A Post-Street Fighter 4 World

Preface

I want to make two things very clear right now: I enjoy playing the Dead or Alive games (specifically Dead or Alive 2 in all its iterations), and I think the Dead or Alive games are terrible fighting games.

This article is a result of one direct question: Who is the real target market for a non-Capcom, Western aimed fighting game, and how much should it have to change in order to appeal to competitive players, SRK, and the stream monsters?

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: this is an opinion piece.

A Post-Street Fighter 4 World

Fighting games are not judged on the same terms as they were when Dead or Alive 4 was released. They are not released into a vacuum–and let’s face it, when it was released on the 360 Dead or Alive 4 was the only game in town. It was a Microsoft exclusive and a launch (almost) title designed to show off what the system could do, and at 60fps! And online! It didn’t really have competition and the only expectations put on it were to look and sound good, which it did.

Street Fighter 4 did more than just revive 2D fighting games as viable big budget endeavours. The associated boom in tournaments and streams–especially streams–has altered the way the general public perceives fighting games, and also how they’re developed and especially how they’re marketed.

After more than a decade of toiling in virtual secrecy, the competitive fighting game communities around the world were suddenly and irrevocably thrust into the spotlight. Not just the communities, but the games themselves. You’ve probably heard or read people, red-eyed from pressing their nostalgia goggles so firmly into place, complaining that such and such game from the glorious past of this or that genre could never be made today. The same thing applies to fighting games, or at least the big ones that are aimed at a Western market.

Exhibit A: Mortal Kombat

One of the reasons the Japanese concept of kusoge (shitty) fighting games as a subset of competition in which people choose to play these games while also acknowledging that they’re broken and bad seems so localized to Japan is that, after the 90s, Japanese developers were the ones still plopping these terrible games out on a regular basis.

Not to say that shit fighting games didn’t get released in the West, but the circumstances were completely different. In Japan even bad fighting games often got arcade releases, so they were always infused with a spirit of competition from a basic level. Western developers moved in a different direction, which gave us 6 years of Mortal Kombat games that were increasingly awful to play but became more and more self-involved and focused on the single-player experience. These Mortal Kombat games still sold well, even reviewed well, but were virtually dead on arrival as tournament games. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most people who bought games like Mortal Kombat: Deception never even played them against other humans, besides a brief tour of the online features.

I have cherry picked a pair of reviews for Mortal Kombat: Deception (really, they were the first two on metacritic that had active links). One from totalplaystation.com and another from gamechronicles.com. As you read through them count how many sentences and paragraphs are used to discuss the actual gameplay of these fighting games (Spoiler: There aren’t many.). These are glowing, 9 out of 10 reviews and all they care to discuss is how long the Konquest mode is, how great the back story is, and how goofy the minigames are. In fact, there’s more talk about the balance of Chess Kombat than there is of the actual 1 on 1 fighting. Because people didn’t buy Mortal Kombat for the gameplay, at least not on a nuts and bolts level.

I’ve made this point before: Mortal Kombat 9 was a gamble. It may not have seemed like it on the surface–why not cash in on the nostalgia train that Street Fighter 4 started? But, unlike Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat was still a big and profitable series. Only a few years earlier Midway had released Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, and though it flopped instantly as a competitive game, it sold quite well and got good reviews. Midway did bite the dust soon after it was released, but that doesn’t discount the fact that the game itself was a success. All of the terrible, console-only 3D Mortal Kombat games sold over 1 million copies, which is much better than most of their competition.

That’s the crux of the matter: Mortal Kombat was, from a business perspective, still a going concern. The Mortal Kombat games had never been designed or marketed with ambitions of tournament glory. They were made to appeal to Mortal Kombat fans. When NetherRealm announced that Mortal Kombat 9 was going to be a tournament fighting game were also announcing that it was safe for non-Mortal Kombat fans to judge it as a tournament fighting game. That changed things. That meant they had to change things. That Mortal Kombat 9 so overtly erased everything about the past 4 games in the series was tacit admission that the formula they’d been using was so broken it wasn’t worth fixing.

When a company drastically redesign a product to appeal to a completely different market they risk not only losing previous fans but also failing to reach the new ones. Fortunately for all involved Mortal Kombat 9 was a runaway success and the best selling Mortal Kombat game since the 90s, but on many levels it was completely different from every Mortal Kombat game that came before it. Those games were not very well balanced or competitive in a way that is understandable to a post-Street Fighter 4 market. At best they’re reaching for that Marvel vs Capcom 2 level of being absolutely broken, but with a community dedicated enough to force that square peg into a round hole, which is why Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 maintained a competitive community long after the others had all died.

The obvious unstated question here: Does a fighting game need to be a good tournament game to be successful? The objective answer to that is a firm no, as long as success is measured by sales and relative popularity, or at least it was the last time a Dead or Alive game was released on a home console. Things are a bit different now.

Exhibit B: Soulcalibur

While Mortal Kombat is an obvious example of how public perception has changed, the same rule applies to other games from the same era. Killer Instinct, for example. Everyone loves Killer Instinct, right? Why doesn’t Rare just spit out a new game and cash in? Probably because if they were going to revive the series they’d want to revive it as a series, and, frankly, the Killer Instinct games were not good fighting games. If Killer Instinct 3 is ever made it will have to be radically different from the originals in order to not get gangpiled by critics and internet trolls. If they half ass that game they’ve killed the series for another 12 years. At the same time it still has to be Killer Instinct, right? Just like Mortal Kombat still has to be Mortal Kombat. At least with Mortal Kombat the most prominent aspects of the game, the ones that most people remember, have little to do with the actual gameplay. They put enough blood in there, add some fatalities, and wrap it in a package of a goofy 90s American take on Asian martial arts (where exactly are the “ninjas” in Mortal Kombat from, anyway?) and it’s Mortal Kombat, no matter what actually happens  during the fights. Since Shaolin Monks, the last Mortal Kombat spin-off game, sold at least as well as the main fighting games they could probably have kept that going as well and just skipped the 1 on 1 fights.

Here’s the real kicker: Namco has released their recent sales figures and we now know that Soulcalibur 5, despite all the supposed concessions made to appeal to a broader fighting game audience and all the money and hype Namco put into tournaments and events, and probably the most open development process in a fighting game to date, is also potentially the lowest selling Soulcalibur fighting game on a home console (excluding Soul Blade because I really have no idea). The reasons for that are pretty obvious: the competitive player just isn’t enough of a market force to make up the difference when more casual players don’t get what they want. Soulcalibur 5 is a great fighting game and has received lavish attention from the developers with balance patches and the best online of any fighting game so far, but it didn’t have the characters people recognized and it didn’t have a bunch of minigames and singleplayer modes for people to waste time in. Daishi himself admitted that they’d wanted to include more singleplayer stuff but just didn’t have the time or resources. So maybe they dedicated what they did have to making the best fighting game they could, and in the end it failed them, because people do not buy fighting games to just play fighting games.

Where NetherRealm succeeded, Namco failed. They both took lessons from the Street Fighter series, but each from different games. Daishi admitted that his favourite non-Soulcalibur fighting game was Street Fighter 3, and it shows in his approach to Soulcalibur 5. He wanted a reboot, but not for nostalgia purposes. He wanted a reboot so that he could have a cleaner slate on which to make the changes he wanted. Namco managed that, but they must not have gotten the memo. Street Fighter 3 was, for the longest time, hated by Street Fighter fans, and for the same reasons Soulcalibur 5 is disliked by many Soulcalibur fans: their favourite characters aren’t in the game and it drastically alters a few core gameplay mechanics. NetherRealm instead copied the success of Street Fighter 4, and didn’t forget to include some of the features that kept players interested in the series after it left the arcade–but even then many complained that Mortal Kombat 9’s singleplayer content was too focused on fighting and much too brief when compared to games in the past.

In time people will probably warm to the changes and grow to like the new characters, like they did with the Street Fighter 3 cast, but keep in mind that Street Fighter 3 was followed by nearly a decade of Capcom pretty much ignoring one of their core franchises.

So, the other one. Smash Bros. is pretty much the exception to every rule now, and I’ll put that down to sheer numbers. When a game is such a dominate force that it’s often the only reason people still own (or bought) an entire console then it can afford to do what it wants. There are simply so many Smash players that it would be played regardless. No other fighting game, not even Street Fighter or Marvel vs Capcom (though they come closer than everyone else), has that luxury. In the end Smash still proves my point, though: it’s a huge success because people want to see Mario hit Samus in the face with a baseball bat, not because it’s a well balanced competitive game.

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive itself has become an anomaly.  Developed in Japan, but successful in the West. In fact, the creator and director of the series, Tomonobu Itagaki, was often critical of Japanese developers and became known for having a very Western focus in his games. While Dead or Alive has always had that Japanese arcade feel in the singleplayer content (brief, unfocused, and often nonsensical “plots” along with time attack and survival modes), they never lacked for visual polish and visceral player feedback. Plus, they’re just easy to play. A lot of people enjoy them, as fighting games, while also admitting that they are not good, as fighting games.

(Yes, the Capcom Versus series exists, but they were appreciated for much the same reason the Smash Bros. games are: watching familiar and beloved characters battle each other in fantastical settings, and it so happened that Capcom was already making Marvel fighting games so half the sprite work was just lying around in the office collecting dust. If the first game had been Detective Conan and Lupin III vs Street Fighter things would be pretty different today.)

On the other hand, a lot of casual players enjoy them as fighting games while also insisting that they are good as fighting games, because they can play them, and because they are built from the ground up to make guessing and scrubby gambling profitable.

This is a very real debate going on right now within the Dead or Alive community, such as it is. And I haven’t been able to shake it out of my head completely. There are two basic extremes to this. The first insists that Dead or Alive needs to make drastic, fundamental changes to its gameplay in order to become a viable game in high level competition. The other is that what these changes propose to alter is the very core of what makes Dead or Alive, well, Dead or Alive. Besides tits.

Now, in my opinion both sides are pretty much correct. What matters is what each of them wants, and what Team Ninja wants.

From the perspective of most competitive players, the core mechanics of Dead or Alive–the holds and excessive hit stuns–are broken. They make nearly every action performed by either player a total guessing game. This sort of system will probably never be viable as a tournament fighter, if only because it creates an inverted skill ceiling where as a player gets better their options within the game become more limited. That’s not the kind of thing a competitive player wants to work toward.

What the competitive players want is a game with mechanics deep enough that they can spend time working through them, and gameplay balanced enough that they can compete with other players at high levels. That’s what they want from every fighting game. What they specifically want from Dead or Alive is a fundamental alteration of the way many core systems in the game work, with holds at the top of the list. They want some certainty, something guaranteed when they make the right decision. So, less holds out of stuns, or maybe no holds out of stuns. That’s the simplest way to fix the biggest problems that Dead or Alive has in their eyes, because otherwise the risk vs rewards ratios in most situations are permanently skewed toward the defender and anyone who chooses to make random gambles and lucky guesses. That’s just the way it is when an attacker can lose 40%+ of their life by throwing out a basic jab.

What the more casual Dead or Alive fans want is another Dead or Alive game, and a big part of that is being able to hold out of stuns and always having that chance to make a guess and suddenly turn the match around. That’s what Dead or Alive is all about. It’s the essence of basic rock/paper/scissors mind games, and allows players of even moderate skill to quickly bypass more tedious fighting game basics and take the fight directly to their opponent, to get into their head and make big reads that lead to big payoffs, which is fun. Since that’s why they like Dead or Alive when compared to other fighting games they’d prefer to keep things as they are.

Here’s the thing: despite being a popular Japanese developed fighting game series that even had real money thrown at it–because it was popular and easy for people to understand–the Dead or Alive games have never been a major tournament presence. To put it into perspective: an import-only, PC-centric Japanese indie fighting game based on a pornagraphic visual novel is a bigger tournament draw and has a more vibrant non-Japanese competitive scene than Dead or Alive.

I’m not going to fully discount the problems a Microsoft legacy caused for the series, as competitive games. It’s no secret that the fighting game players have long favoured Sony products for competitive play (with notable exceptions like MvC2). That Dead or Alive 3 was only released on the XBOX didn’t help it. I know I was a big fan of Dead or Alive 2 but there was no way I was buying a new system just for Dead or Alive 3. Especially when none of my sticks worked on it. (As a side note, I did eventually cave with Dead or Alive 4 and even bought a PS2 to 360 converter so I could play, unfortunately it was so laggy that I could never have enjoyed it.) But people still could have played.

What does Team Ninja want? That’s a different story. Competitive fighting game fans are a fickle bunch when it comes to non-Capcom games, so appealing to them can easily backfire. More importantly, the competitive fighting game community makes up a fraction of a fraction of a fighting game’s total market. Even a game like Street Fighter 4, which is a runaway success as fighting games go, with over 6 million copies sold (according to wikipedia) sees less than a couple thousand participants at the absolute largest and most publicly known tournaments like EVO. You don’t even need to do the math to realize the disparity between those figures. Mortal Kombat 9 sold about half as many copies as Street Fighter 4 but that doesn’t mean they’re getting half the entrants at tournaments. They’re getting way less than that.

Team Ninja has relatively modest ambitions, with their intent to have Dead or Alive 5 sell around 1 million units, which is in line with how Dead or Alive 4 sold as a console exclusive. Even with the way things have changed, and even after a string of beach volleyball titles that have further cemented the franchise’s reputation as primarily a T&A show–a reputation that Team Ninja’s new director seems determined to work against–they could probably make that, if their focus on flash and dazzle is strong enough.

Western Kosuge

I’ve avoided making specific judgments about Dead or Alive’s standing as a balanced, competitive game because my actual opinion is probably more controversial than either extreme in that debate.

I think Dead or Alive’s position as a mid-tier game with no real ambitions of being on top serves it well. It was conceived as a Virtua Fighter-lite, and it fulfills that role quite well. There are already many options for deeper, more complex fighting games and I don’t see why Dead or Alive can’t keep doing what it does best. As far as I can see this is exactly what Team Ninja intends, no matter what they say about courting and supporting a competitive audience. None of the changes they’ve made alter the Dead or Alive formula that significantly.

Dead or Alive fills a niche that so many other franchises are trying to distance themselves from, and in the end I think that will come back to bite everyone in the ass. There’s already talk of a general fighting game fatigue setting in, and I think part of the problem is that, unlike the pre-Street Fighter 4 market, the expectations put on the these games, both by fans and developers, are not always in proportion with what the market can support. Sure, the competitive scene is bigger than it was 10 years ago, and it’s certainly much better organized, but when every new game is expected to get into the lineup of every major that’s a strain the players may not be able to handle.

The communities themselves can help, but when a game is already tiny like Dead or Alive, where do they expect to get the numbers? What percentage will be brand new players, and what percentage will be cannibalized from other communities? Which game will players drop when they switch over? How many people will in turn drop Dead or Alive when the next game comes along?

For the more casual fan as well, what expectations are put on them whenever they pick up a new fighting game? How long till the basic insistence that they master obtuse systems and come to grips with increasingly obscure nomenclature starts to turn people away? If Street Fighter 4’s throwback design sensibilities can be seen as a response to the increasingly complex 2D fighters that grew from Street Fighter’s ashes, then how long till we go full circle on that and people once again become too intimidated or irritated to bother anymore?

Having a game with the design ambitions of Dead or Alive around might help form a more comfortable middle ground from which people can move up. A gateway drug, of sorts. I’m sure Sega sees it that way.

Of course, Team Ninja probably doesn’t care about helping other franchises remain popular, but they should keep in mind that after all the other games died off the relatively simplistic design of Smash Bros. sold more copies than Street Fighter or Guilty Gear could ever hope to.

What I’m saying is that why not let Dead or Alive continue to be Dead or Alive? People who enjoy it can keep enjoying it, people who want something more have, frankly, more options now than the people who just want something with less ambition.

Not every new fighting game needs to be played in high-level tournaments. Sometimes it’s enough that they’re played at all.

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