Posted in Gaming

Thoughts on Fighting Games: SFV Edition (as of May 5, 2017)

E-League hasn’t started yet. That’s how JST works.

How are you folks? I’ve really been slacking on… well, a lot of things. I figure that while I’m sitting around watching fighting games all day, I might as well write some things about them. It also helps that my Twitter (or rather, the Twitter’s of those who I follow), are blowing up with the kind of controversy and even discourse that you can only expect from people who’ve lived their lives playing video games. Praise be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Street Fighter these past few months. There is so much stuff going on nowadays with respect to fighting games, which means so there’s a lot I can address. However, I’ve been in a pickle as to how to write my thoughts up in an organized manner. In the end, I’ve decided to do it “Q&A” style. At first, I’ll pose basic questions which lay out the “scenery” as it were, and then I will proceed to answer deeper questions regarding the more contentious topics going around these days.

In the future, I plan to do these on other games, other topics and maybe once a month. As well, I will start taking questions from followers.

Yeah. Followers. A shame I don’t have those…

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Ok then. Let’s get to it!

Where is SFV right now?

This question is here just to lay the groundwork. SFV, or Street Fighter 5, is the latest game in the Street Fighter series of fighting games released by Capcom. A long running series with popular and recognizable characters like Ryu, Ken, and Chun-li, Street Fighter is probably the most popular and famous fighting game of all time. As far as main-stream cultural exposure, it far exceeds its competition.

When it comes to the audience of SFV, there are two main groups: “casuals”, those players who don’t actively attempt to increase their skill beyond a certain point, and “competitive/professional” players, those players who push the boundaries of their skill in order to be able to compete against higher level competition in tournaments. A lot of further questions will come up with regards to these two groups, and we may or may not get to that in this post, I’m not sure. That said, these are some basic definitions I’ve thought up, for reference at a later point if necessary.

Very quick sidebar: I am not implying that the audience for Street Fighter games has always consisted of these two groups. That most certainly has not been the case. If it had, I would not wake up at night screaming for a sequel to TvC. And yet, here we are, wondering if Casshan will ever be in another video game ever again. ANYWAYS, let’s assume, at least for now, the above description is accurate in the case of SFV.

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Probably the thing that has stood out the most in terms of SFV is the competitive scene. Over the past few years, Street Fighter, as well as various other fighting games, and video games in general, are being swept up in the tide of financial opportunities and cultural acceptance that has been dubbed “E-sports”. This is by no means a recent development. There have been attempts at crafting a market for competitive video-gaming for more than a decade, but the growth has reached an unprecedented point in these past few years.

In terms of fighting games, this is probably best evidenced by the presence of SFV at E-League, an invitational tournament where a group of many of the greatest SFV players have been brought together to fight in a tournament-style event over many weeks for a huge prize pot. In addition, portions of the event are given airtime on TBS (Turner Broadcasting Service). This news definitely excited many people and every week many fans, old and new, tune in either through Twitch, the usual home for such events (among other conventional streaming services), or TBS. Before this, there was also the hosting of the SFV EVO 2016 finals on ESPN, the home of conventional sports broadcasting and analysis. These expansions onto television have opened the floodgates for even more enthusiasm and imagining about where fighting games and “e-sports” can go.

In summary, Street Fighter is in a very interesting and exciting place.

That all sounds lovely. So why am I hearing all this whining on Twitter about SFV?

Oh man, where do I begin?

When SFV was released, there were a lot of “Hoorays!” from fans. Finally, the age of Street Fighter 4 was over. Everyone had been playing SF4 forever and they were getting sick of things being “broken” or execution being difficult, or online being reminiscent of a waltz through AvÄ«ci. However, more than all of that, people just got bored. SF4, at least in its first iterations, came in around 2007-2008. At that time, there had already been drought of fighting games, and SF4 came in like purifying rain to slake our thirst. By 2015, we had gotten sick of it. When, after 8 years, SFV was finally revealed, everyone lost their minds.

And then people started to play the game. And everyone lost their minds again… except not in a good way. You really don’t know a good thing until it’s gone. All of the things that people complained about in SF4 were suddenly, “the good old days”.

Why?

I’ll be honest, I dunno. Humans just kind of suck when dealing with change sometimes. I guess it comes from living in progressively easier conditions. Unlike our ancestors, we have everything at our fingertips. We’ve turned from creatures of survival to creatures of comfort. So, when things change, we turn to the reflex that we have now built up over time. Whining.

Okay, I wasn’t really asking why do people complain in general. More like…

What EXACTLY are they complaining about?

Oh. Yeah…

I have a confession to make, I myself can completely understand A LOT of where these complaints are coming from. Essentially, the complaints come in two varieties, much like the audience. The first is what I like to call, “game flaws”. This is stuff about SFV that makes it a sucky “game”. That means it sucks for EVERYONE to play, not just the people who play it professionally. As a video game, turning it on and playing just doesn’t seem appetizing.

As far as this first type of complaint is concerned, these issues are VERY slowly being resolved. Things like loading times in between character selection and starting a match, being unable to have Player 2 have the option of selecting post-match options, having no single-player Arcade mode or Player vs. CPU for the longest time, the entire online system, the Capcom Fighters Network (CFN) with all of its loading time problems, rage-quitting etc… am I missing something?

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Oh yeah. That.

So those are all things that people can universally complain about. You don’t need to be a professional player or even a somewhat competitive one to think that the above picture is somewhere between abstract art and a bad joke. And while these things are annoying for professionals, they don’t explicitly affect their ability to play at a high level. While they can have some effect, that effect is not technically unavoidable.

What is believed to be unavoidable are the second variety of complaints, “system flaws”. These are the things that casual fans who do not play fighting games a whole lot may not pick up on (although that is not to say that it does not affect their experience, at least subconsciously). However, players who play more will tend to pick up on these “flaws” and will then proceed to articulate in great detail how they are the leading to the demise of Western Civilization.

With regards to SFV, some examples of this variety of complaint include the 8 frames of additional input lag (which has been reduce to 6.5 frames now, I believe), the apparent lack of variety when it comes to options at certain points of the match and so on. In other words…

PEOPLE SUCK AT DEALING WITH CHANGE!

Or perhaps less emotionally, people who have an established idea of how fighting games should play, or perhaps just Street Fighter should be played, are having their notions spat back in their face by the games designers.

To get a little more specific, many complaints have to do with the feeling that defensive play is absolutely not rewarded. In a game where you win by lowering the opponents health bar, how can you play defensively and still do damage? Bait out attacks and punish. Except what if the time it takes for your attack to come out is greater than just the time it takes for you to react and hit a button? This is where the input lag comes in. In the current thinking, this lag really hampers the ability of a player to use reactions to contest against “random stuff”. We’ll get back to this.

In addition to this,  players can no longer rely on reactions to escape neutral, something that had been possible by using techniques like “FADC” in SF4, which has led to players having to “fight it out” as it were, in situations that they don’t want to, or at least had not had to before. The result is that players are being forced into situations where their only option is to guess. If you guess incorrectly, well… sorry, you lose the game. Again, there is more to say on this subject, and we will get to it in a bit.

Okay, I see. So the game sucks for casuals on one level and it sucks for pros on a deeper level.

So why is this game still being played if everyone hates it so much?

For this, I have a few theories, but that’s about it. First, some people are just fans of the Street Fighter and/or the company. Despite all of the complaining I’ve talked about up to now, I should point out that there are those who do like Street Fighter 5. Really, it’s true!

Second, some people play because that is their occupation. In this brave new world we live in, playing video games can be your living. And sometimes, people really hate their job. That’s just the way it is. People do make their living playing this game, or at least part of their living, and while it may seem unreasonable for people to complain about a game that they walked into, I personally have no problem with it. My philosophy is that the right of every worker is to complain about their job GIVEN that they suck it up and move on. And credit to the FGC (fighting game community), despite their almost biblical level of whining, they continue to play SFV, and they continue to increase the depth of the game, something that I will speak about in just a bit. I guess it helps that you can earn thousands and thousands of dollars for playing this game nowadays. That probably helps.

Wait a sec. You were saying all this stuff before about how fighting games and Street Fighter and “e-sports” and E-League. There’s money in this now. Where is it coming from?

Great question! Here’s my theory.

Over the past few years, the size of the FGC has been steadily increasing. We see year after year that the stream viewership and tournament attendance has been increasing to numbers that were never seen before. This rapid expansion began to catch the eyes of the people with the money. Big business came to the FGC baby. And with them came big bucks.

Businesses can sponsor events or individuals, in order to indelibly tie their name to the preconceived notions that the viewers/patrons have about the sponsored event/individual. “Ah, Razer Fuudo. Zowie Gamerbee. I guess those companies are the top of the line. You know, I’ve been needing a new monitor. Maybe these companies would be a good place to look.” You might not have noticed it, but your brain did.

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The companies who sponsor FGC events or players are companies who feel that the tournament audience overlaps with that business’s target demographic. It’s simply advertising. It wouldn’t make sense if John Deere sponsored a player, because the last time I checked, 18-24 year olds were not the main users of riding mowers. Maybe if we did more chores and slacked off less… wait, DAD DID YOU TYPE THAT?

Again, this is not to say that these sponsors don’t sell any good products and are only out for your money. However, they do want your money. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be good businesses. That’s just logic. Whether or not they sell good products is irrelevant. The fact that they support an institution which you take pleasure from is good enough. At least, that’s what they are banking on, so to speak.

I kid though. Generally speaking, I have heard no complaints regarding the quality of the products produced by FGC event or player sponsors. At least, not yet.

That’s all well and good Mr. Economics Professor, but listen. Why is the player base increasing if the game SUCKS??

Hmm…

Well, I mentioned before that the size of the FGC has been steadily increasing. That is to say, people who had never seen fighting games before are becoming a part of the community. They see cool stuff on the screen and say, “I want to do that”, or “I want to watch that”. Their overall average level of knowledge about fighting games is not that high. These are people who do not have preconceived notions about how a fighting game is supposed to be played or how things are supposed to work.

Some people actually point to this as the cause behind many of the changes made between SFV and SF4. In particular, the perceived neutering of defensive play in SFV was believed to be a way of artificially encouraging players to play more offensively, and in turn create a more “exciting” viewing experience. Whether or not that was deliberate is debated.

In addition to that, remember the input lag? This was believed to hurt to ability of players to take advantage of their reactions to punish traditionally unsafe options (e.g. overheads). That also provides the ability for players who would typically have done well to be upset in tournament by a player who takes advantage of this lag (intentionally or not). And who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Now the scenario I’ve just described is an excuse I’ve seen often, that the game system purposely engineers upsets in order to induce “hype”. I find it a little insulting to new players who genuinely earned their victories over established talent, as it forgoes any explanation that suggests the newer players actually did work to attain victory and blames the upset totally on the game.

Anyways, whether it is engineered or otherwise, the new people coming into the scene see SFV with fresher eyes than people who have played SF4, 3S, ST and so on. They are not as prejudiced and are not as ready to say, “This sucks!” as other people are. At least not right away.

And this brings me at least a little closer to a conclusion of this… whatever this is. A rant? An essay? I don’t even know at this point…

Is SFV a game where the better player always wins?

I feel like this is the question we ask ourselves whenever we complain or whenever we think about whether this is a good game or not. There is this inherent idea that a fair game is a game where everyone goes in on a level playing field and dukes it out to see who the best man (or woman) is. And the feeling is that SFV is not that game.

I will be completely honest and up front with you, I don’t know if the better player always wins. In fact, if we are to say “always”, then my answer is decidedly “no”. Be it by chance or luck that somebody presses a bad button or somebody is just having a bad day, a player who is “not as good” can pull off the upset. That’s life.

That said, what people really mull over is whether, everything else aside, the game let’s you be a challenger and #RiseUp without handicapping you.

And to be honest… I’m not sure. And the reason for that is that I have not seen all that this game can be yet. I don’t think any of us have.

You see, a lot of the problems that I have mentioned before, the constant need to have to “guess” in order to get out of scenarios, the lack of defensive play, that might all come down to the fact that everyone is playing the game wrong. What if there is another way, a way to play defense that doesn’t involve putting yourself in situations that you can only escape through guessing? What if there is another way, a way we don’t know yet?

To find out “how to play the game”, we tend to watch the best of the best square off against each other at high level tournaments. As far as these high level tournaments go, we have seen periods of dominance by a number of different people. Infiltration and Justin Wong both had varying degrees of sustained success over this game early in the first season. Then, we had Gamerbee and Xiaohai both see short bursts of prominence. Finally, the end of 2016 saw Nuckledu hit his stride with a dominant Capcom Cup performance, as well as a hint of what was to come in 2017 with an upset victory for ANBU, now PG, Punk over Justin Wong in the Red Bull Battlegrounds.

In 2017, we are seeing PG|Punk looking more dominant than anyone else. We have seen various styles succeed in this game, as well as various characters. However, Punk looks like the flavor of the month so far, maybe the whole year. Will he keep going? Is he playing SFV right? And if so, is the game that he is playing a game where the better player wins? That’s the magic question.

However, I have the slightest inkling that this might just be a game where the better player wins. Because a game where the skill of the player plays no role in their success is not a fighting game. It’s the lottery. The fact that we are seeing dominant streaks come and go speaks to the fact that the game is being figured out and then re-figured out. You don’t figure something out by accident. It’s skill, a product of your hard work. Right now, Punk has figured something out. And from the videos, it seems like what he has figured out is something that isn’t an inherently game-breaking flaw like input lag or randomness. It’s deeper. That might just be my naivety or lack of understanding, but I don’t think so. And I could be proven right when (not if) everyone else begins to decipher the Punk code. That’s when we can judge the game for what it really is. When it is clear how to play this game, then and only then can we judge if it’s a game worth playing.

And then we can complain or get bored of it. If that happens, hey… at least there’s Tekken 7, MVCi, GGXRD REV2, IJ2, KI, UNIEL, and ARMS. And those games are definitely perfect.

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Okay, I think I’ve said enough. I know there is plenty that I’ve missed, and I hope to cover it in a future post. For example, topics like self-expression in the game and such. That’s definitely a huge thing that I did not include, and it plays a big part in making a game enjoyable.

Here are a couple of videos that I would suggest you look to for more information:

Michael Martin (Yahoo E-Sports), on Punk’s potential to sweep this year’s competition

Gerald Lee (Core-A-Gaming), on the 8 frames of input lag in SFV

I look forward to your constructive criticisms, and completely random memes. Please post all in the comments below. Thanks for reading and have a great day!

P.S. For those who are new, I always post a cute picture and a song at the end of my posts. Hope you like it!

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