Theory: Make the Right Choice the Default, Part 1

I love fighting games–Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, King of Fighters (especially ’98 and, for all its warts, ’03), Virtua Fighter, Capcom vs. SNK 2, Marvel vs. Capcom 2. The change list for Ultra Street Fighter 4 came out recently, and it reminded me of something I saw a long time ago–a design rule that I think makes a lot of sense but that many games, especially fighting games, get wrong. If a given option is almost always the right choice, it should be the default.

Street Fighter 4 is a good example of what happens when the default is the less-desirable option. For those not familiar with its genre, SF4 is a two-player game in which each player controls a single martial artist. The players use their chosen martial artist’s kicks, punches, and unique abilities (e.g., breathing fire or throwing rocks) to defeat opponents. SF4 is fun, popular . . . and has a somewhat silly way of handling players knocking each other down. It makes it hard to get up fast and easy to get up slowly.

In SF4, as in most fighting games, it is almost always best to get up as fast as possible after being knocked down. This is for two reasons. First, it gets the knocked down player back on offense more quickly–and being on offense is how you win. Second, and perhaps more importantly at high levels of play, the time a player spends knocked down is time the opponent can spend repositioning and setting up his or her next attack. Minimizing that opportunity is very important.

There are rare occasions when staying down is good. If the opponent comes at you with an attack that will meet you as you rise, it might be advantageous to stay on the ground. The attack will pass harmlessly over you, and then you can get up and counterattack. However, these situations are unusual; in most cases it’s still best to stand quickly and use your full arsenal of martial arts maneuvers to deal with the attack. (Fighting game aficionados will understand me when I say that you would rather quick-stand and DP.)

(Unless it’s a cross-up, in which case DPing might be wrong, but you still don’t want to be down, you want to get up and block backwards, since being down doesn’t stop them from continuing the block string and just turning it into a meaty.)

(OK, sorry, back on topic.)

SF4’s mistake is that it makes getting up slowly, which is almost always wrong, the default. If you get knocked down and do nothing, you will get up slowly and be at a disadvantage. Getting up fast, which you want to do at least 95% of the time, requires an extra joystick motion done with precise timing.

The fundamental problem with this is that it doesn’t make the game more interesting. Since you should do it virtually every time, it’s just adding rote behavior. Get knocked down, tap down as you hit the ground to quick-stand. It doesn’t even sound interesting when you say it!

Having slow-standing as the default also leads to what Mark Rosewater calls “feel-bad” moments. It’s entirely possible for a player to know that quick-standing is right, try to do it, and fail. Missing the input just makes the player feel embarrassed and frustrated. Since fighting games are often played online, where internet lag can cause the game to think an input was mis-timed even when the player did it correctly, these “feel-bad” moments can occur with substantial frequency.

Last but not least, slow-standing as the default makes the game harder to learn. Fighting games are not easy to play. They involve enormous execution barriers–it’s hard for a new player to get the fire-breathing and rock-throwing to happen consistently. Clearing those hurdles is only the beginning, because then the player is ready to start the real journey of learning fighting game strategy. That could be a book unto itself, but suffice it to say that to play fighting games well one must make split-second decisions in an environment of uncertainty. Saying to a new player “by the way, on top of everything else you need to tap down 95+% of the time when you get knocked down” is pretty rough.

I love SF4, but I can’t deny that it suffers from all of these issues. Quick-standing is a rote element of gameplay. I feel bad when something goes wrong and I miss it, especially when it seems like lag was the cause rather than an error on my part. It was a checkbox I had to spend time filling before I could “really” play the game.

OK, so the way SF4 does things isn’t ideal. Why is quick-standing as the default better? I’ll talk about that Friday.


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