Fighting games have appeared on home consoles for more than 20 years, yet they struggle to advance beyond basic game modes. It's time to set the new standard for this genre.
Fighting games have produced some beautiful and complex ways for people to beat the tar out of each other. Yet, aside from a handful of games, the typical fighter is still designed with the traditional, minimalist approach of delivering the best arcade approximation. This leads to an anemic game mode selection. While sufficient for genre veterans, this selection doesn't cut it in 2012. For the fighting genre to continue its resurgence, developers must establish new standards that give consumers more incentives to play. Otherwise, the current momentum will break, and the genre could implode.
This risk looms large for two reasons: the market is being slammed with fighting games all targeted at the same core audience, and all these games have a high barrier to entry. These facts present some unique, long-term problems. Chiefly, developers are returning to the same well too often. Eventually, they will reach a point where the market can no longer support so many fighters all vying for the same dollar. Games will flop, developers will go under, and the scene will shrink along with the number of new fighting games. In fact, it may have already started.
According to data collected from the NPD Group, fighting fans are reaching their limits. Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 fell short of its predecessor by a significant margin. The King of Fighters XIII, despite all its improvements, still hovers around the sales of The King of Fighters XII. And the same can be said for BlazBlue: Continuum Shift versus BlazBlue: Calamity Trigger. Then there's the issue of fighting-game training modes. As previously discussed in Failures in Training, these modes are ill-equipped to prepare newcomers for competitive play--let alone casual online fun. If fighting games can't find ways to become more appealing to a larger audience, the community will stagnate.
The risk of a second implosion is real; it happened once before. Back in the '90s, when Street Fighter II was making waves, game developers were tripping over themselves to get a fighting game on the market. This fervor led to such gems as Justice League Task Force, Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi, and dozens more copy cats. By the turn of the millennium, public interest was shot and fighting games became a niche genre. There were simply too many iterative releases offering essentially the same mechanics. Then Street Fighter IV happened. Now these games are back in a big way. But if the genre wants to continue growing, it must widen its scope and cater to more than the tournament players. It must evolve.
Evolution can take many forms. Looking outside the fighting genre, Blizzard Entertainment's Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is an excellent example of getting it right. The game's focus is squarely on competitive multiplayer and tournament play--not unlike most fighting games. Yet Blizzard still put resources toward developing an engaging single-player campaign. This campaign wasn't just mindless battles against the computer; each mission had a unique twist, and players were incentivized with new units, upgrades, and a grand story along the way. For some people, this was all they wanted; online held no appeal for them. While fighting and real-time strategy are two very different genres, the fighting genre could learn a lot from Starcraft II's balance of single- and multiplayer content.
Where developers have made promising (yet inconsistent) strides has been in player incentives. The weapon master mode in SoulCalibur II had numerous combat conditions and rewarded you with new weapons and costumes. The Tekken series has also experimented with different game modes using its fighting engine, ranging from bowling to an arcade-style brawler. Unorthodox? Sure. But this is the sort of experimentation developers need to be doing. It's easy to think fighting games aren't flexible enough to handle nontraditional modes--until someone gets it right. There are lots of creative opportunities that need to be explored, not just for fighting mechanics but for game modes.
As of this writing, the gold standard for game modes is developer NetherRealm Studios' reboot of Mortal Kombat. This game expertly balanced a fun fighting system with a variety of different game modes. Between the hundreds of challenges, the entertaining story, and online with replay and spectator support--all types of players could get engaged. And whether you fought casually with a friend or in serious competition, the game rewarded both with currency and unlockable rewards. Toss in a training mode that actually teaches you about fighting games, and you've got the complete set. These elements should form the basis for all fighters, not the exception.