The problem with fighting game single-player modes
Fighting games are “games” in the purest sense. Like Chess, Backgammon and Mahjong, you don’t “beat” or “finish” a fighting game. You don’t level up, unlock new areas, or find better gear. Instead, you play rounds, and fighting games rely on the idea that because no two people are the same, no two rounds will be, either. A fighting game’s “story” is the one its players tell through their confrontation with each other, or of a single person slowly getting better at fighting.
And yet, one of the biggest questions I’m always compelled to answer when talking about a fighting game is “how is the single-player?” Most of the time, it isn’t good. There’s usually not enough for a single person to do in a fighting game by themselves. That’s fine, since a good fighting game can get by on their online suite alone. But we live in an age where the value of a multiplayer-only game gets called into question, and some people like the way fighting games feel but get nervous about playing with others. So there’s enough demand for single-player content in fighting games that developers are compelled to have something there for someone who can’t play with others.
Recently, I reviewed Street Fighter V and Pokken Tournament for ZAM, both of whose single-player offerings came up short. Street Fighter V had a flimsy story mode that was too brief to have any impact, and Pokkén’s was too much of a slog to be fun. They both share a fault, though; without something to guide the lone player, they feel directionless. But they also make me think about what I want from fighting game single-player modes.
The example most people point to when discussing good fighting game single-player modes is the Mortal Kombat series, which have had enough modes to keep people playing solo for hours since Mortal Kombat: Deception. In fact, one of the things critics praised about 2011’s Mortal Kombat reboot and Mortal Kombat X were their fun, campy single-player story modes.
But most of the extra modes Mortal Kombat has had throughout the years had little to do with the fighting itself. Unlocking features through the Krypt, jumping through various realms to make a 2:00am appointment with an NPC in Mortal Kombat Deception, and watching Mortal Kombat X’s story mode did little to engage players with the new changes made to the combat system. In that way, fighting games are the only genre where the single-player seems to circumvent the genre’s nuances more than teach them to you. Playing Mortal Kombat, I often feel like I’m having fun despite it being fighting game, not because of it.
Fighting games also have another problem-- an AI opponent will never be as satisfying to fight as another human being. That’s what all those Mortal Kombat modes have always distracted from: that no matter how the games set them up, you’re still fighting opponents that can’t learn from you. AI opponents in fighting games are either too exploitable and lose to you doing the same combo over and over, or read your inputs the moment you enter them and immediately execute the perfect counter attack. At some point, you’re not really playing a fighting game anymore. You’re playing “Exploit the AI to Unlock Content.”
In recent years, as their competitive scenes has grown, fighting games have tried to teach new players the various intricacies of fighting games in order to get fans who like the games but don't’ want to deal with other people more invested in getting better at them. Skullgirls, Killer Instinct, and Pokkén have all provide a series of lessons on how to properly play fighting games. They offer lessons about the basic rock-paper-scissors nature of fighting games, how to block well, and when and where you’d want to use certain moves, not just how to do them. All of these features hint at what I’d like fighting games to do with lone players; slowly teach them how to fight without thrusting them into the online wolves’ den.
The problem is that these lessons are often lumped into the initial tutorial, as part of the first stop most players make before playing real matches. They also don’t go as deep I’d like them to. Even learning everything the games teach you, you still have to hit up online resources to figure out what your game plan with your character of choice should be, or how to make use of the game’s specific systems.
This information is also never integral to the rest of the game. The standard fighting game lesson plan throws a ton of concepts at the player in a single info dump, asks them to internalize them within an hour or two, then never repeats those concepts. Most players forget about the tutorial as soon as it’s over because the rest of the single-player content won’t force them to ever memorize any of it, since after enough AI opponents they’ll eventually start playing “Exploit the AI” anyway. At best, they give the player a good sense of what fighting games are, but don’t provide a good reason for why they should care.
What I want out of fighting game single-player modes isn’t cutscenes, unlockables, or more modes. What I really want is a robust, in-depth lesson plan that slowly builds a foundation of knowledge, then tests you on it regularly. I want a tutorial that will slowly work me up to playing with other people. I want an interactive college course on fighting games. I want a fighting game fitness regimen. What I want from fighting games isn’t Uncharted and Destiny, it’s Wii Fit and Brain Age.
Imagine an optional lesson plan that teaches you something new about the genre every time you log in. You go to class, then get some homework -- something like “land five anti-air attacks in an online match.” Complete the short, hour-long course, and you get points to spend on costumes and such. Then you can play a few matches, or go into training mode, each with its own minor goals for you to accomplish.
You’ll get slightly better every day, and with some robust stat-tracking, you’ll see it. You’ll still play against other people, but when winning isn’t the goal, you’ll be more inclined to brave the online waters if it means coming back with a goal accomplished. And somewhere along the way, you take a clutch win after getting in your opponent’s head and baiting them into jumping into your newly-learned anti-air attack. Then you’re hooked.
I understand this is a harder sell for companies trying to move product. A lot of fighting game fans don’t care about getting better and just want to have fun for a few hours on their own or jump around and punch their friends with some cool characters. No one wants to have a game feel like work, and those who do want to learn have plenty of online resources to learn from. But right now, fighting games want to be teaching tools and have be single-player games in their own right and both experiences suffer for it.
I would rather fighting games embrace their essence as games that reward commitment and practice. As someone who’s played fighting games for their whole lives, I would love to have more people to fight. If fighting games really want to have players make the leap and finally invest themselves into the genre (potentially becoming longtime customers), they need to start treating them like trainees instead of tourists. It may not be the most profitable idea in the short term, but it might just be what fighting games need in the long run.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who has to admit he really liked Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Subspace Emissary mode, but doesn’t think its success could be replicated. He’s written for ZAM, Paste, Playboy, and many others. You can follow him @SurielVazquez