Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fighting Words: Explaining the resurgence of the fighting game

In the past few years, fighting games have experienced a resurgence in popularity and are once again routinely topping sales charts. This year's Evolution fighting championship drew over 1.7 million viewers and, by all accounts, was the biggest fighting game tournament ever held. While the uptick in the popularity of fighting games is largely due to higher quality titles being released, I think that there is a bit more at play here. Today I aim to elaborate some of the reasons why fighting games are back on the shelves and heading gamer playlists.

What? Fighting games never went away!
Make no mistake, I am not trying to make the claim that the genre has somehow miraculously resurrected itself from oblivion but there is no denying that for the decade between the release of Street Fighter 3: Third Strike (1997) and Street Fighter 4 (2008) it was firmly in the backseat. During this period, very few quality fighting games were released with the notable exceptions of a few Soul Calibur games and iterations of the Smash Series (which nearly falls out of the definition of the traditional fighter). Again, I am not trying to say that a few gems didn't make it out but, all in all, this period paled in comparison to they heyday of the early to mid 1990's; for every Marvel vs Capcom 2 sized blockbuster, we saw a couple of years of mostly silence. To be clear, for me, the question really is what has brought fighters back to the fore as opposed to what has brought them back from the dead.

Better Online Matchmaking/Netcode
Perhaps the biggest draw of fighting games is the overt competitive nature of them. Taking satisfaction in vanquishing a skilled opponent is not hard to understand and is best achieved through playing against humans (the computer, quite frankly, sucks at providing a genuine challenge). In earlier days, playing against a human player meant heading to your local arcade or inviting some friends over. Unfortunately, when online play was just starting to take off, fighting games suffered from horrendous netcode. This is easily attributable to the absolute precision in timing that fighting games require where even a hundred milliseconds of latency is enough to destroy high level play. This limitation was overcome through advances in computer networking code (for more information on one method check out which effectively allowed the simulation of lag free gameplay and thus allowing for precise inputs. Since these advances, players have been able to reliably play against live opponents even if their local arcade has long since closed shop. By providing a means for fighting games to showcase their best qualities, better netplay has contributed to the rise of the genre.

Timeless Gameplay
While more of a secondary reason, I think that the enduring gameplay of fighters has been helpful in reinvigorating the genre. The model of two players squaring off and beating the hell out of each other hasn't grown old with age. While the games have become more balanced and look a lot cleaner, the visceral joy in putting foot to face has needed no improvement. Beyond this, a stable of recognizable characters coupled with familiar controls has ensured that old fans have had no difficulty jumping back in; whether throwing a scorpion spear or a fireball, there has been little need to relearn the fundamentals. Even for new players, certain tropes are so common to gaming (ie. quater-circle forward motions) that they need not feel alienated. I have made the point before and it still holds true, fighting games are comparable to chess in that learning the moves is only the beginning to mastering the game. Just as chess remains popular today as players strive to achieve mastery, I think that fighters will continue to attract players for years to come.

Rise of E-Sports
I do not think it is coincidence that the emergence of E-Sports has occurred almost simultaneously with the recent explosion of fighting games. I think fighters are one of the easiest games to spectate for several reasons. For one, fighting games are incredibly easy to follow; life bars are one of the most streamlined HUD elements in any genre and even the completely uninitiated will figure out after a match that when the bar goes empty the round is over. Further, the concept of two people punching each other isn't abstract and it is thus easy to convey who is winning (pro tip: the guy not getting hit). Beyond this, fighting games can be quite eye catching with super moves and hit sparks constantly providing some flash to keep the eye entertained. Finally, matches are typically fairly quick which lends itself to short-attention span of modern interneting. All this together means that fighting games have found a nice home as an e-sport and are getting that much exposure for it.

Global Demographics
Tied to the notion of competitive play and E-Sports is the demographics of fighting game fans. In short, fighting games are global. This isn't to say other genres fail to garner a global audience but I think the population spread is much more imbalanced. RTSs are dominated by Korea, FPSs are biggest in the US and Western Europe, and China is the home for most MMO subscriptions (although a stack of these are gold farmers). Fighters, on the other hand, routinely draw from around the world as evidenced by the sheer diversity of the Evolution championship series which is able to host successful events on every continent and who's top ranked players consist of a United Nations of countries. Because of this diversity, fighters are able to reliably pull their audience from every corner of the globe and have been able to leverage this during their resurgence. Truly, I feel that fighting games are poised to establish themselves as the most ubiquitous genre in gaming.

In closing I would like to briefly suggest that if you haven't played a fighting game in a while (or ever), now is a great time to (re)join the community. Newer games are coming bundled with great in-depth tutorials that can competently teach everything from basic moves to huge combos. Further, online gameplay is a snap and tiered such that you needn't feel intimated that you will constantly be pitted against professional players (although if you're new expect a few losses at first). Finally, through YouTube and other online resources you can easily find quality analysis and tips for improving play. So get out there and punch some faces, you'll be glad you did!