What is your approach?
It seems as if many of the people I talk to lack certain perspectives when it comes to learning something - that is, they haven't quite learned how to learn. When trying to get good at videogames, I see a lot of people do the same exact thing over and over again without any improvement (DERP), and wonder what's going wrong. I see it a lot when it comes to stuff besides videogames, but that's outside the scope of this website.
You can get quite far on just practicing and being gung-ho, but if that isn't doing it for you, break it down and actually THINK. I don't mean "what am I doing wrong?" You should already be thinking that, as well as "What am I doing right?" You need to think about every aspect of everything, really learn what you're trying to accomplish. When you're playing a videogame in competition, it's the same as playing football in the NFL, Curling at the Olympics, or playing Chess - know the freaking game. Know what your limitations are, know what the rules are, and learn every thing you can before you think you can win.
However, some of you make this sort of effort and are still having trouble. You put in time and effort, but no results. What's going wrong? Break it down. There are many aspects to each game - you'll learn faster from the start if you know what to learn, and you'll improve faster if you know what to improve on. Those of you that have prior experience are at an advantage. Does knowing how to play other games really make a difference?
Yes. Your skills will transfer over. This is why TheMasterer in PurePwnage says "You must pwn at all games." Being great at Halo won't help you play Brawl as much as being great at Melee would, but at least you'll know what to look for. And if you ever play another FPS, you already know what to look for. When it comes to FPS, once you learn the properties of the weapons and the maps, the skill of getting a headshot is transferable. You can't transfer that over to Melee, but maybe your reaction time will have improved - that's a plus. Maybe you're experienced with mindgames/yomi at this point - they know you have a positional advantage if you do this, so they expect it and counter, so you move somewhere else to counter that counter - that transfers to other games. Maybe you played Starcraft? Different controller for sure, but your intense button micro should help you to pick up Melee faster. You can focus on the ins and outs of the game play without worrying too much about your technical skill holding you back since you'll pick it up quickly.
I want you to try thinking in terms of individual skill sets that you can practice, so that you'll realize what activities will help you to practice which skills, and what practice will do more or less for you in the long run - you'll be more efficient that way.
It is at this point that I want to tell you all that this article has been rewritten. As a whole, it was too long to be put on the front page because few people like to stare at a wall of text. For those of you that want to read the original version, you can go here: http://allisbrawl.com/forum/topic.aspx?id=106540
Now, since my 2 examples of ways to approach learning a new game have been cut out (they will be posted at a later date on the front page, so don't worry), I feel that I need to give you something more substantial than "Don't be stupid, learn the game, suck less."
I wonder, what is the first thing you do when you pick up a new game that you intend to be really good at (like, top 10 tournament placing good)? Have you ever thought about it yourself? Do you just pick up the game and start playing? Do you go into training mode?
There's no right answer, but the best answer definitely depends on your prior experience. I do think you'll get more out of just starting the game up and playing it, but how long you're just messing around playing arcade mode or vs comps or whatever the hell you want to do is what matters. Once you've learned the basic barebones mechanics from playing the game, whether it be learning that you can airdodge in smash or learning what a burst is in BB, you need to at least look into the specifics. I don't mean reading framerate data for a few hours once you learn what the buttons do - I mean making an effort to learn that first character you decided you're going to start with, and at this point it doesn't even matter who that is or if you're going to change your mind in 30 minutes.
I'll just pretend we're picking up Brawl for the first time here, and that we've never played before (hard to imagine since I've been playing Smash since SSB64 came out). Let's go right into versus mode because we're assuming you want to get as good at the competitive aspects as possible, as fast as possible. You pick a character... let's say Link (because he's Link, and he's cool). You turn on a comp, set it to lvl 3 because that's the default. Turn off items because you know its convention, pick battlefield.
So if you're like most young kids when you start, you're just holding the analog stick towards the comp and pressing buttons because you want to win your first game. If you're trying to learn what you're doing, you're pressing the buttons to see what they do ("how do I jump? How do I attack? How do I shot web? O lookie, I can roll!"). You're probably getting hit by the comp every few moments, but you're probably hitting the comp back as you figure out what attacks you have. Maybe you notice you have F-tilt, your smashes, grab, and some of the B moves, but odds are you don't realize what's making certain things happen right away. You might just barely realize what tilts are by the end of the first match, and you've probably SDed at least once because you don't fully know how fallspeed and recovery work. You play again and start paying closer attention to what your character does and how the moves work. Now you start actually trying to kill the computer. You win a match, switch characters.
You pick Wario. The game starts and "Whoa, I move fast!" Yeah, compared to Link, you're moving pretty damn fast in the air. Then you notice that the comp Marth you're playing against keeps hitting you through your moves, and maybe you get frustrated. You know it's because he has a sword and you don't, but you don't know what his moves are like that well to be able to punish them, or what your own are to know what your best options are, so you start messing around again. Your tools are totally different, you move faster and are harder to control, Marth has his sword which is "cheap" compared to your bare hands (assuming you'd be quite scrubby if you've never played a fighting game before), and you have no projectiles. Wario sucks, let's pick someone else.
You go through the character roster looking for someone you like, and once you find that character, you just start playing. You want to be the best like no one ever was, but you're off to a slow start. That character you picked is working well for you, but you don't even know why. You just know that he/she is good, so you're trying to get good with him/her.
Let's say you start the game up having played some Guilty Gear and entered a few local tourneys. You don't know what Brawl is like, but you were competitive at another fighting game, so you have an advantage. No idea who you want to main, but you played Millia (just using her for a specific example since I actually know how she works), so you're looking for similar tools since that'll be familiar.
You pick Link at first, and you set up vs a lvl 3 comp because that's the default setting. You start up and hit each button once to see what they do, realize you've only done like 4 different moves (jab, neutral B, jump, and grab, besides blocking). Wow, there's a separate block button. WOW, I don't have hp??? Wtf, there's only one gatling (his jab combo) and they can escape it? No moves link together? Wtf is this? How do I kill the guy?
You you mess around until you learn the fundamentals of the game. You realize you win by ring out - not by damage. You realize that you have a dodge mechanic, and you realize that it's not the standard 2D fighter you're used to (instead of front/back movement, it's full on left/right).
So at the back of your mind, you think "I wonder if there's any move that I could use to kill at lower damage", and with good reason. You start trying to gimp the computer instead of working on your spacing game. You win because it's a stupid comp.
Now, you go into training mode. With a few minutes, you realize how tilts work, and you figure out your other B moves. "Ok, I have a projectile, and... oh lookie, Bombs!" You have a move that's a separate hitbox that you can throw upwards into the air and have it come back down as you're doing something else. "Oh dude, a boomerang?"
At this point, you realize you have something similar to Millia - her 236H move was an attack with delayed startup that you could activate and then have pressure while you did something else. You keep going and see how grabs don't have instant startup, and overall learn all your moves. You don't like Link because he's way too damn slow compared to Millia.
You switch to Wario to see if he's any faster (because you'd like a character that actually has endurance compared to Millia, lol). You jump around, see that he's freaking fast in the air (Millia is a rushdown character with 2 airdashes), so you decide to actually learn this character first. You go through and learn all of his moves. "Whoa, he has a motorcycle, that's pretty cool." You realize you can throw it into the air and it'll come back down and bounce multiple times, while staying an active hitbox. You figure this guy is perfect to start with because he fits the bill. He has an active hitbox which is separate from yourself (similar tools), he's fast in the air (like Millia), and he's heavy (cool bonus). You also notice his bite, which is a grab, and that it can be held out for a while.
You play another match with a computer, crank the difficulty up to 5 because 3 wasn't an issue, even though you didn't really know what you were doing. Now, things are quite different even though you have similar tools - you're not just trying to cause knockdown so you can set the bike up for pressure because no such method to do so exists for this character, and even if it did, you realize this game has teching in it. You're resourceful, so you get the comp off the stage, pull a bike, and throw it off. Success! The comp is too stupid to recover correctly, wastes its jumps trying to get past the bike, and dies. Repeat X2. Wow.
One more game, crank it up to 9 because this feels too easy. Now you're having a hard time getting the comp off the stage, and it's smarter, so it's not just getting gimped every time you do so. It seems to have perfect blocking and dodging, and it always punishes you. Maybe you shouldn't have cranked it so far so quickly, but you keep going, landing hits once in a while. At this point you've noticed that the comp isn't comboing you very much either - I guess that's just the way this game is? Instead of going for a safe poke and then getting the highest reward possible out of it, you have to build damage with whatever works, and then make an effort to send them past the blast line. However, you do notice that some moves do link together just barely, no matter how fast you try to airdodge away, so maybe some 2 hit combos are possible. The comp lives till like 200% because you're not used to it. You lose, but you took off a stock.
ONE MORE TIME!
As you're playing this time, you notice that moves are doing less damage and knockback as you do them over and over (you're Dair spamming since it seems to work well vs the comp - they perfect block the first hit, but get hit by the rest, or if they keep their shield up, you Bite them), so you come to realize that's how the game works. Now you're looking closer at the moves, trying to see exactly what properties each one has. Maybe some have the ability to link into something else, maybe some do low damage but are kills, maybe some do high damage but suck for killing - you don't know yet, but you're working on it.
At this point, let's stop and break it down. With this prior experience, you're getting further, but for what reason exactly?
First off, you know that a crucial tactic is to find the safest way to deal as much damage as possible, or maybe in this case, the safest way to kill without doing much damage (why do damage when you don't have to?). You haven't found any combos, but you know they could exist. You've noticed that stronger moves tend to be a bit slower overall, but if you can combo into them, even if it's just that 2nd hit, it's rewarding - once they're ready to die, why risk that Dsmash by itself when you can Fair into Fsmash?
You know you punish shields with a grab, and you know you get around grabs with a dodge, but having played Wario, you know a more effective move - you use the bite instead of a grab, it punishes dodges too. You know you can throw the bike for that long lasting hitbox, and if they block, you can try to grab to punish anyway - though it is risky to pull the bike out.
The biggest difference here is that you had a feeling of where to start and where you were going next. You still have a lot to learn, but your foundation is solid from the first time you started playing.
Anyway, I have a feeling this is longer than it originally was, so I have to cut it off here. There are certain aspects to quick improvement that expand beyond seeing the basics faster and learning the game - if you know what okizemi is at the start, you know to look for tools to utilize it, and if you're playing a game that actually supports it (like transitioning from Guilty Gear to BlazBlue), the improvement is astronomically faster - you don't have to work at spacing right from the start to land hits if you know how to keep oki in your favor from your first knockdown. Think rock paper scissors, only guessing right gets you another combo, guessing wrong means you have to back off and approach again, and both of you guessing wrong could go either way (you see it faster and keep the advantage or your opponent sees it and takes it from you).
Think of it this way - if you don't know what moves you have to space around with, but you know how to knock the guy down repeatedly and continuously do damage, you're still winning. Once you learn to space, and that's your main focus at this point, you now know how to get that first knockdown. The whole match isn't dependent on you getting a single knockdown so that you have a chance to win - now it's an even match, but if you get a knockdown, you have a serious advantage. Make sense?
If you play Brawl (or any game) and are wondering why you're not getting better, I encourage you to take a second look at how you're approaching the game. The rabbit-hole goes much deeper than this... you'll get more info out of me in the coming weeks.
And if you want something to read while you wait, look up Sirlin's "Playing to Win".