A New Golden Age?

Unreal Tournament 4. Reflex. Toxikk. Reborn. Wickland. Project Bluestreak And now ProjectRIK. The movement-based arena shooter is attempting a comeback. Which is great, because I grew up with those types of games, and I love them dearly. However, I also just went through the supposedly new Golden Age of fighting games, and got almost nothing out of it, so I’m a little wary.

As I know nothing about business, but everything about being an opinionated jerk on the internet, that’s the lens I look through. Write what you know, after all.

The ’09ers

Street Fighter 4 was released on consoles in 2009. Immediately, there was a flood of new players on Shoryuken.com, which is front and centre in all things related to Capcom fighting games. Just as immediately, these new players were branded the ’09ers, and this became an insult to throw at people who weren’t part of the community before Street Fighter 4, who hadn’t paid their dues. All in all, it was pretty dumb, but there was a kernel of truth embedded within that surge of elitist trolling.

See, there’s this idea that when Capcom left the scene, circa the early 2000s, that was that, and fighting games were dead, and then they weren’t revived again until Street Fighter 4 was released, and even if you didn’t like or play Street Fighter, you should be grateful for this sudden influx of new blood across the board. While there is no denying that Street Fighter 4 directly resulted in games like Mortal Kombat 9, there’s also no denying that every non-Capcom fighting game series kept on trucking for that Street Fighter-less decade. There were half a dozen Guilty Gear games, at least 2 Tekken games (more if you want to count the splits between Tekken 5 and Tekken 5: Dark Resurrection, and then Tekken 6 and Tekken 6: Bloodline Rebellion), a few Soulcalibur games, bunch of King of Fighters and Virtua Fighters, a whole mess of Mortal Kombats, Dead or Alive, Smash Bros, and endless numbers of anime doujin fighters like Melty Blood. Each of those games had competitive scenes and tournaments, to a greater or lesser degree. Each struggled on regardless of anything else.

While there’s also no denying that Street Fighter 4 brought more attention back to the genre, it’s basically a case of Reaganomics. The idea that more people playing Capcom fighters means more people playing everything else did not exactly translate into the real world. Sure, the Street Fighter 4 tournaments always drew crowds, and even Marvel did when it came back, but Virtua Fighter remained as dead outside of Japan as it’s ever been. Soulcalibur and Tekken didn’t get noticeable upticks, either. They battled attrition just as they had before. The problem was that the fighting game community (though it’s less so now) was not actually a community. It’s a collection of communities, all of which despise or look down on each other to some degree. People played the games they liked, and damn the rest. You only have to look at how Smash was treated up until very, very recently (hint: it wasn’t even considered to be a fighting game, and therefore beneath contempt) to see how that goes.

Like every other genre, fighting games are not a monolith. They resist eSports in favour of a grass-roots approach, but that comes at a cost. From stream monsters appropriating the “When’s Mahvel?” meme to troll chat while any other game is being played, to the endless parade of derisive terms each community employed to insult the other games. Marvel was “baby’s first anime fighter,” while anime fighters were all played by weeaboo pedophiles, and so on down the line.

Taking it back even further, and to a more relevant point, this same sort of rivalry existed in the FPS market back when arena shooters were kings, just as it does now between the current crop of FPS. Quake players looked down on Unreal players, and even on other Quake players. People who duelled were a cut above Rocket Arena scrubs, who were not even fit to breath the same air as CPMA players. This is again because the genre is not the sum of its parts. There are mechanical gaps the size of the Grand Canyon separating Toxikk and Reflex, just as there were between Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament. Of course, when you’re standing on either side of that gap, that sort of thing is obvious. It’s more difficult to tell from orbit, which is the angle new players will be coming from.

Selling Mechanics

I remember when Mirror’s Edge was released there was a vocal base of players who said the game would have been better without combat, and why couldn’t more games be made about first-person speed running and trick-jumping? I would hesitantly suggest checking out Defrag, a Quake 3 mod that had been doing exclusively trick-jump based time trials and races for the better part of a decade before Mirror’s Edge was even released, but with little result. It wasn’t simply that many were playing Mirror’s Edge on consoles, but also that what they wanted was not more first-person trick-jumping, but more Mirror’s Edge.

This is something that I touched on in my rant about mechanics vs. gameplay, and in other places, but I think it bears repeating: the way a game plays, on a mechanical level, is completely different from what the game is supposedly about. It’s what makes selling certain types of games more difficult than others, because there is an essential element that must be experienced before it can be understood. A fighting game is about players beating on each other until they win the round, but that encompasses everything from the original Karate Champ to Dengeki Bunko Fighting Climax, and there’s a vast difference between how most of them are played. That vast difference is also often the difference between whether or not a player will enjoy the game, or even be interested.

Would a Mirror’s Edge player, someone who enjoyed this:

Be likely to enjoy this?

Both are first-person games about getting from point A to point B in as quick and stylish a manner as possible, but that’s about all they have in common.

Everyone has their own preferences, their own experiences of what makes each game different. These differences amount to tropes, commonalities that make for passable shorthand when someone is trying to express mechanical nuances to someone who isn’t directly interacting with them. This new FPS, does it play like Call of Duty, Battlefield, or Halo? This new fighting game, Street Fighter or an anime fighter? Is this action game like Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, or God of War? Many games are even happy to point out the only ways they’re different from the standard tropes. Dawngate was League of Legends with a few twists, and so is pretty much every other game in that genre. Look at some of their marketing and developer videos and see how quickly they fall back on what they share with League of Legends, rather than detailing their gameplay from the ground up.

Of course, the next problem is fitting these tropes to a wider audience. When a new action game’s combat is described to be in the mould of God of War, they’re already losing me. I have played God of War, and I know that I don’t like its mechanics. Tell me that it plays more like Ninja Gaiden, and I’m right there, because I’ve played Ninja Gaiden (well, not 3), and I know that I like it. On the other hand, I don’t know the real differences between Call of Duty and Battlefield, so describing a game’s gunplay using either of those models doesn’t help. I have no point of reference for that sort of thing, having not played a new FPS in a long, long time, and almost never on consoles. Telling me that Destiny plays a lot like Halo doesn’t mean a whole lot to me (though it’s still better than the other 2, as I’ve at least played Halo multiplayer).

Which brings up the big problem. How do you sell a game’s mechanics using tropes that players aren’t familiar with? I skipped a decade of FPS and don’t know how they work, which seems to put me in almost the same boat as a generation of FPS players raised with controllers in their hands, and with Halo as their concept of an FPS that isn’t based on realism.

How To Win

Would Unreal Tournament 4 becoming a smash hit help any of these other arena shooters, or will it be another case of 09ers crowding into one corner of a scene while everyone else struggles on just as they would have anyway? The issue then was that a player who became interested in fighting games because they’d just bought a copy of Street Fighter 4 isn’t necessarily going to transfer that enthusiasm over to, say, Guilty Gear. The same way a player who likes Unreal Tournament 4 isn’t necessarily going to feel the same about Reborn. The games are nominally in the same genre, but, as I’ve said, they are mechanically remote.

Let’s take a quick look at a couple of the games, Reflex

and Toxikk.

Can you tell the difference? Do you know which games each draws inspiration from?

On prominent display in the Reflex trailer are cpm3a and cpm1a, classic maps that any avid Quake 3 player would instantly recognize, even without textures. Also prominent is the fast paced, almost entirely CPMA-based movement and weapons. They know exactly who their target audience is, but does anyone else get those references, does that trope communicate anything to the wider public, other than “this game is faster?”

The Toxikk trailer is a complete 180. Instead of zeroing in on a known niche, it is being painted as simply a return to nostalgic gameplay, and is definitely not any of the things that are associated with modern military shooters. But who is that nostalgia for? It doesn’t say directly, but to those who are familiar with these games, it’s obviously aiming at an Unreal Tournament crowd.

To make things even clearer, look directly at some of their mechanics.

The developer comes right out and says that they’re basing their movement mechanics on Unreal Tournament. We see some dodges and double-jumps, which were Unreal Tournament staples. There’s not much more to it than that.

Just about everything on display is ripped directly from CPMA and QuakeWorld. Anyone who knows those games will be instantly at home, as they’ll have all the muscle memory. New players will have to learn how to strafe jump from scratch, which is no mean feat.

Looking at the two sets of mechanics, you may even feel that they’re essentially the same, in terms of how they look on screen, what they allow players to do. I can assure you that any Quake player is rolling their eyes watching Toxikk’s advanced movement, just as they were when Unreal Tournament 2004’s dodge-based movement was rolled out.

Don’t get me wrong, regardless of how I feel about either game’s mechanics, I think it’s great that both of them exist. I got my jollies making fun of Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike players back in the day, like every other Quake elitist, but I didn’t for a second begrudge them any success. Video games are still about having fun, and just because I think Quake 3 is a superior game, doesn’t mean that someone else shouldn’t enjoy their time playing an Unreal game. The last thing I want is for Unreal Tournament 4 or Toxikk to adapt strafe-jumping just because some feel it’s better.

But the point is that if I like Quake, I’ll probably like Reflex, but that’s no determining factor on whether or not I’m going to be attracted to Toxikk. And that’s as someone who knows the difference. I can only imagine what these games look like to people who don’t.

All in all, it’s hard to fault either approach. Toxikk’s broad message of being something other than what most current games are is probably as good a tactic as Reflex’s direct appeal to Quake players. Both want to go after known audiences, whether they’re players looking for something other than what’s on the market now, or players who want a Quake game with more modern packaging. Would a less aggressive trailer serve Reflex? I can’t say how many would be scared off by the idea of learning how to strafe-jump, especially if they’ve never tried before.

While I’m all for as many games as the genre can support, I fear there will just be another Street Fighter 4 situation. Unreal Tournament, being the largest and most accessible of the batch, will take pride of place, either Reflex or Reborn will attract a smaller, but devoted, base of highly competitive players–mostly in Europe, because that’s always where they are–and the rest will fall by the wayside.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Toxikk and Unreal Tournament 4 are the gateway drugs, what get players hooked, and when they decide they want something a little more demanding, they’ll seek out something with a Quake flavour. By then they’d be able to tell the difference. It wouldn’t be the first time players made such a switch, either, and there’s the added benefit of online leaderboards and skill-based matchmaking systems, as well as potential eSports coverage to disseminate the basic concepts of duelling. I’ve decided to keep my fingers crossed on this one.

I mean, at the end of the day there’s still all better than Brink.

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