Capcom's most recent fighting game, Street Fighter X Tekken, didn't sell as much as the publisher expected it to.
ďSales of 'Street Fighter X Tekken' have fallen short of our plan. We believe one of causes is cannibalism because of the large number of other games in this genre that were launched within a short time,Ē the company said in a brief Q&A on its website last week.
The company blamed competition -- and, of course, if youíve followed Capcom over the years, you smacked your forehead. Thereís competition, and then thereís self-competition. Capcom has always saturated the market to the point of pain, and that is, in fact, the most obvious criticism of this news.
In reality, thatís just a small part of the problem with Street Fighter X Tekken. If Capcom wants to blame the competition, publicly -- thatís fine. But if the company wants to understand just what went wrong, there are some hard truths it has to face. And if youíre thinking about launching your own game -- particularly launching in a segment with an ardent community -- there are plenty of lessons here for you, too.
Letís consider what Capcom did to set up stumbling blocks for itself:
Special: This game was made by Dimps, the same development team that handled Street Fighter IV -- and that should mean quality.
Counter: This is the first and arguably the most important point, and itís strange that Capcom hasnít publicly admitted it, at least in its results. This game is a mess. Capcom did a good initial job with PR -- building interest in the community by exposing the game early and often -- but quality issues destroyed those gains immediately upon release.
The game is one of the sloppiest games Capcom has ever put out. Yes, most fighters have infinite combos -- particularly console-based ones that didnít enjoy prior arcade releases and have their bugs beta tested out by hardcore fans. But infinite combos should not be this trivially easy.
Even more confusingly, the gameís latest patch, which presumably was designed to take care of this sort of thing, added a brand new crash bug.
Itís not clear why this game is so sloppy. Was it rushed? Was it low-budget? Was a B-team put on it? Even incredibly funny YouTube videos, like this one of bugs with Mega Man make it incredibly easy to dismiss. In fact, videos like these make the game look way worse than it actually would play for an average player, too, whoíd likely rarely if ever encounter them. Hardcore fans are the ones uncovering these bugs, but the damage applies to all audiences.
I would have said Capcom could have addressed this with a patch and some good PR, but the patch was obviously a failure; and the PR is deep in the hole for other reasons youíre about to read about.
Special: The competition is to blame -- Street Fighter X Tekken didnít have a chance.
Counter: Capcom, perhaps more any other publisher in the industry, is notorious for milking its games with add-ons, ports, remakes, and new versions.
Sometimes that backfires. Hell, it has backfired in this very market. Before the company released Street Fighter IV and brought 2D fighting games back into the mainstream, it took the genre through its first boom and bust, back in the 1990s. Excess inventory of Super Street Fighter II cartridges for SNES and Genesis reportedly badly hurt the company as it transitioned to the PlayStation and Saturn.
Youíd think Capcom would learn.
Still and all, Street Fighter X Tekken came out less than four months after Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and less than three after Capcom launched UMVC3ís Heroes and Heralds mode -- a major content update designed to keep players focused on that title post-launch.
Letís not forget that all of the fighters the company released this generation feature Street Fighter characters. This was far from true of the Capcomís output during its most prolific period. How many Ryus do you really need? This is the companyís fifth Street Fighter-based retail SKU since 2009.
Itís true that Namco released Tekken Hybrid late last year. But the truth is, nobody really cared about Tekken Hybrid (itís an obscure fan-oriented title) and it didnít even ship on Xbox 360. The decks were effectively clear. Sure, when it comes to casual fans, Tekken is not the draw Marvel is -- an IP that thrives even outside games. But itís still one of the best-respected and most popular series in fighters.
Then there are the real competitors. Yes, other companies released games around the same time, such as Skullgirls and Soulcalibur V, neither of which sold nearly as well as Street Fighter X Tekken. More relevantly, any student of capitalism tells you you weather competition by having a superior product; whether or not you like Street Fighter X Tekken -- and many seem to -- itís clear that the game got the least attention of Capcomís recent fighters. This is thanks to the way the company primed people to actively not want to buy the game -- as weíll see.
The open question is whether Capcom saw Street Fighter X Tekken and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom catering to different audiences. If so, it might have lost perspective on its own products.
Special: Sure, Capcom released a lot of fighting games in rapid succession -- but thatís normal for this hardcore genre.
Counter: Yes, this is a genre thatís struggled with oversaturation from the moment it became popular -- and Capcom, which propelled it into the limelight, has always pushed things to the very edge of sustainability.
But itís worse than that, these days. Capcom drew ire from fans by releasing Super Street Fighter IV to retail rather than updating the original release of Street Fighter IV with DLC -- but players accepted it, because it was 2009/2010. Things were different then, and Capcom seemed to figure things out, eventually, by offering the final upgrade, SFIV: Arcade Edition, as a moderately-priced DLC pack as well as a retail disc.
Even so, Capcom didnít run with this strategy. Prior to the reveal of the full-priced, disc-based Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, the company had planned to keep updating the original MVC3 with content -- but after one batch of DLC characters, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was announced.
Guess what happened? UMVC3 sold worse than Super Street Fighter IV, Capcomís Christian Svensson admitted.
Hereís an obvious cautionary tale: donít change your plans. If youíre promising (or even implying) one thing and then delivering something else, youíre going to hurt your reputation.
But there are times when you might just have to change your plans, of course. Producer Ryota Niitsuma cited the 2011 earthquake as throwing a wrench into Capcomís MVC3 strategy, which of course arouses sympathy. Would an aggressive, timely DLC plan be thrown off more significantly by losing a week or two of development than a retail release would be? It seems plausible.
But a week (or perhaps two) is likely all that would have been lost. Tokyo, where the game was developed (by Eighting) was not drastically affected by the quake, though itís quite possible developersí families lived in hard-hit regions, causing more significant disruptions to the schedule. However, if Capcom had said ďthe DLCís delayed by two weeks due to the quake,Ē fans would have been sympathetic.
Obviously, I canít say what the true scope of this tragedy was on the gameís development plans. It seems any plans could have survived this trauma if they were solid, though, and in this interview, Niitsuma suggests that there were always fundamental weaknesses in the DLC plan.
More importantly, the company had a real opportunity to start treating its fighting games as living, breathing services at this point, and squandered it. Earthquake or no, no doubt it would have required more effort for Capcom to get people to buy into Marvel vs. Capcom 3 as a service rather than to kick out another disc-based update, but it would have been a great chance to try and build a real interlocked community and DLC effort for the title. The company still hasnít gone down that road, and the poor design of and reception to SFXTís DLC plans means it still wonít, as weíll see.
The takeaway here: build goodwill through transparency and honesty in advance, not after youíve already made an unpopular decision. If you have to make a major change thanks to circumstances beyond your control, let people know. And think ahead; donít be forced to react when you hit a bump in the road. You will definitely hit one. The good thing is, your fans care.
Special: How can you blame Capcom for not jumping into the digital age properly? The gameís gem system is custom-tailored to todayís marketplace, and brings new strategic depth to the series.
Counter: Itís true that Street Fighter X Tekken has an interesting new system. But itís interesting for the wrong reasons: it was a PR disaster well before the game arrived on shelves, and it throws player anxieties about pay-to-win items in sharp relief.
For those who donít religiously follow the genre, the company planned a new gameplay system for Street Fighter X Tekken in which players could equip their characters with ability-enhancing gems. When the gameís producer, Yoshinori Ono, first dropped some vague info about the topic, all hell broke loose.
The fan community, dismayed by the idea of microtransactions, pay-to-win, and unfair advantages destroying the gameís balance, was horrified, and some tournament players quickly argued that the game might not be able to be used for competitive purposes.
Itís still debatable whether or not the gems system itself is critically flawed. The basic idea: adding collectible card game-like strategy to a fighter, allowing players to build a customized team, is in fact sound, and even clever. But the messaging and (crucially) the execution were the real problem points here.
Seth Killian, the companyís lead community manager and tournament player, argued that he loved the initial idea long before it was revealed to fans, when he was asked by Gamasutra.
Note that I say ďwhen he was asked.Ē The company didnít get ahead of this entirely predictable controversy. Killian is a tournament veteran and longtime fighting game fan. Thatís why he got his job in the first place; he knows his community. Whether he struggles against the strictures of dealing with corporate overhead, whether he just didnít think ahead, or whether he got taken by surprise by the mouthiness of the gameís producer Yoshinori Ono, I just donít know. But there was seemingly no plan in place for dealing with the fallout.
In the end, Street Fighter X Tekken was selected for EVO 2012, the most important North American fighting game tournament. But how much say does the tournament have about whether or not it chooses to run with this yearís big game from the biggest name in the genre? We donít know, but we do know gems are excluded from tournament play.
That, however, hasnít killed the controversy, because it affects the gameís balance (it was designed for gems) and because expert players have continued to harp on exactly how the gem system is exploitable in the worst possible ways -- which deflates Capcomís defenses. Is this another example of sloppy development or was the lure of DLC profits that got to Capcom? Itís impossible to say, but the PR disaster is unmistakable.
Special: On-disc DLC is fair -- because there are solid technical reasons to include this data on the disc.
Counter: And then there was the on-disc DLC. People hate on-disc DLC, of course, but even if you accept the companyís rationale -- the fact that players who donít buy the characters should still be able to fight against players who use them online without wasting hard drive space -- what was hilarious is that (A) they werenít available from launch and (B) theyíre included, for free, in the upcoming Vita version. The full roster of characters costs $20 for the unlock on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
People have long hated on-disc DLC. Even with a credible pro argument, the con argument of ďpeople hate it, and they have always hated itĒ is well worth noting, particularly in such a community-driven genre. The pro argument isnít that credible, either: Namcoís Soulcalibur V offers an free DLC pack which allows players to experience, but not use, DLC they donít own while playing online; Arc System Worksí BlazBlue allows users to easily step down to an older version of the game to play with players who havenít upgraded.
Worse yet, the characters were all available in early builds of the game distributed to the press; itís unclear what the original plan was, whether it changed, and if the characters were even done in time for launch. But either way, it was a major PR mistake.
Further insult came when it was revealed that the Vita version of the game comes with all of the characters for free, as noted above. Yes, it doesnít come out till October, but itís not as if the player base isnít aware that it costs $10 less and has $20 of free DLC characters included, for a total of a $30 difference. And the Vita version is cross-compatible for online play with the game on PS3. Would you buy a game knowing that -- even if you donít have a Vita or plan to buy one -- itís a ripoff? Itís simple.
Iíve also heard it suggested that the fact that all characters being on the disc drove piracy -- fans felt like they were being ripped off and so felt justified in ripping Capcom off. Iím not defending that position, but even if itís neither true nor significant, itís still not very smart to put the data on the disc -- simply because pirates will crack the game and get early access to content your paying players canít touch, frustrating them tremendously. Like aggressive DRM, this is a recipe for punishing, primarily, those who legitimately purchase your content.
Would players be complaining now if the company had gifted one DLC character immediately and accelerated the release of the rest? Probably not. Even without that, this was another predictable PR disaster.
Special: Console-exclusive characters? Cool!
Counter: Itís not uncommon for multiplatform fighting games with large rosters to have platform-specific characters on one system or another. It works well, too... when you do it right, as Namco has done with the Soulcalibur series in the past. Who can forget Zeldaís Link in the Gamecube version of Soulcalibur II?
Hereís how to do it wrong. Street Fighter X Tekken has five characters that appear only on the PlayStation 3: Mega Man, Pac-Man, Cole (from Sonyís Infamous series), Kuro, and Toro (from Sonyís Japan-only Dokodemo Issho series.) Yes, three of those characters hail from Sony IP, but two donít. More importantly, thereís nothing on the 360 side to even up the odds, which is how Namco keeps the peace. Once the game got hacked, rumors began to fly that some or all of these characters were also on the 360 disc; whether or not it was true, it just was one more way the on-disc DLC story metastasized into something even worse, and turned an insult (for 360 owners) into an injury.
As you can see, an overly simplistic explanation of what went wrong with this game ignores a majority of major flaws with this game, its release, and especially Capcomís messaging around it. There is a top-to-bottom lack of planning and community engagement around this game, and that, I would argue, is what lead to the poor sales Capcom is now bemoaning in its earnings statement.
The story here is, no matter how good your community outreach and PR is leading up to a gameís release -- and aside from the onset of the gems controversy, Capcomís was good for this title -- it will all unravel at lightning speed unless you can really address these concerns in a proactive, fan-friendly way.
Capcom producer Yoshinori Ono has become a celebrity to hardcore gamers; his name is widely recognized as the man who brought Street Fighter back into the limelight. But given the amount of confusing and contradictory information the company spreads about its fighting games and their release strategies for them, "Onoís lies" has become a meme. Thatís not great for your PR strategy, is it? Ono isnít entirely to blame, but as the face of Capcomís fighters, heís become a divisive figure largely due to company-wide PR gaffes that could have been avoided with more careful planning.
Now, Iím not saying the company is fatally flawed. Capcom gets a lot of things right -- just nothing to do with this game, pretty much. The bright side of its financial results was that the critically-maligned Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City sold well beyond expectations. Why? Because it correctly taps into both the zeitgeist (itís a Western-developed shooter) and nostalgia (itís set during the events of the fan-beloved Resident Evil 2). It doesnít matter if it kind of sucks. It even offered free DLC to fans who held onto their discs after beating the campaign: a clever touch, and literally the opposite of what happened with Street Fighter X Tekken.
Donít exploit, insult, and fail to engage with your audience. Nurture and respect them. While I wouldnít go so far as to say that Street Fighter X Tekken is a completely cynical or needless game -- the core concept, of pitting two rival franchises together, is reasonable, even exciting -- it came out too close to the companyís other titles, with too many slip-ups in every possible regard. By the time it released, the well was poisoned, and things only got worse from there. Is it any wonder people didnít feel like buying it?