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I am putting together the initial design ideas for a 3D fighting game. Overall the style of the combat I would like to be something between UFC and DOA games, so focused on realism but the pacing more like cinema combat.

After doing research on the most successful fighting games I have found that the juggle mechanic seems to be common amongst many of them. Honestly I can't really understand why this is so popular for the following reasons:

  1. From a fighting perspective it is quite a ridiculous idea and does not happen in any real fighting style competition. You might knock a person of their feet, very rarely hit them once when they are in the air but to do some kind of combo or base a winning strategy around it, no way.

  2. As a game mechanic I find the idea of having a player wait without being able to do anything while they are being juggled in the air seems not very fun, especially if the damage potential is very high eg. half the player health. It also feels unnecessarily punishing in that one mistake can end the match, although in real fighting competition it is also the case that a single attack can end a match as well.

I am wondering what it is about this mechanic that is so beneficial in fighting games? Because to all honesty I was thinking of not using it at all but I'm not sure if that means I have to compensate for it in my design somehow to keep the game balanced? I know some games like Tekken experimented with their juggle feature such as adding characters that could escape juggles or severely toning them done like in Tekken 4.

I was thinking of perhaps using something like a stun system instead, where certain attacks will stun the other player allowing a free hit but perhaps still giving the stunned player an option such as a counter/reversal so they are not just stuck waiting there. This would reward players with similar free hit combos if they executed a stun combo and I am thinking of possibly adding some kind of escape move at certain points in the combo to allow the player being damaged opportunities to turn the tables. I am wondering though if both the counter/reversal and stun escapes tip the balance too far into the player being damaged side, making it not worth the effort for the attacking player? How exactly do I find a balance for this? Because I don't want the game to be only a defensive game, where the player who waits longer and counters will always have the advantage. For example, if the juggle mechanic was completely removed from a game like Tekken or DOA, would something else in the game need to change to compensate? I feel it would just make them a bit more like UFC games, but happy to get other explanations on this.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This actually does happen in real life. For example, someone who has fallen on the ground is is being repeatedly kicked at in the ribs normally cannot do anything while being kicked in the ribs - that is real-life juggling. Similarly repeated quick stabs with a knife is a real-life juggling that most real martial arts cannot counter effectively while the attack (very quick repeated underhand jabs while constantly advancing forward). \$\endgroup\$
    – slebetman
    Jun 27 at 4:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ "I am basically trying to understand what it is that "works" about this mechanic" - well, in these games, you develop skills over time, and then it becomes a test of skill between the two players. It's all about reading the opponent (which is why you have to have telegraphing animations in there), and making split-second decisions - you're trying to outplay the opponent, trying to catch them off-guard or when they've made the wrong move. It's the "I've got you!" moment - it doesn't have to happen mid-air. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 27 at 13:20

4 Answers 4

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Indie fighting game developer chiming in, with one released low poly 3D fighting game. The following answer is based on my personal experience and what I observed in the genre.

Juggle systems in general

Juggle systems in 3D fighters are mostly the counterpart to grounded link combos in 2D fighters. What they do is guarantee some measure of damage out of winning a gameplay interaction.

Games like Tekken, Dead or Alive and Virtua Fighter use them to allow a player that scored one hit to actually get some reward out of it. It's a reward for opening up the opponent and it's considered fairly intuitive from a gameplay stand-point (you launch the opponent in the air and hit them until they fall down) compared with traditional 2D links (in which you need to know which move will be fast enough to keep your grounded combo going on after the first hit is capitalized).

In short, the pros of juggling systems are:

  1. Somehow intuitive for casual players compared to traditional grounded combos, as once the opponent is in the air they can experiment freely with hitting them;
  2. At the same time, more competitive players have a lot of room for optimization and finding how to dish out the most damage out of a specific launcher, increasing the depth of the combo system
  3. Give a damage reward to a player that managed to outsmart their opponent, not unlike a traditional combo

It's perfectly fair not to like juggles (I too do think some games go too far with them), but once you see them as an equivalent to an unexcapable grounded combo - only, in the air - you can see that they aren't too different in concept from what is a staple in the genre.

What would happen if you remove juggles?

Removing the juggle system in the games you mentioned would be akin to removing most of the high damage combos from those games, making them have more weight on neutral and more room for errors and mistakes from both players. Current iterations of DoA and Tekken are games that can be decided in 3-4 interactions. Removing juggles, you would have a game more focused on neutral back and forth, with matches that would potentially last longer.

It's a direction you are free to take, it's just not the direction the games you mentioned chose - and it's perfectly fine.

Notable 3D fighting games with limited juggle systems

Virtua Fighter and Soulcalibur have some limited juggles that don't last long and are used as a way to dish out more damage, capitalising on an opponent's error. Virtua Fighter is in general a game with high damage per se, so even without juggles rounds don't last long. In my experience, Soulcalibur tends to be more focused on neutral than on combos and the limited juggles and air evasion system might be something you want to look into. Both games aren't supposed to be realistic, though.

In the end, juggles are just a tool in your fighting game development toolbox - if you don't find them useful for your game, you are not forced to use them.

Conclusions

Edited in on 28.06.22 to incorporate a discussion in the comments

In the end, whether one has juggles, links or stun-based combos in their game, all those mechanics are stand-ins for giving a player who successfully scored a hit some measure or reward for winning the interaction.

As long as you can give an attacking player some benefit from managing to hit the opponent with a high risk move (a launcher, a slow, heavy normal or anything similar), you can functionally replace one with the other.

Of course, the execution requirements will be different (with e.g. juggles being averagely easier for a new player than links), so you will have to juggle (no pun intended) the various component in your system until you obtain the result you want to achieve.

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    \$\begingroup\$ And perhaps the ultimate no-juggle 3D game: Bushido Blade. \$\endgroup\$
    – IceGlasses
    Jun 27 at 18:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you just remove juggling without changing anything else, then yeah it would be removing most high-damage combos. But it sounds like you could replace juggling with something that felt / looked more realistic, but mechanically was still a high-damage combo with the opponent on the ground or on their feet (but stun-locked by the combo), if you want your game to play like other fighting games. Your point about the timing being more intuitive for beginners is important from a pure gameplay PoV; perhaps some animation for the duration of a stun could be a thing. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 5:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ That's a very insightful breakdown @AndreaJens. Do you think though if a popular 3d game that uses a juggle system decided to replace (instead of remove) it with something like a stun system would that really have a negative impact on the gameplay? Instead of launching you would stun the enemy and be able to get a similar amount of free hits based on your skill/timing. Pretty similar role gameplay wise I would think? I feel like some games like Tekken 4 attempted this but were met with severe fan backlash, I've never understood why. DOA is a good example of stuns used instead of juggles. \$\endgroup\$
    – FrontEnd
    Jun 28 at 10:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Oh, yes, one last thing that I already addressed in my answer and also what @PeterCordes remarked: juggle combos are VERY beginner friendly - it's easy to tell someone "just hit the opponent until they fall to the ground". Going for stun combos might work to the same effect only if you make it as easy to pick up for beginners and casual players too (e.g. adding a big slowdown on the first hit to give time to the player to understand that now they can go in with their combo, or something in this direction), at least in my opinion. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 28 at 10:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was actually thinking a similar thing, where "knock down combos" could replace juggles. Instead of just being allowed one soccer kick while they're down, knocking someone down would act as a launcher in which you have a follow up set of ground combos similar to real grappling and the player's skill determines how much damage they can inflict. I really think like you said it comes down to having a guaranteed combo mechanic which is triggered by some kind of successful hit, whether stun, launcher, knockdown or anything else. \$\endgroup\$
    – FrontEnd
    Jun 28 at 10:31
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Juggling is one of the mechanic that experts in fighting games usually expect to have. It offers a chance to avoid it to the receiving player. And it offers potentially high punishment, bound to the skill of the attacker.

When I say punishment, I mean, of course, that to juggle the move should be clear and easy to avoid… Why would the other player not do so? It could be because they didn't know, or didn't notice, or because they were in an animation. Which could be an attack with long recovery animation that didn't connect (and is being punished), or… you know… they are falling… perhaps because they are being juggled.

So, yes, they are NOT beginner friendly. Ultimately it is prevalent in fighting games because those games target expert players. And if that is the audience you want, then consider including it too.


Perhaps you are making a more beginner friendly fighting game. In which case, I would suggest the exercise of design by elimination. Look that mechanics, see what does not fit, and don't include that. Under this approach, making a fighting game without juggling makes perfect sense.


But are you making a fighting game? What I'll say might sound like splitting hairs. But the line between genres can be fussy. For this answer, consider genres to be clusters of mechanically challenge and aesthetics given a name by marketing.

You have been searching for fighting games, and you are finding these games with juggling. So marketing says fighting games have juggling. If your game does not have juggling, perhaps it isn't a fighting games. There is no shame on that.

What I'm suggesting is that thinking that you are making a fighting game is not helping you. In fact, it seems to me that "wrestling game" is a better match (I might be wrong on that). If you look at wrestling games, you are going to see more realistic combat, with virtually no juggling.

You can think about the target audience of your game, and consider the game genre they want and their level of mastery of that genre, and try to make a game that fits that… Or you can make the game you want, with the mechanics you want, and then see where it fits. And it might end up fitting somewhere you didn't expect. And perhaps you find that your game fits a particular genre, and then take as reference other games in that genre.

So look at wrestling games and other adjacent genres. It might be simply that you are taking the wrong references.

Addendum: You should also contrast the 2D and 3D variants of these genres.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "[juggling is] NOT beginner friendly" - but beginners shouldn't be all that good at juggling, so for beginners playing against beginners, it shouldn't be all that bad (and for beginners playing against experts... well, that's not going to go well in any case). There might be some middle-ground of skill where players have figured out how to juggle fairly consistently without knowing how to counter it, but that sounds something one can avoid to a reasonable degree with a combination of good game design and knowledge-sharing among players. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 28 at 8:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am wondering though why something like a juggle system is particularly targeted for more advanced players, when there are so many other mechanics which would be more fitting for mastering a fighting game. It almost feels like during a juggle the player suddenly turns into a skateboarder that is trying to link jumps and cool moves for the highest score (or damage in this case), quite at odds with fighting or martial arts. As an example, if you consider the stun system, it functions very similar in fighting games, in fact I dare say it could be used instead. Yet games have both, why? \$\endgroup\$
    – FrontEnd
    Jun 28 at 10:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @FrontEnd Juggling is more fun to watch and more satisfying to pull off than a simple stun. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotThatGuy
    Jun 28 at 10:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think that's subjective though, kind of like the difference between watching elite hacky sack vs yoyo. The former might have more "oh crap it's gonna touch the ground" moments but both can string together some pretty awesome looking combos. \$\endgroup\$
    – FrontEnd
    Jun 28 at 10:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NotThatGuy I had a whole thing about how to teach the mechanic, but I cut it from the answer because 1. that wasn't the question and 2. I'm aware I write long answers. But yes, the game can teach all these mechanics as any good game should, and matchmaking is very important. Edit: Many combat games are bad at this. I could go on how and why, but for abstract: You have training vs a dummy which does not help, and versus bad AI (if AI at all) which is a bad teacher. What seems to work better is a solo campaign where mechanics are introduced steadily. But, that sounds more like an action RPG. \$\endgroup\$
    – Theraot
    Jun 28 at 13:03
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I've contemplated this question myself while my character is floating unrealistically in midair, getting beat to a pulp while I wait to be able to play the game again, which often isn't clear to a new player.

They do actually simulate something real though. If you are inexperienced and your opponent gives you an opening, you hit them with some kick and do maybe 10% of their health. If you are experienced, you hit them with a launcher you've practiced a hundred times and do maybe half their health. This is realistic, if you open yourself up to someone who has practiced a kick hundreds of times you are in trouble.

What juggling does is reward practice and being cool under pressure (you have to hit that combo you've been practicing in a live fight, maybe even a tournament). You can easily tune damage so a juggleless game ends just as kickly as one with juggling, but what you'd lose is that differentiation between the noob and the person who's practiced the kick hundreds of times.

Maybe it's fine for your game to not have that, but I think if you come up with a way to have really technically difficult to perform, high damage attacks that don't prevent the opponent from playing the game while they defy gravity, that would be amazing.

Good luck!

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In a fighting game, as well as most games in general, you want to reward some type of actions compared to other types. So, then, what do juggles, here considered to be any type of inescapable combos, reward?

First, it's important to compare equally. Say a strong punch turns into a juggle. The proper comparison isn't with the same punch simply not allowing a juggle, but with that punch not allowing the juggle, but instead being as powerful as the juggle. So what does this reward?

It rewards research-type preparation. Knowing in advance how combos work, what combos work with what, how to achieve ideal combos.

It rewards 'thoughtless' execution. Being able to input a specific, already known series of commands with the correct timing.

It can reward ability to react to initial conditions, if the ideal juggle differs depending on exact character placements or even initial momentum.

Detrimentally, juggles in general will make your game more difficult to balance. Unless you know every single combo, the balance of your entire game can depend on the discovery of a powerful juggle starting from what you had believed to be a weak move.

Juggles can also dramatically widen the gap between players of different skills. The punch of a player who can't juggle will be, essentially, weaker than the punch of a player who can. Whether you consider that an advantage or a detriment is to your discretion.

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