I was watching a Leon Massey video recently about how fighting games are for everyone, but not every fighting game is for everyone and that got me thinking. During the video Leon noted something that struck a chord with me. He pointed out how many newer fighting game players will approach the game with only a singular goal in mind: get better at the game. This, more often than not, leads to players choosing a character, getting bodied online, and then quitting the game outright.

However, Leon then goes on to point out how an experienced fighting game player would pick themselves up afterward and establish a set of micro goals to work towards. This might include things such as practicing a specific combo, learning a particular setup, or studying a specific character to better navigate the match-up. After some time they’ll achieve their goals and will be better at the game they’re playing as a natural outcome of completing these smaller goals.

It wasn’t until I heard someone point it out that I realized I went through this same evolution in thinking over the past few years. There was numerous times that I tried to get into fighting games and I always played with a singular focus on getting better. Given the abstract and directionless nature of this goal when it didn’t pan out after a few weeks I’d lose interest and stop playing until my next attempt to break into the genre. It wasn’t until I began to appreciate the process of setting and meeting smaller goals that I was able to really dig deep into and enjoy the genre to the fullest.

In sticking with fighting game examples, let’s take a trip back to 2019.

Fantasy Strike had just released out of early access and was billed as an approachable fighter. The mechanical systems are streamlined such that only the bare essentials are present creating a game that is laser focused on how players interact with one another. You don’t need to learn high/low blocking, motion inputs, or combos longer than a couple of buttons presses. This lets new players bypass a lot of the initial learning that normally acts as a gatekeeper within the genre allowing them to more readily access the core of the game.

I usually had a fairly similar trajectory as the one I outlined above, but prior to giving up I’d look up beginner combo guides. The only problem was that I had no fucking patience to learn basic combo strings. When you’re new your first thought isn’t that you’ll spend the first ten hours of your playtime grinding out a handful of combos in training mode prior to playing your first match. What’s worse is that combos without context are borderline useless. You can know the highest damage combo and practice it until the cows come home, but if you can’t reliably setup a scenario where you can actually perform it then you won’t find it particularly useful.

As a result of my hyper fixation on combos, I was convinced for a time that fighting games would always be outside of my grasp. It was for this reason that the elevator pitch for Fantasy Strike was so appealing. It was a game that stripped out all but the essentials and had short combos. This would remove what I thought to be my only barrier to entry with the genre and as such I picked up the game with high hopes.

I began playing one of the characters who was listed as being very beginner friendly: Valerie. She’s a typical glass cannon: very strong offense, great movement, limited defensive tools, and extremely fragile. She’s easy to handle and very oppressive with limited game knowledge. She felt great as I was able to do well with her despite not really understanding why.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I hit a wall with her when fighting against another character: DeGrey. This gentleman specializes in frame traps, a term I didn’t understand at the time, and has huge damage potential following a counter-hit. As someone who was mashing like an ape to apply pressure, DeGrey felt specifically engineered to make me miserable and in a lot of ways he was as he punished this sort of thoughtless play. I was at a crossroad. I could choose to give up like I normally did, or I could spend time trying to figure out why I was losing, form a counter strategy, and become a better player.

I chose the second option.

It took learning what a frame trap was and spending some time learning how DeGrey typically setup these situations, but eventually I learned the matchup. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d taken the first step toward becoming a better player through setting an achievable goal. In this case how do I beat DeGrey as Valerie, and then working out all of the steps that were involved in reaching it.

While Fantasy Strike isn’t the most mechanically robust fighting game, I do think this example very clearly demonstrates something that veteran players sometimes take for granted. We’re collectively so used to encountering problems and instinctively looking for solutions to them that we forget not every player knows to do this. Furthermore, while most of us are playing to be better, experienced players will constantly set smaller objectives that feed into this larger goal helping to keep them actively engaged over the several hours it’ll take to accomplish.

As a more recent example: I’m presently playing Guilty Gear Strive and every week I choose a couple of combos to practice. The combos are chosen based on specific scenarios I’m looking to cover. Usually I’m trying to fill a hole in my offense where I don’t feel I’m getting enough value, or otherwise provide me with an additional option off a common setup. Fundamentally I’m looking to hit my opponent for more damage, or have additional options to mix my opponent up with. In both cases these small improvements compound to make me a better player after each play session.

However, while this has undoubtedly helped me enjoy fighters to the fullest, the shift in attitude can also be seen in how I approach other games as well.

I think the single best single example for this might be Monster Hunter. I was new to Monster Hunter with the release of World and I really enjoyed my time with it. However, I found numerous monsters extremely challenging to beat. There were several times when I was inches away from throwing my controller in a fit of rage after being tossed like a worthless rag doll by these hulking goliaths. At times, Monster Hunter felt so punishing that I couldn’t even tell if I was having fun or was playing the game out of spite.

Over time that has changed though. As I’ve continued to pour more and more hours into the game I’ve come to embrace the learning process as an essential part of overcoming new obstacles. With practice hunters can break down fights understanding when and where to use specific attacks for optimized damage, while also learning which attacks they’re able to dodge through to maintain aggressive positioning. These are things that need to be identified and practiced on an individual basis for both weapons and monsters much in the same way that fighting game players will learn combos for certain situations, or how to beat specific match-ups.

I suppose what I’m trying to say with all of this is that it takes the ability to set smaller goals to get better at something. It can seem as though the best players in the world are simply the best because they’ve always been the best, but that’s not really the case. Their mastery is born from chunking various lessons into bite sized pieces that can be easily practiced and demonstrated while working toward the overarching goal of improvement. I think it’s important that newer players understand this and veteran players get better at communicating it. Maybe then we can have more folks who stick with fighters long term instead of getting discouraged and tapping out early.