What’s the Deal with Auto Combos?

Many modern fighting games have been integrating auto combos for the past 10 years or so. BlazBlue Cross tag battle and dragon ball fighterZ have auto combos on 2 different buttons even.

An auto combo is a string combo attached to a single button. Pressing that button will produce a sequence of attacks that combo, some of which may be unique to the auto combo sequence. Sometimes finishing an auto combo will produce a super attack if you have meter.

Auto combos have historically been controversial because they’re so much easier to perform than other combos, giving players who don’t know how to combo access to easy damage.

Many games have tried to offset the ease of auto combos by either damage scaling them compared to doing the same combo properly, or in the case of persona 4 arena, costing the player some temporary health. Over time these nerfs to auto combo damage have been removed and auto combos simply deal whatever damage the manual version of the combo would do. This is because auto combos are already lower damage than poorly optimized combos, so there isn’t a point in making them even worse.

Amongst beginners however, getting hit by any combo is overwhelming and confusing. Beginners also recognize that this is a lot of damage for a low amount of effort, and thus are quick to call it cheap, or refrain from using it against others, based on honor code. And they’ll get frustrated with others using it against them, especially if they don’t know how to do a manual combo for more damage.

Auto combos can be an effective trial to overcome for beginners, because they hand real combos to other beginners. This means that they can learn to block and punish, they can learn to watch for opportunities and respond to them, they can learn to confirm whether or not their opponent is blocking and stop their combo before it becomes unsafe, and they can learn to watch for the ending of a combo, then block the follow-up. However because auto combos are more likely to be stigmatized among beginners, they’re more likely to be seen as unfair and tossed aside, or simply whined about rather than earnestly examined or treated as a challenge to learn about and overcome.

Auto combos have absolutely no effect on anything above beginner levels of play. Learning a combo that does more damage than an auto combo is incredibly easy. I can pick up a character I’ve never played before and usually figure out a better combo during normal gameplay. Auto combos are not qualitatively different than any other combo in the game, they’re just low damage combos that have 0 difficulty. Higher level players are more likely to dislike auto combos on the basis that they can trip up intentional play when triggered by accident. At a high level, auto combos become something to avoid tripping over. We’re now starting to see games like Melty Blood Type Lumina offer the option to disable auto combos for the convenience of higher level players. Previously we saw other games allow one to bypass auto combos by holding back while hitting attack.

The problem is that beginners don’t understand the role combos serve in the game and conceptualize of combos in the wrong way. They think of Combos like someone is/ being trapped until they’re let out. Combos are more like working out so you can punch harder.

In order to avoid these beginner traps, we should do a better job tutorializing combo systems. Combo trials have existed for a long time, but have typically taught players impractical and weak combos, rather than an integrated understanding of the combo system, or combos that are genuinely useful to them. Teaching the system rather than solutions is tricky however, because lets be honest: Most people look up combos online, rather than put time in the lab for themselves. Finding optimal combos is so hard that it’s a rare few players who actually dedicate themselves to it.

Dragon Ball FighterZ made an attempt at an auto-combo system that had simple scaling up for players. LLL was a pre-made string that allowed them to launch, into LLL in the air, which is a macro for LMH. This will put the opponent into a sliding knockdown, after which it’s possible to get off a super attack or go for Okizeme. It’s easy to extend this system by learning how to combo off different starters, like 2M or 2H into LMH super. And it’s easy after that to try doing LM duble jump LMH super.

Despite that, most players are never going to figure this out naturally. There are combo trials that demonstrate some of these systems, but the average player simply isn’t observant enough to notice or internalize the rules from combo trials. They’ll simply repeat the rote inputs until they can do the combo asked of them, and if that combo isn’t useful in a match, they’ll never use it again.

Under Night In-Birth took a different tactic of simply giving nearly optimized combos to the player, and organizing them by their starter. From this angle, players can go into mission mode, learn combos that they can actually use in matches, and see what starters they can get them off of. From there they can take these into real matches and just use them. This is certainly giving the player a fish rather than teaching them, but the approach is undeniably effective.

Perhaps the best example I’ve seen of this is Guilty Gear Strive’s combo recipe maker. This recipe maker lets you search by character, and by starter, as well as other factors like meter and so on, allowing you to find combos that are relevant to you, and introducing you to the idea that more is possible in the system. Many players see combos listed out and just default to thinking that what’s listed is all that’s possible. This is how many people can play Mortal Kombat and Tekken, learn some strings, and not bother learning to combo off a launcher, or do a run cancel. The thing listed is the combo input, and that’s it. This certainly helps people learn basic combos and hit the ground running, but it obscures the fact that there’s a whole system under there. Strive lets you get access to useful optimized vcombos, and also presents you with the idea that more combos exist out there, which is helpful.

Overall, Auto Combo systems are kind of flawed. They’re most helpful to the players that are most liekly to ignore them, and they can trip up players who don’t need them anymore. Rather than being like training wheels that show you the way in a relaxed environment, they’re closer to beng a crutch that you can become dependent on. Giving people optimized combos with their use-case right off the bat can be a helpful workaround, but they can also simply shut players down. Finding a way to give new players basic and useful combos on their level and a way to intuitively discover stronger ones is a tricky problem to solve, as-is tutorializing the way these combo systems work in a way that’s intuitive and fun. SF6 has an auto combo AI that can pick up in a combo when you do it part-way, but even this isn’t a full solution. There may just be an impasse on this particular topic, or tutorials might just need to teach the hard stuff and hope players care enough to try it out.

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