Street Fighter V is a game in transition.
Sounds weird to say that, doesn't it? It's not even out yet, and already it's changing. Series producer Yoshinori Ono started off our meeting last week in San Francisco by showing me a story teaser for downloadable content that will come out this summer -- months after the game ships to retailers.
It's a massive production, a triple-A console game. It's going to be stamped on discs and sold at retail. It's also a game as a service, with an in-game economy. Listening to the words of series producer Yoshinori Ono in San Francisco last week, I was left with the conclusion that flux is the natural state of this project; its contradictions reflect our changing industry.
The goal of the game's development has been to embrace both the old and the new, says Ono. So much has changed since the original arcade release of Street Fighter IV in 2008. He told me that the team's philosophy for Street Fighter V is summarized by the Japanese idiom "onko chishin" -- defined as "developing new ideas based on study of the past," which he wrote down during our meeting:
"If somebody ends up getting a tattoo of that on their arm, I'll think that person's super cool," Ono joked, laughing.
In other words, the game must be both old and new at the same time.
"The first half of that phrase means 'to warm up the past.' That means we're paying very, very close attention to all of the previous fans of the Street Fighter franchise, and make sure we cater to the experience that they want.
"But that doesn't mean that we're cutting off the line there, for just those fans. We're taking into full consideration today's day and age and today's fans, and what they expect, and what they want. So we're delivering together the old and the new," Ono told me.
And what a past it is. The series' first smash-hit, Street Fighter II, was released to arcades 25 years ago; many fans have been with the franchise since that time. But times, as Ono recognizes, have changed. His philosophy of "the old and the new" suffused every answer that Ono gave me over our 40-minute conversation.
The economy of evolution
We've heard before that Street Fighter V will only see one console release, and then be updated continuously via downloadable content, both paid and free. New to the franchise, there are two in-game currencies: Fight Money, earned via play, and Zenny, bought with real money. But Ono recognizes that console players may not be ready for this kind of in-game economy.
"I think the season pass is where console gamers are matching up with, in terms of where we are in the lifespan of console gamers. But we are planning to have Fight Money and Zenny, and this is more akin to some of the stuff Riot's doing with League of Legends or Valve with Dota, and you can see those examples there."
"We still have season passes. We still have that available, and if they're not feeling the new experience aspect, and they just want to pay up front and get everything that's going to roll out, that's going to still be available to them. It's going to be totally fine."
Will one option be a success over the other? Will both coexist? Even Ono doesn't know how things are going to play out. "It's really going to be a matter of us watching how the community handles this. And then after we see this for awhile, that's when we decide where the center of gravity is going to be, here."
"That conversation is going to be ongoing; we're going to take a look at the player-base online, and it's going to be a constant dialogue with everyone as we move forward and adjust things as we move forward as well."
Smiling in the face of change
But if I had to characterize Ono's philosophy toward Street Fighter V based on our conversation, I'd say he sees a much smoother evolution than many game developers might. He was as upbeat as he always is. As he reflected on the series' history, though, his mildness in the face of change made some sense to me.
Yoshinori Ono, photographed exhibiting his characteristic seriousness in San Francisco.
Photo credit: Miguel Concepcion.
"Even in the past 20 years, Street Fighter has been a service. It's just been a little different in the way we rolled things out, because we weren't living in the internet age. For example, we had Street Fighter II. We had Street Fighter II: Championship Edition. We had Street Fighter II Turbo. We had Super Street Fighter II. We had Super Street Fighter II Turbo. And we ended up evolving. And instead of sending things online, we'd have to repackage the game and give it based on what people were asking for."
The truth of the matter is that Street Fighter II's unparalleled success allowed the company to keep tweaking one game and selling it to arcade owners and console players -- a modern lesson, learned very early.
External forces such as piracy and competition from other arcade developers led to major changes -- the development of more secure and more powerful arcade hardware, and the creation of Super Street Fighter II, a fresh version of the game released over two years after Street Fighter II's debut. Super Street Fighter II Turbo, released in 1994, drew the curtain on the game.
More recently, Street Fighter IV debuted in 2008; Ultra Street Fighter IV, the game's final iteration, was released in 2014. Ono again envisions a six-year lifespan for Street Fighter V.
"In terms of how the R&D team has looked at this, in reality, it's all very similar to what we've done in the past. It's very, very similar in terms of having updates over time. The only thing that's really different is the methodology of doing it, because the technology has changed. Everybody is like, 'We've done this before, so we'll go ahead and do it,' but we're just going to do it the 21st century style instead of the way we used to do it, with the new technology."
"The reality is that the solutions and models are just changing with time. 'Games' in and of itself are becoming a service, because it's just evolving into that. It's turning into that. If you look at the devices we have this day and age, if you look at your cell phone, there's some sort of a service that's involved with that, as well: connectivity."
"But there has been so much learning that has been done from the non-service games. It's never really going to go away, because it serves as the basis of what we're doing. It's a baseline for what's happening."
Serving both casual players and eSports stars
Ono also realizes that he has to balance both a larger and more varied potential audience than ever before. The company is now pushing Street Fighter as an eSport, having recently held the Capcom Cup in San Francisco.
At the same time, Ono is hoping to welcome in more casual console players who like single-player content with the series' most ambitious story mode, which will be distributed as a free download this summer; the teaser he showed at our meeting (embedded above) put me in mind of a Marvel movie, not the low-budget anime of the last game.
The tease trailer for Street Fighter V's extended story mode.
Then there's the bulk of the audience -- which Ono identified as people who simply enjoy playing matches online. There's a new ranking system that Ono hopes will push those players toward becoming competitors.
Catering to everyone extends to the game's design, too, he says.
"We wanted to make sure to protect everybody who's been playing the game for a very, very long time, so we wanted to make sure to welcome everyone who's playing Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter III, even old Street Fighter titles. We also wanted to make the environment a very nice environment for people that come in, and enjoy playing Street Fighter, all brand new players. So a very equal playing field for everybody."
It's not just about changing the ranking system and how it works; it's about revamping the gameplay of Street Fighter from the ground up for the new game. Capcom USA's Matt Dahlgren told me last year that the company examined every iteration of the franchise before deciding what direction to take Street Fighter V's gameplay.
Here's how Ono put it: "And so how we approached that in terms of the battle system, we looked at Street Fighter IV, because we had a lot of great stuff in there to welcome new players as well. But instead of taking a 'stacking' approach from Street Fighter IV to Street Fighter V, we've taken those things that were very friendly to beginners and people new to the Street Fighter franchise, and created a baseline of what that needs to be. And we've built a new system on top of that. That way, we can get people that are very familiar with Street Fighter and yet have everybody come in and enjoy. And that's just on the battle system level."
Here's the game, by the way.
New gameplay means a new community
There is an insight from Street Fighter IV that has driven the development of the new game, Ono says: "A big part of what we learned in Street Fighter IV is that Street Fighter IV is actually about creating and building communities."
That's fantastic, as any developer will tell you; there's a cloud to that silver lining, however: "the longer the community goes, and matures," he says, the less hope there is for newcomers to find a spot in the scene.
"And so for Street Fighter V, we really want to improve upon this, so the idea is to reset the entire playing field for everybody. ... We also wanted to make the environment a very nice environment for people that come in, and enjoy playing Street Fighter, all brand new players. So a very equal playing field for everybody."
Everything the company is doing this time around is with an eye toward creating "a really robust global Street Fighter community." Says Ono, "We really want to really expand and broaden out the player field for Street Fighter."
While he recognizes that there are "casual" players of the franchise, "we're hoping that with this online system we're putting together with Street Fighter V, people will get a taste for the competitive side of Street Fighter. We're hoping that people will see the fun in that."
If eSports is the future of the multiplayer, core-focused game industry -- and there are plenty of indications that this is so -- Capcom wants to see Street Fighter's audience skew that direction, too -- even if Ono laughs off comparisons to Riot Games. "They have a much bigger scale, overall," he says.
But to my mind, there's more chance the "casual" player will lose interest in Street Fighter than the hardcore competitor will. I asked Ono if he's worried about losing players to mobile titles like Kabam's Marvel: Contest of Champions. The game looks great; but most importantly, it gives the casual player a real sense that they're playing a real fighting game.
"More so than ... them stealing causal fans from us, I feel like what is happening with this game is that people are getting a sense of what versus fighting is like, rather than a hardcore experience. But they're getting a sense of it," Ono says.
"They get a taste of the competition, and it ties in really well to eSports and what's happening. Rather than stealing people, it could really serve as a gateway into playing other games."
The truth is that with Street Fighter V, both the expense of its development and the potential upside for Capcom dictate that Ono and his team try as hard as they can to attract as many players as possible. This is a gargantuan task, and if Capcom has any advantage beyond the strength of its brand, it's this: it can continue to evolve Street Fighter V bit-by-bit, pushing out updates big and small, paid and free. But Ono's smiling commentary suggests he's ready to take on that challenge.