Fighting Game Philosophies – How to develop a fighting game that appeals to everyone

We have reached a turning point in fighting game development. It’s been proven that fighting games can’t survive on their versus mode alone. Gamers need more than just the arcade experience. In addition, fighting game developers have been desperately trying to grow their fan base which has always seemed insular. It’s as if we are trying to re-market fighting games to a much bigger audience. How do we do that? That’s where major fighting game developers disagree. Three major fighting game powers, Capcom, Netherrealm, and ArcSys have three completely different philosophies of how to develop modern day fighting games. Let’s take a look at them.

The Capcom Philosophy - Make Fighting Games for Fighting Gamers

Capcom tends to believe that you either are a fighting gamer or you aren’t. That’s not to say that they don’t try to reach out to new players. In fact, they have done quite a bit to make their games more accessible to newer and casual players. They simply think that fighting gamers of all skill levels, enjoy fighting games for one reason and one reason only: gameplay. Fighting gamers can appreciate a fighting game for its gameplay alone while non-fighting gamers need a whole lot of extra bells and whistles to keep them occupied.

Capcom has always focused on fighting gamers first. They got their start in the arcade where the only two ways to play were against other people or the A.I. Story was non-existent, training modes were barebones, and half the time games didn’t share their move-lists. If a game played well, that was all it needed. You were either a player who could appreciate the gameplay of a one-on-one competitive game, or fighting games were not for you.

They have carried that philosophy forward into the present. All of their efforts have been in gameplay first. Want to bring in new players? Make the gameplay easier to learn and control. Want to appeal to the e-sports crowd? Fine tune the gameplay for a competitive experience. Players upset that you won’t be including X-Men in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite? Make characters that play similarly to the characters that were removed. Everything Capcom does focuses on gameplay first.

This is why we see very little effort put into things such as challenge modes, story modes, and tutorials in modern Capcom games. Note, this isn’t because Capcom doesn’t care. It’s because they are prioritizing their efforts and resources. Capcom wants their fighting games to be around for an entire console generation, and for the most part they succeed. Heck, we played Street Fighter IV right up until the release of Street Fighter V and we played Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 right up until the release of Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite.

Capcom knows that single player content can only carry a game so far. Eventually players will beat a story mode, complete challenges, and max out their score in score attack. All of this content will get ignored after the first few months but gameplay, gameplay lasts forever. We have seen this time and again in fighting games, from Smash Bros. to Tekken content is nice, but it’s gameplay that keeps you from fading into obscurity.

The Netherrealm Philosophy – Games Live and Die on Content

In many ways, Netherrealm is the anti-Capcom, and that’s not just because they make Street Fighter’s most notable competitor, Mortal Kombat. For a few generations (specifically the first 3D ones,) Netherrealm simply could not create core gameplay that competed with popular fighting games at the time. Luckily, the Mortal Kombat creators had something else up their sleeves, content.

Mortal Kombat was always more than just a gore fest. It was a community of secrets. Every loading screen gave you a chance to enter special codes, every so often secret characters would challenge you to a fight, strange and cryptic messages would flash across the screen from stage to stage, and let’s not forget how amazing it was to learn your first fatality. Unfolding all the content locked away in a Mortal Kombat game was just as fun as learning how to fight your friends.

Netherrealm Studios never shied away from making content that was specifically not gameplay focused. They made bosses you couldn’t play as, stages you couldn’t access, bonus mini-games that had almost nothing to do with fighting. They had one goal and one goal only: keep you occupied. As long as you were discovering something new, then you wouldn’t put down their game.

Like Capcom, Netherrealm has carried this philosophy into our present day market. However, current technology has allowed them to create more content than they ever could in the arcade. From massive story modes with fantastic plots and competent voice acting to challenges that update daily via the internet, Netherrealm is still in the business of keeping their fans’ hands full.

Once again this isn’t because Netherrealm doesn’t care about gameplay. Far from it. In fact they release balance patches more often than any other fighting game developer. They are once again prioritizing their efforts.

In Netherrealm’s eyes there are far more gamers than there are fighting gamers. The amount of people that want to hone their skills to tournament level is far smaller than the amount of people who just want to do cool stuff. So why not give your players as much cool stuff as possible. This is why Netherrealm games tend to focus on gamepad controls rather than stick controls. It’s why complex cancel rules and combo timing take a back seat to dial-a-combos and quick two button supers. It’s why you will never see a DLC character in a Netherrealm game release without a full story mode. In Netherrealm’s eyes, a game only lives as long as you can support it with new content.

The ArcSys Philosophy – We Shouldn’t Change Games, We Should Change How We Interact With Them

Capcom believes you are a fighting gamer or not and makes tons content for fighting gamers because they don’t believe non-fighting gamers will enjoy their product for long periods of time. Netherealm believes you are a fighting gamer or not and makes tons of content for both types in the hopes that their product will be enjoyed for a long period of time. Arc System Works, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in this fighting gamer split. Instead, they believe everyone can be a fighting gamer and they think the only reason this split exists is because we have done a horrible job teaching people how to play fighting games.

Learning fighting games is hard. They require quick thinking, sharp reactions, good muscle memory, and much more. They are some of the most physically and mentally intense games on the market. So of course newbies will struggle to learn them.

Yet time and again we have left these newbies in the dust. While other game genres go to great lengths to develop informative and useful tutorials, fighting games just throw their players into the deep end and say “good luck.”

ArcSys has been trying to fix this by making high quality fighting game tutorials. They don’t just explain how the game works, as most fighting games do. They explain fighting game concepts. They explain what a combo is, what a reset is, what a mix-up is and more. They even go so far to explain exactly which characters excel at which strategies and give you advice on how to get better with your character of choice. They even describe move properties and explain which moves counter which other moves. All of their combos and missions are practical for match use and they include joystick diagrams and musical button press cues to help you with combo timing. It’s clear that ArcSys is the king of the tutorial.

Of course, there is a flip side to this dedication to teaching, and that is indifference to everything else. ArcSys hasn’t done much to refine their gameplay systems. We haven’t seen controls get simplified or easier to access. Instead we see the same bizarre pretzel motions in Guilty Gear and Blazblue. These games both have a ton of systems and concepts to learn, far more than other popular fighting games. Even though ArcSys has gone to huge lengths to teach their games to the masses they haven’t gone through major lengths to make their games more learnable.

ArcSys also believes in making their fighting games an experience, and that philosophy shows through in their single-player content. They make 40-hour long story modes, deep and involved strategy modes, and have incredible options in their training modes. Heck, even their online lobbies have game like elements, since they let you choose an avatar and walk around in an online world. Yet none of this content updates like Capcom and Netherrealm’s games do. Instead, ArcSys is committed to the old model of pushing out multiple game versions and selling them as individual products. It’s incredibly expensive to keep up with ArcSys releases, though the extra money generated by these releases is exactly what allows them to keep their games so feature rich.

Where Does That Leave Us?

One would hope that future fighting games would combine the best of all three philosophies. I’d love to see games with solid core gameplay like Capcom, tons of single-player content like Netherrealm, and feature rich tutorials like ArcSys. However, there is one thing holding back fighting game development and that’s resources. You may notice that each philosophy prioritizes one aspect of game development at the expense of others. That’s because game development is expensive and unless any give company could scrounge up the resources of all three of these developers combined, you probably aren’t ever going to see the “full package.”

Instead, I think the best thing we can do is hope for balance. It would be nice if Capcom focused on their single-player content a little more and made some more competent tutorials, just like it would be nice if ArcSys’s games had easier motions and simpler game systems. We are getting closer with each fighting game release and maybe, some day, we will be able to create the fighting game that appeals to everyone. But for now, it appears as if different segments of the FGC are just going to have to make do with the game that caters to their interests the most.