So I went ahead and bought KOFXIII, even though I have no idea how SNK plans to distribute any follow-up content. Mostly because I want there to be follow-up content. And as seemingly straightforward as paying full retail for a game to support a franchise should be, it was something I did against my better judgment. In an age where online console play has supplanted the traditional arcade scene, not knowing how a publisher distributes a fighting gameís inevitable tweaks, expansions, and pseudo-sequels can mean the difference between enjoying a continually updated version of your initial purchase for years to come, and buying a game that will be shunted into obsolescence in a few months by a newer, better retail version.
Fightings games have always had a reputation for disposable sequels, making every new release feel like a volatile and temporary tweak, another fine-tuned permutation that will just as soon be body-snatched by another. The practice, in and of itself, is not necessarily exploitation. Itís craven and nakedly commercial, but fans always want more content, and a company should support and supply a product in demand. Having originated in the arcade and still very steeped in its culture and economics, it makes sense for the genre to have this very high-speed/low-yield development process. And while this practice is at least as old as the genre itself, itís only on the current generation of consoles that itís started to feel antiquated and exploitative.
Before now, technology necessitated that any change to your game, be it paltry adjustments to frame data or a whole new set of characters, required putting another physical release on store shelves. This isnít necessary in the age of DLC, nor is it appropriate, nor is it advisable. Annual, and even bi-annual, non-compatible retail re-releases of existing titles is an archaic distribution model leftover from the 16-bit era, and even then it was shortsighted: each ďnewĒ full-priced iteration garnered fewer sales, diluted the respective brands, and caused many console gamers to walk away from the genre exasperated.
Nowadays these problems are even more pronounced because there are more strings attached to each new release than just a self-contained game you will play in a vacuum. Where the Skyrims and Mass Effects of the world afford you the luxury of indefinite solo campaigns, fighting games are not an isolationist genre. A game lives or dies on whether it can garner a large online community, and the ability to access it is a make or break selling point for most gamers. So you arenít just buying the latest mechanics, new characters, new levels, etc. Youíre buying connectivity and the publisherís assurance that they will facilitate that connection.
And this dependency gives them a massive amount of leverage over their players, allowing them to set the time table for a game's viability and eventual replacement. Unlike a sequel to a single player game, a new retail fighting release literally subtracts functionality from its predecessor by divvying the online community, if not outright killing the originalís player base (as anyone who has ever fired up a copy of Vanilla Street Fighter IV, post-Super, can attest). Fans are forced to decide whether they want to quit playing a series entirely or buy the latest version because one of the key functions of their old copy has been rendered moot. The community exacerbates this to some extent, because in this genre the latest release is the default for anyone serious about playing -- that volatile and temporary new version also happens to be the definitive one. The dyed-in-the-wool fighting audience plays competitively -- if not literally then aspirationally -- and the latest game will (almost) always be the one played in tournaments. Even if the majority of a gameís players never enter a high level competition, theyíll still buy the latest update if only to follow the migration of talent. Further, the latest game is the only one that holds the often illusory promise of substantive DLC, which companies can milk for sales even when they have nothing to add to a game before the next retail installment.
So this constant stream of revamped, incompatible retail iterations is balkanizing any established player base, has created a serious breach of trust between the publisher and the community, and essentially makes buying a fighting game into a blatantly bad investment, with the most loyal early-adopters usually getting it the worst. Yeah, the industry pretends to throw them a bone when the shiny new follow-up is ďdiscountedĒ at $40, but in reality that means the diehards spend $100 over the course of two purchases to reliably play one damn game.
People are getting fed up with this, and a mistrustful hardcore community with a chip on its shoulder canít be good for business. I know more than a few who automatically assume any new IP will have a less than twelve-month retail turnover. They wind up never supporting games they actually can and want to buy because any minute now a better version will come down the pipe. And really, who can blame them? Thereís a certain level of sour grapes about it, sure, but also an underlying pragmatism that publishers have helped foster, where fans have been treated like unthinking cash machines, feel exploited, and thus adapt at the expense of the game companies, the community they could be contributing to, and their own fun. This evidence is anecdotal at best, but my own circle of PSN fight-friends has been decimated by crap like this. One friend has Vanilla while another has AE. One has Calamity Trigger while I have Continuum Shift. One washed his hands of the whole genre after getting slagged off by Marvel vs. Capcom 3, while another wonít buy in because heís convinced Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Here-Is-Mega-Man-You-Goddamn-Whiners Edition is right around the corner. Now Iíve got my copy of KOFXIII and none of my circle to play it with because in a buyer beware atmosphere, no one wants to get burned by another fighting game.
Some may read this as a thinly-veiled swipe at Capcom, and while yes, the bulk of the scene -- and therefore the bulk of the blame - falls on their shoulders, many other companies are just as guilty (When I say that Iím looking at Arksysí upcoming Blazblue rerelease and itís whopping one new character, MSRP $39.99), and I do think for all the shady shit they continue to pull, Capcom has provided the gold standard of how to expand a fighting game in the digital age when they released SSFIV: Arcade Edition. A non-compulsory, reasonably priced, substantial addition to a game that can still be played without, released as both a downloadable update and a retail disc for newcomers? That is exactly how it should be done. Build on top of the player base you created with the original game and leave no one behind in the process. Far smarter than the Super Street Fighter IV/UMvC3 model, with diminishing returns of an increasingly pissed audience.
Hell, even if this retail cycle is applied in exactly same way but over a longer period of time, it goes from being egregious to perfectly reasonable. As great as a game may be, fighters have a life cycle, and once itís been played to death, additional content dries up, and interest starts to dwindle, thereís nothing wrong with a big new release coming out to put a series back in the limelight. But this should happen when interest in an IP starts to flounder, not when itís at the height of its popularity. Thatís when you should be making new content available through DLC to spark more attention, not resetting the franchiseís established audience (which, if youíre lucky, will only shrink by a third each "sequel"). A retail release should be centered on delivering a lot of high quality new content, separated by a few years of optional DLC to keep it a hot property, not a few tiny additions spread over many releases in a very small time frame. Quality over the long term rather than quantity immediately.
Having played these things for (Ögood lordÖ) twenty years now, itís extremely exciting to see how this genre has developed into a thriving subculture where people from all over the planet can throw down, swap techniques, talk shop and generally nerd out over great games. At the same time, it is frustrating to watch publishers squander the boon of the fighting community, chipping away at their own sizable fan base just like they did in the nineties by insistently valuing the short-sighted cash grab over the long term investment. Again and again like they canít fucking help themselves. Iím not saying theyíre going to kill the genre or anything so hyperbolic. But in the long-run they will shrink their audience until they can simply no longer afford sticking it to the people that have carried their company.