The double-edged sword of “spectator mechanics”

By on March 18, 2017 at 1:00 pm
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If you tuned into the finals of Frostbite 2017, you got to see a Grand Finals which many have heralded as the greatest in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U’s history. Seeing the world number one hanging on for dear life against a Japanese player on his first trip outside of his home country was like something out of a TV show: commentators could barely catch their breath, there were constant gasps from the in-house audience, while online spectators were setting Twitch chat and Twitter ablaze. People who don’t even play Smash 4 were getting swept up in the excitement, showing just how engaging Smash 4 can be at the highest level.

But for all that positivity, there is a glowing blue elephant in the room. For those who aren’t clued up on tsu’s character of Lucario, he has a mechanic called Aura which makes him more powerful based on how much damage he has taken. As he goes past the 100% mark, Lucario’s damage output skyrockets. When combined with Smash 4’s Rage mechanic, which increases the knockback of attacks as you accrue damage, Lucario enters a super-powered state where he can kill enemies with a single move, from as low as 30%. You put a talented player like tsu behind the controls, and you’ve got something truly terrifying. While this makes for tense viewing, it creates a one-sided interaction between players, as Lucario can essentially punish the opponent for gaining a lead. Anyone who has played a decent Lucario knows how toxic Aura and Rage are when combined, as players can feel like they hardly ever have control of a match.

Comeback mechanics are nothing new for fighting games though, as players have had to deal with the threat of X-Factor and Ultra Combos in over the past eight or so years. Ultras in Street Fighter IV are probably the closest thing to Aura mechanically, as both fill up as players take damage in the match. However, you can actively waste your Ultra by dropping a combo, and you will not always get the best bang for your buck, due to combo damage scaling. While it did essentially reward players for getting hit—we all remember the influx of constantly-healing Elenas—there was active counterplay involved with Ultras, as both players had access to them, and you often had to change your Ultra pick based on the matchup.

Compare this to Aura, which essentially has no counterplay besides zero-to-deathing your opponent for both stocks. Even then, when Lucario loses a stock, his Aura attack multiplier increases if he is behind in the match. When you consider that Smash 4 is played with 2 stock, this creates a situation where Lucario is almost always in a powered-up state following a stock loss. He is either in front and at high percent, sitting on a nice fat stack of Aura and Rage, or he is on a fresh stock with an increased attack multiplier, with the chance to build up into his high-powered state even faster.

Furthermore, only Lucario has this Aura mechanic. Unless you are playing a mirror match, the Lucario will naturally control the pace of the game, as you constantly have to account for Aura. Combine this with Lucario’s great ability to hold onto a stock at high percent due to a powerful projectile, and you have a situation where the opponent is never safe. As a result, you create a stressful and one-sided player interaction, where the non-Lucario player is under constant pressure due to the threat of Aura. You only have to listen to ZeRo’s post-tournament interview, where he states that he had to have a five-minute break just to stop his hands from shaking. Playing against Lucario is not an enjoyable experience.

Yet it is that innate stressfulness which made the set so thrilling to watch. Knowing that tsu could come back at any moment makes for action you can’t draw your eyes away from. Factor in the narrative going into the match, and you have the perfect storm for what many have called the greatest Smash 4 set of all time. Obviously, the players do themselves factor into why the set was so well received–but the constant danger of Aura does hook spectators into the action. Comeback mechanics are going to liven up the spectator experience, by showing a player quickly regaining ground, but in the majority of cases both players have access to these mechanics regardless of their character choice. Aura is toxic to the player experience, yet it heightens the drama of matches and automatically create tension, regardless of player rivalries or outside story factors.

You can class Aura as a sort of “spectator mechanic,” then: an element of the game which offers more to players watching, as opposed to the players playing. Comeback mechanics generally fall under this umbrella, as they allow for those backs-against-the-wall, magic-pixel-style comebacks which get the crowd on their feet, but certain characters can fall under this umbrella too. While Lucario may be an extreme example, a character like Captain Falcon is a great example of a well-made spectator character. He is designed to be a flashy character with fast movement, and moves like the knee and the Falcon Punch which are satisfying to hit for both spectator and player. All of Captain Falcon’s moves are simple for a spectator to understand after a minute of watching, with animations that exude power and style. With there being a greater focus on esports and a growing audience of people who just watching fighting games, it’s fair to expect more of these spectator mechanics going forward.

It doesn’t mean that haven’t been done right already. Just look at what Capcom did with the change from Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter V. The Ultra system was stripped out and replaced with the V-System, which vastly increases character options and individuality. As each character has their own V-Trigger, V-Reversal and V-Skill, it creates a system where the spectator is intrigued by seeing how each of these systems interact, while feeling less contrived to the players. While many of the effects of V-Trigger give players a fighting chance, by buffing their damage or giving them a way out of a bad situation, it never feels like you’re constantly fighting the mechanic, like it does with Aura. While something like Aegis Reflector can be annoying to deal with, you can fight against it. Moreover, the V-System still keeps some of the coolness of an Ultra—which Ono sees as something that brought a lot of hype that had previously not been in Street Fighter—while being more active and strategic than simply getting wailed on and then expending your Ultra.

Tekken 7’s Rage system is getting there, and it is a sight better than Smash 4’s Rage, but they are essentially Ultras by another name. You cannot generate them any other way besides getting hit, so there is still a situation where one player will never get to use their Rage Art, while the other is relying on it to make a comeback. It is certainly better than the old system and does create some strategy as to whether you gamble all of your Rage on a single move, but it’s not quite there yet. The important thing is creating systems where all parties are engaged, rather than creating one-sided situations that allows one player to set the pace of a match, regardless if they are winning or losing.

As spectatorship and viewing figures start to become a pressing issue for big budget studios trying to make a fighting game, there needs to be some thought given to designing systems which benefit all fans. While the play experience is the most important, I can’t help feel that there will be situations where mechanics may be added in that are geared more towards enlivening the spectator’s experience alone. As such, we should try to learn from Aura and consider how to make games exciting without relying on such divisive mechanics to add tension.

Sources: VentureBeat; Unrivaled Tournaments