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Execution in Fighting Games

Here's an article about the role of execution in fighting games, by James Chen. I think the title and conclusion are kind of misleading because it does not really discuss the role of exeuction in fighting games, but rather the role of how different move commands affect the game.

Let's start with the good. Every example given is helpful to know, and I think each one is a correct example. In each case, Chen shows how the motion for doing a certain move being one thing rather than another thing affects gameplay and that this is usually for the better. Yes, a dragon punch motion and a reverse dragon punch motion do have different effects, and cause the moves to be used differently. Players should take that into account whether they are playing *as* such a character or *against* one. Good stuff here.

The problem is that that's not really what people mean when they talk about execution in fighting games. It's a very narrow, cherry picked kind of thing that doesn't fairly represent the topic. It also lead Chen to make this conclusion:

"Execution isn’t just about performing your combos. It’s also largely about knowing what your opponent CAN perform in given time frames. That ADDS to the mind games and the gameplay, not detracting from it."

I agree completely that the different motions chosen for moves gives another layer of things to think about and that that kind of variety is interesting relative to a game that had no such variety. The thing is, "execution" in general (not these very specific examples) has the opposite effect and it reduces strategy, relatively speaking. The more a game is about the difficulty of making your character do what you want to do, the necessarily less it is about strategy (that is, making good decisions).

This is why it's not a good idea to make special moves really hard to do. Make them take some *time* so some prediction is needed (even a few frames of prediction), yeah that's great. Make them start at a particular place on the joystick, such as a reverse dragon punch, and that affects how they're used, right. But to have some tiny input window to make them hard to do even when you have decided you want to do them, that's taking away emphasis on strategy. Making a game where the command to throw is secretly an option select tricky thing that you want to do basically always is another way to put more weight on dexterity that necessarily reduces strategy. Choosing commands that overlap too much (for example, ST Cammy's hooligan throw and spinning knuckle) puts more emphasis on dexterity than the decision of choosing the right move. So to increase strategy slightly, it's better to make those not overlap (and in HD Remix, they don't).

Making a game such that bread-and-butter combos require 1-frame linking is another great example of reducing the importance of strategy. In a recent stream, Chen himself said that in SF4, if you can't do Sakura's 1-frame link combo, you shouldn't be playing Sakura. I agree! That goes to show how strongly execution is favored over correct decision making / strategy in the case of SF4 Sakura.

We should really be striving to reduce execution requirements as much as possible while keeping the nature of the game intact. That is, making all dragon punches a single button press would reduce execution, but it would also actually ruin a bunch of strategy stuff by making them too reactive and not predictive enough, so we shouldn't do that. That's not a case where reducing execution helps, so I'm not talking about things like that. I am talking about sequences or moves that are hard apart from any strategic consideration. Like Sakura having 1-frame links as a critical thing, instead of being a character anyone could play. (You don't even need to change the power level of the character or reduce any strategy here, it's just a matter of being more inclusive as to how many players get to participate in that strategy.)

I know there's a lot of execution fetishism going around, and that's unfortunate for a genre that many would like to point to as a strategy genre that happens to have a dexterity requirement to play. Rasing the dexterity requirement above the minimum needed to make it all work just subtracts from the importance of strategy while excluding people. I'd like to see more love for an inclusive approach, as that restores more power to good decisions while inviting even more players to participate in those decisions.

Reader Comments (36)

I've read your many posts about execution in fighting games. Every time I do, I feel the same sense of enthusiasm in support of your argument. I wanted to get into Street Fighter IV, but given its demand for performing combos that require timing down to a few 60ths of a second, I gave up. It drives me crazy to watch streams/replays knowing that all these simple looking combos like Ryu jab-jab-strong into DP actually take significant 1P training time to lock down.

Why does this even need to be an issue? Why did they think something so tedious (nope, press it a little, now a little sooner) would be enjoyable to most players? Can't they just increase the input buffer so the next command actually links after the previous one without it turning into a Marvel-style chain combo?? I'm not privy to the technical side of game design, but my hunch is that such a problem could be fixed while keeping all the combos in SFIV intact.

BTW, David, while you weren't even correcting an execution issue as difficult to perform is a 1-frame link, it still felt like a HUGE breath of fresh air to have the simplified (yet not dumbed-down) commands in HD Remix. What a fantastic example of how well this works in practice!

July 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOzzer

Thanks. To answer your question, yeah a input buffer giving you a few frames of leeway between linked attacks would work in a fighting game. BlazBlue does that actually, if you want to do move A, B you can hold the A button and it repeats for 5 frames. Note that there is no cancel involved there, so it's not a chain. It just makes sure that B comes out as soon as possible after A is completely finished. If you dropped that into an existing game, it would probably be mostly fine. You might uncover a few combos that are too powerful, but then actually they were sort of too powerful anyway, just restricted to the few who could do them.

July 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

How do you feel that this argument applies to other genres of game? In fighting games, execution is largely binary, it's about *whether* you're able to execute a move or not, while in other games, execution is more about *how well* you're able to execute. In an RTS, your micro might determine how many units you're able to walk away from a fight with, and doesn't often determine who will actually win, and macro will determine how large your army is and not whether you have an army or not. In an FPS, your aim will determine how much damage you can do in a given firefight, not who will win it, and your movement skill determines how fast you can go and won't fundamentally affect where you're able to go.

I feel like these sorts of elements of execution add an additional layer of opponent-specific depth to a game. Some games, FPSes in particular, rely too much on execution rather than strategy as their primary element of player skill, but a game that can manage to provide both deep execution and deep strategy can be enjoyable to play and to spectate on two different levels.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephan Ahonen

Yeah how-well vs binary are a bit different. But still, Starcraft has very high APM requirements, and the unbounded nature of the rewards (more and more APM helps more and more) necessarily reduces strategy. The more and more one matters, the less the other does. If one were actually concerned with making a similar game with more strategy (by lowering the importance of APM), it seems doable to me. You could do a bad job of it by simply taking away options that are hard to do, but that could reduce strategy. It woud be similar to the bad idea of making dragon punches all one-button, which no one is suggesting in the first place. Instead, if allowing players to make nuanced motions of maries (or whatever) leads to good strategy (and I think it probably does), then working on a way to make that as simple to EXECUTE as possible, would help.

Starcraft 2 already made advancements by taking out a bunch of execution stuff that had to do with fighting the interface of SC1 that didn't allow selecting more than 12 units and didn't let you tab through unit types within a selection. There's a case where that change let more players participate in the strategy decisions involved with controlling units, AND it's lower execution than before. Rather than then add in more click-requirements, as Blizzard did, I think it would have been better to find more ways to reduce clicks and get as close as possible to the player's mind being able to execute anything you can think of. If it's to be a strategy game that is. It seems they want to make an execution game more though.

July 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Execution barriers in fighting games annoy me to no end. I am not a teenager any more who has many hours of free time to go into practise-mode and repeat the same combo five hundred times until my fingers can do it on auto-pilot. I also find it borderline offensive that to be any good at (for example) BlazBlue or UMvC3, you first need to spend a hundred hours in practise or else you stand no chance at all, because B&B-combos are in the 50% to 100% HP range (and easily take twenty to thirty attacks), while single attacks do about a tenth of that. I want to play the game and not drill combos all day long.

I'm currently playing KoF13, and it seems far more to my liking, but it also suffers from cruft: Don't give Any a move where you have to press down/back into forward, and another one where you have to do a dragonpunch. Those overlap badly, and even top players mess this up, because it's really hard to do on a stick.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

KOF13 would appear at first glance to be what you want. But actually it becomes totally comboey at higher level, and not the old-school zoning game that you might first think. So you'll be learning long V-ism type combos in that game too. (Also it has a variety of styles such as rushdown with dhalsim arms, rushdown with long pole, and regular rushdown.)

July 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Yeah, I've seen (for example) EVO 2012 finals, and it's combo galore at some points. Since I don't plan to play it on tournaments (there are none here), I can live with having a lower skill ceiling, and it looks like you can get 80% of top combo damage with relatively little effort. Example would be Ralf's B&B: If you drop the d.C from it, it's really easy to do, but the difference in damage is small.

It's still the best bet of the current generation, except possibly SF4, and I really can't stand that game. The camera is atrocious, the game feels very laggy all the time (I can't really explain why, but SF4 has always felt sluggish to me), and while the combos are generally short, they are not actually easy at all with their 1-frame links.

Another issue nobody comments on: Combos are boring. There is no game happening, it's just waiting until we can continue. Imagine Basketball, but after every score, they do a little dance of a minute or two like in soccer. It would be the worst game ever.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

I'm really curious how Persona Arena turns out, is it seems to be a GG-esque game with easier execution and shorter combos. Might open up GG-style gameplay to a wider audience, the same way I think HDR opened up ST to folks who wouldn't have given it a shot. Sirlin, are you looking forward to Persona?

I just wish some of the most vocal in the OG community for ST didn't resent the changes in HDR when it came to execution. I've seen some of this in the VF community as well- a few folks really don't like the elimination of multi-throw escape in FS.

Why aren't games that emphasize strategy over execution more popular, and what's the best way to change that? (And is this a legit question?)

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlstein

I can't even do a QCF reliably, so the entire genre of fighting games is closed to me. Games that look cool and that many of my friends play rebuff me after a frustrating half hour in practice mode. Pad, stick, square gate, diamond gate, octagonal gate, makes no difference. I'm sure I'm an extreme case, but I'm not alone in wishing I had more to choose from than just Smash Bros., so: preach it!

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark

Wouldn't you say that a certain level of execution requirements does actually add a layer of strategy for the opponent?

For example, if I was playing GGAC and I knew my opponent is able to punish Move X with a 40% combo that ends in knockdown, I'd be a lot more cautious during the neutral game than if he could only punish it with a 20% combo that lets me tech in the air.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLG

I agree both with your review of James Chen's article and with your point that increasing execution requirements reduces the emphasis on strategy. I might also agree that a one button dragon punch wouldn't be great, though this seems more open to discussion.

I've grown into execution somewhat with the Streetfighter IV series - I've appreciated some of the short cuts and lamented them at other times (jump back with Seth and try a hadoken, SPD everytime). What I like about execution requirements most now is the challenge of figuring out what my opponents are capable of - do they have the reaction time and the execution skills to catch me? Where does their strength lie? etc. It feels like an extra dimension leading to more variety among opponents. That said, I still much prefer the Soul series of fighting games over any other in part for their lower execution requirements; there are other attributes a game can have besides an execution barrier to create variety in playing styles.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBranstar

I feel that Blazblue is being somewhat misrepresented here - most B&B combos are in the 20% range, and consist of maybe 5-8 attacks, which, when combined with the input buffer and the fact that almost all combos are cancels and not links, means that the requirements really aren't that high relative to, well, almost all other modern titles. Many SF4 characters have B&B combos that, while they may only be 4 hits or something, require 1 frame links that will glue you into practice mode far longer than a BlazBlue A>B>Towards B >C>Special Move chain ever will, even if the latter is more hits and looks more impressive.

BlazBlue does feature big, explosive combos, and if you're not looking to learn at least some combos, it's probably not your game (nor is anything 2D that's been published in the past 3 years, as far as I can tell.) but comparing it to Marvel where you're pretty much expected to be able to do 50 hit 70% damage combos doesn't really seem fair.

Hoping Persona 4 Arena alleviates some of these issues a little bit.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermpureka

Sirlin, I'm detecting a bit of malice in some of your responses. Saying Blizzard is more concerned with execution than strategy when designing SC is pretty much an insult to them. I'm not sure if you intended it as such, but that how it comes off. Furthermore, a rather cheeky comment about KoF's variety of rushdown...yes, we know it's a rushdown game but is the mocking tone legit? Again, I could be off base but this is how I'm reading into it.

Having said all that, I pretty much agree with everything in your article. I'm glad you touched on that fact that execution is still necessary for certain reasons while it shouldn't be the focus. However, I'd like to offer a counter point. There is a certain point at which difficulty of execution can actually add depth to the game on a human level. I'm not referring to the same concept of execution that James Chen was, the mistake which prompted your very own article. I'm referring directly to difficulty that you are arguing to eliminate. There are clear decisions to be made in a high stakes match in regard to difficulty - do I go for the kill with a long but difficult combo, or do I play it safe for the garenteed damage? You see these decisions being made at both the intermediate and pro levels, and they very from player to player based on their own skill and confidence. To eliminate the role of execution as a consideration would be to elimiate this very dynamic decision that is made at all levels. For that reason I argue that degrees of difficulty are quite necessary for a competitive game.

Now, there is a game called Divekick that successfully removes all execution barriers to create a vitually 1:1 metal output on the screen. And it works for the reasons in your article. However, it will by design forever lack the personal dynamic that I described above. This neither a good nor bad thing, it is simply a thing. Likewise execution barriers in videogames are simply an aspect of that particular game, not something to be boiled down to the lowest common denominator.

And those are my thoughts on that. By the way, love Flash Duel.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermetaphist

LG: if that example combo weren't so hard, then everyone could participate in the gameplay where that combo can be used.

metaphist, I think you have the wrong idea about what I'm saying. No it's not an insult to blizzard and they have talked explicitly about this many times. They want execution to be a high factor and they intentionally put more execution tests in their games. This necessarily makes strategy less important, but by definition it makes execution more important. Execution tests are one form of "skill" and they want this kind of "skill test." I think it would be better if they instead wanted more of a "strategy test," but oh well. Anyway you could say it insults them I guess, depending on your point of view, but it's what they themselves want for their game. A person who thought that it's good for a game to have intense skill tests to reward high APM (as opposed to minimizing that and focusing on strategy) wouldn't find it insulting.

That said, a chess player who thought cake baking skill should be skill tested wouldn't be insulted by the game of "chess and also baking cakes in order to get extra moves." A chess player who thought high cake baking skill shouldn't really be part of a strategy game would be insulted though, yeah.

Your suggestion of keeping a certain kind of execution, yeah that can be exciting. You just have to understand that that existing really does take away emphasis on strategy. It seriously really does. To illustrate why, imagine TacticA is difficult to Alice, there is some decision she makes about missing it 50% of the time, if it's worth it. TacticB is difficult to Bob, and he misses that 50% of the time, but tacticA is really easy for him, he basically never misses it. (TacitcB does more damage and is stronger than A, Alice can't do B at all, ever.) Charlie can do tacticC about 50% of the time, and makes strategic decisions about whether it's worth it. Yeah great. But Charlie vs Alice illustrates just how important execution is in this game. Charlie clearly has a solid advantage, being able to do A and B every time, and gambling sometimes on C, while Alice is stuck gambling only with tacticA. Whenever execution matters more, strategy necessarily matters less. This game rewards the "skill" of execution and could very easily end in a win for Charlie even if he did not "deserve" to win if this were a strategy game.

It's worth pointing out as a thought experiment (not a real suggestion) that if tacticA were like...75% doable by anyone, that everyone would then be participating in that same strategic decision about whether it's worth the risk to do in some certain situation. People wouldn't like that game because "it's random," but it's somewhat ironic that that theoretical game actually rewards strategy more than than the execution-based game in the earlier example.

Glad you like Flash Duel. Maybe you will like a Fantasy Strike fighting game at some point too. It will have plenty of execution test because that's inherent to the genre, just not a bunch more than is needed to make it all work. So sort of like...hmm not like SF4, or SF3, or SF2, or Soul Calibur, or BlazBlue...I guess not like any game I know of, lol.

July 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

First of all, "chess and also baking cakes in order to get extra moves" is probably the single greatest variation on chess I've ever heard of. I expect a full ruleset and starter kit released as your next project :p

Secondly, I had no idea Blizzard said that about there own game, so I'm totally wrong on that front. I just thought they were widely considered the kings of strategy more or less, color me surprised.

And finally, I understand your example, it's quite true and a real problem. I was speaking as a gamer who considers himself able to perform anything that another person can, with the right amount of practice, thus my defense. But that's not really fair, is it. I do however stand by my statement that execution barriers are not inherently a bad thing, just a thing. Since strategy is one thing and execution is another, and there are people like me that enjoy execution, those types of games should indeed exist for me and others. However, the opposite should exist as well, we really do benefit from people like you thinking about it at length and making a real effort to put it into practice. In the end I love both sides of the coin, both on there own and mixed to any degree, really. I'm just a fan of games :)

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered Commentermetaphist

Preach, brother! I can´t wait for your fighting game, if it is ever released. I think a lot of people feel the same way you do, but a lot of people in the fighting game community are execution obsessed because, well, you sort of have to be in order to be a hardcore fighting game person because most fighting games are execution heavy.

Just out of curiosity, how would you design a combo system? My current line of thinking is that maybe much of the problem with difficult combos could be solved by heavy damage scaling. My problem with SF4s combos are that they to such a great extent seem to start with long series of light attacks which to me are pretty much impossible to link consistently (because I have a job, girlfriend and other interests than fighting games). Maybe that could be sovled by damage scaling.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGentleman

One thing that makes starcraft really special is that different units mean different things in the hands of different players. For instance, marineking, true to his name, is an absolute master of marine micro. Few other players, even players who are overall better than him, can beat his marine micro. His marines are always scary effective, and that's really cool. It also has a really interesting effect on the mind games involved. Marineking knows he wants to build marines, and so does the other player. So the other guy might go ahead and counter MK's amazing marines, but then marineking can exploit that by not building marines at all. The point here is that the players in the match have to decide just how useful his marines are actually going to be that day. It forces marineking's opponent to think differently than he might otherwise, and adds another layer of opponent-specific mindgame. This sort of play is also good for the spectators, because it means watching different players play is actually different instead of pretty much the same.

None of this would be possible if marine micro wasn't a thing. Of course, marine micro is an inseperable combination of the physical and mental. It isn't artificially hard, like combos in fighting games, the actual controls are about as simple as possible. The sheer complexity of managing dozens of little guys makes it fundamentally challenging though, to the point that no human will ever get it perfectly even once, let alone every time.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAuthweight

Part of the reason why some think execution requirements are a good thing is that they generally come attached with other good things (like deep strategy). In general, I don't think developers make a significant distinction between technical difficulty and strategic difficulty, and so most games end up either being strategically shallow along with lacking technical difficulty, or having both difficult execution and interesting strategy.

I don't think there's a causal relationship (there's no need to insert technical challenges to create strategic depth) - it just happens to be the case that many great games have required a lot of technical skill to play well, which makes it seem like making execution more difficult (within reason) would make games generally better.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzero341

zero: hmm that's actually a really good point.

Gentleman: I have answers to a lot of things, but not quite everything about a combo system. You get most of the way there by just avoiding some kind of dumb things. Like for example, jabs and shorts not comboing into X, but kara-cancelling into X is just stupid. Either make them combo always or never, done.

Also, if you choose yes to combo off jab/short, then you run into the problem of them dominating the game as they do again and again in capcom games. Guilty Gear solved this problem for us like 10 years ago with damage proration (different than "scaling".) When people say scaling, that usually refers to more and more hits of a combo making each subsequent hit do less. But in ggxx, the proration feature means that if you start combos with jabs, the rest of the combo (all hits) are scaled down to 75%, or whatever specific value is on that move. The result is exactly what you'd want: you try use other heavier moves to start a combo, but you'll settle for jabs to start if you are willing to give up a fair amount of damage.

Then there's some other convenience features like that 5 frame repeat thing from BlazBlue. Also I have some tricks to make special moves easier to do, but in a way that doesn't make them uber-reactive like a 1-button dp, and doesn't make the motions so lenient that you do them accidentally all the time.

What I don't really know about is juggle system. I think it should pretty minimal, but not "none." ST and HD Remix are examples of that, though their juggle system is a bit inelegant. Only a few moves can juggle because they are specifically tagged to do so, and have hard coded juggle limits. It does create about the right amount of juggles, but it's kind of iffy. Not quite sure on a better answer, but not really too worried. You can play SF2 games without needing a bunch of hard combos, so adding all this connivence stuff and not having a huge juggle system will keep it simple, whichever specific way the juggle part ends up.

July 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

The 'problem' with comboing with people who don't enjoy raw executition is that from the beginning to the end of a combo, there's no actual interaction between the players (it doesn't matter what the player being comboed does).

The best combo system I've seen is that of Super Smash Bros. Melee. The player being hit can influence the direction he gets sent in. Because the window to do this is generally very small, and the "correct" (some "correct" decisions are generally good, while in other cases the "correct" thing to do is simply what the opponent doesn't expect) direction to influence knockback in varies significantly depending on situation, the system rewards prediction and situational awareness even when one player is in hitstun.

Another good result of this system is the variance in what happens when a hit is landed - instead of a hit leading to the same mid-damage combo each time, a series of good predictions (on either side) can make the difference between a single hit and a 0% to death combo.

Such a system couldn't be easily implemented without the overall mechanics of the Smash games, but there are some general principles that make it really good.

July 18, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterzero341
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