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What's Next for Smaller Fighting Games?

What's Next for Smaller Fighting Games?

Elizbar Ramazashvili
8 min

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Thriving in a competitive world with sharks

Fighting games have come a long way since the days of Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. These iconic titles laid the foundation for a genre that has since evolved and diversified in remarkable ways. While mega-franchises like Mortal Kombat, Super Smash Bros., Tekken, and Street Fighter continue to dominate the fighting game scene, smaller, indie-developed titles have been steadily gaining ground. In recent years, these smaller fighting games have been making waves in the gaming community, offering fresh perspectives, unique mechanics, and innovative gameplay experiences. But what's next for these underdogs of the genre, and how will they continue to evolve in a gaming landscape dominated by giants?

To understand where smaller fighting games are headed, it's essential to first look back at how they've evolved. In the early years, the fighting game genre was relatively exclusive, with a small group of established developers holding a firm grip on the market. There were smaller fighting games, of course. There were many MK clones, and several attempts at creating fighting franchises from Sony, Square Enix, and others. But only the biggest ones prevailed. That’s why we don’t see any new PlayStation All-Stars Battle RoyalesBloody Roars or Bushido Blades. However, the rise of independent game development, fueled by digital distribution platforms like Steam and itch.io, opened up new possibilities. Smaller studios and even individual developers began creating their own fighting games, bringing fresh ideas and unique artistic visions to the table.

One of the standout examples of this new wave of indie fighting games is Skullgirls. Developed by Lab Zero Games and released in 2012, Skullgirls captured the attention of both casual and hardcore fighting game enthusiasts. With its hand-drawn art style, intricate character designs, and a deep, combo-focused gameplay system, the game quickly gained a dedicated following. Its success highlighted the potential for smaller fighting games to thrive in a market traditionally dominated by large studios. It’s a testament to the quality of Skullgirls that even SonicFox considers it their main game.

In the years following Skullgirls, many other indie fighting games emerged, each with its own distinctive style and mechanics. Games like Rivals of Aether, Lethal League, and Them’s Fightin’ Herds brought fresh ideas and approaches to the genre. These titles offered players unique experiences that couldn't be found in the more mainstream fighting games. They also showcased the importance of accessibility, as many smaller fighting games were designed to be easy to pick up and play, making them more appealing to casual gamers.

The success of these indie fighting games was further bolstered by the growth of the esports scene. Mainstream competitive gaming had traditionally been the domain of larger titles, but smaller fighting games found their niche in the world of competitive gaming as well. Events like Evo began to include indie titles in their lineups, even on the main stage, giving them exposure to a wider audience and fostering a sense of legitimacy within the competitive gaming community.

However, the rise of smaller fighting games hasn't been without its challenges. The competitive gaming scene is, well, highly competitive, and standing out can be difficult when you're up against SSBUs and MKs of this world. Additionally, indie developers often struggle with limited resources, making it challenging to provide ongoing support, balance updates, and additional content that players expect in the long term.

So, what's next for smaller fighting games? The future seems promising, with several trends and developments shaping the direction of the genre.

Smaller games should never stop focusing on innovation and unique mechanics, as they have excelled in introducing innovative mechanics and gameplay features. Expect to see more experimentation in this area as developers continue to explore uncharted territory. Games like Skullgirls demonstrate how smaller titles can push the boundaries of what's possible in a fighting game. But with this, a bigger focus should be on online play and netcode improvements. As online play becomes increasingly important in the gaming world, smaller fighting games must invest in high-quality netcode and online infrastructure. Smooth online experiences and cross-play functionality will be essential for maintaining and growing player communities. With solutions like GGPO readily available, there’s really no excuse to have a bad netcode in any fighting game released past this point. 

An additional point of interest is storytelling and world-building: Some indie fighting games have put more emphasis on storytelling and world-building, crafting rich narratives and memorable characters. Titles like Them's Fightin' Herds have shown that engaging storytelling can enhance the overall experience, however weird they may look at first glance. We hope we can expect more exploration of this aspect in future releases.

Artistic expression and aesthetics shouldn’t be ignored either. Many smaller fighting games have their unique, recognizable art styles: colorful anime-like BlazBlue, the unmistakable Type-Moon style in Melty Blood, Skullgirls with its hand-drawn little horror. Don’t blend into the masses, don’t do something generic. Stand out! Be loud!

Continued support and post-launch content, as well as community-driven development, should also be a top priority. To maintain player engagement and satisfaction, smaller fighting games will need to continue providing ongoing support, including balance updates, new characters, and additional stages. This commitment to post-launch content is vital for long-term success. They also can’t afford to lose touch with what their communities want. While Tekken and Mortal Kombat can weather any storm with overpowered character releases or game-breaking bugs, this is something that can ruin a smaller developer. Bad rep stays in the minds of gamers for a long time.

While it’s a given that smaller fighting games will continue to find their place in the esports landscape, it’s going to be harder for them to sustain themselves, as big players like Capcom put out mind-boggling prize pools for their games, luring over all the players from more niche fighters. While they may not reach the scale of major titles, we strongly believe that there is room for dedicated competitive scenes and tournaments for indie fighting games. Developers and organizers should work together to create sustainable competitive ecosystems.

All that said, the future of smaller fighting games is not in any kind of danger, at least for now. These indie titles have already demonstrated their ability to carve out a niche in the competitive gaming landscape, offering unique experiences and fresh perspectives on the genre. As they continue to innovate, prioritize uniqueness, and engage with their communities, smaller fighting games will remain a vibrant and exciting part of the gaming world. With a focus on creativity, inclusivity, and ongoing support, these games will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on the fighting game genre as a whole. So go out of your comfort zone and give Idol Showdown or Them’s Fightin’ Herds a shot! You may end up very surprised!

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