If I were to punch you in the stomach and you could punch me back, we'd call that a fair fight. (No offense, but hopefully I'd win.)
If I could punch you again and again a dozen or more times in a row and you couldn't stop me—you literally could not raise your hands to block me or step away to stop my attack—we'd call that a rout and a beating. If that happened in a fighting game, in Street Fighter, for example, we'd call that an infinite combo. You'd be angry. You'd probably call foul.
And you'd wonder how in the world a self-respecting video game company could allow infinite combos in their fighting games.
"I wouldn't say that infinite combos are ever really intentional, in terms of the developer," Seth Killian recently told me. Seth Killian works for Capcom as part of their fighting game braintrust.
Killian had some explaining to do. Capcom's latest fighting game, you see, shipped with infinite combos. At least four of them.
One of Capcom's biggest fighting games ever shipped with one, too—one that Capcom intentionally left in there.
Infinite combos, Killian would soon explain to me, are usually bad, but not always.
A Plague of Infinites
Killian knows fighting games very well. I ran into him last week at a demo for his company's Street Fighter X Tekken game, where he was comfortably able to tell me everything new about the PlayStation Vita version coming out later this year. And when I needled him about the PS3/Xbox 360 version's audience-angering infinite combos, he not only knew about them, but was able to then deliver a nine-minute oral dissertation about the pros and cons of these things.
For the record, he's not proud of the infinites found in Street Fighter X Tekken. "These things are in there, and we wish they weren't, so we're going to take them out," he said. And it's not just the four or so that players have complained about. "There's going to be more," he said. "And we'll patch them. I think there's more even than people have found, but we'll be patching those."
But why were they even in there?
They're there as an accidental sign of something good about Street Fighter X Tekken, Killian told me, as he began his uphill argument.
"Most people take them as a sign of a bad game," he said. "I take them as a necessary sign of a good game, because what it suggests is a certain amount of creativity and a certain amount of freedom to do things that the developer didn't intend. That's one of the best things about a combat system."
Flaws are a sign of the wonders of liberty?
You should probably know about the first thing Killian does when he gets his hands on a new fighting game.
"For a lot of players, including guys like me, the first thing I do when I sit down with a fighting game is [try to find out] what's the stupidest thing I can do to the opponent? What's the worst thing I can do? ‘Oh, this move looks like it might combo back into itself. That's going to be a bug. I'm going to go right for that.' For a lot of players, there's an attraction. The infinite combo is sort of like the goal. You're going for some sort of game-breaking glitch like that when you're playing the game and trying to find that kind of stuff. It's sort of a mini-game of you vs. the developer."
Got that? It's about freedom. It's about flexibility. Still, you might think, infinites seem awfully unfair. If a player can't defend themselves, that ruins the flow of the game. It makes the action one-sided. Buying a game for $60 maybe should ensure that you don't get games that contain that kind of flaw.
The Problem With Infinite Combos
An infinite combo in a fighting game is like an unending clinch in a boxing match. It's something other than what we paid for. We paid to see warriors mix it up, not paralyze the action. Killian mostly agrees, as do his colleagues at Capcom. That's why they will pull the infinite combos from Street Fighter X Tekken. Those combos in that game are a buzzkill.
"We've made the judgment that they actually do take away from gameplay, by slowing it down with one repetitive move," Killian said, "You have things like damage-scaling, so, in those infinite combos, eventually every hit is doing only one pixel of damage. The damage scales to the point where the combo is not doing a lot of damage, but it will detract from the game in other ways."
Damage scaling? Killian explains: "There's complicated math behind how the damage works. The first two hits you do in any combo are what's called unscaled damage. They'll both do 100%. If they do 90 points of damage in a hit, they'll both do 90 points of damage. From there it goes down to 80% for the third hit, 70% for the fourth hit, and it scales down."
Damage scaling allows developers to permit players to fire off long combos that don't necessarily deplete an opponent's health bar all the way. Without it, plenty of finite combos would knock out an enemy player—or the developers would have to extend health bars to absurd lengths.
A damage-scaling system also discourages players from extending their combos. An attacking player is better served ending their combo and letting up instead of adding more and more hits that merely chip at the enemy health bar one pixel at a time. Of course, the problem in Street Fighter X Tekken is that players can do just that.
Where Infinite Combos Come From
"I don't want to speak for the other developers, but actually almost every fighting game begins with limitless, infinite combos," Killian told me. "Everything is an infinite combo! And then you sort of scale it back from there.
"Its fun to have that kind of expressive possibility, but then when it's time to actually ship a game that you want to be competitive and things like that, it's time to reel it back in and lock it down and, typically, you don't want to have a thing like a thing like an infinite combo in there."
Right. So they intend to not put them in there. But infinite combos get in the game anyway.
One solution: program a computer to search for them and destroy them before the game ships.
Problem: The computer might throw out a good infinite combo (more on that later), and it might miss other problem combos. "The question is whether automating that process produces the effect that you want," Killian said. "I think it works better in the case of some games than it would in others. Ultimately even combos that aren't infinite but do too much damage or other sorts of glitches are the product of a game where you have a lot of expressive freedom, and that's part of what's fun about the game and what's attractive for the player to it."
Another solution: take the approach tried in the non-Capcom game Skullgirls and program the game to detect looping, chained moves. When the game thinks an infinite combo is happening, it grants the player who is being pummeled the opportunity to escape.
And another… This one is called "hit-stun deterioration." It's what Capcom used in their Marvel Vs. Capcom games and it's the first thing in my conversation with Killian that prompted him to apologize and say, "this is starting to get really nerdy, I know."
In fighting games that try to eliminate infinite combos with hit-stun deterioration, Killian said, "not only does each progressive hit do less damage, it also puts you in less [of a] hit-stun—or reeling—state. The way a combo works is that, when you do one move, it induces a certain amount of hit-stun or reeling. And if you're able to do another move that's fast enough, you can connect with that opponent again before they're done reeling. They continue to reel, and that's what a combo is, essentially.
"With Marvel, each successive hit causes them to reel less and less. So if I hit you with a big standing-fierce punch, the fifth time I hit you with it, it will cause you to reel for much less time even though it's the same move. That causes it to be basically-I don't want to say it's always impossible, but generally difficult to do infinite kind of combos."
Street Fighter X Tekken doesn't use hit-stun deterioration. It's a creative decision and a valid one for a company that isn't dogmatic about banning endless combos.
A Good Infinite Combo
Capcom's fighting game creators don't always remove infinite combos from their games, even when they can. A character called El Fuerte had one in Street Fighter IV and still did in Super Street Fighter IV. That's because all infinite combos are not accidentally created equally.
"One of the first infinite combos developed in that game was what's called the run-stop-fierce combo," Killian said. "El Fuerte hits you with the standing fierce and can cancel that into a run animation to come closer to you and then do another standing fierce and then that will combo into itself. Fierces and runs, fierces and runs."
The El Fuerte infinite was not created intentionally, but it was kept in the game intentionally. "We left it in," Killian said. "We felt this was a useful tool for El Fuerte. The executional bar is quite high…that is to say it's hard to do, it's very difficult. There are combos that are hard to do and you'll struggle to keep doing them continuously. You may put yourself at some risk if you're going for an infinite combo and drop it."
This is where Killian might part with some purists. He is okay with some infinites. He thinks that ones that are really hard to do or only kill one character in a team fighting game might be ok. "It could be super-hard to do," he said of some hypothetically ok endless combos. "It could be situational, like there's only a certain set-up whereby this combo is possible and we feel, if you're able to put your opponent in that set-up and land the combo, you deserve to win. Or you deserve to kill at least that character."
In the case of El Fuerte's combo, Killian added, "we decided that this is a valuable strategy for playing the game."
Infinite = Bad… Most of the Time
Killian believes that every infinite combo in Street Fighter X Tekken will be removed. None have passed the El Fuerte test. None adds more than it detracts. Nevertheless, he encourages players to have an open mind about this topic.
"You're right that there is a kneejerk reaction out of the gate that infinite = bad," he said. "Generally, I think that's a safe position. But ultimately the question is: does this technique contribute to or detract from the gameplay? And if it detracts from the gameplay, we'll try to do our best to take care of it."