Theory: Control Difficulty as a Gate

There’s an ongoing debate, in fighting game circles, about whether the quarter-circle forward motion required to throw Ryu and Ken’s fireball is an interesting decision. I would argue that it is–but only for very specific reasons. Having to hold the joystick in specific positions at specific moments has the potential to give rise to meaningful choices; just the fact that the movement is physically difficult for some players is not likely to do so.

In Street Fighter games, characters who can throw projectiles at the other players usually do so by moving the joystick from pointing down to pointing toward the opponent in a quarter-circle motion.

3-11-17 - QCF t-shirt
The fireball motion is so ubiquitous in 2D fighting games that it is featured on apparel

Some argue that this motion is, in and of itself, an interesting part of gameplay. Usually they advance one or both of two reasons:

The motion involves a transition from defense to offense: Blocking enemy attacks in these games requires the player to hold the joystick away from the opponent. The fireball motion, on the other hand, points toward the opponent. In order to perform a fireball, then, one must make a conscious decision to abandon defense.

The motion is a physical challenge unto itself: Just as there are countless micro-decisions in throwing a ball, there are decisions in moving the joystick just right to perform the fireball motion.

I would suggest that the former argument is valid, at least some of the time. There can be interesting decisions in whether to go for a big move, or stay on guard. Fireballs may not be the best exemplars of that decision–the choice of whether to block or counter as one stands up puts it in sharper relief–but the tradeoff is there.

The physical challenge, on the other hand, is on weaker ground. The fireball motion is not as difficult as throwing a ball. It’s the same every time; the only questions are whether one can commit the process to memory, and then whether one can repeat it under pressure. It’s the little adjustments necessary to throw a ball further or shorter or as a curveball that make the act of throwing interesting, and the fireball motion doesn’t have them.

What’s more, physically completing the act of throwing a fireball gets less interesting over time. Again, unlike throwing a ball in the real world, it never changes. Once mastered, it stays mastered. Hence, the decisions involved in fireballing rapidly cease to be decisions at all.

The general lesson here, I would suggest, is that repetitive but difficult tasks make for uninteresting gates. Switching from defense to offense is an interesting decision, for all the context-laden reasons why that sort of choice always has the potential to be meaningful. Difficult but non-repetitive tasks, like throwing a ball, are interesting because they demand continuous adjustment. When an action is both repetitive and difficult, though, all it is is a barrier to entry that will fall over time, until it ceases to provide any grist for the decision mill at all.

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