Sunday, 1 December 2013

Dekonstruer #1: Game atoms of Street Fighter 4

Chances are if you know me personally, you're aware that I'm pretty obsessed with Street Fighter. I've been playing the series since before I can remember (Street Fighter 1) and ever since, fighting games have had a special place in my heart. Over the years I've played more fighters than I can keep track of, each with their own unique mechanics and nuances. Although every fighting game plays differently, every one of these games share common design elements which can be traced back to Street Fighter 2. Although this post will be talking specifically about Street Fighter 4, many of the design aspects I'll be covering are present in other fighting games and date back to the SF2 days.

Yes, this is Zangief's actual ending from Street Fighter 2

To be clear, I won't be talking about any elements that are non-essential to game-play. That means the plot (terrible), music (fantastic), and AI (useless) will have to be discussed elsewhere. As a competitive player, I'll be focusing on the topics relevant to high level play. Many of these topics will not be encountered by novice players, but rest assured they are very real and very important to the game and how it was designed to be played. Alright enough chit chat, let's get started.

For the purposes of this blog (and my grades), I will organize these topics into "Game Design Atoms".


The primary objective in Street Fighter is extremely simple. Deplete your opponent's life bar by landing as many blows as possible. Try to prevent the opponent from depleting your life bar by defending against or avoiding their attacks. When one player's life bar reaches 0 they are knocked out, and the other wins the round. If both players are knocked out simultaneously, they are both awarded a round. If this is the final round, a draw game occurs.

There is a secondary objective in Street Fighter, and that is to control space. What this means, is using physical attacks and projectiles to dominate the space surrounding your character, forcing the opponent either move away or challenge you for this space. The importance of space control in high level play is extremely vital, as being walked into the corner can lead to nearly certain death against a strong player. Although it may not be immediately apparent to new players, good space control is directly related to how much control you have over your opponent.


Street Fighter is a game that unfolds in real-time with both players making decisions simultaneously. It is regarded by some as a "double-blind guessing game", because when a player makes any given decision, they are unaware of the opponent's current decision. This is not to say that the game is all about guessing, there are certainly situations where one player reacts to the move of another, but when it comes to neutral situations the game does rely heavily on educated guessing.

Accomplished game designer David Sirlin explains it best.


In Street Fighter or any other 1 on 1 fighting game, your experience and enjoyment of the game is heavily dependent on the opponent you're playing against. If both players are evenly matched, chances are the experience will be enjoyable for both as the win/loss ratio will be relatively even. If there is a significant skill gap between players, it will likely not be enjoyable for anyone involved. The weak player will be losing consistently to tactics they may not understand or know how to counter, and the strong player will receive no stimulation from such empty victories.

Super Street Fighter 4: Arcade Edition currently features 39 playable characters, each with their own unique move-sets, mobility options, health/stun ratings, and throw ranges. These characters are all widely varied to cater to as many different playstyles as possible. I make no exaggeration in saying that players are allowed to express their individuality through these characters. Although these characters were created with certain tools in mind, thanks to the emergent nature of Street Fighter's gameplay (and fighting games in general) players are free to invent their own strategies, combos and advanced techniques within the game's set of rules.

Player interaction is arguably the deepest aspect of Street Fighter. Two competent opponents who have full knowledge of their (and each other's) characters will play an intricate mental game of high speed chess. Both players know each other's options and the risk/reward associated with any given choice. Each player must attempt to read the mind of the opponent to achieve the upper hand.


The rules of Street Fighter mostly pertain to what actions a player can or cannot perform when in a particular state. There are 4 main states a player can be in at any given time. They are as follows:

Neutral: The player has not committed to an attack, and is not being attacked. He is free to move, attack, or defend.

Hitstun: When a player gets hit with an attack, they enter a state where they can do nothing. The hitstun state's length is completely dependent on the move that inflicted it. If the attacker recovers before the hitstun period ends they may be able to follow up with a successive attack, resulting in a combo. Players are not susceptible to throws while in this state.

Blockstun: This is a state similar to hitstun in that the player is not allowed to act and cannot be thrown. The major difference is that blockstun happens when a player blocks an attack. If the attacker recovers from their attack before the defender recovers from blockstun, the attack is said to have frame advantage. Moves that grant frame advantage are said to be safe, whereas moves that cause the opposite (frame disadvantage) are unsafe. Unsafe moves that leave the attacker open long after the defender has finished blocking are said to be punishable.

Attacking: When a player commits to an attack, they can do nothing but cancel it into another attack or action. The subsequent attack must be specifically allowed to cancel the previous attack, this is not a universal property. Although cancelability varies on a per attack basis, most attacks must connect with an opponent (hit or blocked) in order to be canceled. There are exceptions to this rule however. Some moves can be cancelled on whiff (not connecting with the opponent). Cancelability is only one of the many properties by which a moves' effectiveness can be measured. Here are the others.

Range: How far the move reaches.

Start-up Speed: How quickly the move becomes active.

Recovery: How quickly or slowly the move recovers. Subtract this from the hitstun/blockstun time a move inflicts, and you will know if it is safe, punishable, or can  be combo'd from.

Priority: How likely the move is to beat or trade with other moves when performed at the same (or similar) time. This is not a numerical value and is very situational as priority is dictated by hitbox interactions on a per move basis.

Invincibility: Some moves cause the character to become invulnerable to certain attacks for a short period of time. These are usually very unsafe on block, and are designed to be punishable if the defender knows they're coming. Think of this as forgoing future safety in favor of invincibility right now.

Damage: Self explanatory


The majority of the information relevant to a match of Street Fighter is clearly displayed. The health and meter indicators are a good indicator of who is winning the match. One important piece of information that is not clearly displayed to the player is the stun meter. When a character falls dizzy, it is because they have taken too many successive attacks and their stun value has reached it's limit.

The most important information that is not clearly given to the player is the properties of each move. It is impossible for a player to make educated decisions without knowing the properties of each of their moves and those of their opponent. Traditionally these properties are discovered through play and experimented with over time. Lately Capcom has become more generous in providing detailed changelists with move properties for each balance update to the game.

Game States:

Some may say, in Street Fighter all you do is fight. That means there's one game state, right?
Wrong. Over the course of the match, there are a few states that occur which are heavily responsible for the outcome.

Neutral Game
Succeeding in the neutral game means gaining some sort of advantage over one's opponent. This could be in the form of knocking the opponent down, scoring damage, or even having the opponent block an attack that leaves you at a frame advantage (remember that word?).
Two of the world's greatest getting ready to face off

The neutral game is the fundamental core of Street Fighter. When the match begins, both players start considerably far away from one-another. Once they are allowed to move, they shuffle back and forth, jockeying for position in an attempt to gain the upper hand. Each player understands which moves they can throw out safely, what moves their opponent will threaten with, and what tools (if applicable) they can use to counter their opponent's most likely offensive options. 

Getting In

When the aggressor lands an attack, the real fun begins. It is up to the attacker to recognize the hit has connected, and follow it up with an optimal combo if possible. This is known as hit-confirmation. A strong player knows how to convert as much damage as possible off of a single opening.

As a combo increases in length, each successive hit does a decreasing amount of damage. This makes it unwise to keep a combo going for too long, especially if it requires the use of super meter. If a player knows extending his combo will not result in significant damage, they may attempt a reset. A reset is a simple mix-up in which the aggressor forgoes the guaranteed damage of the current combo, in favor of a new unscaled combo or throw.


When a player scores a knockdown, they have a distinct advantage over the opponent. The downed player can not move, and can only act once they have risen completely. Since the timing of each characters rising animation is very predictable, the aggressor can exploit this with a well timed offense that is hard to block and safe to wake-up attacks. The word Okizeme is japanese term for "Rousing Attack", meaning attacking a downed opponent.


The resources in Street Fighter are displayed in the form of the game's meters. The super meter allows your character to access EX versions of their special moves, as well as their unique super move. EX moves cost 1/4 of your super meter and have increased utility (or damage). The super meter refills gradually as the player does damage, takes damage, blocks attacks, or has their attacks blocked.

The ultra meter gives your character access to their unique Ultra attack. Ultras usually do large amounts of damage and serve as a comeback mechanic. The ultra meter (also known as the revenge meter) refills as your character takes damage.

Finally, the health bar can be seen as a resource. Your character's health is directly related to how many mistakes you are allowed to make in a match, and ultimately how much damage you are allowed to take. Sometimes it is beneficial to take a risk that merits high reward, at the expense of a little health. This is demonstrated to a tee in the Guile vs Zangief matchup. Guile is a pure zoning character who dominates from a distance, while Zangief is a grappler who must get in to do his damage. Observe Zangief's careful approach, and the calculated risks he must take to win.

Well, that about wraps up my rundown of the basic design atoms present in Street Fighter 4. Hopefully this was relatively clear and I did not use too many complicated terms. If you were unaware of all this before, now when you watch a game of Street Fighter you should be able to appreciate at least some of what's going on.

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