What do you think of auto combos in fighting games?
Short answer: Letting people mash a single button to get an okay-ish high-commit combo that does not mix up on block in a game that is heavily based on landing difficult high-damage combos is a good idea.
Marvel style games and anime fighters are frequently about landing big, high-execution combos for tons of damage. I’ve learned a few combos in skullgirls and marvel 3, and they get pretty long and tough, even if most of the individual stages are fairly lenient.
Individual hits in these games tend to be low damage, and exist more to define the entry-point of the combo, limiting your ability to confirm and what route you take through the combo. Damage scaling and proration also affect the total damage of the combo based on the opener. It might be easier to confirm off a light (because they self-cancel and come out fast), but you might be shaving off tons of damage in the process.
The perspective to take for these types of games is to think of the combo as one extremely high-damage hit, imagine that in in-game time, you’re skipping directly from the beginning of the combo to the end. Having the combo have all these moves in-between allows combos to vary more widely in their effects and damage, so in “one hit” you can have a much wider variety of outcomes, pieced together by all the moves the attacker chooses to assemble in the combo. From that they can get pure damage, resets, corner optimized combos, corner carry, hard knockdown, character switching, etc.
It also means that different players can demonstrate their skill and creativity with the combo system, practice to improve their damage output, produce different results from the combo system.
However getting to that level is hard. It requires understanding a lot about the game, and having skill at actually executing combos.
So auto-combos give people an easy in. They can play the neutral game using all the different moves they’re given, then confirm into an auto-combo off their openers. They let people deal respectable amounts of damage in a game about dealing a lot of damage, but ultimately to get the real damage, they’re gonna have to learn. Autocombos don’t really affect competitive play in any way, they don’t imbalance the game, they let beginners get an idea how to use combos, how to confirm, etc. So in this respect, pros don’t care about autocombos, so it’s fine to have them.
At a low to intermediate level however, autocombos feel weird. I did a twitter thread on this: https://twitter.com/aGrimVale/status/953268702056763392
As a beginner who was good at neutral, bad at combos, I felt like autocombo systems were a violation of the idea of effort vs reward, and they are. I disliked combos in general at the time, so I didn’t really like games based on long combos. Combos can feel unfair, even if they aren’t actually unfair. It’s like, “why are we even playing each other if only one guy is doing anything?” As you get better at combos and dealing with setups, you get more patient with other people’s combos too, and you know to look out for when they drop or reset. Unless it’s Hokuto no Ken, then you just leave and grab a drink.
Beginners don’t have a good sense of the fairness of fighting games. A common perception is that mashing is just as good as deliberate play, and autocombos add to that, because low level players aren’t familiar with blocking and punishing. It’s also feels like handholding, like simplification of the game, and you’ll see the same combo a lot and you know they’re never ever gonna drop it, so that kinda sucks. So in a way, it simplifies the game at a lower level, because low level players shoot to just do the same thing over and over again, because it’s so much more rewarding than anything else you can do, and it’s frustrating to try to play without that until you can do real combos. You feel like you’re trying to engage with the actual game, but you’re being punished for it, because using multiple moves in neutral and trying to make do without combos is so much less effective than just using the damn auto-combo.
The trouble with auto-combos isn’t that they’re broken, it’s that they give people an easy crutch, but they don’t understand how to build from there. We don’t have the best on-roading structures for leading people to develop better fighting game knowledge and skills. A lot of it requires research outside the game, or having a friend who knows better, and even then, it’s difficult to really understand the basics. The tutorials in most games are insufficient, and they’re external to the process of actually playing. Most games don’t have a medium between autocombo and manual combo, and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you can really build (Though DBFZ tried its damnedest).
I don’t have a good solution to this, but hey, autocombos are a neat stop-gap that hurt the game less than people think. If we can figure out a way to lead people to naturally learn about combo systems without having to divert them to another mode, that would be great, but I just don’t see how we can do that.
Very on-point that autocombos make the game look like a “button mashing game”. I know a few people who’ve been turned off from trying fighting games because of that.
This is a really good thought. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard this discussed anywhere. I’ve been thinking about making an article on it for some time, but I don’t have much insight on it. (This is also the same issue I kind of had with Dark Souls parrying, when I tried to learn it on the hollows in Undead Burg.)
I’m not convinced that autocombos really provide anything that can’t be achieved without them. As you point out, they can help serve as a “gateway in” for beginners, but isn’t that the same problem good matchmaking solves? If beginners could find matches against other people who didn’t use the optimal combos, that would probably be just as good. (And learning the real combos gradually would be easier if it didn’t involve a loss in performance at first.)
Of course, “get a bigger player pool” isn’t an alternative to a design choice, but just in theory, I mean.