Avoiding the Frame Data Trap
Frame data can shackle your creativity. If you don’t understand it completely – and nobody does – access to frame data can limit what you think is possible. There’s a whole range of fundamental tactics that top players have been using since Hyper Fighting, which are just now being explained in terms of frame data. Who knows how much longer that development path would’ve taken had frame data gotten in everyone’s way from day one?
Unless you can visualize how fighting game engines run better than i can, be careful about restricting all your ideas to frame data. Even the most experienced combo video makers commit mistakes when interpreting and applying that breadth of information.
Not to mention, published frame data neglects or misrepresents a broad spectrum of elements including jumping attack properties, cancelability windows, elusive hitboxes, effective ranges, pushback distances, and a whole slew of projectile characteristics. If you think about it, the sheer amount of critical information regularly left out of frame data tables is simply staggering.
The question is, how much of your game do you want to put on the line for some oversimplified numbers you read on a chart? In truth, the way to learn fighting games hasn’t changed since the first generation. You simply browse through the available cast, narrow down your choices to a handful of characters which appeal to you, and choose one to start with. Spend an hour or two learning their moves, and then it’s on to matches – either against the CPU or preferably against human competition.
Obviously you shouldn’t pass up any major opportunities to augment your knowledge by reading strategy articles, discussing matchups on SRK forums, or using frame data as a backup option. However, your core understanding of the game should always come from firsthand experience with your own senses and digits.
Frame data works much better as a quick reference than as a foundation. At the end of the day, nobody processes games numerically in real time. Even people like me, who cite frame data when answering questions, never treat live matches like a two-player math quiz.
Fighting game mastery is all about “feel” and it’s a serious mistake to drift away from that principle. For example, if you need a quick attack to counter a specific rushdown tactic, it helps to glance through frame data for the most promising candidates. At this point, anyone who’s had any experience with frame data will tell you that trusting the smallest startup number is a losing bet more often than not. Fighting games are usually balanced in such a way that the most impressive attack on paper tends to have the weakest hitbox properties as compensation.
The golden rule is: You never know until you test it. Most people have a much easier time coming up with new tricks and solutions when freely messing around in Training Mode, even though – or possibly because – it requires more work than basic arithmetic. You have to admit, playing the game is certainly more conducive to creativity than staring at a number sheet.
Equally important is understanding that fighting game strategy evolves in direct relation to players actively trying to bend and break the established rules of the engine. Frame data can still be helpful in explaining these deviations, but it’s nearly useless in deriving them. The point being, frame data will only lead you so far. Don’t stop there.