of that come to mind and assume that you’ll be told shit, then freak out when you aren’t; it would make for a very frustrating experience.
This shows that games successful in a casual setting, such as Call of Duty, do not have expectations built in for the experience level of the player; the average fighting game unfortunately does expect the player to know something. This is the initial barrier to enjoying the genre. At first, it doesn’t seem too serious, since any person who plays games enough will quickly fumble through the controls, figure out training mode for practicing/understanding moves, and move on to the next part of the experience. But doesn’t that seem a bit counterintuitive if one of your major design goals is to expand your audience? While there is much value in discovering things yourself (and much fun), this is not appreciated by everyone. Some people who would otherwise enjoy a game would pass on it simply because it’s more frustrating to play at first when vital information is hidden from you. Even basic button commands such as a light punch are not immediately obvious unless you have the sense to look at the configuration menu to discover the control layout, or in the manual they might not have at all. To insure that everyone who buys and plays a game gets full enjoyment, you cannot assume that they have read the manual or looked up things on the internet (especially if they bought it used without a manual, making the manual an unreliable source of info; and even with the manual those things go totally unread).
So how do you solve this? It’s really obvious: just put in a tutorial mode. From what I know, BlazBlue succeeded in doing this, and it’s popular in my area among people who wouldn’t normally play fighting games likely because of it (though that’s me extrapolating, don’t take that as a definitive statement). A good tutorial mode needs to do certain things: explain the basic controls (what the buttons do, how to do moves, etc.), explain the hud elements and game systems, and explain the goal of the game (e.g. “the goal in Super Street Fighter IV is to reduce your opponent’s health to zero using your different attacks”). This alone would help tremendously, and I have only a vague understanding of why it is not a common sight (more on that later).
Now, let’s skip ahead a bit. Let’s say that the guy who had no gaming experience somehow learned fundamentals like normals, specials, supers, and the game system (whether it be from a friend telling him or him reading the manual or something). Now he tries online mode, and he gets floored; this is because he’s hitting the second obstacle of fighting games, which is learning basic metagame.
The abstract nature of ideas like poking, punishing, spacing, unsafe moves, etc. is probably hard to grasp if you understand those concepts already, but let’s face it, it’s not obvious just why good players do what they do to someone who doesn’t play fighting games. There are people who will intuitively pick up on what works and what doesn’t, and sometimes those people end up being the best players (a good example would be a time when I played against my dad, who doesn’t play video games, in Street Fighter II World Warrior with an awful troll Zangief which consisted of jumping at him and trying to land SPD; he was using Dhalsim and successfully used normals to zone me out without realizing what he had done). There are also people who won’t, and they make up the majority of the populace. If you want a game to be played often, you cannot rely on just that minority of people who naturally understand the metagame to make a large base of people (relatively, that is; after all, there’s certainly enough to make lots of tournaments).
How can you make the man who never plays video games and doesn’t immediately get the metagame play better? The most simple method is for him to look up game strats on the internet. This solution sucks because it requires the player to desire being better at the game enough to go out of his way to get better, instead of just playing another game. A more successful way is for someone to directly explain these concepts to him, usually while playing with him. This is likely one of the more common occurrences, since all it requires is finding a play group in your area, and it leads straight into better play due to competition. But another way would be some sort of advanced tutorial mode which could teach simple metagame, such as how to zone, when to approach, and when to throw out different types of moves. While this may easily fail to inspire or teach, ultimately being inelegant, I believe it would be worth implementing into at least one game as an experiment.
Now let’s consider someone who got over the first two barriers. He will be in one of two camps: ready to leap straight into the competitive scene, or completely clueless about it. The former occurs because someone learned how to play the game via friends who already were acquainted with competition and tournament play; he may have even went on to a site like this one to find a play group to learn. The latter happens because either someone is just naturally good when playing against friends who don’t know about competitive play or because he probably played online enough to not totally suck. How does the latter person get started into more hardcore enjoyment of the genre via tournaments and such?
The simple truth is advertising. If a tournament has fliers out on a college campus or something, that sort of guy who would be interested in it would go, meet new people, and probably learn about a whole new community he never even knew existed. This isn’t the only way, of course; maybe it’s just a play group that puts out fliers, or maybe he gets linked to a site like shoryuken or eventhubs. Either way, it’s basically by chance (at the moment) that someone even knows of the competitive scene.
But there is another way. I believe that with game tech as advanced as it is today, you could easily integrate the community elements of the game into the game itself, thus exponentially increasing the number of people interested in our little community. To some extent, this does happen, with online play and voice chat and other things like that, but I believe that you can extend it further, with an IRL-matchmaking/group-finding/tournament-advertising service connected to the game, probably with a forum. This will almost certainly have the negative side effect of a lot of clueless dudes and weirdoes posting and going to events, but hey, there’s already stuff like that, and anything that gets big has to deal with it. The biggest issue with this idea is that it requires a lot of trust between the developers and the players, which can be jeopardized in many ways.
Finally, I’d like to take a look at a game that I think is much more successful at drawing new people into its competitive gameplay: Starcraft 2. There may or may not be issues with the game itself, but you cannot deny that it does a great job of teaching you how to play the game and providing you with opponents and a community through which you better yourself. It integrates much of its community into the game, as well as having several different tutorials to teach you how to play the game (and a great single-player mode if you decide you don’t like multiplayer). It also has the advantage of having a player base from the previous entry, Brood War. That game also had similar features, with the in-game integration of community and competition (via Battle.net) and a great tutorial mode to teach you the basics (the single-player, basically), though you may have to get taught a few more things needed to even begin competing; the game enjoyed such a large community, however, that it didn’t have as bad of a barrier knowledge wise, just execution wise.
Why are fighting games put forth like this? I blame the arcade system. It really wasn’t bad back in the days that arcades were everywhere and a celebrated entertainment source, because you got the game in front of you, clearly labeled buttons on the control panel, and usually a nice set of marquees that explained mechanics. The expectations people had for arcade games were vastly different due to the setting; they never expected being told everything, because that would leave less reason to pump more money into the machine. The best thing about the arcade system was that it combined community and the game in one place. You could get strats from other players at your arcade, watch other players, find competition, etc. all in the same place you went to play the game.
The problem is that it died and developers have yet to fully move on from arcades (probably because in Japan it hasn’t quite died and I suspect that many Japanese devs would not know of or consider the issues that face American audiences). This is clearly evident in how in the newest Capcom fighters, Super Street Fighter IV and Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, the mode that approaches anything resembling a story or general single-player mode is called arcade mode. They’ve approached the modern era with ideas like online play, but they basically forgot that the arcade setting provided a lot of what made games like Super Street Fighter II Turbo very good, as well as what made it possible to begin playing games like that even casually. Some games include a story mode, which is all well and good, but it’s not quite the best way to enjoy a fighting game. All of us on this website are here because we like the competitive elements of fighting games, and modern fighters have yet to create an environment where people who would never otherwise know about them can have the fun we have.
I’d like to leave a final note: the answer is never to make the input requirements simpler than they’ve ever been, but always to make the information readily available.
tl;dr: Devs fail at telling newbies how to do shit, and they fail at increasing the number of people in the community; the answer is to tell newbies how to do shit in the game and to put the community in the game instead of expecting us to do it.
P.S. Hey Namco, you clearly know the importance of frame data in Tekken, so why not fucking put it in the movelist in game :((((((. You could quickly avoid the biggest information barrier that game has!