Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 12:42PM
Take a 2D fighting game for example. Using the dynamics of 2D space the animations and matching hitboxes for attacks create a variety of timing challenges. Intercepting an enemy target with an attack of your own is the equivalent of hitting a moving target with a moving target from a moving position. It can be difficult to wrap your mind around the fact that most attacks move the character in one way and strike in another and that both of these aspects can be used to create tight strategies. So if you haven't already checked out my An Examination of Skill article series, at least watch the video on the various timing challenges in Super Smash Brothers Brawl found at the bottom of the page here.
Of course, playing at such a level is something most players will never experience. Far before achieving that next-level of skill, it's common for starting players to simplify fighting games into turns. See for yourself here. Notice how all the player actions have distinct pauses between them. Most of the actions seem to be followed by a moment where the opponent is expected to act as if they're taking turns. It's even evident in this match between much more skilled yet still beginning players. Simplifying real-time into turns is an amazingly dramatic feat of simplification. Essentially a game that divides time into 60 moments per second is reduced to a turn-based game where players may wait several seconds before feeling like it's their turn to act. Why is this the case?
image from capcom-unity.com
The answer is hit-stun and block-stun. Any fighter inspired by the Street Fighter foundation features attacks with startup, active, and recovery frames. At any point during the active period, if you make contact with the opponent they will be stunned. If you score a clean hit the opponent will experience hit-stun during which their character will look hurt and be unable to fight back (typically). If the opponent was blocking/shielding they'll go through a period of block-stun where they will be unable to do anything for a brief period of time. This block-stun is a type of feedback like hit pause that helps players feel (visually) the impact of their actions and helps convey the fiction of solid bodies colliding due to inertia.
For players that may be used to other kinds of action games where they always have full control of their characters (Super Mario Bros. Pac-Man, etc), these brief moments of inactivity from stun may seem jarring. In more combo heavy fighters players can go through long periods of time unable to do anything. Even in Brawl, when your character is stunned you can perhaps do only 2 moves compared to the 30+ you had access to before. Though you're not completely inactive, the drop in options achieves the same effect. So it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why a beginning player may conceptualize the real-time interactivity in a fighter in terms of taking turns back and forth. After all, moments of inactivity are common place in turn-based games.
Abusing dragon pushes (Street Fighter) or smash attacks (Smash Bros.) can create a very turn-based feel to combat. Because these moves generally start up quickly and recover slowly, the attack is initiated by the player and then the resulting recovery time gives the opponent a chance to make a move. The reversal attacks on wake up for both of these games can also create a very turn-based feel. Furthermore, in Smash edge guarding an opponent on the ledge can create turn like gameplay because of the moment of invincible inactivity for the player on the ledge.
A general way to create an advantage in a turn based game is to set the tempo, which basically involves playing in such a way to do more with your turn to pressure the opponent into doing less. In Chess, if each of your moves sets up a pin, fork, reverse pin, etc., the opponent will continually lose his/her control over the match by being forced to react to your moves or suffer big losses. In other turn-based games it's possible to actually make an opponent lose a turn, which is obviously a powerful advantage. Or in Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes you can execute skillful plays to increase the amount of actions you can do on your turn sometimes up to three times.
With real-time fighting games, because the combat systems are so complex players tend to conceptualize combat time in turns before fine tuning their understanding. Like setting the tempo in a turn-based game, you can gain an advantage in "turns" against a beginner opponent. Instead of using the big-flashy-power moves with big drawbacks (in terms of startup/recovery time), you can sneak in more moves on your "turn" by using quicker attacks. This requires a bit of careful explaining, which I will do in detail in part 3.
In part 3 we'll take a very detailed look at how time can be simplified in Super Smash Brothers Brawl and how a next-level understanding of time can develop from this simplified base.