I love fighting games, but fighting games are not always easy to love. Like sports or anything else equally technical and complicated that people are capable of getting wildly emotional about, fighting games are endlessly fascinating to people already into them and frustrating and impenetrable to those who aren’t. This is a particularly difficult gap to bridge, because what makes fighting games complicated and difficult to get into is inseparable from what makes them complex, competitive, rewarding, and joyful.
For this reason I’m always interested by attempts, successful or not, to design fighting games into breaking out of their niche. If you’re interested in fighting games, the thing that stands out the most about Granblue Fantasy: Versus is not it’s connection to the popular gachapon mobile game license, but its developer, Arc System Works. This developer spent most of the 2000s making ridiculously deep, complex, and hardcore fighting games for a niche but very loyal audience in an era where the popularity of fighting games had shrunk considerably. Their in-house style of fighting game is extremely flashy and extremely fast with high speed aerial movement and dramatic attack sequences intended to evoke the over-the-top drama and action of anime, and they have also been extremely successful and making their games look like anime, with a combination of traditional animation techniques and use of Unreal Engine 3D models to create an artistic style that is almost indistinguishable from living animation.
Granblue Fantasy: Versus is a big departure from Arc System Works’ traditional style, and far more resembles classic ‘90s Street Fighter, or maybe more precisely some of the faster and more experimental games Capcom produced towards the latter half of the fighting game heyday, like Vampire Savior or Street Fighter Alpha. The overall effect of this design is to make the game feel slower, more deliberate, and less overwhelming, and it’s a much more fundamental shift than Arc System Works has attempted in the past when they’ve adapted a popular license.
For a while, many fighting game developers have attempted to simplify the complex joystick inputs fighting games require, and while Arc System Works has floated a lot of experimental approaches to this over the years, most of their games still have a fundamentally overwhelming speed and complexity that is not really addressed by making, say, joystick motions slightly easier. Features like this don’t hurt, though, and GBVS has a particularly interesting one, allowing players to pull off special moves that would traditionally require a complex joystick motion with a single button press, with the necessary balancing tradeoff being that the move enters a brief cooldown period.
The broad and specific changes are interesting and ultimately helpful, but features like these alone don’t seem to be enough to get people to love fighting games. For all the mechanical depth and sophistication fighting games have what is most immediately appealing about them are their characters. This is not shallow: fighting games are character driven on a mechanical and artistic level. How could they not be, when everything that makes up the game revolves around interactions between characters? And that presentation matters for design, because part of what makes fighting games beautiful is they are a way of embodying someone else and expressing oneself through gameplay to a point where aesthetics and mechanics are inseparable.
Even the designers of Street Fighter II, the game largely responsible for defining the genre itself, attributed the success of their game to its animations and visual style rather than the balance of its gameplay, which in its first editions hardly existed. This is probably still true.
Far more important than simplified inputs and slower, grounded gameplay is the attention to detail, humor, and adoration the animation and voice acting brings to Granblue’s cast. This attention to detail is fastidious and most importantly, deeply loving. More so than a unified vision of design, the collaboration between Granblue and Arc System Works centers on the shared love of characters between animators that lavishly recreated shot-for-shot scenes from Dragon Ball Z in their last successful fighting game and a mobile game that made its fortune through the now extremely popular mobile game monetization model of gambling for hot people.
So while Arc System Works has a tendency towards complex systems, they are also fastidious about mechanical and visual representation of the qualities that people love about the works they adapt. For example: Lancelot, a chivalrous knight and beautiful man, will, in his victory pose, look directly into the camera with a dashing, benevolent smile and offer his hand to the viewer. According to an interview with the developers, this pose arose from them asking one of the women on the UI team who had been playing the mobile Granblue game for half a decade "what Lancelot could do to make her happy." The gaze on the characters of GBVS is intense, loving, and relatively (relatively) equal opportunity across gender lines. The detail is loving, and the detail makes you love them; for a mobile game in which the characters themselves are far more the star than the JRPG plotline that contextualize them, the animation is crucial for selling who the characters are, in their nobility, sexiness, or silliness.
Love is more necessary for excellence in fighting games than most other genres of video game. The biggest initial barrier to fighting games is not the difficulty of the complex joystick motions or the memorization involved in understanding game systems per se, because almost every video game involves similar challenges. The difference is that single player games, whether you realize it or not, almost always teach you patiently and thoroughly how they are played, adding progressively more challenging systems and mechanics at a pace that ideally doesn't feel overwhelming. This is difficult to replicate in fighting games, because there's no curve, and all of the complexity of the game is in play from the start. This is why fighting against an experienced player feels like a final boss you have no way to win against: you haven't had a game's worth of content teaching you and preparing you how to beat them. You have to learn all of it yourself, on your own time, and create your own plan to learn the game.
The close connection and possibility for deep expression that comes from playing a character that you love is necessary to overcome these barriers. Tutorials are helpful, and Granblue Fantasy: Versus has very comprehensive ones, but for fighting games, it’s not enough to teach you how to play. There has to be some kind of answer for why you’re doing this in the first place, certainly, and the initial draw of appealing characters with lavish animation is a big one. These characters are very appealing and fun, created as they were for a mobile game solely about collecting hot people. Initial appeal is not full the substance of fighting game design, however, and characters that are appealing also embody a play style that is itself expressive and appealing and representative of their personality.
Playing Ladiva, pro wrestler and true believer in the power of love, is not just about looking like a pro wrestler, but about fighting in the showy and flamboyant style associated with wrestling. Grappler archetype characters are crowd pleasers by design because they have to work hard but are rewarded with oppressive offense and stylish grabs and throws. To play this character is to take on the challenge of being a big target with limited movement because you want to win in a way that’s flashy and unpredictable. The reward is equal to the struggle because the reward is the struggle; overcoming the challenge of being a big target with limited mobility is the flaw that makes the strength feel real. Interesting playstyles, like interesting characters, are defined by their flaws as well as their strengths. Ladiva is great at working the crowd—she has the ability to follow up her devastating special throw with a taunt for literally no mechanical purpose other than making the crowd and you go wild.
The weaknesses that make a character frustrating to play as and the strengths that make them frustrating to play against are also foundational to their appeal. Metera, a flirty archer who walks on air and flits about the sky is the bane of many new players for all the reasons she’s a joy to play. She floats always just out of reach and peppers her opponents with arrows until they give up, which is a very flirty and coquettish way to kill someone. Every character introduces a new set of skills to learn and a new conversation to have, whether you are playing as or against them.
Incidentally, I'm playing the doting and loving DLC samurai Narmaya, who happens to be one of the most complicated characters in the game. It might seem counterintuitive to make one of the most anticipated and beloved characters one that’s extremely difficult to play, in this case difficulty and love go hand in hand. Narmaya’s playstyle requires dedication because this is the foundation of a lasting relationship. She has depth that requires commitment to unlock, but that depth means there’s so much more she can do the more you stick with her and the more you practice her. For this reason, she has to be balanced by having weaker basics, so in a way she really does get stronger the more you love her. And she won’t reward surface-level attraction.
Why is it important that these games have systems that reward this kind of dedication and study at all, you might ask? The answer is that it inspires love. The love required learning to do challenging things and getting better and better at them is fun, the fun that nearly every game is designed around. Without love, what makes fighting games fun cannot be seen. With love, even the most difficult systems and complex characters are possible to master. Reflexes, memorization, and intuition are important for fighting games, but all that is required to experience the joy, frustration, and power of fighting games for yourself is love. No amount of mechanical simplicity, tutorializing, or personal guidance can substitute for this. Granblue Fantasy: Versus is pretty good at easing you into that experience, but more important is how its attention to detail in the game’s characterization, through art and mechanics, brings out what makes fighting games lovable.