A high skill ceiling is key to representing athleticism in esports.
Over the last 30 years, the Street Fighter series has been the gold standard of the fighting game genre. By design, fighting games are known for having a niche audience due to the difficult barrier of entry for many of the games. In other words, if you do not already know how to play, you’re expected to lose – a lot.
Meanwhile, in response to the growing esports industry, video game developers are designing more games with the intent of entering the esports community, and Street Fighter developer Capcom was no different. Capcom’s Brand Manager Brian Ayers says the company pledged to conform to the esports business model when creating Street Fighter V, stating in an interview with MCV’s Matthew Jarvis,
“It’s at the forefront of our minds to make Street Fighter V more approachable and accessible. Not just the game, but the business model, too.”
The result? The game is easier to play for both casuals alike, and that’s not making everyone happy. Some of the people who have played the Street Fighter series the most are also the most dissatisfied with the changes made to the latest title, like pro player Alex Myers, who has been taking reactions from other pros about the game:
In a video interview with Core-A Gaming, 3-time Evo Winner Seeonwoo “Infiltration” Lee had a lot to say about the game after the release of season 2:
“I understand that there needed to be something to close the gap between people who had been good since Street Fighter 3 or 4 and totally new players. But this is going too far… Capcom is trying to make the game easier and at the same time, trying hard to “eSportsify” the Capcom Pro Tour. ..but with all the effort going into the Capcom Pro Tour, they have to think about the players who regularly compete, it feels like Capcom just wants to focus on the new players. So that’s one complaint. I really don’t understand what Capcom is thinking.”
If the best players to play their flagship game are finding it boring, I believe Capcom needs to make major design changes to keep their audience interested.
Among all competitive games, a high skill ceiling is necessary to motivate players. Good competitive games will have the depth to enable talented players to truly stand out among the rest. One example is StarCraft II, a strategic game that measures players based on their “Actions Per Minute” (APM) to determine how well they can actually play. APM is a measurement of how many different movements a player can make in the game with their fingers using just a keyboard and mouse. According to industry insider Philip Hubner in a 2013 interview with NBC News, most pro StarCraft II players can produce 500 to 600 actions per minute, or 10 actions per second. It takes a lot of practice to get to that level, and it takes a challenging game to spark that kind of motivation in players.
In esports, the audience and the competitors are often one and the same. Capcom clearly realizes this, but they chose to cater to the casual players rather than the competitive ones. A game of the same genre, Super Smash Bros. Melee has managed to combine casual and competitive with a lot of success, and perhaps their story can be a lesson for other fighting game developers.
In 2002, Super Smash Bros. Melee was released by Nintendo on the Gamecube in the US, and 15 years later, the game is still being played at tournaments with major prize pools. Since the release of the newest Smash Bros title for the Wii U in 2014, the last three Evolution Tournament Entrants and prize pools have been almost the same, with the Wii U version coming out ahead about 15% in both categories numerically. The common knowledge among Smash players is that the difficulty of advanced techniques used in Melee is so much greater than that of later versions of the game, that when the top 5 Melee players show up to a tournament, the difference in skill level is so high that they always win. In contrast to the technical difficulty, Melee was the best-selling title released for the Gamecube at 7.09 million units sold.
The primary difference between Super Smash Bros. Melee and Smash 4 is the same contrast between Street Fighter V and Street Fighter III and IV: execution barrier. The advanced technique of wave dashing specific only to Melee requires using the dodge movement in the air, just above the ground, into the ground to cause a slide. Sliding in Melee is very similar to walking and rolling except it can move the player farther and allows them to cancel into any other movement. The alternatives to sliding require more basic inputs that are unsafe in a competitive match. Using a technique like wave dashing requires some mastery, as moving around without the use of common motions like walking is something that a player wouldn’t normally even be aware of unless they studied competitive matches and the knowledge online available to them. This is why the common Smash player from as far back as the original title on the Nintendo 64 to the Wii U version might consider this an exploit of the game design and a bit too technical for a balanced game.
Every Street Fighter title prior to Street Fighter V arguably had high execution barriers in its game design as a feature. In Street Fighter III a player could potentially negate every single attack with a defensive move called Parry, wherein the defending player merely had to tap forward or down during every single hit to completely negate the damage it would deal. Parrying in Street Fighter III was so difficult to master as the desired input had to be frame perfect, as in the timing had to be within a 10th to a 20th of a second to react. Parrying lead to some of the most exciting moments in Street Fighter history, notably 2004’s Evo Moment #37:
To mistime your defensive parry, you would take the hit and the following hits of the attack. This simple input may not be seen as an execution barrier until your opponent has mastered the game so well that they nearly parry every single attack you make. Parry is a prime example of incorporating a simple game mechanic that requires high precision, resulting in a high skill ceiling game.
In Street Fighter IV competitive players used a series of technical strategies to gain advantages on other players: vortex, okizime, and most notably: Option Selects. Option Selects are not exclusive to Street Fighter IV but due to the design of the game they were incredibly powerful for players who mastered them. An Option Select is an input that would result in more than one action happening depending on what your opponent does. The Option Select gave the player the ability to respond to multiple actions with one single input, often resulting in heavy damage, something that Community Manager and Associate Producer Peter “Combofiend” Rosas, in an interview with the staff at Shoryuken.com says he intended to reduce with Street Fighter V:
“It was the option selects; we wanted to minimize those because that becomes a specialist-only type thing.”
Exciting games require depth, action, and responsiveness, and nearly all of the most popular esports games have these characteristics. In addition, it is clear that a game that is hard to master often yields gameplay that may not be originally intended, resulting in innovative and competitive gameplay that drives a title’s success. Execution barrier is a daunting concept to new players, but it offers high rewards in competitive play and illuminates the athleticism it takes to master high skill ceiling games. Most of all, depth and complexity in games make their competitions enjoyable to watch, something the fighting game genre has always had by design.
How can developers make the next Street Fighter game exciting?
Street Fighter V has a number of things in its core design that detract from the series’ winning formula: the first is input lag. Upon the release of the game, players noticed a large amount of delay in their reactions within the game. It was discovered that the game had an average of 8 frames of input lag compared with Street Fighter IV’s 5 frames of input lag. The difference may seem small, but in fighting games- reaction time is key. Street Fighter is designed and measured around frames, and typical displays show 60 frames per second. Some moves are as fast as 3 frames, and being unable to see these moves until they’ve already started forces players to predict their opponent’s moves rather than react to them. The negative response by the fans was so high that Capcom patched the game, and reducing the input lag to about 6.5 frames.
“I realize how Capcom changed this game’s input timing. It is very big to me”, said pro player Tokido in an interview with Red Bull, “Before, aggressive players, or everybody, had a chance because this game was very random. One mix up is all it took to score a victory… but now, it is difficult because opponent can react.”
Another major series of design changes have been made to the defensive options in the game. Reversals are risky moves that are meant to be used as defensive tools, to best an offense given the window of opportunity. The iconic Shoryuken has been the staple tool used by Street Fighter players since the games inception. In Season 2 of Street Fighter V, all common reversals lost invincibility frames but maintained the ability to be responded to with Crush Counter combos that naturally deal at least 25-30% of your life total. These changes have left well known protagonists like Ryu and Ken unpopular in SFV due to perceived weaknesses in their greatest defensive tools.
After twelve patches and two seasons of game design changes, it remains to be seen whether or not Capcom will find Street Fighter V’s player base growing along with its revenue without the same exciting formula they’ve had in the past. Continuing to make changes and listening to the community may be the company’s best bet at ensuring several more years of a thriving competitive landscape for this still-popular series.
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