I grew up on fighting games.  My interest in fighting games began with the general interest in karate that children of the 80s developed from watching The Karate Kid.  It manifested in the form of the early point-sparring arcade games on the Commodore like Karate Champ, Way of the Exploding Fist, and International Karate.  It evolved with some of the first games that had life bars, such as Yie Ar Kung Fu, Karateka, and Barbarians.  I wasn’t much of a Street Fighter guy, but I loved Pit Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Killer Instinct.

Thinking back on it, there’s one moment that will always stick out in my mind, though. Once, when I was in high school, I went to a movie rental store to pick up a game for the weekend. We mulled over a few games, and after I gave a few recommendations, my friend said to me, “look man, I don’t want to get any fighting games.”  This seemed crazy to me. I thought, “Why would he not want to get a fighting game?  Fighting games are awesome!  He must not want to play them because he knows I will win.” and so on.

Today, I understand it.

Competitive games that give complete control to the players are fun only when the skill level of the players is matched. This is one of the reasons why I moved away from competitive chess years ago.  I kept finding myself in a weird spot where I was much more skilled than the general populace, but not nearly as skilled as the more experienced players.  So, outside of those rare instances where I was paired with an opponent that matched my skill level, I either crushed my opponents our was crushed myself. Neither of these scenarios was fun for me.

With most fighting games, as with chess, I’ve discovered that I am good enough to beat about 80% of the players that know how to play them.  That’s not saying much; it’s similar to the way a high-level high school basketball player can probably beat 80% percent of the population in a pickup game of basketball.  Unless I am throwing the game, I will likely win the vast majority of games against these players.

At the same time, most of the truly competitive players will generally crush me.  This probably makes up about 15% of the overall players that play the game.  Again, this is as applicable in chess as it is in Marvel vs. Capcom.

So what I’m left with is a small window of about 5% of the opponents that I can compete against.  And finding local players that fall within that 5% is very difficult to do.

There’s a great video about this topic from the old Modcast.  Check it out.

I think the most important point in that video was made by Jam.  The gamers that grew up together playing through the old fighting games learned a skill set that takes time for any gamer to get.  They were able to develop that skill set by playing against other players of similar skill, and through a steady progression were able to master the system.  Gamers who play casually don’t develop those skills, so the game is unfun for them when they are playing against a skilled player.

I saw this very clearly when playing games with my own children.  I never throw a game to my kids (more on that another time), but I also don’t want to play something where throwing the game even crosses my mind. I find that they and I both get a lot more enjoyment playing something that allows us to cooperate instead of compete.

So I was right when I thought that my friend didn’t want to play because he knew that I would win, but I was wrong to think of it in those terms.  I should have thought “he doesn’t want to play because the experience will not be fun for him.” Over the years, I’ve learned that giving each player a fun experience is much more fun than finding a place where I can beat them.

What do you think?