Something Completely Different: Context-Sensitive Fighting Game Controls

File this one under “projects for a 25th hour in the day” . . . .

Years ago I saw a really excellent post—I can’t remember whether it was on Shoryuken’s forums or elsewhere—regarding the challenges of learning fighting games. The poster argued that one of the major issues for new fighting game players is that the buttons aren’t labeled in a useful way; they have thematic names that don’t express what they should actually be used for. At the time it was difficult to resolve that in a satisfactory way, but it strikes me that this problem could definitely be addressed with current technology.

The concern goes like this: most fighting game characters have attacks that serve defined tactical purposes. By and large they will have a long-range strike that controls the opponent’s movement; a quick and unpredictable attack that probes for weaknesses in the opponent’s defenses; a slow but powerful smash that’s meant as the last move in combos. One of the major hurdles for players who are new to the genre is recognizing that the moves available have these specific uses.

Part of what raises that hurdle so high is that the various attack buttons aren’t labeled “control,” “probe for weakness,” and “smash.” They’re “medium kick,” “light kick,” and “heavy punch,” which sound thematic but don’t do anything to explain how they ought to be used. New players thus find themselves without the information necessary to make decisions about which attack to throw out, and are obliged either to button-mash or to figure it out on their own. Either way, it’s a substantial barrier to clear before they can start to get full value out of the game.

Moreover, the knowledge a new player gains from one character isn’t transferable to another. Millia controls with kick and probes for weaknesses with crouching kick; Ky controls with slash and probes for weaknesses with kick. Picking a new character means starting from about 50%; the new player (hopefully) knows that different moves have different applications, but has to figure out which move is for which use all over again.

When controllers just had whatever markings they had, and the labels needed to be appropriate for all characters, this was a very difficult problem to solve. However, today we can do context-sensitive controls. Imagine something like this:

The controller is a tablet or smartphone. Instead of being labeled light, medium, and heavy kick, buttons have descriptive labels appropriate to the character. Not only is there a button marked “control opponent’s movement,” it’s the correct button for that character. New players immediately see that each attack is for a specific purpose.

What’s more, the buttons change. If the opponent jumps, attacks that aren’t useful in that situation have their buttons greyed out—the attack will still work, but it’s clear that that’s a bad button to press right now. Attacks that are useful will stay their normal color and will get new labels, like “anti-air.” In single player mode, the game can be paused so that players can look down at the controller and find out what might be useful to do.

Fighting games are, I feel, one of the hardest genres to get into—but also one of the most rewarding. Context-sensitive control labeling would make it a lot easier to access both what a specific character can do and how new players should think about their moves generally. And it’s so doable now . . . if there’s time . . . .

2 thoughts on “Something Completely Different: Context-Sensitive Fighting Game Controls

  1. “Pause the controller and look down” doesn’t sound very smooth to me.

    Replacing all the literal buttons with “control”, “probe” and “smash” where characters vary in how they attempt those results sounds pretty reductive. Is it a good thing that once you’ve learned to play one character you know how to play them all, or is the point of having different characters that you can begin the challenge of learning again?

    Another solution to this problem might just be a training course. A sifu teaches your character all the possible moves, and when each move is relevant, how to fight, and how to win, just as they would in real-life. This gives new players a hands-on tutorial designed to teach them everything they need to know to play the game and welll.

    1. I absolutely agree that it’s not smooth–but I think part of learning fighting games is breaking them down into their constituent situations. What are the options in a neutral situation? What can the player do when getting up after being knocked down? Right now the way one studies those situations is by reading forum posts/watching videos/etc.; I’d like to see an in-game solution. If nothing else, that might tend to break down some of the reputation that fighting games are only accessible to those interested in doing lots of out-of-game study.

      With that said, I very much like your in-game solution of the sifu. Guilty Gear Xrd actually implemented something very much along those lines, with a training mode that introduces the game’s mechanics (which are numerous) and explains when one would want to use them. Context-sensitive controls don’t need to supplant that, and in fact they wouldn’t be suitable for the kind of explanation that sifu mode could provide; the controls might serve more as the homework assigned after a class, a review and reminder to help cement the information.

      As regards functional labeling being reductive: I feel that the interesting part of fighting games is not “what do my buttons do,” but “how do I use my buttons to defeat the opponent.” As a result, I like things that get players to that second question faster. Fighting games are sort of like Tichu: interesting in the learning phase just because there’s a lot going on, but really excellent when everyone knows what all the possible plays are and is thinking tactically. There’s no shortcut to learning the legal plays in Tichu, but there might be a shortcut to understanding what the buttons do in fighting games.

      In addition, I don’t think functional labeling takes anything away from the question of how to defeat the opponent. The mind games and struggles over spacing that define fighting games don’t rely on players not knowing what the possibilities are. To the contrary, participating in them usually requires that both players know, and be able to execute, all of their options in a given situation. Pushing new players toward that point will, I believe, deepen the experience for both them and their opponents.

      Functional labeling also doesn’t make the characters similar, I don’t think. Ryu and Zangief both have buttons that can be used as anti-airs, but the resulting attacks are very different and mastering the use of each is a unique challenge. What I envision the functional labeling doing is getting new players to the point where they understand that moves *have* purposes, as anti-airs or otherwise, so that the learning process can begin in earnest.

      On the other hand, it’s definitely true that I’m proceeding from the assumption that the best part of exploring a fighting game is learning about tactics rather than studying the mechanics, figuring out that move X is good in situation Y but not situation Z. I’m think that’s generally true, especially in the age of the internet, but I could be completely wrong. I’m sure I am for at least some percentage of players.

      Hmmm . . . I’m not sure there’s an easy way to accommodate those players within this idea. The labeling could just be optional, but that seems like it’s asking players who don’t want to use it to hamstring themselves. This will definitely need more thought. I also want to grapple more with the reductiveness issue generally; now that you’ve brought out mechanical exploration I feel like I’ve really given it short shrift, and need to understand better where people who are into it are coming from. Jay, your thoughts are much appreciated! (As always!)

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