Analysis: The Consequences of Reducing the Skill Gap

The most significant moment in fighting game history is the Daigo Parry, also known as “Moment 37”. It’s been viewed over 30 million times, featured in multiple documentaries, and, of course, there’s the book about it. There are a lot of reasons why it was such a big deal, but at the core of it, It was simply because it took a lot of skill. [crowd explodes into cheers] [crowd goes fucking nuts] [crowd fucking loses it] To parry a hit in Street Fighter 3, you have to tap forward within a 10 frame window (or 1/6 of a second) to succeed. Otherwise you get hit, which would have killed Daigo, since he only had a pixel of health left. Since Chun-Li’s “super” requires 15 parries in a specific pattern and tempo , Daigo had to time each one perfectly in order to survive.

It’s like playing a stricter Guitar Hero with 15 invisible notes, and no music to follow. Add tournament pressure to the situation, and it becomes seemingly impossible to pull off. But how iconic would Moment 37 be if you could succeed just by doing this? [random mashing] Not very impressive, but this is actually me successfully parrying Chun-Li’s super in Street Fighter 5.

Needless to say, this game is really lenient with inputs. As a matter of fact, I can do the full parry by doing a Merengue beat. [mashing to a Merengue beat] Why is it that lenient? I can’t help but imagine a boardroom meeting where they thought, “If we make it easy, then anyone could be the next Diego.” “Yeah, that’ll get ’em on my side!”

But this trend of easier games is not without its reasons. Competitive games are harder to get into because you can learn a game for hours and still know nothing about it. Gamers are older now with real jobs and real responsibilities. After a bad day at work, the last thing you want to do is work for your entertainment. But for competitive folk, that extra work IS the entertainment, also known as “the journey”. This creates an extremely wide spectrum of skill levels…

KID ON MIC: “No, you’re- you’re cheating!” JUSTIN WONG: “You’re gonna learn!” …and depending on the game design, the skill gap will more or less reward those who have put more hours into the game, or the game’s predecessors. This has put game companies like Capcom, who have built loyal competitive fanbases, in a tough position. Appease to a large pool of potential newcomers by lowering the skill gap, or be faithful to the smaller, but more passionate competitive base by rewarding legacy skill and dedication.

On top of this, you now have to entertain the spectators who might not even play the game, but then do it in a way that makes sponsors happy. r/Kappa might like Mika’s default costume, but ESPN might like not losing their sponsors. By attempting to satisfy so many different groups, the game itself starts to get shaped by people who don’t care about the game other than its potential return on investment, or people who think running out the clock with a life lead makes you a douchebag. There’s nothing new about broadening the appeal of a game, but now it’s gotten to the point where highly respected pro players are literally calling the developers of the game retarded. BONCHAN’S TRANSLATOR: “The guy who created the Boxer, or the concept of the Boxer, is retarded.

That’s what he says.” “So he can totally understand, you know, their intention at Capcom, but uh, he cannot accept their way…” “For him, it’s like, elementary school students creating the patch.” What’s going on here? LINDA: Gerald, what’s happening? BOB: What’s going on?

To get to the root of the issue, let’s start with the “party game”. Drinking games like beer pong can be explained in a few minutes, and it’s not uncommon for people playing for the first time to win. Party games like these are characterized by easy to learn rules, no training requirement, and low stakes. In other words, less effort required. This is why one of the worst things you can say about a competitive game is that it resembles a party game in some way. KEN: “I stream Smash 4 when…

I wanna have fun.” McRIB: Wow, [indecipherable] MIKE ROSS: [indecipherable] Of course, Melee players have also heard their game referred to as a party game. And this is because the game was originally designed as one according to its creator Masahiro Sakurai. But the community made it competitive by creating rules such as no items, and banning certain stages in order to remove uncertainty in outcome, also known as luck according to Magic: The Gathering creator Richard Garfield. It’s hard to see who the better player is when everyone keeps getting killed by random NPCs or random items. But luck is actually great for party games because they protect egos.

Players can attribute their wins to skill, but blame chance on their losses. No need to accept that you suck, so everyone is happy. Until they get bored, and make the game more interesting by raising the stakes.

When money, pride, or even just beers are on the line, rules are likely to be changed or added to reduce luck. Suddenly the ball has to be a certain size, and randomizers like dice get thrown out. Even chess, which is regarded as the ultimate example of skill based gaming, used to be played with dice in one of its earliest forms known as “Chaturaji”.

In earlier Street Fighter games, the amount of stun your attacks did was random within a certain range, and sometimes you’d get dizzy in a very few hits. In later games however, attacks do a fixed amount of stun, reducing the luck factor. Competitive players generally accept these kinds of changes.

But what happens when you take a matured competitive franchise and add uncertainty in outcome? RICHARD GARFIELD: “It’s very difficult to add luck to an existing game, and that’s because the existing audience likes the way they’re rewarded, right?” “The good players are getting a lot of accolades, and adding luck is going to reduce them.” When you lower the skill gap, the better player is simply going to lose more often. And games like Street Fighter 5 were made with this in mind. This isn’t just a conspiracy theory, because Capcom never kept it a secret.

EFREN SALINAS: “The idea that Lupe Fiasco won, and he beat Daigo, what do you think a moment like that means to a larger audience outside of the FGC, if at all?” COMBOFIEND: “I think it just speaks to the accessibility of Street Fighter 5”. “You know, I mean, it just shows that anyone could really become a champion in this game if they tried.”

[♫ Bag Raiders – Shooting Stars ♫] So what did they do to the game to achieve this? How did the sausage of Street Fighter 5 get made? FCHAMP: “Whoever had the idea to design this game, okay, to be shitty like this…” “was like, okay? Well, we have to create a Street Fighter because we’re going to promote it on esports, but we have to create a game that will close in the gap versus the guys who’s been playing Street Fighter for 10 to 20 years, versus somebody who just picked up a controller.” These changes cause more upsets and unpredictable matches, which might be exciting for spectators and newcomers, but gives near heart attacks to even the most consistent pros. JIYUNA: “…taking Fuudo to the last round…” XIAN: “Very impressive, definitely we have some… heart attack.”

But a game designed to cater towards newcomers and spectators comes with a price. With Street Fighter 5’s simpler and more lenient combo execution, intermediate players are now able to perform any combo with little to no effort. Even the deadliest ones.

This lowers combo variety and ultimately hurts the ability of the players to express themselves. GAMERBEE: “Even if I was trying to play, like, really special? Or try to have, like, my signature technique with my character…” “That’s not going to happen in this game.” INTERVIEWER: “Ok.” GAMERBEE: “It’s because, oh, the combo, anyone can do it.” Saddest of all, the skills of combo masters like Sakonoko are trivialized, because anyone can do the same combos that he does.

In addition to max damage combos being easier, the game unapologetically made defensive options terrible, and they’re getting worse. FCHAMP: “You’re trying to prevent something from happening, but you’re so limited in defensive options…” SNAKE EYES: “I definitely feel like there needs to be some kind of defensive option in the game…” JUSTIN WONG: “I obviously like Season One more because there was a little bit more defensive options…” “So Season Two is obviously more towards aggression, and just more excitement for people to watch.” The end result is volatility. INTERVIEWER: “You see all these comeback videos every single day…” FLoE: “Comebacks don’t matter anymore. They’re not impressive anymore.” “A comeback is likely now.”

I get that defensive play is bad for spectators, but even Guilty Gear Xrd, a game that actually empties your resources for playing too defensively, has rich defensive options like “Faultless Defense” that rewards good resource management, and “Instant Block”, which rewards precise timing. Alongside volatile gameplay, the drastic balance changes have put pro players in a guessing game called, Who does Capcom like? BRIAN_F: “They didn’t really want the game to be balanced, I don’t think. I think they just wanted to shuffle who you see on screen, and make it exciting.”

But on top of everything, Street Fighter 5 also has the high input lag, which I’ve already made a whole video about, and while they have shaved off about a frame and a half of lag since then, it still double that of indie titles like Skullgirls. As a matter of fact, Skullgirls creator Mike Z added a mode that increases the input lag to simulate Street Fighter 5. You can activate it by adding the command line “-ascendhigher” in the launch options. While this burn is indeed sick, the message is real. Input lag decreases your control over your character, and necessarily rewards prediction over reactions, which creates more uncertainty in outcome. ALEX MYERS: “You have to play with the lag…” INTERVIEWER: “Yeah you do, right.”

ALEX MYERS: “…because if you let it dictate too much of your gameplay, like if you’re trying to react, whiff punish stuff too much? You’re going to get… screwed.”

But you might be thinking, “If Street Fighter 5 is so random, then why do we still see players who do well consistently?” It’s for the same reason why we see consistency in professional poker. Players like Daniel Negreanu have won 6 World Series of poker bracelets, and over 30 million dollars in prize money, despite playing a game that’s literally gambling.

[audience surprised] Richard Garfield points out that luck and skill are not mutually exclusive, which means games can require high luck and high skill, low luck and high skill, high luck and low skill, and low luck and low skill. The ones who like high-level competitive play want Street Fighter to go this way, but the ones who want upsets and blow-ups want it to go this way. When it goes too far in one direction, it won’t feel like the same franchise anymore. FCHAMP: “Oh, this Street Fighter is totally not a Street Fighter game.

This is like… Marvel with lag.” But fans of the series will dispute what makes a real Street Fighter game, because people have different tastes. Is it about footsies? Zoning? Execution?

Tech? Reads? There’s no definite answer because there’s no official Street Fighter Constitution that defines the franchise in terms of gameplay. This is why Moment 37, and others like it, is so important to the fighting game community. Moments like these act as articles to an unwritten Constitution that define what makes a franchise meaningful to us.

[crowd losing it] The excitement you here in this video isn’t just because there was a comeback. It’s because the comeback looked impossible. Making it easy so anyone could be the next “Diego” profoundly misunderstands what makes Street Fighter exciting and makes the players profoundly sad. GUY: 「Profound Sadness」 And this isn’t just Street Fighter. We also saw this when Metal Gear cynically turned into a survival horror game, and when Call of Duty went sci-fi.

The thing is, these could all be great games if they were made for a different franchise. Followers of the channel know I loved Rising Thunder, but I would never want one-button Shoryukens in Street Fighter. Competitive games are becoming “lifestyle games” with many years of support. We spend so much of our lives playing, watching, streaming, and traveling to tournaments, which is why communication from the developers is more important than ever before. PHENOM: “I really don’t think Capcom is going to change anything.”

“They do what they feel is right for a game, what THEY feel is right for a game, it’s their game obviously.” INTERVIEWER: “Yeah”. PHENOM: “If you’re a competitive player, you just have to accept that, I guess.”

This makes me wonder, why can’t companies work WITH the players to make the game that suits their communities, if they’re in it for the long haul? And I don’t just mean some out of touch ideas of what you think they might like. I mean actually listening to what the most invested players want, and making a game they’ll be excited to share with everyone around them. Maybe this sounds naïve, or like a road to financial disaster, but one developer who was instrumental in reviving the fighting game genre doesn’t think so. SETH KILLIAN: “In my view, the most exciting new development doesn’t really come from a technology, it comes from a shift in the way we think about the games themselves.” “It’s a new way of looking at the passion that players bring to the game, and the efforts to align your interest as a developer as closely as possible with your players, and basically to understand: you’re in it together.”

The key to his model is this. Developer with player-aligned interest. But what does that mean?

“The history of esports, in my view, is the history of players trying to escape the gravity of a constantly changing landscape, and attain a stable competitive orbit. To find regularity that rewards our skills, and the financial backing to produce a stable world of competition.” While I like the sound of that, is a stable competitive orbit something spectators want to see? INTERVIEWER: “Do they want to see upsets, or do they want to see, like, who’s the best?”

FLoE: “They don’t care.” FLoE: “Because here’s the thing…” INTERVIEWER: “They don’t care who’s the best?” FLoE: “No!

Because, they’re finicky. They don’t… one day, Daigo could, you know, beat everyone? “Oh my God, Daigo’s the best.” “And next week he loses, you know, he gets like 9th or something…” “Daigo sucks. Daigo’s washed up.”

“INSTANTLY, Daigo’s washed up.” “People don’t care about who’s the best anymore. They just want something to talk shit about.” Maybe FloE is right. Maybe people don’t care about who the better player is, but care more about the spectacle.

If true, the model might look like this. But notice how the focus on player and competition is gone, and how player passion is replaced by sponsor interest. Why? Because I imagine players would have a hard time being passionate about being made a spectacle. Just a guess.

I’m not going to pretend to know which model would be most financially successful, but is it THAT not worth it to make a game enjoyable for its most dedicated players? Let me know in the comments what competitive games you play, and what do you think about the direction they’re taking it. This was Gerald from Core-A Gaming, thanks for watching, and shoutouts to BornFree’s channel for his S-Tier interviews, the Consouls for their sick Ibuki Theme cover, and the talented Richard Suwono for the new Juri artwork in the channel banner. Seeya next video.