Capcom seems to be trapped in a recursive nightmare of late, a Groundhog Day scenario that nobody at the company can quite to figure out how to break out of. Most every time Capcom makes some significant announcement about one of it's products, the fires of the Internet's rage begin to burn anew. It doesn't matter if it's definitively bad news or not--as soon as the press release, video, or tweet goes out, someone finds something terribly wrong with the situation, and the vitriolic comments start flowing. No matter what the product, no matter what the situation, Capcom just can't seem to get the fans on its side.
Take the most recent example, pertaining to the company's 2012 fighter Street Fighter x Tekken. This is a game that fans have been excited about for a while, and it's easy to see why. Though it appears to be approaching the genre with a simplified structure, at least compared with the last couple of entries in the Street Fighter franchise, the action is nonetheless extremely competitive, fast, and thrilling, and not in that dumbed-down Marvel vs. Capcom 3 way, either. For people who found the high level play of Super Street Fighter IV a bit too much to handle, it appeared that a game perhaps geared toward them was on the way. And on the other side, the fighting game super fans looked excited for a new Capcom fighter to pick apart and analyze ad nauseum for the sake of potential tournament play.
Then New York Comic-Con happened.
At NYCC 2011, Street Fighter series producer Yoshinori Ono and Capcom community manager Seth Killian were on hand to demonstrate the latest announced feature of Street Fighter x Tekken: gems. Essentially assignable power-ups, gems are context-sensitive boosts that can be activated during a fight provided certain conditions are met. One example might be that during a fight, an attack boosting gem will only be activated if a fighter hits two special attacks successfully. There are gems in categories of defense, attack, speed, cross-gauge, and assist. Apart from the main categories, there are apparently a whole host of sub-categories that further make the whole situation altogether confusing. How confusing is it? Watch this video of Ono and Killian demonstrating the system for the first time, and see how well you can suss it out.
To a seasoned fighting game vet, maybe that description makes a good amount of sense to you. Me personally? I went boss-eyed about halfway through.
What is immediately decipherable is the reaction to this new gem system. To say it's been mixed would be akin to calling the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand a "problematic situation." Debate has been heated in the weeks since the NYCC announcement, with more than a good chunk of that debate falling on the side of those who believe the gem system is a game-busting decision. Much of the criticism seems especially directed at Ono's comment that this new system is designed to bridge the gap between the hardcore and the casual players, perhaps inferring that a newer player could somehow purchase techniques they'd otherwise never manage to pull off.
Making matters more complicated, several packs of gems will be released as retailer-exclusive pre-order bonuses, or as exclusives with the Special Edition release of the game. Others may be released as DLC, causing some to accuse Capcom of creating the system as a ploy to force players to pay their way to victory.
Normally I don't make it a habit of reporting on random Internet rage, because it's random Internet rage, and generally, it's best left to its own devices to suss itself out. However, I was struck yesterday when Killian came out and gave an interview to Gamasutra yesterday, specifically in an attempt to quell the rage regarding this new system.
On the subject of game balancing:
"I don't think there's any combination of gems which will help a weak player beat someone who's much stronger than them," he says. Auto-block has, in particular, "sent people into a tizzy," says Killian, "because it's like, can't you just block everything? Well, yes, but it requires meter from your bar."
In other words, the gems have activation conditions. A Boost Gem might require being hit a certain number of times to activate. An Assist Gem will "almost always" be active only as long as you have energy in your meter, which you must build up by fighting.
And on the money issue:
"There's also worry about this guy [that] has more money and buys the special edition -- will he have an advantage over me?" The answer, says Killian, is no. "The gems, in the way we've approached them, are balanced against each other."
"If one gem has a bigger damage bonus, it has harder activation conditions."
It's a completely reasonable explanation that nonetheless hasn't appeared to do much to quell many of the fears of the players. In part, it's because of this next comment on the status of the gems as DLC and pre-order bonuses exclusive to certain retailers.
"At this point we're still sort of figuring that stuff out," says Killian. "The game comes with some gems, some of them will be available as preorder bonuses and things like that." Some may be available packaged with DLC, as well.
That reads like the half-answer of a man generally unsure of things, not necessarily the kind of messaging one might want to try to get across to sooth a searing fanbase.
Then again, if Killian sounds weary, he's got good reason. This is hardly the first Capcom fire he's had to put out in the last couple of years. Whether it's questions of expansions going to disc instead of DLC (Super Street Fighter IV or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3--pick your poison), issues surrounding some of Capcom's more questionable DLC practices, or the straight up PR disaster that was the cancellation of Mega Man Legends 3 for the 3DS, Killian and everyone involved with Capcom's community management has essentially been under constant fire. By this point, you'd half expect that everyone over there hides under their desk before clicking "send" on a press release.
Think I'm being melodramatic? Let me put it this way: during San Diego Comic-Con this year, just a short week after the announcement of Mega Man Legends 3's cancellation, a rumor went around the Internet that a fan had walked up and punched Killian in the face. Absurd as that sounds, my Twitter feed was clogged with retweets and commentary on what could have sparked such an attack. Of course it turned out to be a total lie, but because of the animosity drummed up prior to the show, people easily believed it was true.
As with most problems, the issue at hand is likely a good bit more complicated than pure blame on the publisher itself, nor is it easily dismissable as typical Internet rabble rousing. Capcom fans, perhaps above the vast majority of other publishers, tend to be an extremely passionate lot. One reason for that likely stems from the fact that Capcom tends to put out titles in more niche-oriented genres. Fighting game fans are often up in arms about something, so it's of little surprise that something as potentially game-changing as this gem system has upset them. Anything that fundamentally changes the field of competitive play is typically scrutinized, perhaps often beyond reason.
Another thing that makes Capcom unique is its sense of community. Every publisher and developer has a community manager these days, but few video game communities are cultivated with such passion and fervor as with Capcom titles. Killian's work on behalf of the company's fighting game franchises borders on obsession at times, and the amount of community outreach the makers of Mega Man Legends 3 did before its unfortunate demise was pretty much unheard of. Games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft have impassioned fanbases, but there is usually a sense of distance there that enforces the notion that these games are at the whim of the developer, not the fans. With Capcom, it's almost the opposite. You talk to anyone involved in the early development forums who saw Mega Man Legends 3 get flushed down the crapper and go swirly, and they'll talk about that game as if it were their own. Even now, months later, MML3 fans haven't quite gotten over that whole situation--a fact probably not helped by the constant reminders by departed series creator Keiji Inafune that he would really like Capcom to keep the series alive.
It is, in a way, a problem of Capcom's own making. By engaging the community with such regularity and intensity, the response back to them becomes amplified by several orders of magnitude. It's a classic damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario.
But back to Street Fighter x Tekken for a moment; it's worth noting that not everyone sees this addition of gems as a total disaster, or at least not the one the loudest online posters seem to believe it is. Plenty of players seem intrigued by the possibilities of what gems could be in the context of the game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Killian himself seemed legitimately excited by the possibilities inherent to the system:
"Ultimately, this is one of those things, as a concept, that we were talking about maybe two or three years ago, and I was excited by it. And when we got more into the implementation, I was like, 'I dunno about this.' And then once we got hands on with the actual systems, and it tickled me with what I call the 'nerd feather' of theory fighting and stuff, where I started to see the possibilities, it became instantly exciting," Killian said.
Some agree, though a subset of that group sees potential for another problem, one that's actually the polar opposite of the most popular topic of discussion.
Noted friend of Whiskey and current TwitchTV community manager Jared Rea remarked to me yesterday during an IM conversation that while the intent may be to try and give newer players a new route to accessibility, the likelihood of the converse happening is far more likely.
"The problem with systems like Gems in Street Fighter x Tekken is that they tend to achieve the opposite affects that designers are seeking," he said, "As they tend to overly complicate the process of punching another dude in the face. While it's not a genuine comeback mechanic, we've seen this situation before with Ultra Combos (Street Fighter IV) and X-Factor (Marvel vs Capcom 3), where a new gameplay system is introduced with the intent of making the game more accessible to newer or lesser skilled players, but really all it does is reset the gap on a larger scale and the rich tend to get richer."
Occupy Wall Street metaphor aside, he does seem to have a point.
"Gameplay mechanics like Gems are a lot like giving a civilian a sniper rifle," he added. "Yeah, they might shoot someone's eye out but they lack the tools to maximize its potential. Put it in the hand of a trained soldier, however, and the damage that weapon can inflict is far more significant. So while you can argue that a Gem like auto-block or some sort of massive power buff may make things easier for a new player to mount a convincing offensive; just imagine when you give those same tools to the likes of Justin Wong or Daigo Umehara."
Whatever the intent, it's safe to say that Capcom has a long way to go toward convincing would-be Street Fighter x Tekken players about the value of the gem system, especially among the competitive fighting game scene, where tournament directors are already grumbling that they may have to out-and-out ban gems from tournament play, depending on how accessible they are to everyone. Most tournaments tend to ban DLC anyway, but this is a bit of a different case.
Similarly, it seems like Capcom is a long way from where it was a few years ago, riding the wave of good feelings following the release of the original Street Fighter IV. There was a time when the company seemingly could do no wrong. Nowadays? If the vocal portions of the fanbase are to be believed, it appears wrong is all they can do. It's a PR problem that Killian and crew are going to have to tackle head-on; otherwise, this infernal roundelay of negativity they keep finding themselves in will just keep repeating itself, over and over and over...