You are a Japanese fighting game developer, eagre to deliver a high-quality game that both casual and competitive players can enjoy for years to come. Traditionally, you’d have plenty of time to work on the game, its balance, the single-player content. With an early arcade release, you can gather feedback from highly competitive players, allowing you to work on balance patches at the same time as your animators, artists, and programmers put together story modes, cut-scenes, and other extras for a console port. The port is where you make the bulk of your profits, and where you need to engage a wider audience. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s worked well enough.
As the years go on, things change. With a newer generation of consoles, it’s possible to put out post-release patches and DLC. The West is also interested in fighting games again, but they no longer have arcades. They want online play. And your company has given you a firm release date, delays and setbacks be damned.
What are you going to do? How can you satisfy sometimes disparate, and expanding, demands from fans, all while on a tighter leash and with a shorter development cycle?
If the year is 2010 and you work for Namco, then you are Daishi Odashima, and you’re now in charge of the newly reassembled Project Soul, tasked with releasing Soulcalibur 5 in a little over a year. You make grand promises about your game’s single-player content, teasing an elaborate story mode, even announcing that you’re bringing on CyberConnect2–well known for their work on the cinematic Naruto fighting games, and the bombastic Asura’s Wrath–to help with all the animations and cut-scenes involved.
Time marches on, and the mandated release date approaches. With delays and limited resources, it’s clear that the game is not going to meet all its goals. You have to start making cuts.
As someone who enjoys playing fighting games competitively, who has been open about the development process on Twitter, and even flew to North America to meet with the tournament community, you probably decide that longevity is the goal. You cut characters and focus more on trying to balance what’s already there, and to improve online play. All at the expense of single-player.
After the release, there is a huge backlash from the players. Why are there so many clone characters? Where are all the favourites from past games? Why is the story mode so short? Why doesn’t it explain anything?
While the move lists and controls have been further simplified for controllers, many competitive players feel that it’s overall a good game. Unfortunately, missing content is the rallying cry on the internet, and soon after the completing the game, and bearing the brunt of fan’s ire, you quietly leave the company.
Project Soul goes on to make a micro-transaction-based free-to-play single-player only game using the same engine, and eventually adds many of the characters missing from Soulcalibur 5. All to the continued consternation of the dwindling competitive fanbase.
A New Era
The year is now 2015, and you’re at Capcom and it’s time for Street Fighter 5. As with Soulcalibur 5, you’re tasked with releasing a competitive fighting game based around online play, for the first time without an arcade test of any sort. Whether determined before or during the development, the release date in February 2016 is little more than a year away from the game’s “leaked” announcement in December 2014. Time is tight. Not only that, but you’re working with Unreal Engine for the first time, and want cross-platform play between the next-generation PlayStation 4 console and PCs. There’s also a new service-oriented business model, new characters and systems to work out, a brand-name sponsored tournament series, and everything else that comes with a new fighting game.
While the other major Japanese fighting game in development at the time, Tekken 7, went for the arcade release and location tests they’ve been doing for decades, Street Fighter no longer has that luxury. Not with the Capcom Pro Tour running. Tekken is primarily a Japanese and Korean game, places where people can still go to arcades. The whole world plays Street Fighter, and it’s especially big in North America. (In 2015, the Capcom Pro Tour had 4 events in Japan, 11 in the United States.) Short of opening new arcades in every major US city, Capcom’s only options were a console release at the start of the year, or cancelling the entire tour while Japanese and Korean players tested the arcade version. Which would essentially be the same as cancelling one of their major advertising campaigns, and their most direct interaction with the competitive community.
As someone who is openly critical of both Capcom and service-oriented games, you might not expect me to defend Street Fighter 5. Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone else. But when I look at the alternative, I think the Street Fighter developers have made the best lemonade possible with the ingredients on hand.
Am I biased? Of course I am. But I can’t help seeing the parallels between Soulcalibur 5‘s disastrous release, and the ill-will it created amongst fans, and what’s happening with Street Fighter 5.
If a delay isn’t an option, then cutting content is all you’re left with. Or at least it was. With the increased online integration of the new generation of consoles, there’s a third option where there wasn’t before. Release the game in pieces. A basic roster and versus mode now, and all that work-intensive single-player content later, when it’s finished.
I understand completely why Street Fighter players and fans might feel let down or even ripped off by the game’s current state. And technical issues are inexcusable, especially after all those betas. I played during a couple of them and, though I still don’t particularly care for Street Fighter and 2D footsies, the general gameplay seemed competent enough. It certainly could be worse.
The entire thing could be worse, as I think the Soulcalbiur 5 story demonstrates. I wouldn’t fault anyone for holding off until the full story mode in June. There’s every chance it’ll be terrible. But it will actually be there, in full. As a Soulcalibur fan, I would trade places with Street Fighter 5 in a heartbeat.