The BlazBlue C-series and the barrier to enjoyment

Ten years ago on a trip to San Francisco, I messed around with BlazBlue: Continuum Shift while waiting for the DJMAX Technika cab to become available. I fell in love instantly and ordered the PS3 version and a stick as soon as I got home. I loved everything about that game, but it didn't seem like anyone was ever online, and there's no offline fighting game presence whatsoever here in Trois-Rivières, so I never got into it as much as I wished I could have.

Due to the rumours surrounding the development of rollback netcode for BlazBlue: Central Fiction (which were true, it's currently in beta!), I decided to pick up a copy earlier this year and give the mainline series a spin for the first time in almost a decade. Playing it again made me confirm a suspicion I had had over the last decade of trying out numerous fighting games: BlazBlue is the fighting game that feels the best to me by a huge margin. I lucked into finding a training partner around my level on Discord and we play against each other weekly. It has been fantastic!

At the time of its release, BlazBlue was pitched as a more approachable alternative to Arc System Works' other popular anime fighter series, Guilty Gear. 2021's Guilty Gear Strive is an even more streamlined take on the Guilty Gear formula with the goal of being approachable to beginners, and has faced a lot of similar criticism to what BlazBlue got back in the day.

Over many versions, high level BlazBlue would grow more demanding execution requirements and more complex systems and one-off mechanics than the game it was ostensibly a watered-down take on, and as such, it lost its beginner-friendly aura. Despite that, I disagree with the idea that raising the skill ceiling and mechanical depth of the game necessarily makes the barrier to entry greater. I think BlazBlue is a great example of a mechanically deep game that draws players in for reasons unrelated to mechanical complexity and whose enjoyment scales gracefully to all skill levels.

Investing in characters

Fighting games ask you to invest your time into fleshing out your knowledge of a character. For newer fighting game players, I feel it's much easier to be motivated if there are aesthetically resonant characters, or if they are emotionally invested in some way with the character's backstory. BlazBlue nails both of these aspects.

A lot of the characters are just really cool-looking takes on generic anime/manga/light novel tropes and character archetypes. If you are on board with the anime aesthetic, you are certain to find a character you find cool amongst BlazBlue's 36 characters.

If backstory matters to you, congratulations. BlazBlue sure has a lot of it. It's not necessarily good writing, but I find it entertaining due to how ridiculous and over-the-top it is. All BlazBlue games have had rich visual novel-style story modes with battles interspersed, so that is another way to engage with the game on a more casual basis.

The Drive button

BlazBlue is a four-button fighter with three attack buttons (A, B, C) and the Drive (D) button. Each character in the game has a different mechanic or system you engage with via the Drive button, and putting all of that unique behaviour onto a single button serves a dual purpose:

If you are playing BlazBlue without incorporating the Drive button into your game plan, you are playing the character wrong. The characters are designed around their Drive moves and abilities, and putting those on a dedicated button communicates their importance much more than having them mixed in with the rest of their moveset like you'd find in Guilty Gear. It is much harder to accidentally miss a character's defining moves in BlazBlue than it is in Guilty Gear.

Developing your minimum viable offense

BlazBlue's damage output is balanced entirely around combos. It doesn't matter how crappy your combo is, if you're trying to attack with putting out individual attacks instead of combos, you won't get very far.

Because of this, it's important to find a few combos early on that you can execute consistently that can be used as part of your offense, ideally dealing around 20% health:

You can figure out these combos on your own in Training Mode if you want, or refer to the in-game character tutorials or combo challenges for inspiration. For many characters, A-B-C-D will be sufficient as a grounded combo, and same for A-B-jump-A-B as an air combo.

With around 20% damage per combo, you will generally need to get past your opponent's defense five times to defeat them. Over time, as you get more skilled, you can choose to iterate and optimize your combos to deal more damage and become more effective, but at least with these, you can still play the game. I switched from playing as Noel to playing as Nine two weeks ago, and this is still how I play the game today. It's suboptimal, but it's still a ton of fun.

The burden of knowledge

I think a lot of beginner-focused resources give anime fighting games a bad reputation by overwhelming players with information.

Yes, there is a lot more to BlazBlue mechanically than what I've mentioned so far. There are tons of offensive and defensive systems, but trying to frontload beginner guides with all of that information is going to make the game seem more daunting than it really is. It's also unclear what type of "beginner" is being targeted at any given time. Are "beginners" people who are all-new to fighting games as a genre, or are "beginners" intermediate Guilty Gear players who want to quickly learn how BlazBlue differs from the game they're used to? Both players have wildly different knowledge and expectations, but a guide made for the latter may scare a complete beginner away from trying the game altogether.

If hanging out in the lower two-thirds of Strive's ranked lobbies has taught me anything, it's that a surprising amount of fighting game players either don't engage with offensive and defensive systems (Roman cancels, Faultless Defense, bursts) at all or only do so at a very surface level. Let's not forget that Strive is also a game whose mechanical complexity was intentionally reduced to make it more appealing to beginners... but if the beginners are barely engaging with your systems anyway, I'm not sure this accomplished anything other than limiting the possibility space of your game at higher levels of play.

I wish experienced fighting game players creating beginner-focused content realized that burdening a new player with knowledge they don't have the context to understand yet or apply properly isn't going to help new player retention. Start with offering up the minimum necessary information to have fun, get out of the player's way and let them play, then they can fill in the gaps on a need-to-know basis.

Assuming you have played any other 2D fighting game before, I honestly think the last two sections are all the information you need to jump into BlazBlue and start having fun. Experiment with characters, find who you want to play, familiarize yourself with their kit against the CPU. Figure out your basic combos and jump into online matches against other humans. Get some experience under your belt, get more consistent in your combo execution, and get used to blocking your opponents' bullshit. Once you've recognized a bad situation you find yourself in regularly, then try to find a solution to it in training mode. Maybe do some research online and see if there are offensive or defensive options you previously ignored that you could add to your repertoire to counter or get out of that kind of play pattern.

The wheel of fate is turning...

Make a fighting game that gets people's attention with cool characters and sick-looking moves/combos, and people's eyes will be drawn to it. Couple that with good rollback netcode so players can more easily find matches with people around their level, and people will flock to it. BlazBlue has been the first half of that since it came out in 2008, but it just hadn't had usable netplay until this week.

I don't think there's any real evidence out there that simplifying gameplay systems actually succeeds at drawing new players in. Beginner gameplay in a game with fewer systems looks shockingly similar to beginner gameplay with a lot of systems, because beginners don't engage with many systems. Don't use that excuse to make the game worse for intermediate and expert players when the decision doesn't impact beginners much.

I think one of the biggest things preventing fighting games from attracting beginners is ironically the players themselves. So many content creators are so far removed from being beginners that they don't have a good sense for what new players need to get started in a fighting game, and they will create overwhelming guides that do more harm than good. Since the rollback beta has begun, I have heard a lot of well-meaning BlazBlue players talk about how hard the game is to get into, as if the skill ceiling and mechanical depth of the game is synonymous with its barrier to entry. It isn't. BlazBlue is easy to get into, and hard to master. Most players aren't going to be playing in tournaments or wind up in an Evo top 8, so maybe we shouldn't worry too much about how hard it is to master. We need to, as a community, stop acting like mastery of the game is the only acceptable play style, and accurately represent the barrier to enjoyment if we want the genre to grow.