In our last post, I held up Smash Bros as having some (but not all) characters in it that are able to fit the mold of “easy to learn, hard to master.” Now I want to try talking about a more advanced fighting game that has done the same, and then dive from there into other genres of gaming to show how universal this concept is.
Outthinking your Opponent
Let me start this off by saying that there is more to Dead or Alive than bouncing boobies, and leave it at that. Underneath the glitzy surface of DoA is an intense metagame all about reading your enemy and learning how they move so you can ruthlessly exploit them. Unlike the vast majority of other fighting games out there, DoA places a heavy emphasis on countering your opponent to win. All moves are regarded as high, medium, or low attacks. By paying attention to how the enemy character’s body moves, you can try to anticipate what sort of attack is coming next so you can counter it, turning their attack around on them for massive damage. Thus one becomes better at the game, not so much by learning the insanely convoluted and long combos from other fighting games, but by studying and reacting to your opponent in a way that is almost Machiavellian in its deviousness.
Like with Smash Bros and other fighting games, DoA provides an eclectic cast of, in this case, super angsty & stupidly perky characters of all varieties. Once again, you see heavy hitting titans (Bayman, Bass), flimsy speedy ones (Ayane, Christie), and super weirdoes (Zack, Brad Wong). But does this game manage to follow Smash‘s footsteps in creating a miracle character capable of feeling awesome in the hands of a newbie while simultaneously allowing a lot of room to become truly fearsome at a pro level?
Enter the Ninja
As I learned more about Dead or Alive, both by playing the shit out of it and researching even more, I laughed when I realized that Ryu Hayabusa would be the character to fit this template. After all, just like Mario, Hayabusa is arguably the mascot of his game. An unstoppable, badass ninja, he always plays a central role in the game’s story. What’s more, he is also the only character to come into DoA from another franchise (Ninja Gaiden) in a meaningful capacity (so I’m not counting the Virtua Fighter tie-ins). All of this together pushes him into the spotlight, making him likely to be picked up by a new player regardless of how well does or doesn’t play.
Now, what makes Hayabusa “easy to learn” is that, in a game based so heavily on reading your opponent, Hayabusa is just all over the fucking place. As part of the “rule of cool” that seems to follow this guy around, Hayabusa’s attacks are sudden and flashy. They often involve so much gyrating and mid-air gymnastics that, as the other player, it is really hard to get a sense of where to counter him from. His backflip kicks always seem to be medium or high, but you can never tell 100% and they are so fast that you never have time to think about it anyways.
Hayabusa is especially strong for newer players because, when the only combos you know don’t involve a lot of directional variation, you lean more towards characters who can do a ton of damage in a mere one or two easily executable attacks (because by keeping your combos small, you worry less about getting countered). Hayabusa’s kick moveset is perfect for this, providing fast yet hard-hitting attacks that seem downright overpowered until one has played him enough to know just how to counter or sidestep in order to deny him.
Taking it to the Next Level
So the follow-up question becomes, “Once you’ve learned how Hayabusa’s cheese works, does he hold up in advanced play?” Absolutely yes. To prove it, I want you to check out this video, where I cherry-picked a specific match (about 4 minutes long from where I start you) between a master Hayabusa and a master Gen Fu player. In it, you can see many of the acrobatic moves I mentioned earlier. But you will also witness some expert-level things that I haven’t.
For those unable to watch the video, what it shows is a Hayabusa player using a lot of techniques unique to the character that require a TON of practice to pull off consistently. Let me list the ones that I was able to spot:
- Midair grabs – In the middle of some combos, the Hayabusa has the timing and awareness to grab the other player straight out of the goddamn air multiple times in order to deal some extra damage or keep a combo going. As someone who can definitely not call himself a pro player, I can attest to having tried this out after watching the video and failing utterly.
- Teleporting – Many of the ninja characters can use limited teleportation to reposition themselves around the battlefield, and Hayabusa is the second-most effective character at this after Kasumi. Knowing exactly when to teleport requires incredible timing and an insane amount of practice. Stringing a combo out on top of that? Priceless.
- The Handstand Transition – A lot of the “hard to learn, hard to master” characters in this game use different stances that you can use a whole different moveset from. By contrast, the closest Hayabusa has to one is his handstand, which is fine but doesn’t have nearly the amount of complexity as the stances of other characters. Nonetheless, the Hayabusa player is often able to seamlessly shift into and out of the handstand position within a grander combo, which requires a lot of effort to pull off. And even THIS guy messes it up a few times!
- Manipulating the Landscape – Last but not least, even the commentators note that the level that these pros fight in has a ceiling, walls, and beds that the players can be punched into for extra damage. I noticed with the ceiling that Hayabusa’s moveset seemed particularly effective in using it for longer combos, whereas the Gen Fu player wasn’t able to weave it into his attacks as often. Being able to exploit this must require a lot of practice and mastery of Hayabusa; I didn’t even know that his kit was especially good at this until seeing this video.
Consequently, just like Mario from Smash, Hayabusa from Dead or Alive gives us another fine example of a character who is “easy to learn, hard to master.” With his execution times, throw variety, and mix-up combos, Hayabusa thus becomes a staple at the novice and master level, able to hold his own even among characters with far more complicated move-sets than his own.
Why not make ALL characters like this?
But, just like Smash Bros, DoA‘s pro scene is hampered by many of the characters being perceived as “not worth playing.” Poor Nyotengu, Brad Wong, and Bass Armstrong are nowhere to be seen, among others. So, the more I wrote this and explored the concept, the more I started to wonder what a game would look like if every character fit this mold. After all, a character that satisfies both the new player base and still retains enough complexity to intrigue the hardcore seems like the pinnacle of what you want in character design. So why not just do it with every one of them? If you did, would it be the best fighting game ever created? Or would every character feel samey and not terribly exciting? It’s really hard to know for sure.
But I definitely know that, in an industry where E-Sports are becoming so influential and lucrative, a fighting game especially suffers if over half of its characters are deemed “easy to learn, not worth mastering.” You run into that scenario in Super Smash Bros: Melee, where every tournament is a shitload of Fox, Sheik, Marth, and the rare Jigglypuff. Even in the most dominant E-Sports (League of Legends as an example), the developers struggle constantly to tweak and fix the fact that, of a game with literally hundreds of champions to choose from, only maybe thirty champions actually see play at the pro level. Really, any game with a tier list implies that there are some characters, champions, or classes that just don’t cut it. Isn’t this a failure of game design to make more “easy to learn, hard to master” choices? Because it seems like we can narrow the problem down to those that are “easy to learn, not worth mastering,” given that many people relish the challenge of “hard to learn, hard to master.” So how can we fix this?
I can’t get a bead on it, so tomorrow I want to explore some other genres that might have been able to figure out this balance. Specifically, be sure to join me while I spend some time looking at Starcraft, MMORPGs, and World of Warcraft in particular to see how they hold up under scrutiny.