I don’t believe it is controversial to say that fighting games can be intimidating for newcomers. Compared to other types of games that are played competitively, fighters present a very intimate experience. You only have one opponent and no teammates. Any flaws in your play can be easily exposed and you will only be able to place blame on poor netcode, an uneven match-up, or the hardest of all, yourself. Understandably, this can turn some people away from fighting games.
As several fighting games go for full price, this can be a big ask for new players. For many, the task of learning to play a fighting game well can prove to be too tedious. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be the case. There are several ways to make fighting games more appealing and accessible to players who aren’t very familiar with the genre.
I’ve seen some improvement when it comes to tutorials in recent years, but there is room for even more improvement. As a kid, I never knew a thing about concepts such as neutral, pressure, frame data, okizeme, and other important things. All I knew to do was to try and execute special moves. Critically thinking about games wasn’t something I did much of as a kid, so I still found myself having fun even though I was bad at games such as Street Fighter. However, as I got older, the learning curve of fighting games became more and more off-putting to me.
It’s safe to say that I’m not a unique case. I believe that many fighting games don’t provide enough learning materials for beginners, which leads to many instances of people finding fighting games too difficult for their tastes. Sure, several games may explain specific mechanics and list some combos for you to try, but the fundamental concepts of the genre are often poorly communicated.
Despite this, some games make great attempts at tutorials. For example, Mortal Kombat 11 probably does the best job of explaining concepts and mechanics to new players in a cohesive manner. I have yet to encounter a fighting game that explains the concept of frame data as well as that game does. Games such as Melty Blood: Type Lumina also feature some good tutorials, but the way they are presented can be overwhelming to new players.
Expansive Single-Player Content
For many fans of the genre, the value of a fighting game doesn’t come from hours of single-player content. The value comes from improving at the game and being able to beat real opponents in spectacular ways. I could be wrong, but I don’t think people generally buy fighting games to play arcade mode over and over again. However, the general lack of options for casual single-player gameplay is a problem.
Throughout several of my teenage years, the perceived lack of value is a big reason why I avoided the genre. This in combination with the daunting learning curves made for an unappealing package. I would learn to enjoy and respect the genre again in my later teens, but I don’t blame anyone for having similar reservations about these kinds of games. It’s hard to convince people to pay the full price for a game that offers barebones content. Sure, fighting games have included various forms of single-player content over the years, but little of it feels like a main attraction.
Imagine how appealing an expansive story mode with RPG-like progression might be to a wider audience. It doesn’t even need to be as particularly complex as that. The Subspace Emissary mode is often considered to be one of the most memorable aspects of Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and for good reason. Being able to experience an adventure where you get to see iconic characters interact in fun ways is something special. Other games have included cinematic campaigns that play out more like a movie instead of a game, but I believe that campaigns can be more ambitious than that.
An Unlikely Genre to Pull Inspiration From
So, hear me out for a second. Fighting games could learn a thing or two from racing games. More specifically, they could learn from 2000s racing games. What do I mean by this? Well, this is expanding on the point of single-player content. Excluding Mario Kart, which outsells other racing games for reasons that I believe are quite obvious, the Need for Speed and Gran Turismo series contains some of the highest-selling racing games of all time. While both series are very different, they both share the similarity of fun campaign modes.
Gran Turismo in particular is a great example of how to introduce something niche to a new audience. Classics such as Gran Turismo 4 take their time to teach new players fundamental concepts of racing in the form of “license tests”. These license tests may be irritating to those who are already familiar with racing games, but they are incredibly helpful for beginners. The game can also help you learn about cars in natural ways, such as grouping events by specific types of vehicles.
Fighting games could greatly benefit from campaigns similar to the ones you see in Gran Turismo games. Obviously, not every game is going to have the budget to do this, but it may be worth the investment. I’m hoping that the World Tour mode of Street Fighter 6 can deliver an experience similar to what I’m mentioning. If it manages to set a new standard for single-player content in the genre, I hope that other games start to follow.
Free-To-Play Fighting Games
I know this is going to be a bit more of a controversial one. For the record, I don’t think that every fighting game should be free-to-play. If the genre can start implementing more substantial single-player content, I don’t believe a free-to-play model is necessary. However, this model has become increasingly popular for multiplayer games and I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon. The fact of the matter is that making a game free-to-play is an incredibly easy way to attract new players.
As some fighting games struggle to maintain player counts, this could be a valid method to breathe new life into a game. People who question the value of a full-price fighting game are far more likely to give these games a chance. Considering that several fighting games are becoming more dependent on updates and DLC, an upfront cost can become even more unappealing. It leaves some people feeling as if they did not purchase a complete game at launch.
If you do not have the budget to provide a large variety of content at launch, the free-to-play approach may be worth seriously considering. However, just because your game is free doesn’t mean players will necessarily stick around. You need to be willing to consistently address general feedback from fans and provide a solid core gameplay experience.
Something Fighting Games May Wish to Avoid
I believe the biggest sin a competitive fighting game can commit when trying to appeal to newcomers is to force in beginner-friendly mechanics. Now, this isn’t the same as including features such as auto combos. I believe those kinds of features can help ease new players into a game as long as they are balanced correctly. However, I do have an issue with mechanics deliberately designed to give inexperienced players a chance to gamble for victory against a more experienced opponent. I say this because it can ruin the fun of a game for both players, not because I think that inexperienced players shouldn’t have fun.
A poorly balanced mechanic can hurt a game in several ways. If a mechanic is too overpowered or forces a rock-paper-scissors scenario, it can lead to matches that ignore other mechanics that would otherwise make the game a fun time. If a mechanic is weak but is presented to be appealing to newcomers, it can mislead those players. This is not to say that fighting games with unbalanced mechanics are inherently bad, but they can hurt games intending to be competitive.
Not only is it worth considering mechanically balancing your game for newcomers, but it is also worth considering for the sake of general quality. I believe that mechanical balance is more important than roster balance, as it is more responsible for holding the core of a game together. Mechanics intended for newcomers become unnecessary if you can properly teach people how to play your game.
It All Depends on the Game
Ultimately, how you should account for newcomers depends on what kind of fighting game you are making. If there are big limits on budget, it may be wise to mostly ignore single-player content. Instead, you may wish to focus your efforts on attracting new players through alternative methods. A distinct art direction and great character designs can go a long way in making your game appealing to a wider audience. Combine that with a reasonable price point and you may have a surprise hit on your hands.
If you are operating with a larger budget, you will likely want to go all out. Don’t be afraid to market and present your game in a way that makes the more expensive price point appealing. If your game has cool features that other games in the genre lack, be sure to let people know! The last thing you would want is for more casual audiences to write off your game as “just like any other fighting game”. If you’re making a game for a more casual audience, then be sure to make that known as well! Some fighting games can be simple fun to break out at a party instead of being hardcore, competitive titles meant to be played at big tournaments like EVO.
Fighting games often appear intimidating to those outside of the fighting game community. They are titles that often deliver little in the way of extrinsic rewards, yet require many hours of training. This is totally fine, as this is the appeal for many, but there are ways to appeal to new audiences without alienating the current community. Fortunately, there are ways to change this. Hopefully, upcoming games such as Street Fighter 6 and Tekken 8 can help the genre evolve.