The making of Street Fighter 5

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games™ talks to Street Fighter V’s Yoshinori Ono about the series that defined fighting games, and how Capcom is approaching its newest series entry in a slightly different way…

F ighting games aren’t dying. The genre might have taken a series of hits in recent years – dwindling sales figures mixed with player fatigue at re-releases and DLC malpractice has seen to that – but there’s still plenty of life left in the metre of one of gaming’s most hardcore genres yet. As the world takes a breath and straps a VR helmet to its widened eyes, a community of grizzled veterans and enthusiastic newcomers crack their knuckles and pick up sticks: there’s going to be a fight.

Street Fighter V was developed as a total reset for the series. That’s what long-time director of the series Yoshinori Ono told us, anyway – that Street Fighter V is aimed at enticing lapsed players that got frustrated with the similar characters and constant paid updates in Street Fighter IV. Street Fighter V wanted to reset the series’ core systems, the character roster, the pace of the fight, everything. It’s not releasing in the arcades, but rather opting for straight a home release – a brave and interesting move for a fighting game these days. Testing has instead occurred in a series of online betas, and we’ve seen balance changes and revisions made to the damage and frame data of attacks in response to these. From its inception to its release, Street Fighter V is doing things differently and, according to Ono, that’s all part of Capcom’s philosophy here.

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“I’ve spoken a lot about how ‘reset’ is the keyword for Street Fighter,” Ono explains. “We’re incredibly privileged and grateful to have had the support of the community over the course of the [SFIV] era, and thanks to that support, we reached an unprecedented seven years of ongoing development of upgrades to that game. You can imagine how much sleep I’ve gotten in the past seven years, or, rather, how little!”

Seven years is a long time to keep a game alive – especially a fighting game; a project that requires constant updates, tweaking and community interaction. Aside from the four named releases Street Fighter IV received, there were constant patches created and applied to a game that spanned five platforms. That’s not an easy task – especially when the only funds the game drew in for the last year or so have been via DLC costume packs. Ono wants to keep these constant changes simple in Street Fighter V, and to do that, Capcom is scrapping multiple releases of the game – there’s only going to be one.

“We’re no longer adding words like ‘Super’ and ‘Ultra’ and ‘Arcade Edition’ and 2012 versions to new editions of the game and asking players to buy them,” laughs Ono. “By committing to a system of ongoing free updates, we are also showing our desire for the game to run as a long-term service. And in the long term, we will be able to make changes, fix issues and add new content without asking you to go and buy Super Street Fighter V or whatever.”

Ono tells us that this decision was made to foster a ‘greater relationship between the developers, players and service as a whole’. Ono and his team knows that this and the next Tekken game can really shape how fighting games are received on the newest generation of consoles, and the publishers are doing everything they can to keep the players on-side. To that end, Ono has also made an interesting choice regarding the DLC characters that’ll be introduced one-by-one over the coming year: you’ll have the chance to unlock them totally for free, by using Fight Money you win from matches.

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“We’ve carefully considered how to run Street Fighter V in a long-term, stable fashion, and have looked into how other titles have run similar business models,” Ono tells us. “We won’t stop fine-tuning the game even once it’s released. We’ve even put a system in place that allows the battle designers to continue to make tweaks, corrections and additions as we hold an ongoing conversation with the players and hear their feedback and opinions.” This is something Mortal Kombat X has done recently to great effect – the ‘backside’ of the game engine is built on a series of sliders, meaning the developers can alter damage numbers or active frames easily, making incremental changes and re-balancing an even easier process. We imagine Street Fighter V’s systems will work similarly, mostly because both these games are built on Unreal Engine, so we know it can be done.

“It takes time for players to get used to the battle design and we intend to pre-announce major updates to allow for players to give us their feedback, and that in turn lets us factor that feedback into the changes we make. The exact way in which we will implement this system is something that I want to decide based on the ongoing communication we have with the players and the community,” says Ono.

This backend programming has also allowed Street Fighter V to circumvent an arcade release – the way these games typically get into fighting shape prior to their home console releases. This time, however, location testing be damned – it’s players across the world that are testing the game for Ono in a series of betas that have been running since mid 2015. “We wanted to bring Street Fighter V to every player around the world at the same time, playable in the same way,” replies Ono when we ask him why Capcom opted to skip the arcades this time around.

“Street Fighter IV had an arcade version, and of course the fighting game community has grown even more since then, so we thought long and hard about an arcade version of Street Fighter V – not just me personally, but the company as well. However, there is a realistic limit to the development capacity we have for bringing the game to multiple formats, and that combined with my honest appraisal of the fact that I don’t have a solution for making this game work within the culture and business rules of the modern arcade game market, means that we decided to pass on an arcade release.”

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By updating the game in this way, Ono and his team can ensure the pick-up-and-play ideal of Street Fighter V remains intact for its entire lifespan, something you can’t really say of Street Fighter IV. “One of the goals we had for the original Street Fighter IV was to allow more casual players to enjoy and take part in the game, and over the years I have to admit that that became increasingly difficult for them as the standard of play got higher and higher. By making “resetting” a key pillar of Street Fighter V, our intention is for all players, be they veterans who never stopped playing the series, experienced but lapsed gamers who have taken a break from it, or brand new players, to be able to stand at the same starting line and enjoy fighting together. And so, everything from the fighting gameplay design, command input and even the designs of classic characters, has been part of our purview with this approach.”

This reset Ono refers to time and again is visible in everything from the core battle systems (all those fancy new V-Skills and V-Triggers, for example) to the fluctuating character designs: some veterans like Ken are almost unrecognisable with fancy new haircuts and Tekken-inspired outfits, whilst newcomers like the Aztec man/beast Necalli are a total deviation from the Street Fighter norm. We asked Ono exactly how these new characters were conceived – it’s a difficult task for any game, but it’s especially daunting for Street Fighter, with its almost-30 year reputation of interesting character design to live up to.

“We approach new character designs from three key angles,” he reveals. “First of all, the Street Fighter series features cool-looking characters with their own unique style. These are people who don’t really exist in the real world but we start off by wondering what it would be like if they really did exist. The next angle to approach the design from is the fighting style – after all, Street Fighter is first and foremost a ‘tool’ through which fighting styles are expressed. We look not just at how the fighting style ties in with their look, but also how it fits into the overall battle design of the entire roster. Is it fun to play as this character against the others that already exist? Can you have a fair fight and can you win? The team considers all these things and has many discussions about the direction to take.

“The final aspect is the locality or global region. Rashid, Necalli, Laura and F.A.N.G all have designs which indicate this. For example, there are design clues in the pattern on [F.A.N.G’s] clothes that should let you guess where he would be from. When choosing which region to set a fighter’s home as, we consider where in the world there is a new or growing Street Fighter community that we would like to represent.”

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These four new characters are love letters to the fighting fanbase, then, and rightly so – as Necalli is a mascot for South American players, Rasheed represents the Middle-East, Laura fights on behalf of Brazil, while F.A.N.G is more of a mystery, though he does wear traditional Chinese clothing. None of these nationalities are particularly new to Street Fighter (Laura is even the older sibling to Street Fighter III Ken-alike, Sean), but in ‘resetting’ the roster and bringing the initial character count down from a massive 44 to a more palatable 16, Ono needed to have new characters represent missing faces (Laura takes over from Blanka, for example).

But choosing the roster doesn’t come down to representing various nationalities exclusively – otherwise why would there be two Brits in there in the form of Cammy and Birdie? Ono takes us through what the team considers when it’s constructing that ever-so-important starting roster, especially off the back of including Street Fighter’s most iconic fighters in the game before:

“Ultra Street Fighter IV has 44 characters, the largest roster of any Street Fighter game. We chose the initial roster for Street Fighter V, and in particular the choice of returning characters, based on what we would need to have in place in order to cover all the bases to make this a fun fighting game, or as I like to call it a “tool”. We also considered how many characters would need to be included for players to get to grips with the redesigned fighting system. Finally, we wanted to make sure that the players who come to the new game from a place of experience with the series would find the roster of characters easy and fun to comprehend and control.”

So, is Ono saying the decision to include the likes of flirty-but-dangerous wrestler R. Mika, the ageing, food-loving Brummie punk Birdie and the sadistic, class warfare-obsessed Karin were just a logical series of choices ending with them in the roster? Not exactly. “For R. Mika I can tell you right now that I basically abused my position of authority to force the team to put my favourite character into Street Fighter V (laughs). I had actually wanted her to be in Street Fighter IV as one of the wrestler characters, but the game already had all the grapplers it needed so it didn’t happen at the time, so I’m really happy she’s back in Street Fighter V.

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“As for the Alpha characters, it was partly our intention to appeal to lapsed players who know the game from the PS1 era when the Alpha series was current, and partly that we wanted a combination of characters who were left out in the Street Fighter IV era and could come back with the reset that’s occurring in SFV, and those who were active in the pre-SFIV games. Another reason for choosing the returning favourites is because in the timeline of the series story, we need them in order to tell the story of M. Bison [Dictator].”

Ah, story. Typically it’s the last thing players care about when it comes to fighting games, but as the genre grows and attracts more and more players, story is becoming a key part of the package. By skipping the arcade release, Street Fighter V has been able to focus on what the new and returning cast can bring to the table in a narrative context, rather than strictly movesets. Street Fighter V will explore M. Bison in a bit more depth, and a lot of the character’s arcs revolve around the hulking Shadaloo dictator.

In terms of story, Rashid, the wind-manipulating, tech-loving gadgeteer is on the search for a missing friend that’s been kidnapped by Bison and Shadaloo, while Necalli is a raging fighter hungry for the soul of a worthy opponent (think Soul Edge/Nightmare in SoulCalibur). Laura’s motives have yet to be determined, but the latest addition to the roster – F.A.N.G. – is a Shadaloo Grand Master (think of the title as something like a CEO Of Evil) and, we assume, aids Bison in his newest quest for world domination.

“You could say that we’ve had a wide variety of influences and inspirations, from old RPGs and adventure games to fighting games old and new,” reveals Ono when we ask him about how the team’s approached storytelling for Street Fighter V. “And of course, a lot of fans who were asking for a fuller story mode told us to look at the direction Mortal Kombat has taken and to learn from that, and we have definitely taken that on board.”

Rumours abound currently that the Story Mode will take you through the various years of Street Fighter lore – from Ryu and Ken’s training days right into the world of ‘old’ Bison. And, if the tutorial at the start of the most recent beta is anything to go by, it’ll all be rather beautifully illustrated, too, in a manner similar to the Tekken 4 and Tekken 5 games.

Street Fighter V now, on the back of Mortal Kombat X, proves that fighting games are still relevant, that there’s still life in the old beasts yet; just because the games don’t appear to change much on the outside from one to the next doesn’t mean that they’re not different on the inside. Ono’s enthusiasm and passion humbled us during our interview with him, and if even the slightest amount of that raw energy manifests itself in-game, Street Fighter V will be a resounding success.

Check out our review of Street Fighter 5 here