Monday, March 16, 2009

Flow, and it's counterpart, Chop

Well, I haven't made an entry in about a month and a half's time, and my appearances on VFDC have all but disappeared. The last while has been busy, but also my leave of absence was made mandatory by Microsoft when my XBox RROD'd (Red Ring of Death) and essentially threw in the towel.

I'd heard about this problem plenty, but never experienced it up until this point. Evidently the XBox initially was made with relatively poor design, at least in terms of heat dispersal. As a result, over time it simply overheats, after which you no longer can use the thing - you just get three little red bands of light surrounding the power indicator when you turn it on, hence the affectionate title for this particular problem.

To Microsoft's credit, they did a fantastic job of owning the issue - I went to their website, indicated I had the problem, and they sent me a box, with paid postage and padding to my console into, and then I just dropped it off at Staples in town. Two weeks later, I had a new XBox arrive, and my account details had been transferred to the new serial number. Additionally, I was given a month of free XBox live gold membership (this should be expected, since they were charging me for the service even though my machine was broken). All in all, the inconvenience caused by this whole issue was minimized by Microsoft's good damage control, and I'm pretty impressed with how they handled the whole thing.

Now that I have the machine back, I've started playing Oblivion again. I bought the game when it first came out and played it on my PC, but I've been feeling the winter drag lately and wanted something to play on the console that was immersive and would go well with feeling stuck indoors when it's pouring rain outside. Oblivion is an awesome game, and more relaxing, by far, than VF5 is, so that's been occupying my time for the last two weeks. In any case, it's time to move onwards. I felt the pull of VF5 again about a week ago, popped it in the machine, and have been brushing off the rust and remembering the techniques that I've spent time working on. There's a ways to go yet, but it feels good to be back, once again. (Note, this cycle repeats itself roughly every three months or so).

Enough of that - let's get on with what I want to write about today: Flow and Chop.


Flow is something I've written about before. It's the art of putting together all of your moves in such a manner that it makes it very difficult for your opponent to break in with their own attack. Ideally you want to construct your flow in such a way that when your opponent does perceive an opportunity to break-in, it was a deception and you earn yourself a counter-hit (and can then go on to juggling and comboing them).

Many people refer to the act of "constructing flow-charts" as a good starting point for determining how you want to have your moves flow together. While I have never been able to get behind this approach personally, I can certainly understand why this would be good practice. Taking the time to understand how much time you have after each of your moves will provide you with a very solid foundation, and give you the advantage to put together flows that are very robust - that is, they are very safe and difficult for your opponents to break out.

Me, I've learned from a more organic approach, simply noting which moves appear safe and lead to good follow-ups, and going from there. I try something out, and if I find myself consistently getting punished for it, I either try to adapt and use something different, or then go to the moveslists to see what my advantage/disadvantage is looking like after this move is guarded.

One of the foundations of flow comes from pre-canned combos and moves that naturally flow into one another. Every character's move list has moves that look like:

  • P - Punch
  • PK - Punch, kick combo
PK is the natural start point, as every character has a canned combo of this type. I suggest that these types of moves are foundations for good flow because of the fact that your opponent is put in an awkward situation when they see you use a standing punch. In the absence of any other knowledge (such as if they have figured out that you never follow-up with the kick) they cannot attempt to counter-attack after your punch is guarded, because there is a chance that they will get hit by the follow-up kick and eat a counter-hit.

In reality, the PK combos are typically too fast to really let you pause and consider your next move, but many other canned combos allow you to adjust the amount of time before you input the follow-up part of the combo, and this will force your opponent into a more defensive position.

Two of Brad's best attacks for delay are:

  • Gazelle upper (33P,P)
  • Cross upper (Ducking stance, P, P)
Both of these moves allow for a good deal of delay between the first and the second hit, and both will juggle the opponent on the counter-hit allowing for you to finish up with P,6P,K, light pounce for a significant amount of damage.

Your opponent is put in an awkward position. If they are playing "abare" and trying to counter-hit continually after the first hit is guarded, then just input the second P right away and get your counter-hit. If they are turtling up and guarding frequently, you can input the first command, and then throw them. If they get wise to this and start guarding the first hit, then waiting and trying to counter-punch only after a small delay, now you adapt and start delaying the second hit, taking you back to the first scenario where you are juggling them and earning combos again.

You can see that the opponent now has a number of poor choices available to them - stand and guard and risk being thrown, or attempt to counter-hit and risk being combo'd. Changing from the first punch input into a throw is a good segue into the second half of what I want to write about: Chop.


You may sometimes hear Chop referred to in this manner: "Was that lagging for you? It felt really laggy on my end". Lag sucks, and it is no doubt present in many games that you'll end up playing online. However, good chop will often feel like lag to players that are not accustomed to this technique, and is a good way to frustrate and confuse your opponents.

Chop is simply the word I use to refer to the technique of breaking out of your established flow whenever it is appropriate to do so.

The thing about flowcharts is that over time, your opponent's will get used to you using the same setups and combos. The longer that you continue to use the same set of flows, the greater the chance that your opponent will recognize the breakpoint (and there is always eventually a breakpoint) and exploit that.

Let's go back to the two moves I mentioned of Brad's previously, and use them as an example. Again, those moves are:
  • Gazelle upper (33P,P)
  • Cross upper (Ducking stance, P, P)
Over time, your opponent is going to start to determine that there are one of two situations he needs to deal with - breaking you out of your throw attempt with a counter-attack (or using fuzzy-guard, but this is a different topic), or continuing to guard and then punishing you after succesfully guarding the second hit. As an aside, the second hit of these two moves are both leave you with a frame disadvantage of -13 and -14 - easily enough time for a guaranteed throw from your opponent (and hence the need to vary your play).

How can you counteract your opponent reaching the conclusion that these are their two options? With chop! Let's assume that we've been playing for a while now, and our opponent has reached the point where they are blocking the first hit of the gazelle upper, and then has gotten sharp enough that they can successfully guard or hit you out of your throw attempt. One scenario you may want to try is to chagne from either of those previous two options, and now start using 6P after the first hit of the cross-upper. Your new flow will look like:

  • Ducking stance, P, G, 6P
The G is in there because if you don't clear out your input buffer after the first P, you will still get the second hit of the cross-upper. You don't need to hold guard, just tap the button and release.

6P Brad's fastest mid, and opens up the door to the canned K follow-up, or three of Brad's stances. You have now reset your flow and can proceed with a new flowchart.

What if you wanted to playing even choppier? Then you could do the following:

  • Ducking stance, P, G, 6P, G, 6P, G, 6P, K
On screen this set of inputs will translate to the first hit of the cross upper, three elbows in a row, finishing with the last hit of Brad's 6PK canned combo. To most opponents, this is an illogical flowchart, and will appear choppy. In fact, if you look at the moveslist, you'll notice that this isn't a robust flow at all, as after each successfully guarded elbow, you are at 6 frames of disadvantage!

Why then is this a rational approach? The reason is because after each elbow, you have the option of following up with the K (which will cancel the elbow's frame disadvantage), or entering into a stance and punishing with Brad's SR/SL P options (which lead to big combo damage). Many players will find this confounding. "How is it that he is able to hit me with three elbows in a row? It must be the lag". The lag is a reasonable assumption to make, but it's incorrect. The real reason is that they are used to thinking that they need to blow the follow-up from Brad's elbow. They don't realize that the 6 frames of disadvantage is their opportunity to counter-attack, and by the time they do realize this (usually around the third elbow they've guarded) and act on it to counter-attack, you've taken the proactive measure of using the canned kick followup and counterhit them.

The real key to playing this way is that you need to exercise effective yomi and train your opponent that the majority of the time, they are going to eat your 6P follow-up. If you always use chop in your game, you will provide too many breakpoints for your opponents, and never be able to establish the kind of expectation and rhythm that is required for good offense.

On the whole, I would say that succesfully fighting with a good balance of chop is the next level of skill beyond decent flow-charts. The other interesting thing about using techniques like this is that it often looks very similar to lower-level players that have not yet been able to establish decent flow-charts. Poor players won't have advanced to the point that they realize they can follow-up 6P with a K, so they'll just 6P all day long. Seeing themselves get defeated repeatedly by a player that appears to be scrubby is another reason many players will quickly fall to the assumption that "Bah, it was too laggy".

Against lower-level players, using chop is a waste of your time. Poor players will almost always try and counter-hit whenever possible. Against these players, you can simply rely on Brad's 6P follow-ups time and again to earn you big combos. Remember, if they don't adapt to this technique, then you shouldn't adapt either. Above all, you should always use what works until it stops working. It requires more mental energy to adapt your playing style than it does to continue doing what is working, and you should be playing such that you minimize the amount of mental energy you are expending.

As we move up in skill, intermediate players will typically learn that they can't get away with always recklessly attacking after they've guarded a move, and definitely not after having been hit with one. These players are candidates for you to break out of your flow and throw them, and if and when they adapt to that, to start introducing delay in your attacks.

At the top of the chain, you can mix it up further and start introducing the notion of chop into your game as well. This is necessary at this point, because good players are familiar with many of the common attack patterns that are used for each character. By breaking these patterns up and doing things like 6P repeatedly, you force them to adapt on the fly and come up with new ways to deal with your offense.

Above all, strive to avoid being predictable. However, keep in mind that it does not matter if you are being predictable to yourself. You need to put yourself in your opponent's mind and determine if they are finding you predictable. This is why you will find yourself playing differently based on the skill-level of your opponent - lower-level players lack the depth of understanding to see even the most basis flowcharts as predictable.

I'll just finish off on an interesting note, and that is something that naturally flows out of what I've talked about: the fact that poor players will often get "lucky wins" against much better players. These types of wins are caused because the better player is giving their opponent more credit than they deserve, by using more advanced flows and chops. As a result, the better player will eat a lot of counterhits because the better player is attempting to play intelligently and use delays and chop in their game, and the poor player is simply defeating this by recklessly throwing out punches whenever they can. Not only that, but lower-level play can have an element of randomness inherent to it that is difficult for a good player to handle if they are used to playing someone better.

Here's the final point: This is not an excuse for you to use as a crutch when you lose and think to yourself "Ah, I lost because I'm better and I'm trying to do fancy stuff. No need to think about that one". If you are playing someone lower, you need to train yourself to drop your level of play down to the basics. Punish with 6P,K. Punish with 33P,P without using delays. Find out what works, and use it.

Goddamn I missed playing VF5.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fighting with lag

Fighting with lag

Due to the nature of where I live, it's very difficult for me to find matches to play locally. As a result, in-game lag is something that I just have to learn to deal with when I'm playing. If you're able to find lcaol games, or even online games that are fast and efficient, then you have a luxury that I don't. So, I can either complain about the lag, quit playing, or learn to cope with it.

  • What does lag entail?

  • What does lag enable you to do?

  • What does lag prevent you from doing?

Is lag a big deal?

Lag is caused for a number of reasons, none of which really matter for the purposes of what I'm writing about. The key thing is that it slows down the speed at which you can input commands to the game, and the speed at which you can react to your opponent. Many players that are used to playing locally find that it renders the game unplayable, because they are used to entering their inputs at a certain speed and have trouble adapting to a slower tempo.

Although I don't disagree with the frustration that players better than I experience, I think that there is still a game to be played when lag is a factor. When I say game, I mean it in the sense that there is still strategy to be put into use, and there is still an ability for someone to win the game and minimize the amount of luck that has a factor in the outcome.

Using lag to your advantage

I believe that lag can be used to your benefit. In my own experience, I've found that I'm able to get away with more full combo strings than normal. This is typically bceause the opponent has attempted to break me out of the combo where they would normally be able to, without lag, but in this instance, they have input their command too late. With lag, you also have to be thinking that much further ahead than your opponent, since there is even less reaction time available to you then normally (the longer the lag, the earlier you have to input your command to have it actually reach the other machine and execute in time).

What does this really come down to? Good yomi.

Yomi is the key ingredient to playing in a laggy environment. If you have trained your opponent well enough, you should barely need to use any reaction time late in the game - you should already have a very strong idea of what your opponent is going to do next, and thus you react accordingly. Part of using yomi effectively is making good guesses. The more you guess correctly, the more predictable your opponent will become, as they start to fear you reading them. You can see that there is obviously a snowball effect here, and ultimately we're aiming to dominate our opponent's mind. Once we have succeeded at that, the rest becomes easy.


Lag will also make it more difficult for someone on the defense to break into your attack pattern. When you have the offence, it is generally easier to continue through to the end of the string than it is to break in with the opponent's attack. This puts the power into the hands of the attacker, since they get the choice of whether or not they will complete the string or break it off into a throw (etc.).

In addition to simply following your strings through to completion, you'll notice that with more lag, you will be less likely to get hit at the end of your sequence, as the opponent has to understand when they need to enter their own inputs given the lag, and are less likely to do this successfully. Learning how to speed up or delay your inputs while playing in lag is a valuable skill indeed - it can be applied to games that don't have any lag at all.

Lastly, you can cheat out of your frames of disadvantage. Because of the point above, you will often be able to score cheap strikes following a situation where you should have been at a disadvantage, simply because your opponent didn't input at the appropriate time. See if you notice that your opponent's response is slightly delayed after you follow through with particular strings, and then abuse those delays that you notice.

Lag as a style

In addition to adapting and reacting to the lag, it is important to learn how to use this as a strength. Lag is just one more avenue in which deviations of your rhythm come into play. Lag forces you to slow down and speed up your movements, and adjust to the pitch of the environment within which you're fighting. If all the characters are moving more slowly, you, as a player controller them, are going to have to act more slowly as well.

Good players will, over time, gain the ability to adapt as needed and adjust their inputs accordingly - certainly a valuable skill, However, there is a disadvantage here as well - they have been trained themselves adjust your inputs based on what you see on the screen. If I now start to stutter my inputs and make my flow more jerky, your eyes are going to tell you that the game is in lag mode, and slow your inputs.

By simulating a laggy game, you can throw off your opponent's timing

Successfully throwing off your opponent's timing will mean that you control the flow of the game, and the rate at which it can be played. Being in control is a good thing - it makes it easier to adapt to the pace of the match, and easier to apply pressure and yomi to your opponent.

At its finest, you will be able to play with a choppy style that visually puts forth the illusion of lag to your opponent, and confuses their attempts to respond and counter-hit. I have had many legitimate complaints about lag during games I've played, but I have also had complaints when the game, at least on my end, was very very smooth. I like to believe that this is due to the style of rhythm that I am presenting to the opponent, and forcing them to adapt to.

Playing within the confines of lag is like any other aspect of the game - it takes some adaption and understanding in order to deal with it. It will never be as pure as a game without lag, which is to say that it will never be as close to the best game that you can ideally train yourself to play. However, it's well worth your time to practice training in this kind of environment - a good deal of your fights online will be laggy.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Back on the wagon

So, it was a great trip while it lasted, but I've put Fallout 3 back in its case, and returned it to the game graveyard with the other diversions I've had in between bouts of Virtua Fighter. That means a few things. One, I popped VF5 back in my 360, and started learning the humility that comes from a two-month break from the game and realizing that you've accumulated six metric ass-loads of rust. Two, now that I'm back on the virtuous path, I'll be blogging again, so come back and check out the site to see if there's anything new up.

The last comment I had was a request on how to improve your flow with Brad when fighting, and that seems like a good place to start. Remember, keep the comments coming. Even if it takes me two months to get to it, I'm always eager for new ideas to write about. Chances are that you've come up against things that I haven't yet really thought too heavily about, and the best ideas evolve from a shared focus.

Here's what I want to talk about:

  • What is flow?

  • How can you begin learning decent flow?

  • Evolving flow throughout the match

  • How do you prevent yourself from having your flow interupted, and how do you recover from this?

  • Disguising your flow and your rhythm

So what is it?

Before we can start talking about flow, we need to understand what it is. Most people in the game use flow to talk about the ability of a player to string together a series of attacks in a manner that makes it difficult for the opponent to interrupt. Due to the nature of Virtua Fighter's fighting system, it is impossible to put together an endless stream of attacks that will never provide your opponent a chance to respond. This would be a pretty lame game if it was possible.

While it may be difficult to put together an endless stream, many good players are able to string together attacks in ways that lure you into thinking you've got an opportunity to break them out of their flow, only to trick you and earn themselves a counter-hit. This counter-hit then resets their frame advantage and allows them to continue onwards.

Flow is a concept related very closely to rhythm. As I mentioned before, good fighting rhythm can make it very difficult for your opponent to understand and deal with your flow, and frustrate their attempts to block effectively.

Where do I start?

Good flow starts with a strong understanding of the basics. The first thing you need to know before you start is the moves of your character that string together well.

For Brad players, PP, PPK, and 6P are all excellent starting points. During player matches, make a point of just trying to string together PP, 6P, and 6P, PK. Don't rush it, and don't force it. Brad's PP is -5 on hit or guard, so if the opponent has the awareness to attack right after succesfully blocking, you will get counterhit out of your follow-up. How are we going to deal with that? Easy - you're going to establish a base-line of expectation. Brad's PPK is a good string, and there is not room for the opponent to interrupt the string until the end. After eating enough of these attacks, your opponent is going to start to holding block in anticipation of the third kick, and now you've set the stage for the next step of your flow.

Now that your opponent is trained to block the last kick in the string, you are ready to evolve your flow, and start mixing in PP, 6P. Generally speaking, you have a broken flow here - your opponent can interrupt your string by jabbing you after the first two punches. The key element is that you have trained them to understand that they are unsafe attempting to make this move, because they will get counter-hit by the expected kick in the sequence. Now that you've trained them to block low, your 6P elbow will stagger them, and you have effectively reset sequence. From a staggered elbow, you can again shift into PPK or PP, 6P again.

Evolving flow throughout the match

In squash, there is a mantra that the player must build the rally. What this means is that you cannot serve the ball in and then start attacking your opponent aggressively. You need to set the tone for the rally by playing safe shots, and gradually and continuously apply pressure as the rally goes on. What you're looking to do is to create opportunities to hit a winning shot, rather than forcing the winning shot.

My own experience is that Virtua Fighter is a very similar beast, and flow operates in the same manner. Whenever I start fighting an opponent that I am not familiar with, I always start off by setting out the base-line expectation. The safest string to start with for Brad, in my experience, is either 6P (not really a string, but it's safe and quick), and PPK. Until I've hit them with this move a few times, there's no reason to anticipate that they will be willing to continue blocking while I use tricks like PP, 6P.

In a VF5 match, you want to build the opportunity to punish your opponent. This is what good flow is about. You're looking to continue using safe moves to force your opponent into feeling like the only option they have is to block - if everytime they try and counter-attack my PP, they get counter-hit by the kick at the end, they are going to feel like they simply must block. Once you've gotten them thinking this way, you have now created an opportunity for you to punish them with either a throw or a strong mid-hit.

Beginning players will often make the mistake of trying to start out too complicated and tricky, and trying to mix their flow up too soon. Always start off simple, with a base-line expectation that your opponent needs to learn. Once they've adapted, then, and only then, is it appropriate to start changing things up.

How do you prevent yourself from having your flow interupted, and how do you recover from this?

This is the other problem that new players often find themselves in. Once their flow gets interrupted, they are caught offguard and have difficulty re-establishing themselves. This is typically when you will see a player's safety game come into play. What I mean by that is this: Every player has a certain set of moves that they feel safe using. These moves may or may not actually be safe, but what is important is that to the player, they are perceived to be safe.

For me, 2P and evading are safety moves. For other players, it may be simply turtling up, or standing jab, or any number of other things. Falling into a safety game can be okay, but the largest danger here is that you can quickly become robotic relying on this survival instinct. Your main goal once knocked out of your flow should be to break any flow that your opponent may have initiated (either by blocking or counter-hitting them out of their own flow), and re-initiate your own.

There's a large hurdle that new players have to overcome, and that is this: When you are knocked out of your flow, it was a flow that you had been evolving towards. Once you've been knocked out of that, you need to start back at the basics, and return back up to that spot. Again, perhaps a squash analogy will help (for the 0.34 squash players reading this blog). When we are building rallies in squash, we are typically trying to continually and gradually apply pressure to the opponent. However, there is always a point where the opponent will be able to hit a good return that now forces us back onto the defensive. When this occurs, a bad player will foolish try to attack, and usually either hit an error (and lose the rally), or set his opponent up to make a winning shot. A good player will return to hitting safe shots until he is once again able to build the rally to the point where he can confidently make attacking shots.

Be the good squash player when you are playing VF5, and understand that having your flow broken means you need to return to your basic game and begin building up from there. If you get knocked out of your flow, accept that fact, and return to your basics of PP, 6P, and PPK (by the way, there are plenty of other excellent ways for Brad to start his basic flow, I just use those three as easy examples that can be applied by anyone new to Brad).

Disguising your flow and your rhythm

Once you've developed the ability to establish and maintain flow throughout the match, you will eventually reach a point where you realize that even if you are mixing things up to an extent, your opponent is able to block most of your moves and accurately find the break point to counter-hit. At this point, you need to evolve further, and start disguising your rhythm. I have covered this to some extent before on a previous blog entry related to charge moves here. However, you don't need to rely on charge moves to mix up your rhythm. Here's an example:

You've succesfully trained your opponent to block low after he sees the first two punches in Brad's PPK string. You're now ready to move on to a different string set, and you switch into using PP, 6P. For a while, it's working great, but then they start to try and jab you out of the elbow. No problem, you returned to using PPK, and gained some more free hits. However, after a point, your opponent is going to start to block low in anticipation of the low kick, and when he doesn't see it, switch to a mid-guard to block the elbow. At this point, there are a number of ways you can evolve further. You can start throwing instead of using an elbow, which will punish your opponent to switching into a mid-guard. This presents the opponent with two choices (called a nitaku situation in Virtua Fighter forums): they can guess blocking high or low and potentially be hit with an elbow or a throw, depending on whether or not they guessed correctly. You can do more than just this though, and if you really want to be simple, you can just delay the elbow a little bit longer. You're not actually changing the string, you're just introducing some delay to force your opponent into second-guessing themselves. This will play out like this:

Old flow:

  1. You enter PP

  2. Your opponent guards low, then when he doesn't see the kick, shifts to mid-guard

  3. You enter 6P, and your opponent successfully guards

  4. You are now back to the starting point, and have a slight frame disadvantage. Guard and look for a place to break your opponent's flow, and then restart with basics

New hotness:

  1. You enter PP

  2. Your opponent guards low, then when he doesn't see the kick, shifts to mid-guard

  3. You wait a little, then enter 6P

  4. Your opponent, not seeing the elbow when he's become used to expecting it, tries to start their own attack, but is then counter-hit by your elbow

  5. You are now back to the starting point, but have a frame advantage against your opponent. You can now explore any of Brad's standard combo options from starting from 6P, or, delay further and start over with PP, etc.

You can see how, over time, you will gain the ability to start, stop, and reset your flow in a myriad of ways without your opponent being able to figure out when it is safe to counter-hit, and when they need to block.

An important side-note: The lower the skill level of your opponent, the longer it takes to train them to react a certain way. Using PPK as an example, I will continue to use this move until I notice they start blocking it effectively. After the first time they block the last kick in the sequence, I usually try it out again, just to convince myself that it wasn't just a lucky block, and that the opponent has indeed figure out how to stop taking damage from this move. Remember, if it isn't broke, don't fix it - As long as something remains effective, keep using it.

Finally, I've indicated that a good mix-up string to use with Brad is PP, 6P. There's one catch here, and that is that Brad is able to enter his stance options from PP (ducking, slipping left, slipping right, etc.). What this means is that if you hit PP and then 6, you will enter into his ducking stance, rather than getting the elbow you were hoping for. Your two options to avoid this are to either delay just long enough such that the window to enter a stance passes, and then hit 6P, or, use guard to clear your buffer window. In this last case, the correct input sequence would be PP, G, 6P. Hitting guard will clear out Brad's ability to stance shift, and allow you to enter the elbow without the danger of going into ducking.

Okay, so, I'm back, and it felt really good getting back on the 'box last night and getting the chance to play some old friends. Keep checking back, please please please leave comments about things you'd like me to write about, and don't hesitate to challenge me if you see me online (just don't take offense if I have to decline - Wife > Virtua Fighter 5).

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

So busy...

Man it's been a while since the last update... This sucks.

I have every intention of continuing to write in this blog - however, I have been very busy as of late, and on top of that, Fallout 3 came out on the XBox 360. Being a huge fan of Bethesda's last game, Oblivion, I'd be a dick if I didn't take some time away from the fists of Brad Burns to sit down and devastate some wasteland super mutants in post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C.

So, those of you that are still following along, continue to check back, as I have no doubt at all in my mind that I will once again pop Virtua Fighter 5 into the console and start at it again - it's the only game that I've ever been able to consistently come back to, and I'm notoriously bad for setting down games and walking away from them once I get bored of them.

Before I go, just a quick update of where I left off - I felt like I was starting to spin my wheels, and falling into common pitfalls the more I played Brad. It's not my fault that Brad has very good circulars in his 2K+G and DM P+K. But it IS my fault that I let myself fall into the trap of using these constantly and in every situation. Before I knew it, DM P+K had become my new evade, and I was back in the same boat. Ugh.

The more I tried to move past this, the more frustrated I grew, and that culminated when a good player I spar with defeated me multiple matches in a row using Brad himself. This would have been fine if he wasn't normally a Jacky player, and a self-admittedly poor Brad player. I knew I had to take a break and let myself return to a creative way of thinking about the game. There comes a point in everyone's progress where they need to take a step back, think about how they are approaching things, and recalibrate.

So, take my hiatus as an indication that this is what I am doing: retreating in order to move forward. I'll be back shortly - by my suspicions, in about two weeks time, as I am starting to feel my interest in Fallout 3 waning, and it's difficult to avoid the siren's call of VF5 when I don't have any other video games to play (and besides, what am I going to do in between working out and chores).

I still have a comment to address that someone posted, suggesting they would like to hear more about ways to improve Brad's flow, and that too is in the hopper. It's the next thing I'll tackle, as soon as I put my gloves back on and head into the ring. Big thanks to anyone that has remained patient while I disappeared over the course of the last month.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ranked vs Player Matches

When I first started playing Virtua Fighter, I found ranked matches intimidating. I had no ranking whatsoever, so I was starting at the bottom of the barrel, and every loss that I would accrue weighed heavily on my mind. "Oh my god!", I thought, how can I be this bad?

Thinking that you suck is one thing, but having a win/loss ratio sitting on your screen as evidence of that fact is something else altogether. So, I would spend the majority of my time online playing in player matches. This offered me a few benefits. First and foremost, I would not have any idea as to how good my opponent was prior to playing them. Seeing someone with an impressive win ratio join your game can have a psychological effect right off the bat, and set you up for a loss you might not normally take. Second, without a rank showing on my opponent, I was much more willing to request rematches, and, thirdly, in player matches you can request rematches.

Rematches present a great training opportunity. The most frustrating thing in the game is having your opponent steamroll right over you, but if you really want to improve, these are the people that you need to keep pestering for rematches. As frustrating as it is, keep requesting a rematch and trying to break down their offense and see if you can hang in there. Whenever I request a rematch, I'm usually thinking about a few things before the next match starts:

  • How did the opponent beat me?

  • Was he using some move that I've never seen before, in which case I need to block more? Was I getting predictable, and letting him exploit that? What about evades? Was I using that crutch far too often? Did he beat me using only 2P?

  • How can I counteract the above?

  • If I'm being predictable, I try to figure out new ways to achieve the same effect. For Brad players, a large part of our game revolves around moving in and out of his stances. If I'm constantly using KP to enter his stance, then I know that it's time to either take a shift away from his stances and going for more juggles, or start using different strings to enter his stances, like 4P, 4PK, and 6P. Is my opponent always successfully blocking my moves? Then it's time to start mixing up my rhythm and introducing some throws and charge moves into my offense.

  • Was I frustrated after losing? Why?

  • Usually the simple act of asking myself this question helps quell my frustration. Usually I'm frustrated because I lost, and I think that I'm capable of playing better. But how can I play better? What should I be doing differently? Return to the top two questions and reiterate.

Back when I spent a lot of time practicing funk styles and dancing, many of the old schoolers would persist the following statement: "To each one, teach one". The idea is that everyone should take the time and effort to spread the knowledge, and teach someone else the tricks that you have learned moving forward. Do you find that you're on the other side of the fence, and absolutely crushing someone in player matches? If a rematch is requested, go for it again. My attitude is that I don't pull my punches when I'm playing newer players, because that will not help them improve the same way that forcing them to think under pressure will.

If you don't like aggreeing to rematches just because it's helpful to the other player, do it for yourself. It is important to play both stronger and weaker players; stronger players will force you to adapt quickly under pressure, but weaker players will allow you the opportunity to make use of the skills you have practiced, and to properly set up for the moves and combo strings that you want to use regularly. I wrote earlier that failure is only a failure if you don't learn something from the experience, and by the same token, a victory is hollow if you don't understand why you won. Make sure that you are winning because you are executing your game plan, not because you are flailing or taking advantage of a lower player's bad habits. Take playing weaker players as an opportunity to practice fixing the bad habit that drives you nuts. It is by aggreeing to rematches in player matches that I have been able to slowly eliminate some of the wreckless dodging I'm doing, and fuzzy guard consistently after connecting with the last hit of Brad's PPK string.

That's a pretty strong case for player matches. Why even bother with ranking then? Jerky VFDC captured some of the essence of ranked matches for me, when I asked him for advice and he told me, "Play ranked matches against strong players. They will build up your mental endurance". Ranked matches will force you to accept that you are playing someone with a proven track record, and, with something on the line, you will find that your play style changes considerably.

Suddenly you'll notice that you start consistently falling back to your perceived safe moves whenever you are down a round in a ranked match. For the longest time, I could not shake my habit of spamming 3PP as soon as I noticed that I was getting low on life. Why? It's not a good move, but for some reason, I mentally perceived that it was safe and would get me out of trouble. Against good players, it just led me to more punishment.

One other benefit of ranked matches - you can do chores in between each match. I manage to get everything done around the house and play Virtua Fighter because I can complete everything I need to do in between each match. Yah, this is a silly reason to play ranked, but it makes a difference to me.

Train in player matches, and then put what you've learned into motion in ranked matches. In player matches you will get the opportunity to play consistently against the same person, and this will provide you many opportunities to adapt to their style, exploit their weakness, and then have the tables turned as they adapt to you. Once you feel like you're winning consistently, switch over to ranked and play there for a while. When you start to feel like you're getting stale and predictable, switch back into player and play multiple matches against people that are able to pick apart your game. You will be stronger for it.

Above all, remember the importance of requesting rematches - everytime you feel yourself getting frustrated, force yourself to reflect on why you are frustrated, how you lost, and hit that button to request another match.

That's all for now. As an aside, if anyone reading has something specific that they would like me to cover, drop a comment and let me know. I very much enjoy the opportunity to write about different aspects of Brad Burns and Virtua Fighter as a whole, and every chance to write about something is a chance to learn it a second time, as I'm required to break it down and think the whole thing through from start to finish.

Lastly, if you're looking for matches, don't hesitate to add me on XBL. My gamertag is Deathsushi, and I'm always up for games.

Friday, October 10, 2008

My crutches

I'm going to do something that tournament players are often not able to afford doing. I'm going to expose what I perceive my own weaknesses to be.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to Tony Familia about Brad, and some of the tricks that he finds useful. We were talking in the Shoutbox at VFDC, a chat program that everyone on the site can see from most of the pages, but Tony requested that we switch the discussion to PM. His logic was fairly sound - he didn't want to have his opponents gain too much of an insight into how to defeat him right before NYG7, a decent sized tournament and Virtua Fighter gathering (that I couldn't make).

I don't fault Tony with this at all, and would probably take the same approach if I was going to be playing in an upcoming tournament. However, I'm a firm believer in what I call the "liquid strategy" approach to gaming. I believe that if I can expose my own weaknesses to people, that will encourage them to exploit that part of my game. In turn, I will be forced to either continue losing, or adapt my strategies to adjust with what my opponents are now using against me. This process of adaptation is what makes for a strong player, and so this is what I hope to do.

Virtua Fighter can in many ways be seen as having an optimal way of playing. All though there are many different choices that you can make at any given point in the game, for specific situations, there is almost always one "best" action to take (naturally once your opponent starts to get wise to this, you will have to adapt, but let's keep things simple for now).

The flipside to moves that I use too much are moves and techniques that I use when I shouldn't. As an example, Brad is disadvantaged by 5 frames after he hits his opponent with the last kick in his PPK string (two jabs followed by a low kick). At 5 frames of disadvantage, Brad is able to perform a fuzzy guard, and avoid any throw attempt while still managing to block any mid-attack that the opponent can hit him with (for those new to the game, a fuzzy guard is performed by holding down just long enough to have Brad enter his ducking animation, then releasing down while continuing to hold guard). The problem is that I'm cheating these optimal plays, and am resorting to tricks that work against lower level players, but get me crushed against players of higher skill.

Let's get on to my crutches:

  • Tech-roll recovery
  • Almost everytime I recover with a tech-roll, I automatically input Bra'd PK string. There's a couple of reasons that I do this. The string starts with his fastest move, an 11-frame jab, meaning that it can interupt a lot of heavier moves that opponents will throw out. It is also semi-circular, which can punish a lot of people trying to evade to crush whatever rising attack I'm doing. Generally speaking though, there should never be an automatic combination or input that I'm entering upon tech-rolling, aside from holding down the guard button (and even then I should be careful).

    How can you beat this? Easy, knock me down with a move that I can tech-roll, feint a follow-up attack, and then just duck and guard. As the entire combo string is high, I'll whiff both attacks right over you and find myself in the undesirable position of being about 11 frames at disadvantage. Almost enough for a guaranteed throw!

  • Lack of defense, too much abare
  • Abare is a japense term used by the Virtua Fighter community, and means (I believe) wreckless. The term is generally applied when someone attacks from a disadvantage. The greater disadvantage you have, in terms of frames, the less likely you are to successfully hit your opponent, and the more likely they are to successfully hit you.

    My big problem is that whenever my opponent successfully blocks or ducks under my PK string, I instinctively either evade and attack or enter 2P. This will work some of the time, but if we go to the command list and look up how much disadvantage I have on PK being blocked, it's quite large - 8 frames. The upshot of this is that the opponent has a very large window to hit me out of either of these two approaches. What's the correct thing to do? Evade, enter a throw-escape, and guard. This will allow me to avoid being thrown, evade any initial attack (thus leaving the opponent at a disadvantage) and block and circular attack.

    How can you beat this? Easy. Since I'm playing wrecklessly whenever I whiff or get a PK blocked, start by going for your fastest mid, which, at 14 frames, will crush my low punch. If I get wise to that and start evading, you can use either a circular, or delay your attack (which will cause me to enter a failed evade animation, and let you hit me successfully).

  • Always evading to the background
  • For whatever reason I always evade to the background (up on the controller). This is more a force of habit than anything else, and is generally because I find it easier to guarantee an evade with this direction. Hitting down on my controller makes me feel more inclined to enter a duck rather than to successfully evade.

    Why is this bad? Because a very skilled opponent knows that some of their moves are only half-circular, and will automatically hit me when I evade in a specific direction. By adjusting their stance to ensure that the circular property of their move matches the direction that I'm evading in, they will ensure a large number of free hits against me.

    How can you beat this? Determine which moves your character has that are half circular, and learn to recognize which direction they will sweep through based on your stance. Brad has a half-circular move that is the start of his Lumpini combination, executed with 4P. By learning which direction this move will come out in (circular through the foreground or the background), you can adjust Brad's stance accordingly and guarantee free hits against me when I evade up.

  • Reversal everytime my opponent rises
  • Brad has only one really useful reversal, and it's mostly only applicable in one scenario. By inputting 1P+K, Brad is able to catch mid-kicks and reverse them. The only time you can really rely on seeing a mid-kick from the opponent is when you have knocked them down. In this situation, Brad can reverse almost every rising mid-kick. This is a great boon, and really intimidates your opponents. By using good yomi, you can scare your opponents into rising holding the block button, opening up your entire wake-up game.

    However, too much of anything is bad, and that applies in droves to Brad's reversal. First of all, this is a gamble at the best of times. Even if I know that my opponent will always use a rising kick, I still have to guess whether or not they will go mid or low. If they go low and I enter the reversal input, I will get hit with a counter hit, taking extra damage and finding myself at an even worse disadvantage. If my opponent elects simly to rise, I still enter the failed reversal animation, and my opponent gets to be the first one to press the attack.

    How can you beat this? Easy. Just rise with low kicks. Don't feel like doing that? Just rise and wait for my failed reversal animation (Brad will raise his knee and hit his elbow against it). Once you see that, throw my ass across the ring. That's all there is to it. This is really the worst habit I have, and there is no excuse for throwing reversals out more than once or twice a match, or if the opponent really has no ability to play intelligently. Punish me for this and help me learn!

Okay, those are the major crutches that I'm currently working through. I have a lot of things that I think I do fairly effectively, but the next post I want to focus on moves and stances of Brad's that I don't use enough and would like to introduce more into my standard arsenal. Top of that list? Sway-back (4P+K+G). Stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Charge moves and you

One of the things that I rarely see used in online play are charge moves. Most characters have at least one move that can be charged up, prior to releasing. Once you've fully charged the move, it will automatically execute, and usually the properties are altered in some way. Usually these are automatic guard stuns, meaning that even if the opponent blocks the movie, they will still be staggered and have their guard broken.

Using a charge move requires a little bit of finesse, and is not something that you want to use frequently. At best, the move should be used sparingly, and as a way of mixing up the rhythm of your fighting pattern.

Let's touch on that for a second. Every match in Virtua Fighter, at its core, has a particular rhythm behind it. Combo strings follow a certain rhythm and timing, and most players learn to anticipate and react based on this timing. As you get to know the characters a little better, you learn where their combos can be broken, and where you need input your own counter-attacks to recapture the advantage in a round. Good players learn to feel this rhythm, even if they're not explicitly aware of it, and to adapt to the rhythm that the opponent is using. Great players take this one step further, and learn to change up there rhythm to increase the difficulty in reacting to their actions.

It should be obvious at this point where charge moves fit in - they offer one more way for you to mix-up your rhythm and keep your opponent from adapting to your pattern and timing.

So, how do you use them? The first step in a game like Virtua Fighter is to establish a baseline of expectation for your opponent. What I mean is that you start by using combos and moves that are generally safe, and do not provide a lot of room for your opponent to punish you. For Brad, some of these moves and combos are PPK, PP into stance, KP, and 6P. These moves provide safe options to begin your offense from, and do not leave a large amount of room open to be punished.

The reason that you want to establish a baseline of expectation using moves like this are so that your opponent becomes trained to expect them. Good strategy in Virtua Fighter 5 involves training the opponent to expect certain things, and then deviating from those expectations to catch the opponent off guard and punish them.

Our ultimate goal in setting this baseline, is to get the opponent to start robotically blocking each part of the sequence. After getting hit with the third hit in the PPK series over and over, the opponent is gradually going to become trained to block low after seeing two punches. It is at this point that we start to introduce new moves. Remember the golden rule - don't change what is working. If your opponent is not able to deal with what you are doing, then you should not change it. Let them adapt first, and then change up your gameplan.

Once you've managed to get your opponent to block each part of the sequence, mix things up by introducing a charged move. Brad's charge move fits in fairly well with the above mentioned sequence, and the new string to introduce is PP, 6, K (charge). This comes out as two punches, then entering into his ducking stance, and lastly, fully charging his knee. If you have trained your opponent correctly, they will sit their blindly waiting for the last kick, only to eat a fully charged knee and then be comboed.

Why not just use a throw instead? This is a good question - the short answer is because this is different than a throw. The long answer has many reasons. A succesfully charged attack like Brad's knee will break either standing or ducking guard. The knee will enable a combo, whereas a throw will not. Perhaps most important of all, it's good to do different things. The more varied you can make your attack, the more difficult it will be for your opponent to figure out how to deal with it.

You want to use charges sparingly, and mainly as a way to prevent your opponent from getting comfortable with any particular method of blocking. Make the opponent uncomfortable defending, and you will be one step closer to winning the match.

The alternative to fully charging is to partially delay your attacks. This will not alter the properties of the move, but it does provide another alternative to mix-up your rhythm. The ideal situation that you are aiming for is to unload your move right as your opponent realizes that they have a chance to strike and knock you out of your combo. If you have correctly judged your opponent, you will be awarded a counterhit, and can punish accordingly.

Charge moves can also provide the opportunity for good okizeme. That is - wake up games. Each time you knock your opponent down, a guessing game begins. Will your opponent rise with a mid or low kick? Will they roll away? Will they tech roll? Or will they stand up and block. When I've knocked my opponent down, I'm aiming to train them to rise and block. By punishing them for rising and attacking, you can set imbue your opponents with the need to block when they rise. Once you've accomplished this, you can start introducing charged attacks, once again, as a way to punish your opponent for rising and blocking.

Charge attacks should be used sparingly, and when the time is right, you'll feel it. I find myself using them at most once every 3 or 4 matches, simply because they put you at a high risk, and you need to know that you have got your opponent pegged correctly on their block.

That's all for now, but I'll post again soon with the other aspect of rhyhtm and mix-ups that are important - throws.