The state of VR fighting games

VR has taken off, and new games from every genre are being made for VR platforms. We have seen VR platformers, VR flight sims, VR puzzle games, VR horror games, VR action games, and tons of VR shooters. But one genre that we haven’t seen much of yet is the fighting game. You have to look hard to find them, and what you do find may not be what you expect.

Here are just a few of the offerings that have been released or are being developed right now.

The One

While billed as a fighting game, The One has more in common with Overwatch than a traditional fighter. Characters run around a massive arena making use of terrain while shooting and stabbing each other. While it certainly looks fun, it’s devoid of many traditional fighting game mechanics like hit-stun and block-stun.

The Unspoken

The concept behind The Unspoken by Insomniac Games is mage duels. While there are some elements that The Unspoken shares with traditional fighters, notably a focus on block timing, combat is largely done at range. Players throw spells at each other and, once again, use the environment to get the upper hand on their foes as opposed to traditional fighters, which restrict player movement.

The Thrill of the Fight

The Thrill of the Fight can be more accurately described as a boxing game, rather than a fighting game. While your movement is restricted, you don’t particularly have “moves” to pull off. There is just an opponent in front of you throwing punches and you have to do your best to block and punch back.

A Difficult Alliance

What few offerings we have seem geared toward sports or action combat, rather than traditional 2D or 3D fighting mechanics. Unfortunately, VR presents several challenges to fighting game design because the things that make VR fun and the things that make fighting games fun seem diametrically opposed.

VR has become popular because of how it immerses the player in the game world. Most VR games are designed with the player sharing the point of view of the protagonist. VR lends itself to first person gaming because its perspective eliminates the difference between player and character.

And how many first-person fighting games have you seen?

Fighting games are successful, in part, specifically because they separate player and character perspective.  In fact, all fighting games are based on three fundamentals – Timing, Spacing, and Limitation – and any fighting game that doesn’t build itself around these fundamentals tends to fail.

Think about Ryu throwing a punch. All three fundamentals of fighting games are active in this one simple move.

The punch takes a certain amount of frames to start up, can do damage for a certain amount of frames, and then has a certain amount of frames in which it can wind down. This is timing in a nutshell. A core skill in any fighting game is beating slower moves with quick ones. A quick jab may never do as much damage as a wild haymaker, but your opponent will never get the haymaker out before the jab hits.

Spacing is all about how you control the areas your characters can move in. A punch is made of “hit-boxes” and “hurt boxes” which determine which areas of it can do damage, and which areas of it can take damage. Bigger hitboxes and smaller hurt boxes allow you to poke your opponent from relative safety. In this case, a haymaker might beat a jab even if it’s slower if you stand outside the jab’s range. Every move in a fighting game puts out a hurt box in an area and your general goal is to hit your opponent in that area when it shows up.

Finally, there are certain things Ryu can and cannot do when he throws a punch. He can cancel his punch into other normal moves on hit, but not on whiff. He can cancel some punches into special moves, but not others. He can’t block, jump, or duck in the middle of the punch, he has to wait until the animation stops. Ryu’s actions are limited, and this is the basis of all other fighting game mechanics. Limiting Ryu’s actions means he can be punished for using slow, sloppy, or unsafe moves. It means he can’t throw supers whenever he wants. It means he doesn’t have a 100% impenetrable defense.

Most VR games have none of these fundamentals. Think about yourself throwing a punch right now. Timing is non-existent. You can throw punches as fast as you can move your arms. Spacing is non-existent. Your range is as long as your arms and legs and you can move anywhere you want. Limitation is non-existent. Nothing is preventing you from blocking while punching or jumping backward while throwing something at your opponent. You are free to do what you wish. That is the nature of reality.

Virtual reality tends to mimic reality, giving the user 1 to 1 motion. But 1 to 1 motion just doesn’t work in fighting games. Either the game won’t impose these fundamentals on the player, turning every battle into an arm flailing slap fest, or it will impose these fundamentals and suddenly the player will find that their virtual self doesn’t punch, even though they are moving their fists as fast and as hard as they can.

So what’s the solution? I’d like to point you to one last example that seems to be on the right track.

Steel Combat

Who doesn’t like a good sparring match between giant robots? Welcome to Steel Combat

You’ll notice something interesting about the game right away: the player isn’t the pilot. The player is still a spectator to the action, specifically a spectator in the center of a circular arena that the two robots fight in.

All the fundamentals of fighting games are here. Moves have timing and spacing and characters have a limited amount of actions they can take while fighting. But the game could still only be made in VR for one reason: perspective.

Steel Combat does away with “corners” in fighting games. Characters still fight on a 2D plane, but this plane wraps around itself. You can retreat as much as you want, but eventually you’ll just run into your opponent again.

You’d think that this means you could run away forever by staying exactly half a circle away from your opponent, but you would be mistaken. Steel Combat further uses the perspective to allow for unique moves. Players can fire projectiles across the circle, as well as along it. They can also perform moves that bounce their opponents off the background or otherwise manipulate their spacing in the circle.

And this is why Steel Combat is such an interesting idea. The fundamental factor of spacing isn’t removed. It’s just used in a new way by utilizing VR technology. Any successful VR fighting game will have to do the same, maintaining fighting game foundations but asking how they can be changed with VR tech.

For more VR news and hardware, visit Newegg VR Central