“Top players are just the ones who know the easiest ways to win.”
When I read that Daigo, the famous Street Fighter player, said something along these lines in an interview earlier this year, I laughed. On one hand, this idea pretty much sums up Playing to Win in one sentence, and it echoes a lot of sentiments from Seth Killian’s “Domination” essays. But I’ve also wondered if I’m just hearing the things that I want to after spending years bitching insufferably about how I practically only like playing bad characters.
Either way, the funny thing about the word “easy” is that it’s completely nebulous when people are talking about fighting game strategies and characters. Players may work for months or years to develop relatively technical characters like Morrigan in Marvel 3 or Viper in Street Fighter 4, but as soon as they start winning, the attitude shifts. They’re not difficult anymore, just “mindless” easy-mode characters that are only about execution. And many top players aren’t eager to grind out these demanding sequences of combos and followups, particularly in Marvel where there are such an overwhelming number of possible opposing configurations. For most players it’s simply more effective to learn how to deal with as many situations as they can find than to go all in on a powerful strategy that’s difficult to set up optimally. It’s the old “if you can’t get the hits, it doesn’t matter if you can do the combo” saying, taken to the extreme.
For example, there’s this semi-infamous bit of Firebrand theory. I’m still not sure if anyone knows how to get out of it, aside from playing at least two characters with invincible air reversals. And the reason they wouldn’t, is because nobody plays this garbage anyway. It looks amazingly cheap once you get the hit, but you have to get that hit against a full team while working with one assist that does “nothing” and one that’s slow and not very useful to just throw out there. The few players actually using this (probably hugely underrated) character rightly use much more flexible teams where it’s possible to frequently go for easier implementations of his unblockable shenanigans with lower reward, rather than betting everything on a single shot. It’s also occurred to me that many players outside of large population centers like NY and LA rely heavily on online play for practice, and this also discourages “harder” characters. It’s more difficult to see how successful your gameplan is when you’re struggling with your basics in an unstable situation, and to adjust to “real” timing, which is how you really impress people at tournaments, after long periods of delayed training is also a major factor.
In my experience, there’s also not many people (proportionally) who want to “win at any cost” in the first place. It’s not the stigma of being that jackass who plays heel characters; to me it seems that even lots of fairly competitive minded players tend to believe in trying to get to the top their own way, particularly outside of the larger and generally more cutthroat Capcom series. I’ve always hoped to gain experience in a “balanced” way, trying to avoid having disproportionate flaws in my game and so to some extent I’ve found myself really “distrustful” of playing good characters, or more specifically, ones who are good at avoiding certain elements of a given game. Of course, sometimes more obscure characters lead to winning based on the opponent’s sheer ignorance, which is even more annoying than winning despite playing in a way I see as stupid or sloppy. But the underlying “disadvantages” to playing top tier in my view are the same things that make weaker characters so much harder to learn games with for me. I’ve often found in “anime” games that by playing low tiers I have to spend so much effort not dying instantly that it’s hard for me to learn much else. In CS1 especially, my move to Hazama as a primary character in some ways reinforced my lazy, random playstyle that I still have a hard time overcoming, but it also started to open up opportunities to play and actually try doing stuff. In the end I didn’t even learn that much, but I can really only blame my attitude at the time for that.
All of my experience has really led me back over and over to those difficult dilemmas. Is it better to force myself to play limited situations to the best of my ability, or to allow myself more mistakes and chances to try things? Is it better to play characters that I naturally find to match well with my style or to force myself to branch out and learn how to work with different strengths and weaknesses? Probably my biggest worry about playing good characters is that I wouldn’t be able to handle the inevitable “step down” when an update comes out or I stop playing whatever game it is. Even when I’m not winning, the difference between how hard I’m having to try is something I tend to feel is pretty unambiguous.
But all this and I haven’t even mentioned what’s often the most important factor of all, at least once a series has been established: people just come to really like their characters. The newest and zaniest additions to a given roster almost always have my attention, but I can definitely understand why for some people it’s such a big deal, and there are still certain characters and kinds of characters who have a real draw for me. Probably the most interesting game to look at though is Persona 4 Arena, in which most of the cast are characters appearing in previously released RPGs, and on top of that, ones in which talking to and “forming bonds” with them is an integral part of the experience. Essentially, lots of people already had strong favorites, even completely distanced from however they were going to play in this context. For some characters (particularly Yukiko and Elizabeth) I think this has helped their popularity a lot, when otherwise their playstyle and the challenges they have to deal with against other characters would make them extremely rare in the US. On the other hand I think a lot of people (myself included, to some extent) have been demoralized by the feeling that their preferred fighter isn’t effective or simply doesn’t match up with the way they want to play. (Actually I’d better clarify, because anyone reading this who’s played against me is probably going to assume it’s just more whining about Elizabeth, when in this case I’m referring to Naoto.) While plenty of them have simply gotten over it and moved on to characters they feel better about (overwhelmingly, Chie) I think this has actually backfired for others. Regardless, it’s created an interesting dynamic that hasn’t yet been tainted by patching the version that we play on here.
It also leads to one final question: when is it easier to “give in” and learn another character? For many top players here, in many games, the answer seems to be “never”; despite the apparent decline of characters like Dhalsim, Guile, and to a lesser extent Boxer and Rufus, from their heyday in earlier versions of SF4, players who have stayed dedicated to what they know have remained on top of the US scene for years on end now. Obviously, every possible scenario leads to potential second-guessing, and watching Dieminion’s sheer tenacity and ability to space, block, and throw things just right overcome his completely mediocre Marvel 3 team’s limitations leads me to believe there’s absolutely nothing preventing him from winning with easier options except that selfsame stubbornness. I’ve seen similar situations both in the local scene and in other games, as two of Colorado’s best and most dedicated players are Zangief players and face a endless string of “bad matchups” in tournament. And plenty of players have fought their way to the top even with significantly weakened mains in other games like Blazblue (i.e. Lord Knight’s amazing second place run at Evo 2011, and the even more amazing grand finals, or Goro’s appearance at the NEC qualifier tournament last month) and Soul Calibur (again, the Evo results practically speak for themselves).
Still, counterpicking strategies have dominated other games like Street Fighter II for years, and even in Japan, which was once notorious for extreme “loyalty” there seems to be somewhat less emphasis on it. Just this past weekend I saw some of a Super Turbo tournament in which the format was 1v1, but each player was allowed to choose 3 different characters, kind of like in King of Fighters. A player only lost after having all three characters defeated by the other player, which led to a very different experience than the standard “single elimination, character lock” format used, or even a team tournament with otherwise similar structure. And watching this years Darkstalkers Combination Cup with English commentary, there were similar expressions of surprise at certain old-school players having earnestly picked up new (to them, obviously) characters. But when a game is that age I have to think that it comes less down to superficial factors and is more about having a fresh experience with a game that they’ve played to death and beyond.
I’ve been thinking a lot about character choice recently, for a lot of reasons. Like I mentioned before, I don’t have a concrete style and to a large extent I’ve tried to avoid typecasting myself. My favorite things are counter-attacks, screen-filling or otherwise gigantic moves, fast/over-the-top movement, awesome throws, and unfairly high/fatal damage.
For obvious reasons, you can almost never get more than 2-3 of these on the same character.
Oh shit. I just realized something. Hold on a sec.
For me the real question is the same as it is when I’m pondering anything else about my fighting game play though: what do I want to get out of it? I’ve felt for a long time like there has to be MY game out there, but I just don’t know how to find it, or it’s not out yet, or nobody else plays it. I don’t have larger goals because I don’t feel like I can make myself care enough for them to be possible. But it’s also because of that aimlessness that I can’t make myself care enough in the first place. I’ve been able to “carrot on a stick” myself for a pretty long time now, but I just don’t know how much longer it can last.
But again, past experience just makes me more and more cautious. In beatmania I found a playstyle that made it extremely easy to improve for a long time, and I set goals for myself that seemed pretty easy at the time. Then it became almost impossible to get better (not to mention my way was always completely unsuited for Arcade play), and when I have time to play at all, I’ve been working solely to force myself to unlearn bad habits. More than ever, I can’t tell whether it’s better to win “badly” or to go out on my own terms. Complacency is my biggest worry in anything I do. I already know what happens when I tell myself I’m doing something “well enough.” But what happens when I can keep pushing myself to work harder?
I can’t wait to find out.