Theory: Marvel Contest of Champions and 2D Fighting With Few Controls

I like fighting games and I like comics, so I couldn’t resist giving Marvel Contest of Champions a try. If nothing else, I wanted to know what the control scheme was like; after years of playing fighting games on an arcade joystick, my thinking on how to control a game like that had gotten stale. To my surprise, I discovered that MCoC’s tap-and-swipe system works better than it seems like it would. There’s only so many things you need to build a legitimate fighting game, and tapping and swiping enable all of them.

MCoC is a 2D fighting game. That means each player controls a martial artist, and those martial artists fight back and forth on a flat plane. In this case the martial artists are Spider-Man and Captain America instead of practitioners of karate and muay thai, but the colorful characters don’t change the underlying gameplay.

2D fighting games have two core concepts that make them work: the attack-block-throw relationship and controlling space. MCoC features both.

Fundamentals of 2D fighting games

Almost every 2D fighting game I’m familiar with–I would go so far as to say every 2D fighting game released in the last 25 years except one–has rock-paper-scissors at its core.

Blocking (rock) nullifies the damage from attacking (scissors)
Attacking (scissors) does damage to an opponent who is trying to throw (paper)
Throws (paper) inflict damage on a blocking (rock) opponent

Much of the strategy in 2D fighting games comes from manipulating opponents into making the wrong choices, so that their damage is nullified by timely blocks and they are not blocking when the time comes for one’s own attacks. That manipulation is possible because the different choices have different payoffs; knowing what the opponent wants to do makes it possible to get into his head, predict his moves, and bait out the moves you want him to make.

2D fighting games also involve a battle to control space. When Ryu throws a fireball in Street Fighter, he takes control of the lower part of the screen; since the game occurs on a flat plane, the opponent cannot advance while the fireball is approaching. Thus, Ryu’s fireball prevents the opponent from taking the offensive. By controlling space, Ryu controls the game.

Not all 2D fighting game characters have fireballs, but they all have ways to control space. The player’s goal is to use each character’s unique tools to assert control over space, take control of the game thereby, and turn that advantage into a victory.

This video, made by David Sirlin, is a great visual explanation of controlling space. Take a look; the relevant discussion begins at 0:58.

The fundamentals in Marvel Contest of Champions

Everything one would expect from a 2D fighting game exists in MCoC. The rock-paper-scissors relationship is firmly in place; MCoC uses “heavy attacks” in place of throws, but the effect–damage inflicted on a blocking opponent–is the same. So too is the struggle to control space in evidence, with Iron Man’s repulsor beams standing in for Ryu’s fireballs.

What’s striking is how few “buttons” MCoC needs to accomplish those things. Movement is thoroughly simplified; players can only shift toward and away from the opponent by swiping left or right, with no jumping, sidestepping, or other movement options. Yet, “toward” and “away” are enough to create space for oneself and reduce the opponent’s space. Hitting the opponent is also very basic–tap, swipe, or tap and hold–but that’s enough to enable attacking and throwing, which are all that’s needed.

In some respects MCoC reminds me of Divekick, the “art game” of the fighting game world. Divekick is the one modern 2D fighting game without rock-paper-scissors; it’s all about controlling space, with a total focus on jumping into the air and positioning oneself to dive down on an opponent who’s trying to do the exact same thing. Although they play very differently, both games are about stripping away the cruft that has affixed itself to the 2D fighting genre in order to explore the essentials of how such games work.

(Well, MCoC is also about incentivizing spending using a freemium model.)

I’m always fascinated by the question of the most minimal thing that would count as a game. Divekick and MCoC are interesting because they push that boundary within a specific genre: they’re both trying to find the smallest number of elements one can include in a 2D fighting game while retaining the strategy and fun. The fact that they both use minimal controls to do so is surely interesting . . . .