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Capcom is at a crossroads with Street Fighter V.
It could have chosen to build a game for the casual players that paid their bills on SF4; certainly Mortal Kombat X's breakaway success in 2015 implies that the market for legacy fighting game franchises with lots of single-player story-driven content is alive and kicking.
But with Street Fighter V, Capcom is doubling down on the competitive side of the game, chasing a future where Street Fighter is a tentpole eSport alongside League of Legends. This is a message repeated throughout every aspect of Street Fighter V; let's see how it stacks up against its predecessor.
A quick note about me: I'm the community manager for a free-to-play PC fighting game currently in public technical alpha called Rising Thunder. I've written a (free) book that teaches fighting game fundamentals using Street Fighter, as well as educational fighting game streams and videos. You might also like my previous Gamasutra article, Street Fighter for Designers: Top 8 Lessons from Evo 2015 and and 17 Mold-breaking Fighting Games All Developers Should Study.
During its lifespan, SF4 used the standard up-front retail model, charged for cosmetic DLC, and required players to buy an update roughly every other year to stay current (Super, Arcade Edition, and Ultra). With SF5, Capcom has pledged to stop the paid upgrade system; balance patches and some content will be free, and post-launch DLC characters will be unlockable via in-game microtransactions using either real money or in-game earned currency.
"It feels like locking the launch content behind a $60 paywall is Capcom trying to have its cake and eat it too"
In 2008, this model would feel generous; in 2016, where many successful eSports are free-to-play, this actually seems a bit stingy by comparison, as the launch version of SF5 doesn't have most of the content we'd expect in a $60 game -- the Story Mode is about an hour of barebones content and the character roster, at 16, is about 1/3rd of Ultra SF4's.
While lots of content has been promised to come in the next few months -- character-specific challenges, a store for DLC characters and costumes, proper support for online lobbies, and an actual story mode that lasts longer than an hour -- the fact is that right now, it feels like early players are basically paying for the privilege to practice the game in time for the 2016 tournament season.
Certainly, a franchise like Street Fighter will have no problem getting competitors and (some) casuals to fork over $60 to get started. But locking the launch content behind a $60 paywall makes it feel like Capcom is trying to have its cake and eat it too.
Part of me hoped that SF5 would have tried to follow Killer Instinct by launching as free-to-play and bundling post-release DLC together in subsequent "Seasons." That's probably too much to hope for now, but it might still be a possibility later on down the line (a la Team Fortress 2).
When Street Fighter IV came out, experienced fighting gamers across the world bought it, opened up Training Mode, and within an hour or so said, "This is it?" Compared to the earlier crop of Capcom fighters -- Street Fighter III: Third Strike, Capcom vs. SNK 2, and Marvel vs. Capcom 2 -- it felt like there was just a lot less stuff we had to learn how to do.
"In order for SF5 to succeed as an eSport, Capcom will have to make it relatively easy for new players to have fun before they get frustrated and churn out. Right now, neither the core game design, the game modes, or the onboarding content really do that."
Street Fighter V is simpler still. For experienced players, combos are less complicated and less demanding in their timing, and the possibility space for any given character feels far smaller than any previous Street Fighter game.
However, compared to LoL, Hearthstone, or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, it's still harder for those new to the franchise to access a character's power; you have to learn special move codes, you have to study your character's moveset to learn how one move can string into another, and you have to learn how to execute all of those things reasonably well.
It's easier than it used to be, but it's a difference of degrees, and it's hard to say whether it'll actually make a difference for the average SF player.
And where SF4 shipped with a set of basic tutorials and character-specific missions to show enthusiastic new players how the basics worked, plus a decent amount of single-player content to keep new players interested until they venture online, Street Fighter V only has a bare-bones tutorial and is saving the character-specific challenges for a free update in March.
In order for SF5 to succeed as an eSport, smart money says Capcom will have to make it relatively easy for new players to have fun playing the game before they get frustrated and churn out. Right now, neither the core game design, the game modes, or the onboarding content really do that.
Of course, this is something Capcom can get better at over time, and I certainly hope it will. But I haven't seen anything to suggest that the changes it has made to the game itself will do this. Right now, the game is easier to play for people who already know how to play fighting games, but it doesn't do much to expand the audience.
Fighting games before Street Fighter IV were a lasagna of esoteric systems and characters that made sense only if you had played the games prior; SF4 brought the sheer volume of stuff in the game down considerably, but there was still a lot of work just to get competitive with a single character.
"De-emphasizing execution as a defining component of mastery doesn't just bring down the barrier to entry, it makes losing a little bit less frustrating. "
Mastering a character meant being able to execute many difficult combos and setups, studying how to exploit engine quirks that led to unblockable attacks and input buffer glitches that let you input several moves in quick succession to get the optimal outcome ("option selects"), and learn how your character played against every other single character.
So while there was less stuff in the game, there was enough stuff to learn in a single character that most dedicated players rarely expanded their stable past a main character and perhaps one or two backups.
Even reaching basic proficiency in SF4 required a lot of work for new players. For example, a lot of an SF4 character's power isn't unlocked until you're able to consistently combo into their Ultra, which often requires you land a normal hit, cancel it into a special move, cancel the special move into a Focus Attack, cancel the Focus Attack into a dash, and perform the Ultra input at the end of the dash. That's a lot of work for what you'd think should be a pretty important basic part of a character's kit.
In Street Fighter V, it feels (so far) like less of a character's power is connected to physical execution or mastery of obtuse mechanics than ever before. That isn't to say that there aren't exploits and techniques that exist in the game (some of which Capcom will likely patch out, while others will remain), but overall, it feels like the game was designed specifically to make any given character's toolset fully accessible to a moderately competent fighting game player.
This means that skill and mastery in SF5 is less about technical excellence in execution and more about studying your character matchups, adapting to your opponents, and diversifying your character pool beyond a single main character. I'd estimate that a technically sound player who understands the core systems can start playing a new character in training mode, learn their basic tools, and start playing against other sound players within half an hour; in SF4, that's long enough to learn their basic moveset and start practicing some of their basic combos.
Think of it this way: If you're playing fighting games without a basic literacy of what each character's move is and how they interact with yours, you're playing Chess before learning what each piece does. Competing at who-knows-more-pieces is less interesting than competing at who-can-use-their-pieces-better, and as Street Fighter V tries to make the pieces fewer in number and more understandable; it makes it easier for people who aren't professional players to eventually get to play the "real game" over learning the moves.
De-emphasizing execution as a defining component of mastery doesn't just bring down the barrier to entry, it makes losing a little bit less frustrating. Losing because your opponent was able to perform their combos better than you were is fundamentally dissatisfying to many new fighting game players because it's not a skill most people want to practice. SF5 does a better job making you feel like you lost because they were better at hitting you, not because they were better at hitting buttons.
From very early on in the beta, veteran fighting game players noted that the game emphasizes skill at "footsies" -- essentially, a player's ability to consistently connect a clean hit while avoiding your opponent's attacks -- while SF4 was often criticized for making it too hard to recover after getting knocked down, making it feel like at high levels a round could end with a single sweep or throw.
SF4 boasts nearly three times as many characters as Street Fighter V has on launch, which isn't a great look at first. However, it's arguably not that big a problem for SF5's future prospects, and I think that what we see of the SF5 roster bodes well for the game's near future.
"In SF5, each character is designed around a set of easy-to-execute character-specific moves. It's an elegant way to add flair and individuality to a character's kit, and I think it makes much more sense than the two previous Street Fighter games, which defined the game around a few core systems and tried to build each character to fit."
While a wide character roster is a great selling point, this usually matters most to genre or franchise enthusiasts hoping to bring back an old favorite, not new players -- to them, learning the basics behind 16 different characters is already a large enough knowledge burden anyway.
And given that most fighting games tend to encourage players to go deeper with a few characters, the smaller roster isn't a problem so long as the current 16 have enough aesthetic and gameplay diversity to attract a wide range of players.
In this respect, I think SF5 actually has the potential to outshine SF4 even if SF5 never hits the 40+ character roster SF4 has. Just from the launch cast alone, we see that Capcom is making sure each slot counts: Ken and Ryu are more different in this game as they've ever been; classic fan favorites like Balrog and Sagat have been dropped in favor of characters like R. Mika, Birdie, and Karin; and newcomers like F.A.N.G. and Rashid are unique in both gameplay and concept.
After playing with the SF5 launch cast, it feels as though SF4's success in playing it close to classic SF2 also held it back from getting as wild as it could have. Once you start to pick apart SF4's roster, you'll notice that a lot of them tend to fall into broader strategic design groups, meaning that while players may have a wide choice in characters, the fundamental play experience between many of them simply isn't that different.
SF4 characters all felt like they rotated around a fairly similar script, and picking up a new one started with learning the one or two moves that were good for footsies, feeling out the character's Focus Attack to see if it's any good, and practicing a few combos that started off a light or medium attack (ideally at least one leading to an Ultra).
In SF5, it feels like characters were developed with a little bit more conscious attention to How They're Supposed To Play; each character is designed around the V System, a set of easy-to-execute character-specific moves.
Ryu can perform a Street Fighter III-style Parry by pressing MP and MK at the same time, and as he Parries he'll build up the V-Skill meter. Build one stock of V-Skill meter and he'll be able to use that stock to counter-attack after he blocks an enemy attack ("V-Reversal"); fill it up entirely and he can activate a temporary buff that makes his attacks more damaging ("V-Trigger"). Other characters get access to more mobility options and attacks.
All in all, it's an elegant way to add flair and individuality to a character's kit, and I think it makes much more sense than the two previous Street Fighter games, which defined the game around a few core systems (Parry for SF3 and Focus Attacks/Revenge Meter for SF4) and tried to build each character to fit.
As a side note: Perhaps the strangest decision in SF5's character design has been sexing up some of the women fighters considerably. Chun-Li, Laura, and R. Mika's breasts look like they belong in a Dead or Alive game, and the way they heave in the character select screen animation -- for some reason, the effect is more pronounced on the 2P side -- is decidedly out of the norm for most Street Fighter games. Capcom hasn't shied away from making sexy characters in the past (see SF4's Juri Han) but the way in which it did it in SF5 feels a bit juvenile and eyeroll-inducing in comparison to earlier SF titles.
There are two things that Capcom needs to get very, very right with SF5's online multiplayer. First, the netcode needs to be able to compensate fairly strongly for lag. Second, the matchmaking features need to be able to consistently and quickly serve up low-lag matches that are close in skill.
The frame-perfect-timing nature of fighting games is a huge pain in the butt, because it means it's hard to get them to play right online. SF4's online play was just good enough to give people a taste of how fun competitive multiplayer could be, but at the end of the day, even the smallest amount of lag was enough to make you feel like online SF4 and in-person SF4 were two separate games. And once your players feel like local play is the only "real" way to play the game, you can bet it'll be incredibly hard for your game to grow as an eSport.
But fighting game netcode has come a long way since SF4. SF4's netcode compensated for lag by delaying your inputs to match, meaning you'd end up with a game that looked fluid but played like your character was underwater.
SF5 is built around a netcode that uses "rollback" techniques pioneered by engineer Tony Cannon in GGPO; basically, rollback netcode does its best to keep the game inputs as responsive as possible for both players by occasionally rolling back the game state a few frames to compensate for lag. (Disclaimer: Cannon is also one of the co-founders of Radiant Entertainment, which is the studio I work for, and our in-development fighting game Rising Thunder is built around GGPO netcode; you can read more about how GGPO works in the September 2012 issue of Game Developer Magazine).
Capcom has tried working with rollback netcode in the past (Street Fighter X Tekken). When it works, it can do a lot to help make online multiplayer feel better. But in order for SF5 to succeed, it'll need to feel good enough to retain players who can't regularly trek out to play people in local matches.
Frankly, it's too early to call this one; right now, the servers are swamped, making it hard to actually hold a connection in the first place, and netcode tuning is one of those things that could potentially improve over the following months if Capcom is putting the work into it.
It's also hard to properly assess the quality of the SF5 matchmaker this early in its release. If the matchmaker is good at balancing wait times, skill disparities, and lag, then the online play experience may be good enough to convince new players to stick around even if they can't find people to play local multiplayer matches with.
However, if it doesn't do this well, many new players will get frustrated after losing to good players without feeling like they had a chance to grow and play against people closer their own skill level, and they'll leave -- so they won't be around to play with other newbies, meaning they get paired up with too-good players, and so on. Capcom doesn't just need to get this right, it needs to get it right right now if it wants a shot at being a big eSport.
"Capcom has leaned on community partners for pre-release exhibitions and tournaments, and it has built up hype with a prolonged public beta process to expose the game to critical community feedback early on."
Capcom has never really had a strong connection to its most loyal player base. It wasn't really until SF4 that Capcom began helping sponsor events in any consistent, significant fashion, and the Capcom Pro Tour event series didn't start until very late in SF4's lifecycle.
With SF5, the community has been a major part of the pre-release hype; Capcom has leaned on community partners for pre-release exhibitions and tournaments, it has made longtime-community-member-turned-manager Peter "Combofiend" Rosas a fairly visible public face of the game, and it has built up hype with a prolonged public beta process to expose the game to critical community feedback early on.
All of this is much, much more than Capcom has ever done for any fighting game in the past. However, it's selling Street Fighter V as a live service, and when it comes to maintaining a live service, Capcom hasn't really shown that it's able to hit the bar that other publishers have set when it comes to service availability, customer support, community engagement and moderation, and all the other parts of the game that fall outside the core product itself but are key to its success.
Capcom will also need to make sure that the feedback coming from the existing fanbase is tempered against their need to attract new players in order to grow. If you want to figure out why people don't want to play your game, the worst people to ask can be the people who love it.
For better or worse, it seems like Capcom is going hard on SF5's potential as an eSport, and as a fan myself, I hope that the compromises it made in order to ship it on time for the 2016 tournament season don't end up sabotaging its long-term shot at success.
The fact is that many of the changes Capcom is trying to make in SF5, by pushing better online play, lowering the execution barrier-to-entry, and building the game as a service intended to encourage long-term engagement, are all chances that many of us in fighting games have wanted to see Capcom take in the hopes that it'll help the competitive scene grow.
Judging from the state of the game on launch, it feels like Capcom's heart is in the right place -- but its ability to deliver on intentions is still quite lacking. The challenge in front of them is to step their game up; to adapt to this new matchup and learn to treat SF5's development as a constant process of making the game better. For Capcom, launch is no longer the end--it's barely the beginning. But despite the ugly start, I still have hope that this game will represent a turning point for new and old fighting game fans and developers alike.