The Scrub Fallacies: Why Marvel VS Capcom Infinite’s accessible new mechanics won’t ruin it
The latest Marvel VS Capcom Infinite reveals have the hardcore gaming crowd in a ruckus. You can hear their cries from the rooftops: “Auto-combos! Easy supers! Simplified dragon punch commands! Capcom is ruining the VS series by catering to filthy casuals! 0/10”
But anyone who has stuck with this series since its early years has heard this song and dance before. A new fighting game comes out and any new innovation is guaranteed to ruin it because anything that helps the casual audience has to be bad. Then, when the game barely sells, the publisher stops supporting it and the e-sports scene dies, and those same people who complained about filthy casuals ruining their fun genuinely wonder, “Why did it fail! Why didn’t more people play it?”
Well, maybe it’s because the hardcore crowd treats their favorite games like exclusive clubs and their mechanics like the burly bouncer that keeps the riff-raff away.
Since this same tired argument just doesn’t seem to want to die, let’s finally put it to rest. Let’s examine what Marvel VS Capcom Infinite is doing for the casual audience, and see whether or not it will actually “ruin” the game.
The first new mechanic that the fighting game scene is throwing a fit about is the inclusion of an “auto-combo.” This is actually a fairly standard mechanic in most fast-paced fighting games these days. It allows a player to perform a very basic combo simply by tapping the lightest attack button. Usually it’s just a very simple string followed by a super if there is any meter left over.
The difference between MVCI’s auto-combo and most other auto-combos is that there is no punishment for it. Most other games nerf the damage, meter gain, or other properties of the auto-combo to discourage its use. MVCI, on the other hand, let’s you use it as much as you like with no penalty.
The frothing masses of the fighting game community have a couple of arguments against the auto-combo function. The most common is “it will make the game too easy to play.” The worry is that no one will attempt to create new combos if a basic combo can be executed just by mashing. There is the additional worry that matches won’t come down to who has the greater skill if everyone can simply combo by mashing a single button.
However, this argument is very easy to dismantle simply by using clear evidence found in other fighting games. Let’s take a look at UMVC3, MVCI’s predecessor. Do any high-level players use simple “light-medium-heavy” combo strings. No!
Take a look at this video from the Versus 2017 UMVC3 finals from just a few months ago. It feature Kane Blueriver, one of my favorite players, who plays the slowest characters with the simplest combos at a very high level. If anyone is going to use simple light-medium-heavy strings, it’s going to be him.
But he immediately starts the match with x-factor cancels, gamma charge loops, OTG assists, and more. Why does he do this instead of simpler combos that he is less likely to drop? To maximize his damage.
And that’s why the auto-combo won’t be featured in high-level play at all. The only thing it does is allow players to do the simplest full combo easily. That’s it. High-level players will still experiment because they want the edge. They want to win.
Give Newbies A Chance
Of course, many players say that it’s not high-level players they are worried about, but new players. The fear is that including an auto-combo will make it less likely for new players to push themselves to get better. That it’s only the punishment associated with these auto-combos in other games that prevents them from using it their entire gaming career.
To which I have to say, yes – the punishment is that the combo does decreased damage – but the very fact that the combo is short also makes it do decreased damage! It’s already not a great combo. That alone will push new players to get better.
And if it doesn’t, who are you to judge how a player enjoys a game? Here’s a reality check. If a fighting game is too hard to learn, newbies rarely push themselves to master it. Instead, they get bored and play the next big fighting game. Heck, PROFESSIONALS get bored and play the next big fighting game. Tough love isn’t going to make people stick it out. People are going to play a game as long as it is fun. Including auto-combos just makes it easier to enjoy playing.
Making your fighting game less accessible will just make people less likely to access it. Frankly, most of the people who care enough to learn fighting games on a professional level have already done it. Making a game more accessible to casual players isn’t going to reduce the amount of professional players in the player pool.
In fact, I’d say it does the exact opposite. Including an auto-combo actually teaches new players the game more effectively than any tutorial. Why? Because combos aren’t a core skill. They aren’t fundamental.
This might seem like heresy to most players, since combos seem so important. If an intermediate player faces off against another intermediate player and only one knows how to combo, that player will always win. However, that’s the exact flaw that auto-combos fix.
Pro-level matches don’t come down to who knows the better combo. Rather, they come down to who comes out on top in each meaningful interaction. Meaningful interactions are the moments when a player has the chance to land the first hit in a combo. The combo just maximizes the damage from that hit, since the opposing player can’t do anything while comboed. In essence, it’s all just one big button sequence that makes that one punch or kick hurt more and maybe put the opponent in a different part of the screen.
Learning to combo may teach you how to capitalize on those meaningful interactions, but it doesn’t teach you how to win the meaningful interactions in any way. It doesn’t teach you how to block, how to move around the screen, or how to mix-up your opponent. It doesn’t teach you fundamentals.
Level The Playing Field
This is exactly why so many people get turned away from the VS series. You can be amazing at fundamentals but if you don’t have a combo under your belt, you’ll lose. You can win 10 times more meaningful interactions than your opponent and your opponent will still win because the few that they win deal more damage. Any situation in which you can play better but still lose is a general game design problem.
This is similarly disappointing for players who have put in the time to learn how to combo. If you are a player who is still learning and you spend 30 hours in training mode learning the best combos in the game, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening when you go online and realize that you haven’t actually learned how to perform the combo in a combat situation. You don’t know how to score the hit! Players with much simpler combos and strong fundamentals will beat you.
Both of the players I mentioned above will likely quit the game at that point. They both feel like they put in the work but weren’t rewarded for it – and that’s the problem. The current VS series requires you to be good at both fundamentals AND comboing to even start learning the game. That’s a lot for someone who may have only recently learned how to throw a fireball.
How do you make the learning process easier? You ease the load. In this case you ease the combo load. You don’t make every meaningful interaction produce the maximum amount of damage possible – that requires even more training and the ability to adapt – but you give players access to a decent enough combo to be competitive. That way they can focus on fundamentals first. When they feel that their fundamentals are solid, they will naturally encounter players with similar fundamental skills but better combos, and start experimenting with optimized combos. They can practice one thing at a time, which will help them learn.
Honestly, all these arguments feel disingenuous to me. I think the real worry here is that low-level players won’t be able to stomp newbies anymore. Stomping newbies is fun, and learning a basic combo is a great way to stomp newbies without putting much effort into actually learning how to play. With auto-combos in play, players who considered themselves “good” just because they had a combo under their belt now actually have to learn how to block and attack intelligently. This is scrub fallacy #1. The threat here isn’t bad players using the auto-combo to “cheat” and become better at the game than they actually are. The threat is players who claim to be good learning that they really aren’t nearly as good as they think they are.
I’ve spent the majority of this article talking about auto-combos because, frankly, the same arguments are repeated for every new game mechanic. For example, MVCI allows each character to do an easy super just by pressing heavy punch and heavy kick together. Hardcore players are shouting, “Rabble rabble rabble – but then they won’t have to learn how to properly quarter circle!”
Once again, that is patently false. The super shortcut only lets players access one super in their list, and each character has multiple supers to perform. No one will play at a pro level without access to all of their supers. No one will play at an intermediate level without all their supers. It just won’t happen. Not to mention, professional matches are rarely if ever decided by whether or not someone can quarter circle correctly.
Let’s flip this argument on its head. If it were the case that a newbie could unfairly even the odds with a pro simply by having quick access to a super, then it’s implied that the only thing separating newbies and pros is the ability to execute supers whenever they like. How good are you at the game, really, if the only skill separating you from the rest of the pack is the ability to quarter circle correctly? Doesn’t that sound ludicrous? Shouldn’t being good at a game require much more than one motion?
So what does the quick super do? It lightens the learning load. Learning a move-set is hard, and this gives every character one universal command they can always access. It allows players who are still learning a new character to be competitive – not great, but competitive. This makes the learning period more fun and makes it more likely that people will stick it through that learning period, rather than giving up out of frustration.
This leads me to the second scrub fallacy. No one is worried that newbies will suddenly become as good as pros. Instead, they are worried that newbies won’t suffer as much as current pros already have. It was hard to learn to be good on early fighting games that didn’t have accessibility in mind. Hardcore players had to work their asses off to get as good as they are now. The thought that a new player could have an easier time than them makes their whole fighting game career feel unfair.
But it’s not fairness that makes a game succeed. Fun makes a game succeed. To make a game fun for the greatest amount of people it needs to be easy to play but deep and hard to master. That’s the holy grail of game design. Quick supers make the game easier to play without affecting how hard it is to master.
As far things being “fair” goes, I only have one thing to say. Get over yourself. We don’t teach children with the same techniques we used fifty years ago. We learn new and better ways to educate, so that newer generations can have advantages we didn’t have. The same is true for gaming. You should want the newer generation of fighting gamers to have an easier time than you did. Anything else is just needless salt.
Finally, we have the last major issue, dragon punch shortcuts. For those of you who aren’t die-hard fighting game fans, a dragon punch motion involves holding the joystick forward, moving it to down, and them moving it to diagonally down forward, tracing out a “z” pattern. MVCI may replace these motions with a simple double down input.
Look, I’ll meet you halfway here hardcore gamers. A down-down input would actually have a negative effect on MVCI’s core mechanics for one reason. It would allow invincible dragon punch style moves to “auto-correct.” DP motions usually require a “forward” input. This means you can mix the opponent up by moving to the opposite side of them when they attempt to execute one. This is true for fireball motions as well. Changing the input to down-down would make characters impossible to cross-up when using the move.
However, that’s not to say we should just throw our hands in the air and do nothing about it. The DP motion is notoriously the most difficult core fighting game motion to learn. If the only thing we need to do is make the DP motion directionally dependent, you can simply change it from a double down motion to a double down forward motion. Problem solved.
And let’s consider what would happen if this sort of cross up was removed. There are plenty of moves that can’t be crossed up. Balrog’s turn around punch and Birdie’s headbutt from Street Fighter V. Guile’s flash kick, and really any charged down/up motion similarly cannot be crossed up. None of Ed’s moves can be crossed up.
In fact, MVCI wouldn’t even be the first game to try down-down motions in this style. Akatsuki Blitzkampf, a 2007 dojin game, mapped its main character’s dragon punch to a down-down motion and it operated just fine. In fact, that very same character ended up making a guest appearance in Under Night In-Birth where he also played just fine. He wasn’t broken and he wasn’t anywhere near top tier simply because his dragon punch auto-corrected.
Which leads me to scrub fallacy #3: “more complicated” is not the same as deep. Some of the deepest indie fighting games have only one or two buttons! Look at Nidhogg and Divekick. Heck, look at Smash, which is essentially just a two button fighter. All of these games are incredibly deep but aren’t very complex.
It’s entirely possible that whatever complexity we lose from having dragon punches auto correct will have no appreciable effect on how deep the game actually is. There are so many different mechanics that will make up for this one simple change. Look at it this way: every single dragon punch in the game is already 100% safe because you can switch to your partner for free after doing it! So even if dragon punches didn’t auto-correct, you couldn’t get a safe punish against anyone who was playing intelligently. You are taking away very little to make the game accessible to a whole lot of people.
All of these scrub fallacies boil down to the same misguided worry, that change is bad. However, time and time again the numbers show otherwise. When a fighting game is made for a more casual audience, it sells better. When it sells better, it gets popular. When it gets popular, the e-sports scene thrives. And when the e-sports scene thrives, hardcore players are happy. Making MVCI more accessible can only increase its lifespan.
At this point, the hardcore crowd has already been won over. Capcom doesn’t need to market to the people who have been playing since MVC1. What they need is to bring more people into the VS. series, and that just won’t happen if everything stays the same. So instead of running around like your hair is on fire, predicting the doom of the MVCI tournament scene before it even releases, maybe try giving it’s new, more accessible mechanics a chance. You might just enjoy them.