Opinion: Where Do Fighting Games Go From Here?

In this personal opinion piece, Japan-based journalist Nayan Ramachandran considers Capcom's challenges with making Street Fighter IV more approachable for casual gamers, and why fighting game enthusiasts often reject those accessibility efforts.
[In this personal opinion piece, Japan-based journalist Nayan Ramachandran considers Capcom's challenges with making Street Fighter IV more approachable for casual gamers, and why fighting game enthusiasts often reject those accessibility efforts.] My head hurts, and my stomach is empty. It’s nine o’ clock in the morning and everyone seems a lot more awake than me. I finally get to the front of the line for the play I wanted to see, only to find out it has been sold out for almost two months. My friend and I walk to Denny’s for a pick-me-up breakfast, both of us despondent and still feeling the effects of the party the night before. When I finally finish my grilled cheese sandwich and scrambled eggs, I mutter to myself "Well, at least Street Fighter IV comes out tomorrow." My friend says nothing, and we continue eating. It was not a great start to the day. On the way to the train station, my friend peels off down another street for a separate engagement, and I take the train one stop back to my neighborhood, my belly full but my head still throbbing. Instead of taking the usual walking route from the station back to my apartment, I decided to swing by a tiny game and DVD store in the open air mall close by to have a see what they had in stock. To my surprise, they had Street Fighter IV in stock, but it was selling for ¥1000 more than the store I had the game reserved at nearly five blocks away. I walk to the other store, past my apartment, in hopes they might be holding my copy, ready to buy a day early. When I realized they were going to stick strictly to the street date for the game, I walked back another five blocks to the first store and snapped Street Fighter IV up, aware that plenty of people in the neighborhood would want a copy just as badly if they knew it was already available. This was the real start of the day: my re-introduction to the world of Street Fighter, and my re-activated status in the secret club of fighting game players. The Velvet Rope That’s what it is, after all. Fighting games are hugely exclusive. Since Street Fighter IV was announced, I and many other people have been inundated with questions, all with a similar theme: accessibility. From "How easy is it to pick up and play?" to "What game should I practice with to get ready?", questions and worries have been pouring down. Street Fighter IV might seem too accessible to avid series fans, and may even feel like a step back to those who lived off Street Fighter III over its various incarnations, but Capcom and other fighting game developers might have no choice. Alienation is a very real problem. Fighting games are inherently competitive, and while they may seem pick-up-and-play friendly at first sight, the amount of dexterity required to perform regularly used actions is almost completely out of grasp for the average gamer not used to fighting games as a genre. On top of that, the fighting game community has become far more insular than others. Online first-person shooters are also a fairly competitive and difficult arena to enter, but their popularity has spawned a large community of varying ability, forcing developers to form viable matchmaking systems. Even without these systems, first-person shooters have become largely team based, allowing new players to play with veterans on their team who can protect and teach them as they play the game. As the mainstream popularity of fighting games has waned over the years, communities have become far more entrenched, developing and using lingo and strategy that the average player would never be able to decipher on their own. The Smash Bros Effect Many gamers that played fighting games as kids only played Street Fighter II, and after the series took a huge departure with Street Fighter III, many decided to stay away. Increasingly technical fighting games like Virtua Fighter often led to incorrect generalizations about the entire fighting game catalog, most people considering them to be inaccessible for newbies and impossible to enjoy. When Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series started to gain a large following after the release of its Gamecube incarnation, many within its ranks considered it a fresh new look at fighters, and a fresh take on the genre. It’s departure was grand, and its gameplay was vastly different. Super Smash Bros. Melee seemed to skew more towards the idea of a party game than a traditional fighting game because of its gameplay types and its concentration on four-player matches. Much of its resemblance was to Power Stone, rather than Street Fighter. The problem, though, was that many did not even consider it to be a fresh fighter that could bring new gamers into the community. In fact, many today still do not think it is a fighting game at all. Arguments on semantics seem to flare up on message boards even now, its very existence seemingly an insult to the sensibilities of the hardcore fighting fan. Increasing Accessibility But then, what needs to be done to make fighting games more accessible to new gamers, and still appease the hardcore? I love Street Fighter and have played it for years, but as long as new 2D fighters follow the conventions of special attack joystick movements and conventional 1-on-1 play, new players will not come in droves. The likes of Smash Bros. attracted a whole new generation of fighting game fans, but the very same lack of adherence that made the series so popular with its community was the same element that drove purists halfway to their grave. Street Fighter IV is a surprisingly accessible fighting game, and seems designed to bring back those who fell off the bandwagon years ago, but throwing a simple hadouken or shoryuken -- both of which must be mastered to be of any use when playing -- takes more practice than most new gamers are honestly willing to put in. It’s a dichotomy that unfortunately may be its undoing. Fighting game specific forums are confusing to read, even for me, a gamer that has been playing fighting games casually for over 10 years. The amount of acronyms and colloquialisms that litter their conversations makes for smoother communication between veterans, no doubt, but it makes it overwhelming and impenetrable to outsiders. At the same time, the approachable fighting games are either lacking in the depth required to attract the enthusiast audience, such as Dead or Alive, or so far removed from the norm that their existence does not register, and enthusiast skills cannot be transposed without a steep learning curve. With the growing cost of game development and the higher technical expectations with each future iteration, it is no surprise that Capcom took the safe route with Street Fighter IV, mirroring Street Fighter II’s roster and shedding a lot of the systems from Street Fighter III that made the game unpopular with casual players. Street Fighter IV seems to be successfully straddling that bridge between casual and enthusiast for now, but it is hard to tell if it will have the staying power that past titles had. Hopefully, companies like Capcom, SNK, and even Rare can see that there’s some room for more casual titles. Releases like Tatsunoko vs. Capcom (released for Arcade and Wii only in Japan) show that Capcom knows how to make a more casual fighter and is willing to, but there needs to be bigger strides. Hopefully, the fans won’t sneer when that happens.

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