Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Going the Extra Meter

My first fighting games were all 3d, and they followed the traditional rules of 3d fighters: no hit-pauses, no crouching blocks against mids, and no super meters. I didn't give supers a second thought-- I figured they were just another move, which meant little considering 3d fighters had easily 10 to 20 times the move set as their 2d brethren.

After a year of analyzing competitive fighting games at a high level, I am now of the opinion that the super meter is the single most ingenious, elegant addition to the genre since character variety.

First of all, super moves not only add to a player's arsenal, but affect all the non-super moves and abilities as well. Let's consider the Ryu vs Blanka matchup in Street Fighter 4:

No-meter Ryu vs. No-meter Blanka
  • Ryu's fireball is SAFE against Blanka outside slide range
  • Ryu's uppercut very UNSAFE against blocking Blanka
  • Blanka's horizontal ball is SAFE against blocking Ryu
Half-meter Ryu vs Half-meter Blanka
  • Ryu's fireball now UNSAFE against charged Blanka (threat of EX-Ball)
  • Ryu's uppercut now SAFE against blocking Blanka (via FADC)
  • Blanka's horizontal ball still SAFE
Full-meter Ryu vs Full-meter Blanka
  • Ryu's fireball still UNSAFE against charged Blanka
  • Ryu's uppercut still SAFE against blocking Blanka
  • Blanka's horizontal ball now UNSAFE to blocking Ryu (punishable with Super)
The addition of the super meter in Street Fighter 4 dynamically changes the relationships of the existing moves, creating an ebb and flow of the match as these meters are built and burned. Compare this to a traditional 3d fighter, in which every move has the same level of safety (i.e. risk) regardless of who has the upper hand in the match, or how long the match has run.

Meter changes the dynamic of the match enough that it presents a new metagame: to be in control of the super meters is to be in control of the match. This presents meaningful choices to be made other than the basic objective of "Deplete the opponent's vitality," presenting far more options to the player in a given situation.

On Offense:
  • Sacrifice combo damage to save meter?
  • Sacrifice offensive pressure to bait meter usage from opponent?
On Defense:
  • Sacrifice ability to block to whiff moves and build meter?
  • Sacrifice meter (i.e. offensive capability) to avoid damage?
  • Use meter to recover from mistakes?
  • Intentionally allow opponent to win a round by using meter in order to have meter advantage the following round?
Through this metagame, super meters create a context around every decision made during the match. Obviously, a player's available options in a given situation are limited by how much meter he has, but the real beauty of this design is that his available options next time he is forced to make a choice are affected by his original decision.

Compare this to a 3d fighting game, where the player has every option available to him at all times. In a 2d fighter, the options available to a player change considering what he had done earlier in the round, and what he plans to do later on. Rather than a string of unrelated puzzles, a fight that involves meter must be thought of as different parts of the same story, complete with the arc of a beginning, middle, and end (translating here to "learn opponent, anticipate opponent, and kill opponent"). Giving "guess" situations this level of context is exactly what makes high level play meaningful.

At the end of the day, modern fighting games really are just fast-paced games of rock/paper/scissors. The role of super meters is to redefine what rock, paper, and scissors all mean within the context of the match, in addition to giving more meaning to the guessing game itself.