cyberspace1117 asked: Hey, I am a student in a game design class and I was looking for a source of information and insights on the topics in game design/development. I just found your blog today and I'm really enjoying it. I love the in-depth answers you give to seemingly random questions and the topics you write about. I don't know when I will have time to read it all. Just keep up the good effort. I'm very appreciative of it. BTW What's your favorite game?(either one you've played or worked on or both) and why?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s always reassuring to get notes like this, because it helps me realize that there are people reading and learning from the things I’ve had to learn the hard way.
As for my favorite game… it’s a very tough question. There are so many games that I think are absolutely fantastic for different reasons. Super Metroid is the perfect example of building an amazing atmosphere and staying true to it for the entire game. Dance Dance Revolution showed that a simple UI and an innovative control scheme were all you need to single-handedly revive the arcade scene. Katamari Damacy showed us that there’s always something new that has yet to be discovered and played with. The list goes on and on. But if you had to ask what my favorite game of all time is, I’d have to say Street Fighter 2. Street Fighter 2 is probably the most amazing example of design elegance in existence.
There’s a number of reasons why I love Street Fighter 2. So many elements of it come together so perfectly that it’s hard to believe they got it so right. The fact that there are so many fantastic elements to the game that combine so well is a testament to itself, and something that I don’t think Capcom has ever gotten quite right again. And, while some of these things may seem like old hat, you have to remember that back in the wilds of 1991, these things didn’t yet exist. Street Fighter 2 was the first to do most of these things, which is what makes it so amazing. I’ll try to show you what I mean.
First off, Street Fighter 2 was an arcade game. This means that there is literally no time for a lengthy tutorial. Arcade games must be designed to be instantly playable within a few seconds, and fun within almost as much time. There isn’t a very high barrier to entry, because all it takes is a coin or two to play. And this is where all of the little bits of Street Fighter 2 come together as the perfect storm of coin-devouring gameplay.
The element of competition was the first of its kind. I’m fairly sure that Street Fighter 2 is the first game to allow players to directly compete head to head asymmetrically. Before it, there were only games that were either mirrored (Chess, Karate Champ, Pong), or games where players competed for points rather than directly defeating each other.
The characters had interesting and differentiating designs - you could easily see how different they were from each other (well… except for Ryu and Ken), and those visuals translated into different gameplay styles that catered to different individuals. Did you like playing riskier? A heavier, stronger character at the cost of speed, or someone who didn’t hit as hard but was faster and more mobile? Did you prefer to be an offensive monster and rush your opponent down like a cheetah, or did you like playing defensively, shutting down your opponent’s options and defeating him or her much like a python would slowly squeeze its prey to death? All of your visuals directly fed into the way the character played as well - it only took a few seconds to figure out what sort of character each person was, and each character’s visuals were consistent with their play style. This was the first game that made you have to think about who you chose, and who your opponent played.
Look at this UI. It’s extremely simple and elegant at the same time. You can tell exactly what information you need to know from a glance. Notice how the bars move toward the center of the screen? See how the time is right there in the middle? Everything immediately draws your eyes to the center, because everything you need to know is right there. As long as you’ve got some yellow left, you’re great. You can tell just how much trouble you’re in by seeing how much yellow you have left. You can see just how much time is left in the center as well. Everything you need to know is there at a single glance, and this is why the design has been copied by every other fighting game in existence. Compare it to Street Fighter 1 and you’ll see what I mean:
It’s so much more confusing, because you have to remember which character you are, and there’s no intuitive divisor (left vs right), and no way to show the time remaining.
The control scheme for Street Fighter 2 is also amazingly elegant. Before Street Fighter 2, most games had at most ~3 buttons, usually some sort of attack button and a secondary button. Six buttons was almost unheard of, and it suggested a level of complexity that was off-putting to players. But if you look a little closer, you’ll start to see what Capcom did to make it easier to understand. There are three buttons in two rows arranged in increasing strength. This makes intuitive sense - your attacks get stronger (and slower) as you move to the right. You can place three fingers on the top row of buttons and quickly pick up which finger corresponds with which punch.
In addition to this, they also have a second row of buttons for kicks. The kicks being on the bottom row make intuitive sense as well - your legs are naturally below your arms, so if you punch with the top row, you’d kick with the bottom. All you have to do is slide your fingers down a little to reach the kicks, and the shape of the buttons will automatically guide your hands to the next row. After the first few seconds, you don’t need to look at the controls anymore, not to find where the buttons are. It is a natural and intuitive control scheme.
Next, you need to consider the sound design. A huge part of making the attacks so differentiated and memorable was the sound. The weak attacks sounded weak, and the heavy attacks sounded painful. You could instantly tell, whether on a miss or a hit, exactly what sort of attack connected, or even missed. Try listening to this. You don’t even need to see it on the screen, just the sound alone is more than enough to tell you exactly what is going on.
The thing that keeps me (and so many others) coming back to Street Fighter 2, however, is the depth of the game. The game itself is fun, but the way that players can move beyond simply pushing buttons and doing moves to imposing their will on their opponents by out-thinking and outplaying them is fantastic. Although this particular video is not from Street Fighter 2, it exhibits all of the principles and would not be possible without the foundations laid by Street Fighter 2.
In this video, we see all of the pieces come together perfectly - two players directly competing for dominance. You see amazing execution from one of the players, but more importantly, you have to realize that it wasn’t just a random occurrence. If you watch carefully, you’ll see that, prior to Chun-li’s ill-fated super attack, Ken here actually maintains a very specific distance from his opponent and actually stops attacking because he is anticipating his opponent’s attack. Both he and his opponent know his life is low, and that any blocked hit will kill. So Ken bets it all by baiting that attack and using his superior execution to avoid the attack and win the round via a calculated counterattack. He purposely dangles the bait in front of his opponent, because he is so confident in his ability to play the game, and his opponent springs the trap and loses the match. This sort of real-time competitive gameplay really didn’t exist in video games before Street Fighter 2.
I could probably write an entire book on why Street Fighter 2 is awesome and why the design principles in it work together so well. It’s got so many complex elements that work together perfectly, but all that complexity is still extremely intuitive and can be mentally grasped within seconds of putting money into the machine and pressing “start”. The game is a marvel of design elegance, and that’s why I would say it is my favorite game.
For further reading, I highly recommend Polygon’s "Street Fighter: An Oral History" article. It is fantastic.
Absolutely fantastic look at why Street Fighter 2 was such a game changer back in 1991, and why, 23 years later, it’s still great to play.