Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dead or Alive 5

Landmark! 50th blog post in this blog. In celebration I offer thee a wall of text.

I have quite a bit of background in playing fighting games. I started out as a casual player like most but eventually evolved into a tournament player (unlike most). I have mostly played 3D fighters - most 2D fighters I have ever played have simply been way too hard for me to learn because of their bigger focus on technical skills. Of the four big 3D fighter series there's one that I have not really played: Dead or Alive. The series has a stigma in the fighting game community - and I mean on top of its already questionable reputation. The stigma has more to do with gameplay than boobs though. The series has generally been considered quite mash-friendly and at some point the hold system was just way too strong which made the game stupid.

Another reason for skipping the series was platform. DOA was an Xbox exclusive for a long time. However with its return to PlayStation 3 in the fifth installment, there was also talks of finally getting more serious by the developers. Again, I am not talking about the fanrage-worthy decision of generally making breasts smaller and more realistic. More serious as in more tournament-worthy is what counts. The timing for the news was also good because I had dropped Tekken when Tag 2 came around, and my main game Virtua Fighter 5 Final Showdown doesn't enjoy a very large community. I had also given up Soul Calibur because they kicked all my main characters out of the fifth installment.

So I was actually open to the idea of trying out a new game. Did I ever get around to it? Nope, not until I got DOA5 as a PS+ freebie last month. I've been practicing it a bit this month and played some matches, which gives me a perfect excuse to write about fighting games in general and some observations about DOA5 in particular. I will, also, eventually get to the boobs, so you can go ahead and skip to the last section if that's what you wanted to read about. The remainder of this post will contain some fighting game jargon, which I'll try to explain as I go. If you understand the concept of frames in fighting games, go ahead and skip to 3.

1. Fighting game primer

If you are ever designing a game with real time hand-to-hand or melee combat mechanics you should study a fighting game or two properly. From my perspective this is obvious because - as the genre name suggests - these games are all about the fighting mechanics. Before you can truly study though, you need to recognize that there are two vastly different ways to play these games. Most players are casuals who play for fun. From their point of view, mastery of the game means knowing the moves of all characters, and they show off their mastery by playing random characters. They may have their own honor codes like "juggles are unfair" (juggle being a situation where you hit an enemy who is floating in the air).

Playing casually is fine, even fun. Much like playing intentionally "bad" decks in Magic the Gathering, it can be a blast because when everyone is just throwing moves without much consideration to higher level strategy, matches can be quite even. Casual players can also enjoy the single player modes and mastering them. I know I did before becoming serious. You can play a fighting game for hundreds of hours and consider yourself pretty good as you are most likely beating all of your friends who don't own the game. When I hear someone's good in a fighting game, I usually assume they are using the casual player metrics. Why? Most serious players don't claim to be good.

This miscommunication becomes rather apparent when two players using different metrics for mastery face each other. The "good" living room champ will get a severe thrashing from even a "bad" serious player. They are playing two very different games and it won't be much fun for either. Where the casual player sees cool moves, the tournament player sees numbers and properties. For the former, different moves seemingly exist to create more variety while for the latter, each move is a tool with a specific purpose. Certainly even casual players can deduct uses for a move from its visual properties but the game they play is still vastly different.

In case it wasn't clear, your job is to study tournament play. The biggest distinctive factor is a tournament player's understanding of one concept: frame advantage. Frame advantage is a universal concept in fighting games and understanding it is the key to reading situations in the game. Frame of course being a measure of time inside the game's engine (usually 1/60 of a second). In its most basic form, it tells who has the advantage after a move connects or is blocked. In a slightly more accurate form, each move has impact frames and recovery frames, although the latter is only measured in relation to the hit (advantage on hit) or block (advantage on block) stun it causes.

A move's impact frames tell you how many frames it takes for the move to hit from the moment the animation starts. This number tells you explicitly how fast a move is. The recovery-related numbers on the other tell how many frames one of you will be "disabled" after the move connects or is blocked. The math is really simple. If a move is +5 on hit, it means the opponent cannot do anything for the next 5 frames. On the other hand, if a move is -12 on block for instance, you are unable to do anything for 12 frames. If the opponent has a move that comes out in 12 frames or less, it is guaranteed to hit you. This by the way is called punishment.

If we go back to the situation where you have +5 advantage, it means that if you follow with an attack that comes out in 15 frames and the opponent also attacks but using a 12 frame attack, your attack will still hit because the opponent's attack starts 5 frames late, effectively becoming a 17 frame attack in that situation. Frame advantage is of course symmetric, so -5 for you is the same thing as +5 for your opponent. Knowing who has frame advantage is crucial because otherwise you cannot know what your options in the situation are. Usually moves give frame advantage when they hit, and disadvantage when they are blocked. Of course if they miss altogether, the recovery will be substantial because the opponent is neither hit or block stunned.

Just to give you an idea of how this relates to other genres, we can go back to stagger immunity. Basically having frame disadvantage from getting hit is stagger. Therefore if we grant someone stagger immunity, it means they will never be at frame disadvantage from getting hit which means the best any attack against them can ever be is +0 frames advantage. However, this would require an attack with zero recovery frames and they generally don't exist. Effectively stagger immunity would mean that against that character, every attack could be considered whiffed for purposes of determining advantage. Just for the record, most moves in fighting games are punishable if they are whiffed.

Quick sample math: you have a move that comes out in 15 frames, stuns the opponent on hit for 15 frames and recovers for 10 frames. Normally hitting with this attack puts you at a +5 advantage but against a stagger immune opponent, it would actually put you at a -10 disadvantage. Which means if they have a 10 frame attack, they could hit you for free every time. However they can also start an attack during any of those 15 initial frames with no risk of being interrupted, so every time you do this attack you potentially open yourself to a 25 frame attack. Since slower moves are usually more powerful, it is easy to see how unfair the situation is.

Being aware of frame advantage is therefore quite important for game designers and there is no place to learn them better than fighting games where frame knowledge is essential to all tournament players. As a game mechanic it's a pain in the ass because the only way to really go about learning frames is to memorize them. Some games are kind enough to actually show frame data in their practice mode which makes the entire system more accessible to even casual players. Otherwise frame data needs to be found from depths of the internet, and often it has been compiled by testing and might contain errors. It's not perfect, but it's a necessary practice if you want to be a tournament player.

Frame data can tell a lot about a character's strengths. For instance, characters who get a lot of frame advantage are strong in offense whereas fast moves with bad disadvantage when blocked ("unsafe moves") indicate a punisher type character who excels at defense. It can also reveal stupidities like infinite loops from moves that are faster than the advantage they give on hit. Once you understand how to use frame data to your advantage in game design, all sorts of things become easier to grasp. Besides, they are numbers, and game designers should love numbers.

2. Beyond frames

Of course if frames were the only property there would not be much need for many moves in a game. Obviously moves have other properties, like damage which is about the least interesting stat from our point of view. Fighting games usually involve a primary rock-paper-scissors system of strikes, guard and throws where guard beats strikes, throws beat guard and strikes beat throws. So far so simple, but of course it is never so. Guarding has two options: standing and crouching. In every major 3D fighter attacks come in three altitudes: high, mid and low. Standing guard blocks high and mid attacks but is vulnerable to lows while crouching guard blocks lows, is vulnerable to mids and avoids highs. Because crouching guard beats both low and high attacks, the basic mixup is between mid and low.

This makes high attacks sound rather useless, no? Being high is indeed a weaker property than being mid or low but this is redeemed by other qualities. Of the three altitudes, high attacks are generally fastest and more likely to give advantage even when blocked. Although you will never hit an opponent who just guards with a high attack, they are useful for interrupting slower attacks. Overall, high attacks have the best combination of other properties be it frames, damage, range or tracking. Low attacks on the other hand generally have the weakest properties because standing guard is much more common than crouching. Low attacks are very unsafe if blocked and can leave the attacker at a disadvantage even if they hit. Strong low attacks are slower, and can even be seen and blocked on reaction.

The usefulness of lows depends on the game because throws also beat standing guard. Lows are generally more used in Tekken, because in theory all throws can be escaped on reaction (a feat I am definitely not capable of, and therefore am quite disadvantaged in tournament play) whereas in Virtua Fighter throws are impossible to escape on reaction, and you always have to guess between three throw escapes. They also do more damage. So, depending on the game, the basic mixup is either mid/low or mid/throw. However, guarding is not the only defensive option. All games have movement options, and as we may have learned the best defense is to not be there at all when an attack lands.

In 3D fighters, as the 3D there suggests, characters can also evade moves by depth movement. Evasion generally beats linear attacks. Tracking moves beat evasion, but are often generally weaker. Tracking moves, especially those that give full tracking, are also very often high attacks. Likewise, range determines how easy it is to avoid an attack by moving back. Although all games have movement options, it gets different emphasis. Tekken is the series that emphasizes movement most for a few reasons. Most throws do not track in Tekken for instance, and movement is overall safer. In VF and Soul Calibur, being hit during movement causes a counter hit (more damage, usually more advantage, can lead to combos). Tekken also rewards movement more with easier whiff punishment.

There are more game-specific special cases for pretty much all of this. All of this stuff is involved in mind games when playing, and move properties define what are your options in each situation. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of every character's move set is definitely helpful. Some characters can have insanely good strikes, but they might turn out to be horribly linear which makes evasion strong against them. A character with good lows and mids can play a nasty mixup game in your face. Some characters have a lot of solid long range moves, which makes them perfect for playing keep-away (especially in Soul Calibur where weapon reach is a factor).

3. Finally, Dead or Alive

Now that we have establised a common ground for discussing fighting games we can take a look at what defines Dead or Alive 5. It is being said that when playing DOA, you might as well forget what you learned in other games. Although I do not find this to be entirely true, I will go through a couple of reasons why this could be the case - especially for Tekken players. The system that defines DOA as a series is its hold system. Some characters in other games have holds (called reversals) but in DOA, every character has a hold for all attack types (high, mid punch, mid kick and low). Holds are defensive moves that do damage to the attacker.

Holds are the reason why DOA has been disregarded because they (used to) make attacking very risky. If you guess what attack the opponent will go for at any time, it can be countered for guaranteed damage. If I recall correctly, in the past holds were a bit too powerful, which made attacking a losing strategy. That makes for a weird game as you might guess. While some holds on some characters are still very powerful, most holds have reasonable damage numbers. Throwing holds randomly is also a bad idea, because it is a four-way guessing game (whereas guarding high or low is a two-way mixup).

The dynamic created by holds is that being predictable is very easily punished in DOA. Especially strings that do not have many variations are very risky to throw out because they are very likely to be held. It is not the holds themselves that make the big difference though. DOA5 has a somewhat different approach to the frame game. In general, attacks give less frame advantage on hit and are more often unsafe when blocked. Especially since in DOA5, the fastest throws are 5 frames, which means a move that is -5 can be punished with a throw. Fastest strikes are 9 frames, although most characters have to do with 10 frame attacks. Sounds like attacking sucks again, huh?

Well, not so fast. DOA5 has a stun system quite unlike anything else. The less frame advantage on hit applies only to attacks that do not stun you see. Attacks that do stun can grant massive frame advantage, so that the next attack becomes guaranteed. Stuns are not uncommon in games either, but in DOA5 every character has a ton of stunning moves. It is very rare to not get stunned in a match because even basic mid attacks can cause a stun - hell, even low attacks sometimes do. Unlike other games however stun doesn't make a character entirely helpless - you can get out of a stun by doing one of the four basic holds. Stunned characters cannot be thrown either.

With each stun we enter what is called the stun game. It is an ongoing mixup, typically between highs, mid punches and mid kicks because lows generally don't give enough advantage to continue the chain. However, if the defender holds out of the stun, they can be thrown for increased damage. After being hit for enough damage, the defender will go into critical stun after which any attack knocks them down, ending the stun game. This is however a chance for the attacker to land a critical burst, which leads to an unholdable stun and therefore a guaranteed combo. There is only one CB for each character though, so the defender can avoid it every time by holding against it but this leaves them open to other attacks.

The stun system basically creates a mixup that is more disadvantageous to the defender than a normal frame advantage mixup. They have to choose between 3 or 4 options for their defense, and they cannot even try to attack until the stun ends. However it is clearly more advantageous than a stun combo which is entirely guaranteed. Furthermore, the attacker's options are also somewhat limited because the only attacks worth doing are ones that can continue the stun or launch the defender to a combo. Air combos in DOA5 do less damage than in other games too. When the defender does guess correctly and holds an attack, damage is always guaranteed (unlike other games where you might only get a mixup).

Because every other attack in the game engages the stun game, getting hit can very often lead to a serial mixup that has the potential to take over half of your life bar. This has the potential to create quite huge swings and makes the game generally somewhat faster than at least Tekken. It definitely does not make the game more buttonmash-friendly because stun chains require a lot of thought and experimentation in practice mode. Ideally, you want to find as many variations as possible for your stun chains to keep the opponent guessing. Some otherwise good moves might push the enemy back too much and so on. It's also kind of a greed game: how long will you continue the stun before launching.

Guarding is quite strong in DOA5 largely because not a whole lot of moves outside slowish guard breaks give advantage on block, and a whole lot of moves are punishable on block. However, throwing is also more powerful then usual because basic throws aside, all throws are unescapable. Fastest of these throws are 6 frames I think but attempting a throw is also very risky because it opens you to attacks. Remember that you don't get that much normal (non-stun) frame advantage in DOA5 so the mid/throw mixup is somewhat harder to get into. Throws can also do a ton of damage, but powerful throws are always slower.

Admittedly I have not fully explored the system, and I have not played against any tournament players (the game is not very popular in Finland) so these are my still somewhat initial impressions. It does feel like a legit tournament game though, and is fun to play. Whether the stun game makes it better or worse doesn't really matter, because at least it indeed does play very differently. I have also enjoyed coming up with stun chains for my main characters because unlike learning combos, there is more room for experimentation.

4. About the girls...

Normally there would be really no reason to draw attention to how women are represented in DOA because that's pretty clear. I do however need to update a particular opinion. Earlier I stated that I do not mind skimpy impractical dresses and impossible physique of female characters in fighting games because it's not like there is any character in them to ruin with unnecessarily sleazy appearance. Especially since fighting game plots tend to be... yeah, pretty ridiculous. Read a few character biographies for some serious facepalming if you haven't already. That being said, DOA5 did make me somewhat uneasy.

I guess Tekken and Virtua Fighter have gotten a free pass for their treatment of girls because they don't overdo it anyway. Soul Calibur, a series that I think might have actually passed DOA in sleaziness at some point also seems to get away with it, perhaps because the style is so far-out anyway. So what is it about DOA5 that makes me change my mind? Although I'd hesitate to call the new and improved boob physics realistic, the fact that girls do look more natural overall somehow makes all those jiggling breasts all the more embarrassing. So although they don't really have much personality, the fact that they look more natural likens them to real girls more.

On top of that, some characters have costumes where they are actually dressed to fight with the very important exception of forgetting to wear a sports bra (or whatever you would wear to get enough support there). It highlights the problem even more. With impractical dresses these things are kind of easier to dismiss because the entire notion of fighting in a gown is stupid anyway. But the actual fighting gear brings the wearer one step closer to being more real and suddenly the jiggly bits seem to send a very different message. The message from the designer seems to be that no matter how sensible and ready to fight, this girl still secretly wishes for male viewers to undress her with their eyes.

So here's how I see it: there exists an uncanny valley for video game girl sexiness. It seems that usually as long as the girl in question seems unrealistic anyway (i.e. they are not a person), it doesn't really matter how absurdly sexualized they are - they will be considered what they are: escapees from someone's fantasy. Likewise, when they are very realistic to the point that any sexiness actually feels to belong to the character, it also is acceptable - after all, sexy girls and women do exist. However between these two is the valley: girls that are made to feel realistic but then oversexualized - and this is where suddenly the treatment they get just feels wrong. It is here where everything the person is, is violently reduced to a sex object.

We can argue about the width of the valley, but if we accept this theory, the correct place to start hacking at the problem is at the bottom of the valley. Trying to destroy all oversexualization at once (the entire left side that is) will simply be met with too much resistance. I don't have much attachment to the left side of the valley; however I do like to have realistically cute/sexy/beautiful girls in games, so I will rise to defend the right side of the valley. Besides, we like to look at attractive things so it makes bloody little sense to have a crusade against them.

On a lighter endnote, I have to wonder: if breast sizes were generally made smaller in DOA5, how massive they were before?


Wall of text, done! After what I have experienced, I do think Dead or Alive 5 is a welcome addition to 3D fighting games on PlayStation 3. I really cannot say whether it is more friendly to beginners than the others, because the stun game does require quite a bit of studying. I think it actually puts slightly more emphasis on knowing every character's move set than the other games because of the four-way hold system. Most importantly, it is different enough. In hindsight writing the fighting game basics was perhaps a little bit excessive but then again, it does seem to be quite arcane knowledge for many gamers. It is just one of those genres where each title is really two very different games - where the "real" game is hidden from casual eyes lest they be frightened by its complexity.

Right now there's not much activity around DOA5, sadly, so I cannot say much about how it plays as a tournament game. Perhaps with the release of DOA5 Ultimate there will be a burst of activity that lets me get into the game a bit more. There will be a free-to-play version of it, so that might attract more people to try the game. I somehow feel that they are not going to add the option to have the girls wear more supportive bras, but if they did that would be awesome.

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