Do you ever get the feeling that the biggest fighting game franchises are losing their identity? Many of the most popular titles are becoming predicable. The characters, moves and play mechanics that haven't changed much in over 20 years for the most successful titles. What alarms me is how much they are starting to look the same. I think the community really took notice at the 2013 E3. When Killer Instinct 3 was announced for the Xbox One long time players cheered at the Microsoft press conference. Attendees stood in long lines to try out the few playable characters during the show. Killer Instinct had last been seen in the arcade in 1996. The sequel to the runaway fighting game sensation did not manage to top the popularity of the original. It was not a major step forward as was the difference between the first and second Street Fighter games. Speaking of which, many in the fighting game community called out the developer Double Helix for taking many design cues from Super Street Fighter IV (SFIV).
The scratchy font, the painted streaks underlining the characters, the dark outlines contrasting the figures and flashy particle effects for projectile attacks looked like a page out of Capcom's playbook. The aesthetic for the past few Capcom fighting games had been very similar. Large, muscular 3D models of most of the Street Fighter II, Alpha and III characters had been developed and used over a series of games. In fact the character models were reused between Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken. While this helped Capcom save on development time and costs it also meant that the studio would not be returning to the elements that made their fighting games memorable in the first place.
Original character designs and brilliant 2D animation put Capcom on the map. The studio had created a library of fantastic IP in other genres as well. When they stopped innovating and started following the trends they began to fail their franchises and fans. Certainly the cost of developing 2D versus 3D games had grown as had the expectations of their audience. What gamers did not expect on seeing were Street Fighters that were big and ugly. The cast featured in SFIV looked as if they were designed by Western developers. They had proportions that one might expect to find in Gears of War rather than an animé. Big muscles and all it was a deliberate aesthetic choice in fact. For most of the early millennium fighting games were ignored by the major publishers. If Capcom hoped to get audiences behind a reboot of the franchise then they had to go out of their way and appeal directly to westerners. Gamers in the US, UK and Europe made up the majority of the consumer sales.
What SF IV lead designer Daigo Ikeno ended up doing was emulating a style of art that he did not completely grasp. The subtleties in western comics and cartoons were much different than the art featured in the manga and animé produced in Japan. There were many differences between character sizes, proportions, inking and rendering styles. Western gamers were actually attracted to the Japanese aesthetic because it was different than what western studios produced. Street Fighter II may not have been as a big a hit if tried to copy comic book character design. What helped sell most fighting games in the early '90s were the aesthetics and not necessarily the graphics. Even if there was some crossover with character types three of the biggest franchises had their own visual identity. Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat and KIller Instrinct looked and played completely unlike each other.
Street Fighter II looked like an animé-turned-fighting game. It was unlike anything that western audiences were used to and they flocked to it. Underneath the brightly-colored characters was a game engine that had tremendous depth. The success of SFII caused many western publishers to try and capture the market. The early developers wanted their games to look unique as well so they tried out different rendering techniques. Midway turned videotaped moves from actors and martial artists into a series of sprites for Mortal Kombat. Rare was one of the first adopters of CGI technology yet no arcade cabinet or console in the early '90s was powerful enough to render high resolution 3D models on the fly. They did the next best thing and converted Silicon Graphics Workstation (SGI) models into sprite data to make Killer Instinct. The three games complimented each other and helped build a foundation that would carry the arcade scene for another decade. The titles also helped spark a revolution in fighting game design. Every publisher was beginning to experiment with graphics engines to try and get their game noticed by players. Everything from polygon models to stop motion "claymation" was employed as the backbone of new fighting game experiences.
Audiences that confuse Graphics for Aesthetics had been talked about on Penny Arcade earlier this year. I shouldn't have to retread what was so well put but I want fighting game aficionados to ask themselves when was the last time that they saw a fighter that looked completely original. Street Fighter IV did a good job at relaunching a franchise and starting another fighting game renaissance. However since the debut of the game in 2008 there has been little innovation from rival publishers. In fact the other franchises have only become homogenized. Almost all of the current fighters look identical. They do take advantage of modern graphics engines and are capable to rendering details, lighting and particle effects that were not possible a decade earlier. However the dark, gritty details do nothing to set themselves apart from the rest of the crowd. Fighting games have become ugly and too similar.
Capcom is in the unfortunate position of playing by the rules of western developers and pandering to western audiences. Western publishers are notorious for playing follow the leader and running a genre, any genre, into the ground. They did it in the '90s for fighting games and are on track to do it again. As a result of following the trends Capcom has not been as profitable as it once was. Western developers like NetherRealm (Mortal Kombat and Injustice Gods Among Us) are able to capitalize on western tastes better than most other studios because they know their audience much better. In the '80s and '90s Capcom had little competition. They broke new ground with Mega Man, Street Fighter, Strider, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, 1942 and Bionic Commando. On the fighting game front they had Street Fighter, X-Men, Power Stone, Rival Schools, DarkStalkers and Plasma Sword. Western gamers had never seen anything like those franchises and flocked to them. Capcom had done little to innovate those fighters years later. They did little to honor many of the properties that celebrated a 25th anniversary in the new millennium. There was no new Mega Man or Street Fighter V for example despite the voices of the most adamant of fans. With around $154 million in the bank there was actually very little breathing room for Capcom to do much of anything. A single AAA title could easily use up that entire budget. Capcom was expected to keep Monster Hunter, Ace Attorney and the other franchises floating with their remaining cash. In better days, with better developers and better management the company could have bet all their chips on a new fighting game. They would have come out winners. Those days are long gone but I will never admit that Street Fighter is a bad bet. Except for Street Fighter the Movie the Game. But I'm not talking about that game… ever. What are your thoughts? Do you think that there is more to the crop of modern fighting games than visuals? Would things have been different if arcades were still viable sources of income for publishers in the US? Let me know in the comments.