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I remember complaining once to a journalist pal who worked for a big website about how the online media persistently gets certain videogame titles wrong. (I suspect I’d had a drink.) The game, I sniffed, is called Grand Theft Auto V, not Grand Theft Auto 5. Its abbreviation is GTAV, not GTA 5. Stop getting Bond wrong, and all that. My friend explained that online writers have to work around the way people use search engines. No one types ‘gtav cheats’ into Google; they type ‘gta 5 cheats’. And since search traffic is vital to the sustainability of an ad-funded website, outlets must tailor their content accordingly. That is just how today’s internet works. You’re right, old stick. It is the children who are wrong. But I’m afraid we’re going to need you to be wrong too.
Which brings us to the announcement overnight of Street Fighter 6. Not Street Fighter VI, of course. Don’t be silly. Might as well jettison 30 years of numerical and stylistic convention, no? Gosh, I wonder how much Capcom spent on branding consultants to reach that conclusion (not to mention that logo). Still, should juice the website traffic a bit, I suppose. Weird.
Capcom hasn’t shown very much of the game: just a brief teaser trailer and a promise of more information this summer. This is a good thing, actually! Because I have Thoughts and Opinions on the form that Street Fighter 6 should take if it is to recapture its series’ former glories. I doubt Capcom will do any of it, but let us linger a while in this place of idealism.
Street Fighter II was the ur-fighting game. It laid down all sorts of templates — for UI, movesets, controls, character archetypes, you name it — and that meant that, if you understood Street Fighter, you could understand any fighting game. This was certainly the case in the ‘90s, when SFII’s example was often followed to the letter. For a while there it felt like every time I walked into an arcade there was another new 2D fighting game with quarter-circle special moves and two main characters called, like, Roy and Ben.
Street Fighter II was my gateway drug to fighting games. Decades later Street Fighter IV played a similar role, breathing new life into a genre that had almost entirely faded from popular consciousness. I would love for Street Fighter 6 to repeat the trick, but things are very different these days. If SF6 is to be the quintessential fighting game for the 2020s — and if fighting games are to assume their rightful place as the dominant form of esport, as I have argued in the past — there are a few things Capcom simply has to get right.
A proper tutorial
Fighting games have long been perceived as being too hard to get into. There is this popular belief that being good at them involves hundreds of hours practising frame-perfect combo timings, studying character match-ups, and all that. And sure, it’s not without merit. But how true does it hold in an era where some of the most popular games on the planet require degree-level amounts of practice and research, and a frightening level of manual dexterity, to get truly good at? I mean, have you seen these kids play Fortnite? If you can build yourself a wee fort while dodging sniper fire, topping up shields, rearranging your inventory and lining up headshots, you are probably capable of learning a few bread-and-butter combos. I think, if you can play Fortnite, you can learn which of Zangief’s moves are unsafe on block.
The problem is not that Street Fighter is too complex, then, because these days all games are complex. The problem is that it is an abysmal teacher. I wrote a cover story on Street Fighter V for Edge, for which I flew to San Francisco for the Capcom Cup in 2015. In an interview I repeatedly pressed series producer Yoshinori Ono about Capcom’s plans for the game’s tutorial. I explained that I felt it essential for the flagship fighting game to do the best possible job at explaining both its own idiosyncrasies, and those of the genre more broadly, to new players. Preach only to the converted, I like to imagine I was clever enough to say through the jetlag, and your congregation will only grow so big.
Ono wasn’t having it. He kept comparing Street Fighter to football, and told me that rather than being a coach, Capcom was simply providing a pitch and a ball. The rest was for players to figure out. That wasn’t good enough in 2016, and it won’t be anywhere near good enough in 2023 either. It’s almost a decade since Skullgirls launched, and it is ridiculous that it still offers the best fighting-game tutorial of all time. It teaches you the fundamentals and works you up to the most advanced concepts. It has you act them all out in a variety of situations to give you the proper context, and in doing so teaches you how to play not just Skullgirls, but just about every fighting game ever made. There’s your template. I would like Capcom to work tirelessly to ensure that SF6’s tutorial takes its place as the new genre standard.
A true singleplayer game
Street Fighter focuses overwhelmingly on online competition, with singleplayer modes an afterthought. Yes, playing against other people is the best way to experience fighting games, but only if you are any good at them. Completing your average Street Fighter title’s whisper of a tutorial, rolling over the AI in Story or Arcade mode, then heading online to get repeatedly stomped by someone who actually knows what they are doing, is incredibly dispiriting. It is essential, I think, that SF6 better accommodates players who either only want to play offline, or simply want a better way to learn the ropes before they jump into a ranked match.
(It is common when discussing such matters to bring up the sort of cinematic story mode pioneered by Netherrealm in the Injustice series and recent Mortal Kombats, but I’m not sure that’s really the answer. While entertaining enough, the character-hopping structure of these modes means you aren’t really learning the game in any meaningful way.)
So, what should a singleplayer fighting game look like in 2023? I have no idea, honestly, but I am not a professional game designer and I think there is enough live-service PvE material out there for Capcom staff to look to for inspiration. I can certainly imagine a game that, through a combination of modes, modifiers, daily challenges and timed events, both engages the offline player and helps them better prepare for online combat.
Unfortunately, if this is going to work it will require a thorough overhaul of the miserable enemy AI model of Street Fighters past, which ranges from buttonless doormat to input-reading psychopath depending on difficulty setting. And Capcom would likely say that its focus lies in the online arena, and the esports scene, and therefore doesn’t consider singleplayer AI to be a good use of development time. But both those things would benefit from a game that offers a more involving singleplayer experience. A better, more thorough, and therefore busier offline component likely makes for a healthier online one over time. And if solo players still can’t be convinced to play against other humans, they can certainly be persuaded to watch a livestream of the next big tournament, because they will know the game well, and appreciate it being played at a high level. It feels, to me, like a win in either case.
A new business model
Street Fighter 6 should be free-to-play. SFV should have been free-to-play, too. Street Fighter X Tekken almost was free-to-play — multiple members of the development team have told me over the years that they were pushing hard for it internally, but management wussed out fairly late in development, fearing the impact it would have on revenue. (That’s why SFXT launched with that gem system that everyone hated: it was originally intended to be the monetisation hook.)
If an online game is to succeed these days it should be as widely available as possible. That means a multiplatform release first and foremost — I do not foresee another Sony exclusive this time — with cross-platform multiplayer from launch. But the most crucial barrier to entry is price. I am sure Capcom realises this: all of today’s dominant online games are free to play. I hope this time around it has the guts to do the obvious. Make the game free, make all characters free as well, and monetise player expression through the sale of cosmetics. And a battle pass, I suppose, while we’re at it.
So, there you go. Three things that should be the foundation for Street Fighter 6. I look forward to Capcom achieving absolutely none of them, and me writing all this again when Street Fighter Se7en is announced in five years’ time.
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Also announced overnight: Capcom Fighting Collection, a ten-game compendium of lesser-known brawlers which in several cases have never been released outside Japan. It also contains Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, and will be as such an instant purchase when it launches next month.
Microsoft made its initial approach to Activision Blizzard three days after the Wall Street Journal’s claim that CEO Bobby Kotick had known about the company’s misconduct problems for years, and had sought to keep details of it from the board of directors. It means the approach was the day after Phil Spencer moved to reassure Microsoft staff that Xbox was “re-evaluating all aspects of our relationship” with the publisher. Personally quite grossed out by this, but if my experience talking about this on Twitter at the weekend is any guide, YMMV.
I enjoyed this thorough recap of the travails of Amazon MMO New World, which you may remember from that fortnight late last year when everyone was briefly talking about it. At launch, it had over 900,000 concurrent players. Now it has about 35,000, and it feels like there’s no way back.
That’ll do. A busy week ahead, so I probably shouldn’t have kicked it off by writing 1,500 words about fighting games. Ho hum. As usual, please do the thing with the buttons below if today’s edition has struck a chord with you. Have a great couple of days, and I’ll see you later this week.
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I love Street Fighter. I’ve put countless hours into the series many instalments, but mostly into practicing and learning characters offline, rather than actually playing against others.
I feel that there is a more fundamental issue that the 1v1 competitive format has yet to crack: that losing isn’t much fun. 50% of players in any given match are going to lose, if half of your players aren’t having a good time you’re going to see drop off over time. Meanwhile in a game like Fortnite, 99% of players are not winning each match, but there’s still enough to keep them coming back for more.
Some of this draw is the social aspect of hanging out, (most encounters in 1v1 are confrontational, so that’s a tough one) but to build lots of appeal fast SF6 needs to be super-generous with making players feel like they are achieving/progressing/contributing with every action, rather than being laser-focused on getting that W.
(Also, in my perfect world of fighting game tutorials, I would have a reference lesson archive of ‘what to do in this situation’s, as it’s the worst to lose to a move where you just don’t know the counter. Maybe when you lose a match you could search though match replays of similar matchups where that move was used. Meta-tagging and databases must be able to make this happen, right??!)