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The Evolution and Life Cycle of Fighting Games

This is part 2 of my look at fighting games and the culture surrounding them. Part one can be found here. This primarily focuses on Street Fighter since it is the most widely known and is timely with the announcement of Ultra Street Fighter 4, but the concepts apply to most successful fighting game franchises.

So we've gone over the reasoning behind the unconventional naming that some fighting game brands use as they grow and evolve (and why it is not the horrible practice that many portray it to be), but what I have not touched on are the reasons behind why there tend to be so many iterations and expansions of successful fighting games. I feel the primary factors behind the evolution and expansion of a title are as follows:

1) Business purposes
2) Player adoption
3) Fan demand
4) Inherent competitive structure and balance

Let's take a deeper look at each of these now. Starting with:

1) Business Purposes:

I figured I would start with the business behind the games since I feel this is where there are a lot of preconceived notions (some perfectly reasonable) and that it just needs ti be said: games are a business. The companies that make fighting games are not releasing them without the intent of making money. This is 100% true. Where I do disagree with many people though is in the sense that these companies (mainly Capcom) are just re-releasing the same game to gouge more money out of consumers hands.

Sure, there are downloadable expansions that cost money from time to time, but as I touched on in Part 1 of this series, they are really now different than your standard DLC for any mainstream game. I also argues that since the lifespan of a fighting game is significantly longer (SF4 is going on 5 years while many AAA games get yearly iterations at full price + DLC packs) the cost of staying current is significantly cheaper than it is for many other titles.

If the developer/publisher was really looking to price gouge the consumer, there would be no downloadable options. They would only release the updates on discs and would charge full (or close to) price each and every time. This was why there was a legitimate concern of this issue when Capcom made the jump from Vanilla (original) Street Fighter 4 to Super Street Fighter 4 initially. It was a disc only offering not even a year after the original release that cost $40.

Despite there being some potentially justifiable reasons behind the move (additional characters, balance changes, modes, new ultras for every character), Capcom recognized how poorly the move was received and every add-on and expansion since has been downloadable. If they really wanted to gouge the consumer they would keep doing disc only releases and as a result they would chase people away. That is far from good business practice and is exactly why they aren't doing it.

2) Player adoption:

Every major update (as denoted by a name change, new characters and features, and being a paid DLC rather than a free patch) brings the opportunity to draw new players into the game. It keeps the game in the news and in the public conscience. This gives the franchise a chance to gain players and expand rather than just be stagnant with the community it has already built. It also doubles as an opportunity for existing players who may not have played recently to jump back in and get excited about the game again.

A fighting game lives and dies based on its player base and the community built around it. It is not uncommon for a game to release and the community plays it feverishly for months dissecting every characters moves and properties. Eventually someone stumbles on a strategy or move that is extremely effective and seems invincible. What then?

Typically when there is a potentially overpowered move, strategy, or character, the players will usually take it upon themselves to try and find a way to beat it. This will typically lead to an evolution in play style of the game and its mechanics among the players, but occasionally there is just a character that is too powerful. Sure, there may be one or two characters that have a way around the overpowered set up, but if half of the cast is basically rendered useless because they just can't compete then something needs to be fixed. This brings me to.....

3) Fan demand:

The fans will always discover glitches or exploits that the testers and designers never dreamed of. It's is fairly well known at this point, but for anyone unaware of it yet, the combo system that was revolutionary in Street Fighter II was a glitch. The developers did not intend for it to be there. Fans discovered it though and it completely changed the way the game was played and the way fighting games were made from that point on. It was revolutionary, all by accident.

As such, fans will also find those things that are completely broken and overpowered in a game. When this happens and it is clearly an issue (and not just something people haven't figured out how to deal with yet, there is a difference) then balance changes need to be made. Fans are typically very vocal about these issues when they are potentially game breaking. Capcom actually stated they had no plans to further iterate on SF4 after Arcade Edition released, but fan demand and passion has kept the game alive and evolving.

4) Inherent Competitive Structure and Balance:

Now, many people who don't really concern themselves with the competitive aspect of fighting games won't realize this, but to people who play a lot of fighting games a significant balance patch can completely change the meta-game (the mind game between the players and the strategy behind how you play). Changing the priority, hit-boxes, frame data, and other properties of a few moves per character can render a previous combo or game plan completely useless while creating the potential for brand new ones.

Thus the period of experimentation and discovery begins all over again. This time faster than before though since it is being built off of the knowledge that players already learned. This is the primary life cycle of a fighting game. Eventually one of two things will happen that will end this cycle. Either the game reaches a level of balance that is deemed to be good enough where the majority of characters are viable in competition and no one is so far better than another where some are rendered useless or the publisher/developer moves on to the next iteration of the series or just stops supporting it entirely.

Typically the last possibility only happens if the fan base and community dies away and stops playing the game. The one that occurs most often is that a brand new game is released that the company decides to focus on instead, but thankfully in the case of Street Fighter every new numbered entry has used a completely different system than the games before it. That takes time to develop and create from scratch. In the meantime while we wait for a proper Street Fighter 5, SF4 continues to grow and evolve with the support from both the competitive gaming community and Capcom.

Five years and stronger than ever. How many first person shooters or single release sports games can claim the same? Not too many.

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About VagrantHigeone of us since 7:37 AM on 10.03.2012

I've been playing games my entire life going back to the Atari 2600 and have followed the industry news closely since the N64-PS1 era. I play a bit of everything so no topic is out of bounds game wise as far as I'm concerned.

For anyone wondering about the name VagrantHige, well, the avatar should make it clear where the Vagrant part comes from (Vagrant Story for those unfamiliar) and the Hige part is from one of my favorite characters in Wolf's Rain - Hige.

Go out, live life, play games.