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Counterpoint: The Depth of Interplay pt.5

 The Classic Fighting Triangle

Now we come to the classic fighting game interplay triangle that the vast majority of fighting games are built around; attack, block/shield, and grab. In Super Smash Brothers Brawl and Street Fighter IV, the interplay triangles are specially designed to favor offensive mechanics like attacking and then grabbing while limiting the effectiveness of defensive moves like blocking. The reason this is done is because a fight (especially in a video game where no one gets hurt) isn't a struggle to stay alive where one is expected to do what it takes to live. It's more fun and engaging to attack each other and throw each other around than to have one character block all the attacks until the time runs out for that match. In the interplay triangle, if blocking/shielding was too effective, the gameplay would become too defensive especially for competitive players who play to win. One way both games have balanced defensive moves to this end is with flow and reverse flow of mechanics for all the options except the defensive ones.

In Super Smash Brothers Brawl, techniques like pivot grabs, glance grabs, tether grabs, some moves look like attacks but are really grabs, and more precise timing/aiming are ways for grabs to beat attacks thus reversing the flow. For attacks to reverse the flow on shields, shields will slowly shrink away with prolonged use (decay), there are special attacks that can easily break shields, and attacks can knock shielding players off of platforms forcing them to drop their shields. All of these design features are ways for attacks to beat shields. On the other hand, there is no way for a shield to counter a grab.

In Street Fighter 4, characters like El Fuerte, Vega (Claw), Cammy, Gouken, Akuma, and of course Zangief have special grab attacks that look and move like attacks but have the ability to grab opponents out of their blocks, jumps, and even attacks. These moves reverse the flow between attacks and grabs. If you block a special attack like a fire ball, your character takes a fraction of the total damage (chip damage) for that attack. Because of this design feature, attacking can beat blocking. Focus attacks are a special move that when charged have the ability to absorb a single hit from most incoming attacks and, at full charge, can break through an opponent's block.


In Brawl and in Street Fighter, there's little to nothing a blocking player can do to counter a grab. By looking at the flow of interplay and the possible reverse flow, it's clear that the defensive (shielding/blocking) player doesn't have as many options as the offensive player. So instead of having a equilateral triangle of interplay where each option is equally viable (in theory) and flows evenly like in RPS, the interplay triangles in good fighting games is more like isosceles triangles with all the weight on offensive moves (attack/grab).

While it may seem that the classic attack-block-grab interplay triangle is the bread and butter of all fighting games, there are some games that use other systems. The following games are fighting games (according to the definition below from wikipedia) that do things differently.

Fighting game refers to a genre of action video game where the player controls an on-screen character and engages in close combat with another character. These characters tend to be of equal power and fight matches consisting of several rounds, which take place in an arena.

  • Monkey Fight (Super Monkey Ball 2) (Attack): This game uses two buttons for combat. Hitting A performs a quick straight jab while holding B charges the boxing glove. Charging increases the size of the glove and the range of the punch significantly while at the same time limiting mobility. Holding the A button functions as a break to prevent from sliding out of the ring. Ring outs are the only way to get points. Knocked out players (2-4) are quickly respawned back into the arena with a bit of invincibility time.
  • Wii Sports Boxing (Attack-Block): Like in Monkey Ball, your punches are your offense and defense in Wii Sports Boxing. You can punch at the opponent's body for offense or position your gloves so that your fists meet theirs to block. There are no grabs in this game. Moving around your character's body in 3D space is essential to avoid punches. If you move just out of the way of an incoming punch, you get a brief moment of slow-mo where you can counter attack. 
  • Rag Doll Kung Fu (Attack-Block): This game features characters that the player is able to control by dragging the limbs around with the mouse. The hands of the characters automatically block all attacks, however the rag doll movements of the characters makes holding a solid blocking stance difficult. In this way, the game features only attacks and blocks while heavily favoring attacking.
  • Jump Super Stars (Attack-Block): In this platform fighter, each character has a wide range of attacks and special moves. Instead of using grabs, there are special attacks in the game that break through blocks. Like in Marvel vs Capcom 1 & 2, players can call in other characters to jump in and execute special moves. With four players fighting against each other, there can easily be 8 characters on the screen at once! This game is all about offense. 
  • Toribash (Attack-Grab): In this turn based fighting game, players engage in short rounds where they can fully control the muscles and joints of their characters to create completely unique attacks. Punch, swing, kick, and grab to achieve victory. Each round ends when one of the players is dismembered or if they fall to the ground.


Double Blind Encounters

A double blind encounter is simply one where both (or all) players make their moves simultaneously (or nearly so) like when throwing hands in RPS. With a double blind encounter, you don't know exactly what the opponent will do. For example, when you decide to throw rock, you can only hope that the opponent throws scissors. RPS is restricted to rounds of double blind encounters. It's the same with the Pokemon battle system. However, in real time action gameplay systems double blind encounters happen naturally whenever two players do something at about the same time.

Double blind encounters are a natural part of natural counters, or the interplay between actions and mechanics that are calculated in real time/space. For mechanics, moves, and attacks that start and end relatively quickly (according to the general speed, movement, and spatial limitations of a game) the best chance you might have to counter the opponent naturally is to act when they act. In multiplayer games, fighters especially, most attacks don't have large wind up times or cool down animations to take advantage off like enemies/bosses do in many single player games. The design of such moves makes it too difficult to simply play defensively waiting for your opponent to make a move so you react and gain the advantage. Remember, offense/action is fun in a video game.

Many games strike for balance by adjusting the space (range/animation), time, cost, and effectiveness of each attack. Because a jab is an inherently quick attack, the jabs in most fighters do very little damage and have very little range. Just think, if the jab was the quickest, strongest, and longest attack in a game like Street Fighter why would anyone use anything else.  The Hammer of Dawn weapon in Gears of War has a large activation charge time before the deadly beam descends. It's the same for the Spartan Laser in Halo 3. Both of these weapons are designed to add option and variety to the gameplay.

Maintaining the balance between interplay that facilitates double blind encounters and interplay that encourages action-reaction counters helps fill the range interactivity within a game with various types of interplay (preventative, reactionary, and quasi). This is why the amount of time or the animation that a player is committed to (unable to do anything/much else) when executing a move is very important and is why canceling moves/animations can be so damaging to the interplay of a game system. Playing a game is all about making choices. Actions have effects, and the wrong choices have consequences. If you could do it all like being able to attack and defend at the same time, then the function of attacking and defending would be watered down. With such a game, you wouldn't have an interplay loop, but a single obvious course of actoin. This is why the God of War combat doesn't interest me. Being able to escape danger by canceling your attacks to dodge weakens the function of the attacks and each of my individual offensive choices. In such cases, the game's interactivity drops dramatically. If you destroy this level of interplay in a game system, you damage the most prevalent and dynamic level of interactivity (interplay) in your game. And such damage works to diminish the very core dynamics of a game system in addition to the relationship between a game's forms and functions.


Fog of War

On that note I wanted to briefly talk about fog of war. In a game like Star Craft or Advance Wars, fog of war is a shadowy veil that obscures the activity of all areas that are far away from any of your units or buildings. You can see the terrain through this veil, but you can't see any particular activity including what your opponent is doing. Because you can't see what you're up against until, to some degree, you send in something to check out the situation (whether you send a scout or an army of units), fog of war can facilitate double blind encounters.

In games like RPS, both players have to throw their hands at the same time without knowing what the other is going to do. In other words, both players are equally blind. But the comparative blindness or vision that fog of war creates is more versatile than in RPS. It's possible for one player to have more insight into what his/her opponent is doing than the other way around. In any kind of confrontation, information is a precious resource. It's important to keep your cards close to your chest so to speak. Under fog of war, gaining more vision and restricting the opponent's vision are always highly effective strategies.

The radar system design in Halo 3 and in Call of Duty 4 are interesting ways of giving players the ability to see beyond the limitations of their first person view while providing ways to counter the opponent's intelligence. In Halo players can crouch walk (or move slowly) to avoid popping up on enemy radar. In COD4, enemy players don't appear on the radar by default. When they fire a non silenced gun, they appear as a blip that soon fades away. By getting successive kills, players can earn a UAV sweep that automatically reveals the position of all enemy players on the radar (as long as they don't have the UAV jamming perk).

Wii Sports Boxing is a fighter that uses perspective in a very unique way. By giving each player their own view via split screen, the game is able to alter the view/perspective for each player individually. When boxing, if you get punched by the opponent, your character briefly changes from translucent to opaque  making it more difficult to see and counter the next punch. In this way, the perspective for each player dynamically changes to create an off balanced/disorienting effect for the disadvantaged player.

The interesting part about a situation where both players are blind to each other's moves and actions is that interplay doesn't exist while both players are completely blind. In other words, you can't counter someone until you interact with them or are able to see and react to what they're doing. Basically, when pumping your fist while saying "Rock. Paper. Scissors. SHOOT" there is no interactivity (interplay) between the two players. Only when the hands are picked and revealed is there any interactivity.


In part 6, we'll look at how to describe "pressing one's advantage" in terms of interplay loops and how  interplay evolves from mechanics, tactics, strategies, to gambits using examples from real games.

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Reader Comments (2)

Something that may be overlooked concerning Fog of War in Advance Wars is that its theoretical effect (as you describe) is far from its practical effect. Every player I've spoken to has had the same response to Fog of War maps: play once without intending to win, simply to map out the location of enemy units (which doesn't change when you restart the match), and then play again knowing where the enemy units are located.

Of course, FoW does add a bit of strategy because of how attacking works -- even if you know the location of a unit, you can't attack it unless its visible from a friendly unit, so you need to plan for this.

It seems like something that might work well for PvP but totally fails to work for singleplayer, it just ends up being an annoyance.

April 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterraigan

@ Raigan

Sure. You can cheap the FoW battles in Advance Wars single player by playing them once to check out what the opponent has. But even when doing this, you don't know what the CPU will build after the start of a match. So encountering those units would still qualify. There are also CPU FoW battles where you build units from the beginning. In these games, you don't know what's coming until it hits you.

FoW always puts emphasis on how powerful knowledge is. The new flare unit in Days of Ruin and the fires that illuminate the surroundings help balance out FoG games. You're right. It is different for PvP battles.

Good points. Thanks for commenting.

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