Without question, the fighting game has experienced something of a renaissance over the past half-decade. Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, Super Smash Bros. and Injustice: Gods Among Us have all enjoyed success to a greater or lesser degree in recent years, not to mention the fact that Street Fighter IV proved such a hit that Capcom got away with releasing five (five!) standalone editions.
Clearly, the audience is hungry for dragon punches and spinning-bird kicks. How, then, does any new entry into this popular arena take advantage of such popularity? It’s not enough simply to make an appearance; you must be successful in making a difference. Offer something new, or get out of the ring.
The problem for the upcoming Street Fighter V is how it makes that difference in a way that doesn’t undermine the structures and concepts that garnered this most venerable of fighting franchises such reverence in the first place. Change is all well and good as a general idea until you’ve got a feverish fan base breathing down your neck and making sure you don’t take away what they love.
It’s for this reason that we took the time to sit down with Yoshinori Ono, producer on the Street Fighter series, and the man that, despite the reservations of many senior executives at Capcom, turned Street Fighter IV into one of the most successful and popular fighters of all time. Ono is decked out in all the splendour you’d expect from someone that is unabashedly passionate about the game he works out, displaying with pride a scarlet red t-shirt emblazoned with his new game’s logo. And, of course, his trademark Blanka mini-figure is perched on the arm of the sofa he’s sunk into.
The stark red of the shirt, mixed with the neon green of Blanka, creates a vivid juxtaposition with the shabby warehouse vibe emitted by the central London venue that we’re at.
This is the guy in charge of making sure the game that gave us Ryu, Ken, Chun-Li and Dhalsim continues to reach a bigger audience, but in a manner that doesn’t disappoint its long-term followers. How is he planning to do it? His answer, relayed through his English translator, begins with an explanation of what Street Fighter V isn't trying to do.
"With Street Fighter V we've been keen to not just take onboard very specific details from the hardcore players that give us a lot of information about very mechanical, very in-depth parts of the game," Ono tells us.
"We are not making a game that appeals only to the hardcore players and the professionals. Their kind of feedback is obviously important, though, and we're never going to start ignoring that. However, if we just focus on that alone we would start designing the game in a way that locks it off to anyone that isn't at that very high level, whether you call those people 'casual' or 'amateurs' or whatever.”
"We want to be able to let these less experienced people into the game and we're doing that in a variety of ways. I've tried to have the controls be tuned in such a way as to allow a certain ease of use that wasn't there before and to have it be more forgiving. Of course, players aren't suddenly going to become pro because we've loosened the timing for the input of a fireball."
Essentially, then, a big part of Street Fighter V's underlying design is focused on the removal of barriers. Fighting games, in general and while popular, represent a very steep learning curve for most players, and Ono is adamant that players should be given greater opportunity to "grab the stick and be able to move the character on the screen in the way that they want to move it and the way that they see it happening in their mind".
Now, then, a Crouching Light Kick Cancel into Quick Double Lariat with Zangief is no longer the exclusive right of those players that understand what a ‘cancel’ is and have memorised the frame count for every move in the game. Significant practise will still be required to execute complex combos, for sure, but those early steps of learning promise to be more welcoming then we’ve been used to.
Successfully pulling this move to a more natural, more intuitive playing sensation should help trigger an expansion of the player base as word spreads that such effort has been made to accommodate series newcomers. The players themselves, however, represent just one means of expansion.
In this brave new world of eSports, a dimension that Capcom is increasingly interested in tapping into and possibly even becoming a leader in, the spectator is just as important as the competitor. Capcom has its own professional Street Fighter cup this year with $500,000 in prize money to be won, but it won’t be worth anything in future without an audience.
"If you treat Street Fighter as an eSport then you need to think about the spectators, too," Ono says. "I think you need to have a community that grows and is based not just on people playing the game, but also on people that are happy watching it being played. Even if most spectators can't do what they're seeing on the screen, they understand what's going on and they can appreciate it for the competitive sport that it is.”
"I want to see the game and its tournaments expand around the world, even if that's little local fighting clubs where people can go to play the game and watch it. I want to support that growth and see it develop as a sport in that sort of way. Hopefully people will look back on Street Fighter V at some point and say that we had the right idea and that will see more games moving in this kind of direction."
Encouraging the public playing of the game is something that Ono is quite clearly passionate about. Whilst great strides have been made throughout the various releases of Street Fighter IV in creating a virtual, online multiplayer environment that does its best to mimic the sensation of playing in an arcade, what it can't recreate is the physicality and that unique mood generated by being next to your competitor.
Street Fighter, after all, began life and crafted its reputation by being a star of the arcade scene (the original Street Fighter in fact featured pads you had to hit as hard as possible to inflict damage on screen). That's a tradition Ono wants to see continue, but with so many arcades now closed for good, how can new players even begin to understand that experience?
"We experimented with various ways of how to generate a virtual arcade experience with Street Fighter IV's online multiplayer and, while you can get the experience having had a fight against someone, that sweaty nature of being in an arcade isn't something you can recreate digitally,” he says, frankly.
"I think that where we've arrived now with the Capcom Pro Tour [a series of live tournaments that take place annually] over the past couple of years is that we're trying to create these special one-off versions of that day-to-day feeling of visiting an arcade. Given the arcade scene's decline in recent years, most players don't have the chance to feel what that's like.”
"Travelling to each part of the world and getting people involved is a nice way to set something up in parallel to the digital experience. You can never replace the arcade experience, but we want people to know that we understand just how important that is to Street Fighter. The Pro Tour and the Capcom Cup is our way of saying that, while your everyday Street Fighter experience might be online, you can still meet players and get together to get that arcade-type thrill."
Any mention of the arcade experience inevitably brings us around to the ever-important topic of fight sticks, an often delicate subject given their cost – and the unfortunate fact that they often don't survive transitions between consoles. A new console generation tends to mean a fresh, forced investment in a new fight stick… not a minor investment given that they can easily cost in excess of $400.
Ono is well aware that players who have spent a lot of money on their sticks want to be able to use them across platforms, and assures that solutions are being looked at, no matter how unorthodox.
"The current situation of working within Sony's SDK and APIs is that we're looking into it and how we can get sticks working across consoles... maybe not necessarily within the framework of those official APIs.”
"We do hear fan feedback that they want to be able to use their existing sticks on PS4 and, while I can't really say anything for sure at the moment, it's something that people can definitely watch this space for in terms of future announcements as and when we're able to reach potential solutions as a company."
As with so much of what Ono has described, then, Street Fighter V's goals firmly revolve around the tearing down of traditional barriers to fighting game entry — whether that's having inputs feels more intuitive for new players, establishing local live tournaments or allowing veterans more flexibility when it comes to their fight sticks.
Street Fighter has achieved so much already, but becoming a series with truly universal appeal would be its greatest victory yet.
As we get up to leave Ono to fulfill his other commitments as Street Fighter V’s chief international ambassador, it’s difficult to visualise a future in which the game he’s so passionately promoting could possibly fail. Street Fighter IV was faced with the daunting task of convincing a skeptical public that fighting games were something worth getting excited about again, something worth investing considerable time and, for fight stick aficionados, money in.
That challenge has been overcome, setting up Ken and Ryu’s next outing to take advantage of the hard work that has come before it. Street Fighter IV has set us up, Street Fighter V is ready to knock us out.
Street Fighter V is out on 16 February on PS4 and PC.