How Fighting Games can Retain Players

Fighting Games don’t attract a lot of new blood. The majority of people who will buy any game are people who will never attend a single tournament for that game, never post about it online, and never interact with the community in any way. This means for a game to be successful, pushing a competitive scene isn’t very effective advertising. The success of a competitive scene is tangential to the success of the game overall. Magic the Gathering went through a similar transition when they catered to pro players, and the game was slowly dying. They ended up revitalizing themselves by building their product, the cards, into a stronger IP, and decreasing their investment into the pro scene, which was not the product they were actually selling. Wizards of the Coast called the non-competitive players, “the invisibles” because they can’t be observed because they don’t participate in the broader community, yet they make up the majority of the consumers, and this is the case for every game or media product. The majority of fans will never ever participate, but they’re the ones who are the backbone of your sales.

Changes of this type, making games more appealing to the average consumer, is usually associated with dumbing a game down. We’ve seen a lot of recent attempts to dumb fighting games down or constrain their complexity in order to make them more appealing to the average consumer, such as Street Fighter V, Marvel Infinite, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and Blazblue Crosstag Battle. These have had mixed success, with only Dragon Ball really prospering and SFV holding a middle ground. DBFZ and BBTag both did a good job of scaling complexity so the games were really simple to play at a lower level, but still had difficulty advanced techniques for higher level players. However the ease of play didn’t appear to make these games any more or less popular than any of their competitors. Tekken 7 did not include any ease of play additions compared to its forebears, yet is performing comparably to DBFZ (which has more sales momentum) and outperforming SFV. The popularity of each of these games seems to have no correlation to the ease of play, and a much stronger correlation to the quality of service for the game, and in dragon ball’s case, the strength of the IP.

However even with DBFZ, we saw concurrent players on steam fall off rapidly after the release of the game (more than you might expect), suggesting that even with the ease of play changes, such as autocombos, only quarter circle motions, and so on, the game still wasn’t sticking with people. The DBZ IP attracted a ton of buyers, but when they play the game, they don’t want to stick with it, probably because they don’t really understand the game on an intuitive level (and also the horrible User Experience with the lobbies).

TL;DR: Fighting games being unpopular is a DEMOGRAPHIC problem. Demographic problems require SYSTEMIC solutions, not INDIVIDUAL solutions. (Saying that fighting games are unpopular because people are scrubs isn’t helpful) The most obvious road to systemic change for fighting games is to change the games themselves.

The first issue in my opinion is that fighting games are intrinsically hard to understand, and this comes from their control scheme. In almost no other genre will you press up to jump, back to block, and need to hold directions or do motions in order to get particular moves. Almost no other genre has so many distinct buttons for attack. No other genre has a nigh-invisible property attached to every attack that determines whether it’s your turn or not like frame advantage. Making the game simpler will never remove these core barriers. Only radically remaking the entire way the game is played to create something more intuitive to understand and play, much like Smash Bros did, will undo this problem.

But of course, if you rebuild the game, you lose all sorts of strategies and dynamics in the process. I and many other people like fighting games the way they are, and this means the learning gap for new players is gonna stay where it is. I believe the solution isn’t to make the games easier, it’s to make understanding them easier. To get the purchase, you need to attract players to the game with a strong IP. To keep them playing, you need the game to be something they can understand. Smash Bros accomplishes both of these spectacularly, and Smash games have each individually been the best selling fighting games of all time, even on weak systems like the Wii U.

If you try to constrain the complexity of the game as SFV did, then you end up with a game that lacks exciting high level plays. Everyone can do everything, anyone can steal someone else’s tech, so you don’t have players who specialize in certain skills, who push characters further than others, or who have distinct styles with characters.

Below is an extensive list of ideas for helping to draw new blood into fighting games, helping to train beginners into intermediate players, and removing pitfalls that make players quit. The bad players of today are the pros of tomorrow, so while none of these factors is decisive alone, every one helps a little.

Big takeaways: Better In-Match Feedback, Better Single Player, More fun non-competitive modes that double as teaching, Better Community building, Better Tutorials

  • Make frame advantage more obvious in-game, different particle effects, sound effects, different recoil animations on block for unsafe stuff, a la tekken low kicks or last blade 2 when your sword attacks are blocked. Have it fly off like a damage number in an MMO or something
  • For a game like Tekken, take the high/mid/low indicators from training and stick them in the main damn game. Hell, stick all of tekken bot prime in as an optional hud setting enabled by default.
  • Clear feedback of proration/damage scaling mid-match (have an indicator for a weak starter like you would for counterhit or reversal, have the audiovisual intensity of hits drop off as the combo goes on further)
  • Make invincibility frames more obvious, have a whiff effect, particle/sound, that plays when something goes through iframes, similar to Yuzuriha’s 4B or 22 during her stance, have the iframes clearly marked with a white/light yellow outline.
  • Have a fully featured training mode that displays the framedata for every move, startup/active/recovery and frame advantage. Also display hitboxes, let players control the game speed, and have frame advance.
  • Force people into lobbies more often, have standard voice chat and text chat features like everything other game on planet earth does. Let you walk up to anyone in the lobby and challenge them, no bullshit involved.
  • Have lobby browsers like old online games used to (or like fightcade at least), let people freely talk in lobbies with voice and full text chat, stop restricting to canned emotes only. Let people make persistent lobbies with custom names and personalize them with persistent effects, so people can grow more attached to virtual places they’ve been, or have developer premade lobbies with different assets and names so they’re unique, a lot like MMO cities. Give people something to get attached to, and let them leave a mark on it, and let them associate with other people there.
  • Killer Instinct’s Shadow AI system is difficult to implement, but it means you can build “dumb” AI that actually play like people and teach fundamentals, and react to how you play instead of them fighting actually dumb AI that play entirely unlike people. This can be used for SO SO MUCH. This gives people a way to practice against human-like opponents of any skill level, and lets you build simple human-like bots that only use one strategy so people can practice versus that one tactic over and over, such as zoning/AA or sweep/throw, or pressure.
  • AC+R missions mode had some special AI fights, with restrictions like no jumping, no blocking, only combos deal damage, etc. Make some cool missions like this that teach fundamentals through their restrictions.
  • Show move list on-screen in single player, optionally in versus, highlight the names of moves that you’ve done the command for successfully, with a timer indicating when they expire.
  • ASW’s thing where they have a warning indicator for high/low hits when you block the wrong direction.
  • Better story modes, like Soul Calibur 2, or some NRS game.
  • RPG adventure mode, walk around and random encounters and such that are fighting game battles (like Them’s Fightin’ Herds).
  • More generic enemies designed to be fair (reactable) like single player enemies from other games, rather than designed like another character with unreactable attacks. Them’s Fightin’ Herds made a great attempt at this. Generic enemies can even be designed specifically to teach specific skills by breaking the normal rules, such as only having them be vulnerable on a block punish, only vulnerable to an unsafe, but confirmable, special, etc.
  • Particle effect glints on AI to indicate they’re about to do certain unreactable things, so you can learn to predict those things, such as throwing a fireball, so you can learn to jump right when the fireball comes out.
  • More minigame missions, like Xrd’s better missions, shove these into story mode. Good Guilty Gear missions for learning/training skills include: 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 15, 25, 26, 27, 28, sol 1, ky 1, millia 1, venom 2, i-no 2, ramlethal 1, elphelt 2, leo 2, haeyun 1, dizzy 1
  • Daily trials or missions that reward you if you do a little warmup exercise each day, so you get training in as you get currency.
  • The input display that shows the inputs as you do them like in ASW games (with the 8-way gate with the ball indicating the stick position), but if you do a command correctly, will show you the name of the move connected to that command and the button you need to push, plus a timer for how long you have to press before the command is invalidated. HAVE THIS AS AN OPTIONAL DISPLAY IN NETPLAY MODE ONLY VISIBLE TO YOU.
  • In tutorial, teach them to do special move motions, have a sound effect, like a clicker, that clicks every time they do part of the motion correctly, so they can tell they’re getting closer or further from getting the whole thing correct, maybe rises in pitch as you get closer to finishing the whole motion. So QCF would be click like 1, 2, 3, 4 as you do d, d/f, f, P. UNIST had a tutorial for special move motions, but it didn’t really teach you them in any way better than just explaining it.
  • Random items that provide buffs that emphasize the core fundamentals of the game, a la james chen’s video.
  • For a PC fighting game, make the damn mouse work in menus so you can change settings and binds easily. Also let you set all your controls by holding down 2 buttons on any given controller like fantasy strike, so that as long as the controller is registered by the computer at all, you can always set up the binds easily.
  • Post-match statistics, like how many overheads you blocked, how many times you successfully anti-aired, etc. plus general statistics.
  • Match analysis based on simple statistical points, keep track of what moves specifically you get hit by, suggest moves that the playerbase commonly interrupts or punishes that move with, for the character played.
  • Combo suggestions, suggest how a combo could be extended, have a training path from simple combos to more complex ones.
  • Shareable combo trials and tutorial missions generated by users.
  • Indicator you pressed a button too early/late in combo trials, maybe a pocket rumble/skullgirls style framedata display, so you can see it even better. Along with audio feedback to make this more clear.
  • Tutorial that explains absolutely everything. Has buttons displayed as both what they are on the controller and as their short name. Has mini-trials that reset if you can’t perform them X number of times in a row, for AA, punishing blocked unsafe stuff, combos, blocking high/low correctly, reversal DP, confirm to super, poking, whiff punishing & counterpoking, tick throwing, tick throw defense, block strings vs throw mixups, moving in on the opponent grounded (such as moving in, then blocking), using chip damage to chip the opponent out, shimmy (knockdown and neutral versions), meaty attacks, safejumping, jumping in on fireballs, performing fireball/anti-air, combo trials, teaching how to perform all the moves, jump attack into low (both using and defending against), empty jump throw/low, abare (using options out of block), etc.
  • Mode where you only have certain core utility moves, like crouching MK, throw, fireball, uppercut, and gotta make do with just those. Maybe stick these on single buttons, akin to Flappy Fighter.
  • Add a mode that restricts you to normal moves only, have them deal more damage if you hit with the tip of pokes and base of +frame moves, so people need to use the right moves based on range. Flashy indicator for bonus damage, make the player feel the crunch when they’re successful.
  • Crazy modes that are fun to play around in, like: Mortal Kombat test your luck mode, MVC heroes and heralds mode, smash bros special versus, turbo mode where everything cancels into everything, KOF teams mode, sudden death mode, first touch kills, combos mode, where only combos deal damage, mode where you lose only if you get cornered for 10 seconds consecutively, mode where you can only deal significant damage off whiff punishes and maybe throws, mode where anti-air deals like 3 times as much damage with a loud crush counter style effect.
  • Injustice equipment that only works in a special mode for it and becomes cosmetic otherwise.
  • BBTag’s thing where every move in the command list has a little explanation symbol on it for special properties. (or fantasy strike’s thing for explaining the whole movelist on one big card, instead of just listing names and motions)
  • Tekken’s thing where you can click any move in the movelist to see what it looks like and the timing for the inputs (with sound effects to help understand the timing of each button press). Also Granblue Versus’s thing of showing you a video of the move and a description of what it’s good for on the side.
  • Team modes where other people can throw in assists of their own volition, and you tag in and out (more like BBTag than DBFZ)
  • Character unlocks (and a secret code on the title screen to unlock all the characters instantly, plus extra secret codes for all colors, costumes, stages, etc). This means casuals can unlock content, but serious players can look up the code to get it all instantly, so they can play the real game.
  • Keep you off ranked play until you play a sufficient amount of single player content and/or play enough casual matches (unlock ranked instantly if you do a big combo, or input a cheat code)
  • Random loot at the end of versus matches, bonus for certain achievements like high rate of overhead blocks, successful anti-airs, throw techs, combos over X hits, or certain criteria for nutty shenanigans. the percentage required to trigger these could be connected to rank.
    • Nuttier criteria could include taunting a lot (each taunt raises chance for 1 extra lootbox), wakeup super, blocking wakeup super, etc
  • Built in replay recording, posting to social media, conversion to video (Smash ultimate has this).
  • Custom color palettes, tekken costumes (could work in a 2.5d game, like SFV or GG maybe?), customizeable/unlockable taunts
  • Rotating AI boss fights, like SFV, maybe with randomized restrictions and less cheatery.
  • Megabuffer mode? Customizable buffer? mode where you have mega-lenience on motion commands, and it detects if a late input on a dropped combo would have combo’d and reverses time to make it combo.
  • Good input readers, no bullshit like not recognizing 6314 as 63214 or not recognizing 626 as 623
  • AI that targets your weak points and gives you reminders about them.
  • Explanation that the combos in the combo trials are not the only combos, actually explain combo theory instead of telling them a combo and making them think they just gotta memorize sequences
  • Gears of War subtle new player buff, lasts until they get like, 5 wins. In a fighting game, this can be a ton of subtle things, see this video: or consider the below:
    • Increased damage
    • Increased combo scaling so players who know combos deal less damage
    • Increased health
    • Increased guts (health scaling)
    • Automatically block meaties on wakeup sometimes when you wouldn’t, such as mashing on wakeup
    • Automatically do a super or DP sometimes when you’re mashing directions and buttons and the other player is in a counterhit state.
    • Extra hit/blockstun, not enough to make unsafe moves safe, but enough to tip the scales. +2 or +3
    • Making new players invincible on trades/near trades
    • Outright make new player attacks unblockable sometimes
  • More handicap features, make them available in player matches, add currency/lootbox rewards. Such as the standard health cut, to increased combo proration, and faster hitstun scaling. Invincibility after wake-up for like 5f. Take bonus damage on antiair. Weaken the advantages of experts. Strengthen beginners in ways that teach good fundamentals.
  • Special low skill ranks that sort the people who know how to play out faster than just ranking points by detecting competent play
  • Make rotations on the same local setup easier, let multiple people plug in as many controllers as the system supports, before each round, have each player hit start to confirm who’s in or out. (a lot of games already do this, wouldn’t hurt to have more, would make games more sociable)
  • Have people regularly switch sides during matches, so beginners get used to doing motions on both sides (Tekken as trouble with this.)
  • Have minigames, like a ton of enemies that all jump over you and you need to block their ambiguous crossups correctly, have millia blocker, have distinct unlockable rewards for getting over certain scores that can be shown off in online play (better than a high score chart or just a random medal or whatever).
  • Some Mortal Kombat X modifiers are good for teaching fundamentals: 15 seconds (15 sec), bad jumping (lose health on jump), blocking disabled, danger (1% health), fire (you’re on fire, pass it like hot potato), frost Shield (randomly freezes opponent on successful block), god fist(reduces opponent to 1hp on next hit, lasts a second), hand to hand (disables special attacks), juggle Kombat (let’s you juggle longer), klose kombats (walls are closer), no turtles (no ducking), overpowered (normals can’t be blocked), quick uppercut recovery, slow start(start slow, increase speed as you perform combos), super meter disabled, super degen(meter depletes), throw disabled, triple chip damage, wrestling Kombat (throws deal increased damage, x-ray instakill, you’re special (specials deal more damage)
  • Strong IP. The roster is the primary thing that draws players into a game, people need to be fans of the characters. Licensing IP is super powerful. Mortal Kombat is a strong IP all by itself, Smash Bros leverages a ton of strong IPs, Dragon Ball and Marvel vs Capcom both leveraged IP successfully, but turned people away in the long run because of the style of game (tag team fighter), and bad User Experience.
  • Optional simpler input system. Maybe includes 1 QCF or DP input for super, to ease players into stuff like that. Dunno what the tradeoffs on the simple input system would be, if any. Could rip off Rising Thunder and include cooldowns in the simple input system as a means of balancing the input scheme, and negate the cooldown only if the special hit. (Granblue does this and has cooldowns as tradeoffs)
  • Hide your matchmaking rank. Only show it to people above a certain threshold, like the top 5% players. Global smash power is a clever way of refluffing ranking points to be less intimidating, but it’s still aggravating to players. Have for-fun rankings based on win ratio like rising thunder and hearthstone maybe.
  • Detect when someone mashes multiple buttons during other moves and over a certain threshold, buffer a taunt, uncancellable. This directly punishes mashing, making it more obviously bad. (Also highly likely to annoy the shit out of players, so take with a grain of salt)
  • Pad out the lower ranks of online play with humanoid bots that mimic weak players (neural network? careful coding? Ideally they spam certain moves so beginners gotta beat that move to move up). Don’t do the standard story mode bots that have no real strategy and read your inputs and you can win by mashing against.
  • Make a beginner queue that everyone gets shoved into when they start out. Anyone who does anything obviously skillful gets immediately removed to guarantee the newbie queue has exclusively newbies (you can detect if someone accidentally mashed out a combo by checking if all the inputs in it correspond to the moves getting activated. If there’s a bunch of inputs that have nothing to do with the moves in the combo, you know they mashed it). Normal skill based ranking systems have the problem that even the absolute bottom level of the game is still filled with thousands of losers better than you. Pad this out with the humanoid bots from the previous bullet point.
  • Scoring system in single player that explicitly rewards basic actions, like doing special moves. Every time you do a special move, bonus points. Have it drop off, so you don’t break the scoring system by spamming specials until timeout.

Of course none of these ideas can fix the problem alone. They work in tandem and they support each other. Stuff that’s completely unrelated to the game can help boost the game too, like the Netflix Witcher series raising sales of Witcher 3, an already popular game, by 554%, but people won’t stick with the game if it actively repels them.

If we want to see the fighting game community grow, the gameplay of fighting games shouldn’t be changing, but a lot of the structure and presentation around the gameplay needs to change.

4 thoughts on “How Fighting Games can Retain Players

  1. Santana May 10, 2021 / 2:40 am

    “No other genre has a nigh-invisible property attached to every attack”
    I’m a fighting games fan, but I can’t agree enough. The properties of attacks are the major problem in understanding the game. Tekken is the worst example (tekken is the worst example in many ways lol) with its tracking left/tracking right moves that are extremely unintuitive and arbitrary. So it comes down to grinding and training your muscle memory, nothing more. There is no thought involved, only testing the properties and training yourself.
    And in general fgs being centered on almost identical (to a newbie) attacks makes it difficult to differentiate the attacks and memorize them (I still have problems with memorizing the frame data on SF5 different charge “tackle”-like moves like Urien’s, Gil, Bison, Balrog, etc.).
    League of legends is in many ways welcoming for newcomers, but I want to stress the part where every character has a distinct set of skills that are so unique and you can say imaginative that you can easily memorize them. To paraphraze what I just said, in League you deal with more obvious effects like Mordekaizer pulling you into another dimension away from your and his teammates making the fight 1v1, or Zed summoning a clone of himself that he can return to, or Poppy dashing into you and stunning if she succesfully pin you into the wall with her dash, etc. These skills also inspire your imagination – you can guess and find counter-measures intuitively.
    While in fgs you deal with some obscure properties like tracking left that may just be not interesting for people – in how they function, in what effect they produce and the training routine you need to undergone to beat the specific move that has nothing to do with another similar move.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. lauramvx August 13, 2021 / 7:05 pm

    Something I might ask here is: what does non-competitive play actually look like for fighting games? In MTG there are lots of well-understood ways to play casually. Some players buy into a booster draft every friday at their LGS, some players build a meticulously constructed 100-card Commander deck to play with six friends every so often, some players (like me) play too much Vintage Cube whenever it comes on MODO, etc. Interstingly daft, commander and other varieties were all conceived ‘bottom up’, devised by players themselves to accomodate casual play, and Wizards began to support them afterwards.

    My experience as a casual player of fighting games is something like this: I meet another girl and sooner or later find out she likes fighting games, or at least some fighting game. She’s usually also a casual player. One of us says we should play such-and-such together and we get excited about the idea. We play it every day for two weeks and then we sort of froget about it. “Why did we stop playing Guilty Gear?” “Yeah dude, that game was awesome.” And then we don’t play it again. I never bother with the ladder/lobby because I just don’t want to play with strangers; I want to play with my friends. If other casual players are like me, the drop-off in concurrent players in DBFZ isn’t surprising. In any case, we all still bought the game. It’s possible that if you’re still thinking about how to populate lobbies, you’re not yet thinking casual enough.

    Incidentally, for all the people I’ve played with like this (and it is most of my friends!), no one has ever struggled with the button inputs. That is to say, as much as we flub them it’s never a source of frustration. We never bother learning combos. I don’t feel like I need to understand the game any better. I’m just not committed to the game because I only play it socially.


  3. jaymes90 December 7, 2021 / 7:26 am

    Star Fox/Starwing was not only the very first SNES game we ever got, but it was the first ever video game I ever played. And even though it looks dated now, I still enjoy playing it now and again. And I also play Super Mario World too.

    What? No Super Star Wars, Super The Empire Strikes Back, Super Return of the Jedi, Mario Paint or The Mask? Not even as honourable mentions?


    • Celia Alexis Wagar December 7, 2021 / 9:32 am

      What are you replying to? This doesn’t seem relevant to the post at all.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s