Street Fighter 3: Context is King!

As a small experiment Yu-Chung and I decided to write about the same game to compare what different topics we would talk about. You can read what Yu-Chung has to say about Street Fighter 3 here.

For me, SF3 is a piece of brilliant game design. However, the designers of the newer parts seem to have forgotten what made the game so great in the first place. So yes, they develop the game mechanics further and it becomes more and more refined, but they aren’t able to reinvent themselves.

So let us talk about what realy makes Street Fighter so incredibly brilliant.

It is a prime example for something I would like to call “context centered game design”. Most of the games you will find today are based on the content they provide. “Content is King!” as everybody says. Game designers fill their games with complex stories, deep characters, epic quests that take hours to complete, etc. This content is being sold as a main reason for playing the game. The bigger, longer and more overwhelming the content, the better the game. I would say, these games are “content centered”.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that this design philosophy is wrong. In fact, it is taken over from every other form of communication. When you are writing a book, painting a picture or making a movie, the point is always the content. It works for traditional media and makes designing interactive media much easier. It also makes interactive media easier to present and explain to an audience, because people are used to value and judge the content. This, by the way, might be the reason for the misunderstanding in the discussion about violent content in games.

Yes, it is possible to continue producting games following the “content centered” philosophy. However, this approach will never use the full potential of the medium. The resulting games will struggle to compete with the more content friendly media. At this rate, games will never be able to beat books or movies in terms of the quality of content. A book will always be able to express thoughts and ideas more clearly then a game. Filmmakers will always be able to present stories more easily and more convincing then game designers. Interactive media is not content friendly.

Don’t cry, everything will be fine. We have to realize, that interactive media is radically diffrent from ALL other forms of media so far. We need to understand the unique qualities of interactive media. The most important quality of interactive media is… that it is interactive! DUH! Instead of being a one way road to transport content from the author to the reciepient, games have a second channel where something comes back from the reciepient. This is something, the traditional “content centered” approach can’t deal with. If anything, this might be considered even bad. Transmitting the content is important here, after all. When something comes back, something went wrong. People shouting in a cinema during a screening is bad. People tearing pages out of books is even worse. So, in many games, user input is often swept under the carpet. In RPGs you often are given choices, which don’t change anything at all. This is bad but I guess it’s still better then showing cut-scenes you can’t interact with and even can’t skip. In both cases, you see that gathering feedback from the player was not realy the point in the first place.

Here, we come back to the “context centered game design” I mentioned before. It means, to think about what what the user would like to do, instead of designing the content and spamming the user with it. Also, this means thinking about why the user will start playing the game, in which circumstances and when? For how long? With whom? All these circumstances and even the user himself are what I call the context of the game. Basicly, we need to foucs on what will happen with the game after it pressed on that CD, contrary to traditional media, it’s here where the magic happens.

In this sense, Street Fighter is exactly that. It doesn’t come with a storyline or mission. Nothing is here to be taken seriously. Instead, the players themselves are taken seriously. They are free to do whatever they like. It is ment to be messed around with. It becomes boring if you just play against the computer, you have to put it in a social situation. For example, you can sit down on a sofa with a bunch of you friends, pop in Street Fighter and you can spend hours in front of it. Each of you will quite instantly develop your own fighting style. Accidents will happen and everybody will laugh about (double K.O.!). You will start arguing if certain moves are fair or cheap. You will start developing running gags, your own vocabulary. You will have a good time together. All the time, the game will silently just let you play it out. It will become the stage for all your little dramas.

As you see, those two don’t even look at the screen anymore…

The game is also quite flexible, it works in an official tournament in front of a huge audience just as well as on your couch. You can play it for hours or just for a few minutes. You can play it alone or in a big group. Just watching it is already quite entertaining because it’s never about Ryu or Ken but always about my little brother beating the crap out my room mate.

Let’s look at the details to find out why it works so well. First, there is no story. At no point you will be confrontend with some “In a world before time”-bullshit. No cut-scenes, no real dialogue. Yes, the characters are well developed, but there is no real explenation for it. You are free to come up with you own ideas and explanations why Chun-Li wears those funky clothes while kicking Ryu’s ass. Although you can find out what kind of stupid background story the game designers came up with, it doesn’t matter. It’s useless information. It’s not the point anyway.

It’s a game, it looks like one. There is a big, cluky interface over the heads of the characters. Flashy slogans like “FIGHT!” appear on the screen. Even the bad Rapper in the lyrics of the music theme sings about how you are going to select a character and so on. The game doesn’t try to be something else. It’s honest. It doesn’t come with excuses.

The whole idea of the game is as simple as it gets. You can fight it out by pressing buttons. If you have ever seen a schoolyard fight, imagine that plus the button pressing and you know how it works. Of course, which button does what is a quite complicated, but then again, you don’t need to know it, every button does some kind of kick or punch anyway. You can’t realy press a wrong button. That’s why you need no tutorial or anything. My mom can’t use a digital camera but she would understand Street Fighter.

A game is extremly short, just about 1 or 2 minutes. No sitting around for ages collecting golden coins. It’s all the fun in the world, right here, right now, no questons asked. Still, what most people don’t realize, during that time you are being confronted with the most advanced control scheme in video game history. The standart moves might seem as a collection of generic kicks and punches, however each one of them has unique qualities. Still, you don’t have to know about this incredible ammount of possibilites since they are all logically sorted on the keypad. Depending of the configuration, you always know that the shoulder button will always trigger the fierce moves, even if you can’t remember exactly what kind of move that is. Also, the button combinations for the special moves are carefully designed, so that most of them can be triggered in one fluid motion. You can see that this control scheme was refined and polished over the years. The bottom line is that you have free access to an incredible ammount of choices in a very short time span. Ladies and gentlement, this is cutting-edge interface design and you didn’t even notice.

In a nutshell: the game is honest, short, easy to understand but hard to master, and it provides you with a wealth of possibilities in an extremly condensed time span. It delivers very little so it fits everywhere but what it delivers is so pure and masterfully designed that you can spend a lifetime playing it.

Street Fighter 3 shows, however, that the game designers have fogotten about the qualities of their game. When you start the Game, the first thing that realy hits you in the face is the jazzy old-school Hip-Hop theme. I must admit I’m not a big fan of the hip-hop culture, so I my judgement might be a bit biased, but I can’t shake of the feeling that this choice of muisc was a desperate and half-hearted effort to make the game appeal to a new target group. Especially since the lyrics sound like the sort of material my dad would wirte (”…chose and pick the best one – five, four, three, two, one”). If you don’t listen to the stupid lyrics, after a while the music starts to sound ok but the big problem is that the Hip-Hop theme isn’t reflected in ANY of the other game aspects. The menu graphics are just randomly flashy and colorful but don’t carry any Hip-Hop connotations what so ever. Even if the game features a bunch of brand new characters, none of them seems to have a clear Hip-Hop thing going on – appart from Twelve’s Hip-Hoppy idle animation, that is.

“Yo mofo, ’sup?”

Actually the whole interface design outside of the “main game” is sub par at best. Arbitrary graphics, invisible button layout and many commands cannot be cancelled so you have to reset the game if you want to undo a mistake. The rapper also disappears as soon as you start fighting which makes it look even more tacked-on.

I also think that it is a big mistake to replace the old characters with new ones. Almost everybody played Street Fighter at some point during their life. We all rememer the old characters. It was a big advantage of the series over the competition. It made the game even easier to get into. Even if the last version you played was on a SNES, you could start with Alpha 3 right away and you would feel familiar. In other games, you had to learn who the characters were. Giving up this advantage seems silly, since the new characters don’t work as well. They are more “interesting” they have more content, in a bad way. Remember the old characters? They were walking clichés: the fat sumo guy, the tough american soldier, the big hairy russian, the beast from the jungle, etc. That’s the reason why they worked so well! Now you have the russian mutant harlequin, the english boxer or a trechncoat robot. They are great characters but harder to understand so the game becomes less flexible, more content oriented.

Seriously, what the…?!?

It seems like Capcom keeps polishing the minmal gameplay out of tradition. They have forgotten what makes the game great and are currently doing experiments which might destroy the series in the end. Let’s wait and see, until then keep in mind: Context is King!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

7 responses to “Street Fighter 3: Context is King!”

  1. Rafael Van Daele-Hunt


    you say “Instead of being a one way road to transport content from the author to the reciepient, games have a second channel where something comes back from the reciepient.”

    This isn’t true, at least not in the way you stated it: when you play a computer game, you aren’t sending information back to the authour; you’d need to write a fan letter to do that! What I think you mean is that the player can affect the game state more than a viewer can affect the movie state. But this is not new; the kind of interactivity that Street Fighter offers is the same as that of chess or football. The ability to marry interactivity to content, on the other hand, *is* new, so perhaps content-focused video game designers are simply trying to explore the possibilities that make their medium unique. In fact, if done well, I think interactive narrative could approach the “second channel” you describe that goes from the gamer to the authour.

    I agree that “sports-like interactivity” is also a good approach for game design, and acknowledge that there are many game possibilities in this space that could not be realized well in nonelectronic media (e.g. Pac Man, Street Fighter). Also, I see that interactive narrative is hard and may be impossible — I just don’t think we should give up too soon.
    I also agree that adding a half-assed “story” to a game like SF is dumb. OTOH it’s hard to draw the line: SF would be a lesser game if the same gameplay were mapped onto completely abstract graphics, I think.

  2. Rafael Van Daele-Hunt

    P.S. pen & paper RPGs are actually much better at marrying content and interactivity than video games, but it’s hard to find a good group and they require a lot of effort.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    Thank for straighting this detail out: yes, of course. The communication happens here between the game and the player, not between the author/designer and the player, you are right.

    However, the medium is always something like a “stand in” for the author in a chain of comminication between the author and the audience. The author can’t adress the audience personally so he creates a book or a movie or whatever to comminicate by proxy. So far, this communication was one-way. Games are different. Games deliver their message but then, they recieve something back. Of course, they can’t forward that user feedback all the way to the author again so they have to be prepared by the author to deal themselves with the resulting interaction. The author must try to anticipate what might happen and design the game accordingly. It’s a bit like programming a robot to explore a distant planet. You can’t remote control the robot so you have to teach the robot what you would do if you were on the planet.

    My point is that we aren’t used to that. Game Designers tend to think like conventional authors. They foucus on what the game delivers because this is what we are used to. If you take the metaphor of exploring plantets: they only think about how to shoot stuff in rockets to distant planets. They don’t think about what to do when you have landed.

    Sports and Chess are good examples of games that did exist for some time. Please note that up until computer games became popular, the postion of a “game designer” was a very rare one. Accordingly, although sports and games like chess are of great cultural importance, very little is known about who “designed” them and what his thoughts and intentions were. So yes, games and communication trough the “second channel” are nothing new. However, the task of a Game Designer is something quite new, so there is little expierience how to design communication trough that “second channel”.

    Thanks for pointing out Pen & paper RPGs. They are quite an exeption since this is the situation where the author adresses his audience personally and directly by being the “game master” and developing the narrative on the fly. In pen & paper RPGs, there is no medium, no proxy, so you don’t have all the problems. It’s like flying an astronaut to a distant planet instead of a robot.
    I must admit I don’t share your enthusiasm about narrative. The perfect interative narrative would be an intelligent robot equipped with an A.I. that is developed enough to simulate a “game master”. Even if one day, we will have this artificial “game master”, he will face the same problems you already mentioned: “It’s hard to find a good group and they require a lot of effort”. Players tend to reject given roles in narratives and expierience the limits of the game world. Artificial “game masters” will have the same problmes as “game masters” of flesh and blood.
    On the other hand, why do we need a narrative?

  4. Rafael Van Daele-Hunt

    “Please note that up until computer games became popular, the postion of a “game designer” was a very rare one.”

    I contend that the position of a “game designer” will continue to be rare if games eschew narrative. Why? Because of something else you said:

    “It delivers very little so it fits everywhere but what it delivers is so pure and masterfully designed that you can spend a lifetime playing it.”

    You’re right: great games, traditionally, have been those that you can spend a lifetime playing. The trouble is that the world can’t support many such games! The existing of profession designers depends upon a continual demand for new games, which there won’t be if everyone is happy playing chess, football, and Street Fighter. Worse: the reason that you can spend a lifetime playing these games is that they have deep gameplay — people can invest as much time as they like in training the game and just keep getting better. But that’s only fun if you can find adequate competition, and that only happens if many people play the same game. This encouragement to band together further decreases the number of successful games, and is one reason why there are only a handful of major sports in the world today.

    Thus, if you design a deep, content-centred game, it will either be tried briefly and then shelved, or it will be loved, propagated, and evolved, and you will never sell another game. :-)

  5. Rafael Van Daele-Hunt

    Should be “deep, context-centred game”.

  6. Krystian Majewski

    I disagree that it is the gameplay’s fault that Game Designers are less known. I think it has more to do with the time those game were invented in and that most of the primitive sport games could be “distibuted” verbally without the need of artefacts or genuine documentation from the game designer itself.

    It is true that most of the games take too much time but this is a difficult topic and indeed it would be worthy to adress it in a few post.

    However, I don’t see narratives as solution to that problem. In fact, the contrary is the case. A narrative takes time to unfold. Without narrative, game designers are much more flexible to create shorter game. It is true that it takes a lifetime to master Street Fighter, but a single game takes only 1 Minute. Narrative-heavy RPGs however may take over 20 hours. On top, in most cases you can’t just play for a few minutes and then quit, you have to prepare yourself for long sessions because you break the dramaturgy otherwise.

    Of course, you are right. A narrative sometimes can make a game shorter by simply suggesting to the player that he should stop playing the game and buy a new one. But you don’t need narrative for that.

    I think Brain Age is an excellent example of a game, which adresses the time problem. It is no accident that this game has no narrative.

  7. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    yeah, i think this whole “gameplay vs. book” topic is something a good gamedesigner should allways have in his head.

    take all those 80ths games, designed by few people (often only one or two) without any storyline, storyplot nor setting. they all had immediate appeal. one could invite friends and play them together (even those singleplayer games, just sit by and watch). today – who want’s to watch a 40h + rpg storyline played in the middle? most of the time is spend with storyline, dialogues, shopping, equipping, and so on.

    what i think most interesting of, is that today fantasy setting seems to be nearly impossible without narrative content.

    krystian, showed me this classic gem “chaos – battle of mages”, created in 1984 by julian gollop (ufo / x-com series in the 90th). two or up to 8 (multiplayer, hot seat!) mages battle in a fantasy setting each other. the game lacks so many elements of todays videogames, that everyone would say “funny, it is like a board game”. but truly, it isn’t – it is just the way it is, a very great video game. arcade, speed, depth. easy to learn, hard to master – and very deep fantasy – all without story.

    take a look:


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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