There are plenty of acceptable solutions to the problems with the fighting game genre, but I want to focus on one of them: Super Smash Bros. It's not pitched as a fighting game. Smash is one of the greatest fighting game series ever made, but they pitched it as a casual party game, and used some of the gaming world's favorite characters as a draw. Smash is now the largest, most important fighting game series in the world is because casuals can pick up a controller and easily do any basic move within seconds, and if that's not enough, they can grab a hammer and go Triple H on players that are better than them. It's fun for casuals, while still having the potential to be serious.
This long reach would be great for inviting new players into the FGC, but Smash has a fairly unique feel, and enjoying Smash doesn't necessarily equate to enjoying the standard fighting game. Hell, members of the FGC will still argue about whether or not Smash is even a real fighting game. It fucking is, but people still argue about it, which should illustrate what I mean about Smash being so different that it doesn't funnel many players into the genre.
There needs to be a game that feels more like a typical fighting game, has low barriers to entry, and preferably has some way of drawing in new blood…
This brings me to Pokken Tournament. It's a game being criticized for its small roster size of 16 fighters, simple base mechanics, and a perceived dearth of content. Yet Pokken Tournament is also a fighting game I can finally provide my personal perspective on, because I play the crap out of it: Are those criticisms valid? To an extent yes, especially from the view of fighting game fans. As a reasonable casual fan? F#%k you I'm living the Pokemon dream!
Most casual gamers don't care about fighting games, but they probably loved Pokemon at some point in their lives. Pokken Tournament finally, after 20 years of lusting for it, provides fans with action packed Pokemon battles. My Pokemon is no longer functionally retarded, standing there waiting for his turn as the opponent wails on him. I can use Pikachu Libre's agility to zig and zag my way into range and German Suplex a Machamp! Why has it taken this long for us to receive this game?
I'm rocking a W-L record of 116-222, a 34.32% rate of victory, but I don't care because I'm having fun and playing in competitive matches. Sometimes, I'm able to beat players I'd never come close to even touching in a traditional fighting game. That's because I didn't have to spend forever and a day mastering inputs, with my stupid fingers that are about as deft as a newborn baby seal's flippers. After a brief tutorial, I could go into battles and perform any action I wanted with an extremely high level of success.
Handing a higher ranked, undefeated player his first loss in a match that went 3 rounds, and ended with me at 1 HP, winning with a last second Shadowball as he tried to lame it out with Braixen was the single greatest moment I've ever felt while playing a fighting game. I did an actual victory lap around my house I was so hyped. It makes me want more.
Namco Bandai's Katsuhiro Harada labeled Pokken Tournament a competitive battling action game. In reality, it's a fighting game with a small roster and extremely simple commands, being sold to casuals as their dream Pokemon battling game. It's the perfect bait. Once in, they're put into a position where they can be successful without having to spend a lot of time learning the basic attacks. Success is addictive, even in smaller doses, making Pokken Tournament act like a gateway drug to the fighting game genre.
No accomplished member of the FGC is going to hang their hat on that awesome 34.32% win rate, but this is the first time I, and presumably many others like me, have ever had any success in a fighting game's online mode. Pokken Tournament dispelled my doubts and ensured me that I wasn't entirely incapable of competing with fighting game enthusiasts, I was just lacking the tools. With that doubt gone, I'm starting to believe it may be worth my time to go back to other fighting games and put more effort in, and I know I'm not the only gamer that's starting to look at other fighting games with new enthusiasm.
Pokken Tournament is what the fighting game genre has needed for a long time: A truly great point of entry. Others games have tried to be that, but none have done it with any real success until now. It's just a damn shame it released as an exclusive at the end of a dead console's life span.
This is a catch 22, as the core audience wants as big a roster as it can get. Long time members of the FGC have been building their roster knowledge up for multiple entries or even generations. If you started fighting games with Street Fighter 2, you had 17(?) characters to learn, and over time more were gradually introduced, easing you into learning them. However, as an outsider looking in, huge rosters are intimidating, and veterans of the genre don't realize this.
Long time members of the FGC often take for granted their experience with common fighting game tropes and mechanics, which makes learning subsequent new characters or games easier because of the wealth of knowledge they can draw upon. Watch the Super Best Friends do their Friday Night Fisticuffs shows when they play unfamiliar fighting games, and you'll see them inform each other of things like motions and functions of attacks, and within the episode they'll become exponentially better at the game. They won't be winning any tourneys within an hour of picking up the controls, but they'll be able to body just about any casual that comes along. That's not something a beginner can do.
Beginners take much longer to learn things, and that's a huge problem with the genre.
As games have become larger, more grandiose, and further reaching through online connections, it's becoming more difficult for casuals to justify a full retail price fighting game. Back in the day, a few CGI cutscenes in Tekken was all the reward you needed for a full price tag, because they were new and interesting at the time. Considering the content size of today's games, like The Witcher 3 or Far Cry 4, no one's going to pay $60 to beat up a handful of AI opponents and be rewarded with a story cutscene at the end, which is exactly what a typical fighting game becomes to casuals when they realize competing online without significant time put into the training room isn't a realistic expectation.
As much as the FGC loves their top level play, they have to realize that casuals are needed to support a fighting game, because games don't grow on trees or descend from the heavens, no matter what some may say about Third Strike. It's all about the money, and as the fighting games become larger and more awesome, they're also becoming more insulated from the casual market. Meaning less money for the games the FGC loves, and that potential Daigo's and Justin Wong's of the future are undiscovered because they never picked up a fighting game and found their calling.
Some of you reading this may have jumped into fighting games with something like Ultra Street Fighter IV and see this article as whining. You dove in and became a competent fighting game player, so if these casuals want to enjoy the game, they should have to take their lumps too, right? Well congrats on being a particularly determined individual, or a masochist. If we were all like you, the whole world would be skilled at karate, be able to break dance, and justify their purchase of Street Fighter V.
But the whole world isn't like you Mr. Snowflake, most people give up on something when they absolutely suck at the beginning.
Everybody knows the bulk of fun in fighting games comes from battling against other players, not AI combatants that are either brain dead or frustratingly cheap. Unless you have a group of friends you really enjoy gaming with, you're going to get most of your PvP combat online. Where outside of playing during the launch window, or being an established fighting game player, you'll likely have your ass pounded into the dirt repeatedly by much better players, with a near 0% chance of victory, and a W-L record verifying my claim.
It just screams fun.
Every gamer worth his or her salt recognizes Ryu or Chun-Li, but when's the last time they played with them? Outside of the fighting game community (FGC hereafter), the odds are good it was Street Fighter 2 Super Ultra Turbo Chaos Emerald Championship Edition on SNES, or maybe Ryu in Smash. Why? The barrier to entry for fighting games is too damn high.
For a few reasons, new players can't enjoy the fun part of the game right out of the box. Let's ignore sticks, which require a significant investment of money and learning a new control method, and assume we're just going to use a standard game pad, like most newbies do. Having done so, we can see the first major road blocks for beginners are inputs.
Having to quickly perform a series of directional inputs, that can range in complexity from the quarter circle forward, to the Z motion of the famous Shoryuken, and even full 360 inputs, adds a fairly unique physical component to execution in fighting games. As a beginner some of these are hard to consistently pull off when just standing there, let alone in combat where you have to plan your moves and make changes on the fly. Performing under duress is something even the professional players can flub.
Before a new player can be competitive, they have to spend a large amount of time just practicing how to do the moves. This is accurate to real martial arts, which I admit is kind of cool, but your average gamer doesn't want to spend varying amounts of time ingraining motions into their muscle memory before they can actually play “the real game.” That's not even enough, though, because then they have to learn how to properly use the moves they've mastered. That's the next major road block: Roster sizes.
When new players finally get equipped with their tools, they only have half the information they need to be competitive. The other half, knowing when and how to use their tools, is based on knowing your opponent's moves and how they work. So now the new player has to learn match ups between characters. The number of characters on a roster varies, but Ultra Street Fighter IV ended up having over 40 characters. Even if newbies concern themselves with only learning the popular ones, that's a metric crap ton of information to process.