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Why Fighting Game Controls Should Be Uncomfortable

By Eli Horowitz • April 3, 2020

Recently, a fighting game fan who goes by the name of Vorcia took to the r/truegaming subreddit to vent. After voicing support for the genre, they argued that “[f]ighting game controls kind of suck.” Specifically, they objected to “the fact that your movement is tied with your abilities,” whereas in other games “your abilities are just hotkeys.” Vorcia blamed inertia for the lack of new control schemes or innovations in fighting games, concluding that “people are comfortable with…the current system.”

We at toptier have touched on this subject before. As my colleague Henry “Choysauce” Choi wrote in his post on good movement in fighters, “having directional inputs tied to performing special moves” makes these games more difficult. He didn’t go quite as far as Vorcia, who used the word “janky,” but the basic sentiment is the same. Fighting game controls are hard; they’re unintuitive and they make players uncomfortable.

Yet this is exactly as it should be. For multiple reasons, fighting game controls should require a learning curve. They should feel challenging and finicky. And in the rest of this article, I’ll explain why.


First off, let’s establish a few limits. Fighting controls should not be random, sluggish, or unreliable in other ways. They should be difficult, but they should be difficult in a fair way. Likewise, fighting game controls and controllers shouldn’t be so rigidly designed that they drive away players who have disabilities. Again, these games should be challenging, but they should present challenges that players can conquer if they try.

There’s also nothing wrong with fighting games that have relatively easy combos or relatively loose input windows. In the heat of combat, not every input needs to be frame-tight in order to be challenging. Moreover, there’s a difference between easy inputs and free inputs, and hotkeys would definitely count as the latter.


Reason One: Competitive Range

With that said, there are good reasons why fighting games should keep their distinctive, “janky” control schemes. The first is that, when other esports titles allow players to map actions to hotkeys or other shortcuts (think of StarCraft, League of Legends, and so on), they actually reduce the potential for creative tactical play.

In fighting games, cross-ups, cross-unders, and side-switches can be used to purposefully interfere with your opponent’s inputs. Similarly, if someone plays a charge character, you can use their movement to know when it’s safe to approach. Requiring complex inputs also allows for a wider range of option selects and other deep tech. None of that would be possible if actions were simply mapped to single keys or buttons and didn’t require any directional input.

Furthermore, by presenting players with a learning curve, fighting games allow for a wide range in styles of play. Sure, you can choose to master all of the tech and overwhelm your opponents with your outrageous manual dexterity, but you can also choose to learn only the basics and then beat your opponents with mind games.

Basically, mapping special moves to hotkeys would make fighting games easier for individuals, but doing so would defeat the purpose of the genre. All jokes about Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 aside, fighters aren’t meant to be one-player experiences, either for players or for spectators. The beauty of a fighting game comes from the interaction between the people who are playing it, and that interaction would be made shallower and less fascinating if the controls were oversimplified.


Reason Two: History And Community

Another reason to keep things the way they are is tradition. Communities need continuity in order to exist, and one of the traditions that unites the Fighting Game Community is the tradition of struggling to master the controls.

Movement-based controls have also become part of the FGC’s artistic and linguistic culture. If you’re on Twitter and you see a down arrow, a down-right arrow, and then a right arrow in someone’s name, you can bet that they play fighting games.

As such, switching to a hotkey system would require the FGC to overhaul a great deal of its culture and traditions. Of course, in some cases such change is necessary. “Tradition” doesn’t suffice as a reason when you’re talking about ethics or when you’re facing an unavoidable shift in the way the world works. But neither of those is the case here. There’s nothing morally wrong with direction-based commands, and the FGC itself is proof that fighting games can be popular even with their “janky” controls.


Reason Three: Craft

The weightiest reason is craft. As the philosopher Matthew Crawford writes, there are unique “satisfactions [that come from] manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence.” That is, there are joys that only arise when you use your skills to change something with your body. Mastering the movement-based controls of a fighting game is hard, but such mastery also provides access to these joys and satisfactions. Easier, watered-down control schemes don’t.

This also connects back to the culture and community that have come to surround fighting games. “Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right,” Crawford says. Because fighting gamers are concerned with the craft of their hobby and not just its abstract intellectual elements, we relate to each other and to our games differently than people in other gaming communities do. Just as we share the highs of pulling off the exact string of inputs we want, we also share the struggles of reaching those highs and we appreciate high-level play as both a display of intellect and proof of hard, loving work.


Get Out Of Your Comfort Zone

One of the best things about the world of video gaming is that it has a place for everyone. Sports fans can find sports games to play, masochists can enjoy bullet-hell games and brutally hard platformers, brainiacs can pick up puzzle games, and so on.

Fighting games provide a unique niche as well, and they do so in large part because of their movement-based controls. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to deal with the discomforts and frustrations of fighting games, that’s totally okay! There are plenty of other genres to choose from, and there’s no reason whatsoever why any of us should lose respect for someone who doesn’t share our hobby.

But by the same token, we also shouldn’t fundamentally change our hobby just because it has its quirks. Painting by numbers is easy, but it isn’t the same as regular painting. Baking brownies from a mix that you buy from the store is easy, but it isn’t the same as making brownies from scratch. Likewise, fighting games that have free, hotkeyed special abilities would just not be the same as the fighting games that we have now. If any indie developers want to try their hand at making a hotkey fighter, great – we can always use more contributions. In the meantime, though, we have every reason to keep our “janky” controls just the way they are.

Eli Horowitz (@BODIEDnovel) is a writer and old-school FGCer who lives in Pittsburgh. So long as all the buttons actually work, he’s happy. Visit his website to learn more about him and his writing.

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