Coming off EVO 2022, the biggest fighting game tournament in the land, Arc System Works reigned supreme. In addition to developing three of the nine titles officially featured at the tournament, their 2021 sequel to a formerly niche series, Guilty Gear Strive, was the most entered game at the event and received the coveted final broadcasting slot of the night. However, there was one notable exception from the main stage: the studio’s most recently released outing, DNF Duel.
While most fighting games get a decent bump in player count following the mega-tourney, as spectators flock to recreate the heroics they just witnessed, the post-EVO DNF Duel active player count was still in freefall. Months later, things have only gotten worse, and as of today it bottomed out at around a 24-hour peak of just 48 concurrent players on PC according to SteamDB, down from 12,331 when it released in June. Compared to the studio’s other older titles like Strive(2021) (24-hour peak: 1,958), Dragon Ball FighterZ(2018) (24-hour peak: 1,401), or BlazBlue: Central Fiction(2016) (24-hour peak: 367) the game’s community seems to have evaporated.
This is even more bizarre considering the fighter is based on the world of Dungeon Fighter Online, a South Korean multiplayer RPG that has over 850 million registered players with sales of $18 billion, making it one of the most popular videogames of all time. While almost all this popularity comes from China, where it recorded as many as 5 million concurrent players, one would assume that at least some of this player base may have carried over.
Going into its release, there were many reasons to be excited for DNF Duel. It sports the type of flashy anime aesthetic Arc System Works is known for and was co-developed by Eighting, who created the beloved Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The cast is distinctive, embodying extreme renditions of gameplay archetypes like back-breaking grapplers, slippery zoners, and speedy rushdown brawlers. In its betas, these characters’ maximalist movesets seemed like they would be a blast to use, and the differences between their gameplans made it seem like matchups would be varied and engaging. Additionally, the online play is relatively smooth, and the ranked mode feels well-implemented. Personally, I sunk in roughly 80 hours over the first month, and it initially lived up to my expectations. This all begs the question, what went wrong?
The first level of woes are some of the usual suspects for many fighting games: balance issues and a lack of support. After its first few weeks, disparities between the cast’s haves and have-nots became apparent as Swift Master, a suitably named air mage, dominated tournaments and online play. Other characters, like the close-ranged brawler Striker and the comeback-enabling Hitman, were also a cut above, while others like Launcher and Vanguard were considered underwhelming. While it’s not uncommon for entries in the genre to have wonky balancing at release, the far greater issue is that almost nothing has been done to address this.
There has only been a single balance patch, and aside from some nerfs to Swift Master, the changes were relatively inconsequential. While Arc System Works and Eighting promised a more extensive balance patch later this year, there hasn’t been an update on this in months, and there are no announced plans for new characters. Additionally, there have been many reports of bugs, such as input issues and screen freezes during online matches on PC. While fighting games tend to roll out changes at a slower rate than many more mainstream multiplayer titles like Overwatch or Fortnite, the almost complete lack of support several months after release is abnormal and has contributed to plummeting confidence in the game’s future. While user-generated reviews can be a finicky way to measure actual player approval due to review-bombing and selection bias, it is currently sitting at a mediocre 63% positive reviews on Steam, with recent reviews trending even worse. Many of the listed complaints relate to the lack of updates.
Another largely fixable gaffe is the lack of appropriate region-specific pricing, making it dramatically more expensive than other genre entries in certain areas of the world. For example, in Argentina, DNF Duel is currently selling for ARS$ 4739,00 ($26.79) compared to Guilty Gear Strive’s ARS$ 629,99 ($3.86). In short, the current pricing means the game is unaffordable in many regions, further reducing its potential for a sizeable player base.
However, while these balance and pricing issues are somewhat easily fixable, the game also has several deeper problems that seem unlikely to change. Most glaringly, it arguably lacks the depth that defines some of its peers. Many of its underlying design principles came from a noble intent, to make fighting games more approachable to those unfamiliar with the space. To this end, performing inputs is much simpler than most other genre entries, and doing quarter-circle or z-motion stick inputs is mostly optional. There are also only two normal attack buttons instead of something like Street Fighter’s six, meaning the move list is smaller. Another major simplification is blocking can be done by pressing a button instead of holding back on the stick to guard, so someone using the block button can’t be “crossed up.” In most fighting games, when an opponent jumps over you as you’re blocking, you have to change the direction of the stick to keep successfully guarding. The inclusion of a block button makes things more forgiving on defense because you don’t have to switch guard direction, but it also results in fewer ways to open up your opponent while on offense, which can potentially make things feel less dynamic.
On its face, these types of design considerations make some sense, as it was clearly aimed at tapping into Dungeon Fighter Online’s massive player base by making things more approachable to beginners. However, the issue is that even with these changes, things are likely still complex enough to scare off fresh faces. Although the smaller move list and simplified inputs make it easier to jump in and play, getting the most out of many characters requires learning relatively long, somewhat complex combos. While these aren’t nearly as involved as the link-heavy combos of older fighting games, many characters like Swift Master and Striker have sequences that take a good amount of time to iron out.
And perhaps even worse, DNF Duel doesn’t do much to communicate how to actually play a fighting game. This lack of adequate tutorials is one of the biggest sticking points for the genre in general, as few titles teach the core tenets that define almost all entries, such as how to approach neutral, “okizeme,” defense, or conditioning opponents. While reducing the barrier to entry through simplified inputs does make things easier in some ways, the game does little to address the knowledge gap between newer players and veterans, and its combos are relatively involved, meaning it isn’t as beginner-friendly as it would initially appear. On top of this, there isn’t much in the way of a story mode, so there’s not much here for those uninterested in bouts against other players.
The fundamental issue is that while there were attempts at streamlining the game for newer players, they failed to address the more significant underlying elements that make the genre tough to get into while also undermining gameplay depth. From the perspective of someone experienced, while I have very few issues with the input simplifications, as you can still do the more complex versions for additional reward, I think the reduction of normal attacks and the removal of cross-ups reduces a lot of nuances, which becomes more noticeable the more you play. Eventually, matches feel stagnant and overly similar. As for the limited number of attacks, I think the better solution is a simplified input mode, such as what Street Fighter 6 has. Here newer players can choose more forgiving controls, while veterans can use more complex movesets that grant more options.
Another major reason players haven’t stuck around is that the game has very little interaction between opponents because most of a match is spent either performing a lengthy combo or being on the receiving end of one. Combos can be exceedingly long and are highly damaging, meaning it only takes a few openings to win a match, reducing the amount of mind games and maneuvering. Defense is also generally very weak, and unlike something like Guilty Gear where there are ways to break out of opponent strings, here you just have to take it. Another annoyance is the hefty comeback mechanics, where if you’ve received more damage, you enter a powered-up state that grants access to a powerful super and character-specific boons. For instance, while in this damaged state, Hitman can kill off a single opening, one mistake invalidating the rest of the match, which proves frustrating if you’re fighting against him.
In my own experience, I had a good time learning matchups, figuring out my characters’ combos, and playing matches until I suddenly hit a wall. I realized that while there were more things to learn and many ways to improve, the lack of interactivity, balance, and similar cadence of matches sapped my drive to come back. After losing interest, I went into EVO 2022 hoping that witnessing high-level play would kickstart my desire to get back into it. While the players competing in the games’ side-tourney were incredibly skilled, this burst of motivation didn’t come to pass. Compared to the insane matches I witnessed in Street Fighter V and Guilty Gear Strive, or even things I don’t play like Tekken 7, it became clear that even at higher levels, there just wasn’t as much room for interactivity relative to other fighting games.
Considering its attachment to Dungeon Fighter Online, one of the highest-grossing videogames of all time, I thought DNF Duel had at least a chance at breaking into a larger demographic beyond those normally interested in the genre. Maybe that was always wishful thinking considering how different the two titles are, but at the very least, I thought its bombastic gameplay would offer enough dumb fun to hold me over until the rightfully anticipated Street Fighter 6 comes out next year. However, the game’s lack of support and fundamental issues made it little more than a temporary diversion from better, deeper fighting games. It’s possible that a comeback is on the horizon, but given the almost complete radio silence from its developers, dwindling player count, and fundamental gameplay problems, I’m not holding my breath.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.