One of the joys of being in the Fighting Game Community is the long wait ’til December, when the Capcom Pro Tour for Street Fighter V finally concludes. The CPT is a nearly year-long odyssey for its players, who have traveled the globe and entered many tournaments in order to earn enough points to make it to that final 32-man bracket. Not only that, almost every match at the finals is between two world-class players, experts who really push the game to its competitive height in order to scrape out a win. I’ve never not been impressed by the play at Capcom Cup finals, and I figured 2018 would be no exception, and I’m happy to say it wasn’t!
The grand finals set between Hiromiki “Itabashi Zangief” Kumada and eventual winner Kanemori “Gachikun” Tsunehori was nothing short of breathtaking. Kumada, a veteran with more than a decade of competitive experience under his belt, stole back momentum from a near route by top USA player Justin Wong early on and tore through the loser’s bracket, even forcing the grand finals to reset against the nearly unstoppable Tsunehori. Eventually, however, Tsunehori rebounded and took the final set convincingly 3-1, although Kumada didn’t make it easy. Seriously, even if you’re not a fan of the game, this match (and several others) are well worth the time to check out!
As usual, while the matches themselves were amazing and incredibly exciting, the rest of the show was a clunker from start to finish. Ian Walker over at Kotaku details most of the shenanigans, but the biggest bummer was from Capcom themselves. Mid way through the top 8 set, a new version of the game was made available for download that included adjustments for every character and a new fighter, Kage, who was made available for purchase. At the time when everyone’s eyes should have been glued to their Twitch stream waiting for great matches followed by a reveal from Capcom at the very end of the broadcast, hundreds of players were quickly turning on their PS4’s and downloading the new patch, making quick Twitter videos that showcased some of the new balance changes available to the cast. By the time longtime Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono danced out on stage for the reveal, which confirmed nothing new, even the most stalwart SFV fans were left deflated and underwhelmed. Coupled with a recent update that added an in-game advertisement system that paints the characters in obnoxious decals from head to toe and hawks downloadable content purchases at loading screens, it’s tough to defend the game even when its competitive play is at an all-time high.
(Side note: the championship belt one gets me the most. They made up an accessory to give characters an opportunity to shill the CPT)
But then again, this is not really new for the game. For as big as SFV is within the competitive scene, it didn’t make nearly a splash on the overall market as some of its competitors. Injustice 2, Tekken 7, and Dragon Ball FightersZ have all outsold the game within a short amount of time, and FighterZ and Tekken continue to grow in tournament numbers as the games’ competitive life continues. While it seems a no-brainer that bigger franches like that of Dragon Ball Z and the DC Universe would outsell it, Tekken is also now doing bigger numbers with a mainstream audience, mainly due to strong word-of-mouth a year after release. On the surface, SFV seems to create incredibly hype moments with its gameplay, whether or not anyone agrees it’s their cup of tea, and the CPT seems to be the closest thing to a professional E-Sports circuit in the scene. So what gives?
I believe it is Capcom’s continued missteps with almost every other part of the game other than the gameplay that have left the wider audience frustrated and fatigued. Even great tournaments like the CPT 2018 Finals can only stave off the inevitable groans of disappointment for so long; every time something amazing happens in the competitive circuit, some facet of the game reveals itself to be hugely unpopular and/or poorly implemented. While its competitive dominance and high-level of play will always stay intact due to the franchise’s huge legacy and the sheer number of people playing, SFV’s long history of anti-consumer services and poor game stability have given it a poor reputation even amongst its most ardent defenders.
To really get to the root of where the game got off on the wrong foot, I think you have to go all the way back to the beginning.
Not that far back!
I’m talking about December of 2014. Ultra Street Fighter IV was wrapping up at Capcom Cup, and there was a big buzz that Capcom had more to show about the very recently announced Street Fighter V. Sure enough, after Yusuke Momochi won his grand finals set, a brand new trailer as well as a live gameplay demonstration between then Capcom USA community manager Peter “Combofiend” Rosas and Mike Ross was shown to the crowd in order to build some excitement for the game, still more than a year away from release. I won’t harp on this too much, since technically the footage was from a game nowhere near complete, but it is kind of funny that in those trailers, a large majority of the moves that Chun-Li is shown to be doing did not make it anywhere near the final product. But that’s me being petty.
SFV was partially funded by Sony, who paid for some of the game’s development in order to maintain the title as a console exclusive (PC notwithstanding). Through that partnership, SFV was going to be one of the first fighting games to have cross-play between the PS4 version and the PC version, and that was just the beginning of a wave of announcements that would come later that year at Evo 2015, which Rosas outlined in a blog post at the US Playstation site. In it, there were three bullet points that were to sum up the philosophy behind how the game’s content was going to be handled:
Going further, Rosas detailed that the way you would earn the content would be through an in-game currency called Fight Money, a winking reference to a line from the character Balrog in SFIV, and another type of premium currency, called Zenny, that could only be purchased with real money and would help players “immediately gain access to post-launch content.” Lastly, a beta test of the game would be available to NA players who pre-ordered the game digitally, as a means of testing the game’s rollback-based netcode. It really seemed like Capcom was going all out into making the best possible game that they could for the competitive base while also moving toward a freemium model that could gain appeal in the casual market. Going into the beta, interest was high as everyone eagerly waited to get their hands on the game…
That initial beta run, which was supposed to be from July 23 to July 28, 2015, was a disaster, with most players unable to login and suffering pretty severe bugs/glitches when they did. Capcom quickly pulled the thing, offering apology after apology as players flooded social media with grumbling and complaining. Obviously there was work to be done, and it was reinforced that the game was still a work-in-progress, but that was a pretty bitter pill to swallow as me and thousands of others waited for the next beta in order to finally try the game out.
There were two more beta runs for the game in October and December, and while they weren’t total dumpster fires like the first, they still had a lot of problems. Login issues persisted, and more than that, the game’s netcode just seemed to be…poor. When a game uses rollback netcode, it typically uses a version of a system called GGPO, which was developed by Evo co-founders Tom and Tony Cannon. SFV uses an in-house-made derivative of it, but they didn’t really seem to quite nail it. All too frequently, the idea of rolling back the lag would happen to one player while the other would see the stuttering, jittery mess that was left behind. Cross-play connection exacerbated this issue, meaning that this much vaunted feature was actually more of a hindrance than a genre-defining feature as it was sold earlier. For a more technical explanation, here’s the man himself, Tony Cannon, explaining the problem with how SFV’s netcode works at a Evo panel in 2017.
Early hopes that this was just an issue in the game’s pre-release that would be sorted out come release were dashed when SFV dropped in February of 2016 with the login issues fixed, but inherently crappy netcode still intact. Servers were frequently taken offline for “maintenance,” a cycle that never actually seemed to do anything but take the game offline for 6 or 7 hours. To this day, SFV is the only game I know of that has a Twitter account solely dedicated to the status of the game’s online capabilities, because it gets so frequently out of whack. Even after the big Arcade Edition update earlier this year, Capcom has stayed relatively mum on the netcode, usually throwing in a “we’re aware of some issues” line every now and then. In an age where games like Killer Instinct and Injustice 2 have set the gold standards for what a rollback netcode can do, SFV‘s mediocre online is a big blow to its lofty goal of nabbing players who don’t usually play fighting games.
But the netcode was far from the only issue. SFV was always meant to be more of a service-based game with content releasing steadily at later dates, but on release, the game was very bare-bones. You had the online multiplayer, a training mode, a survival mode where one character went up against a set number of the others (this mode was necessary to unlock alternate colors and earn currency), and a “character story” mode in which you choose a character to cycle through a series of screens with text and occasionally engage in a 1-round fight. There was no traditional arcade ladder mode where you fight a few characters leading to a final boss, nor was there any sort of challenge mode, or even combo trials for the characters. The game was clearly marketed to the more competitive market, but on release there was very little, if anything, to keep players who weren’t playing multiplayer interested in the product. I’m trying to stay out of the subjective realm with regards to how the game plays and how it’s presented, but some of the art in the “story” mode was, um…
A lot of these things were added on in the coming months, including a full story mode with cutscenes and voice acting in the summer of 2016, and the Arcade Edition came with things like daily challenges and “extra battles” that would help keep singletons occupied. Unfortunately, those extra modes would always come out and inevitably actually contribute to an innate imbalance in the game’s economy. More on that later.
Aside from the lack of modes, the game engine itself was found to have a pretty crippling flaw early on: it had substantial input lag. Input lag is often death to fighters, meaning that the game doesn’t respond to your inputs instantaneously but rather with a slight delay. Not many games are truly lag free, but it has been noted that games made with the Unreal Engine 4, as SFV is, have a native lag of about 3-4 frames. SFV had some additional lag on top of that. In total, the release version of SFV had 8 frames of input lag. As Tony Cannon explained in the video above, anything above 6 frames or more can be deeply problematic for a fighter like SFV, and it didn’t go unnoticed by the more competitive crowd. Not only that, but earlier this year it was revealed by French FGC member Loïc Petit that in SFV, the input lag actually fluctuates during a match. As detailed in a very long blog post, Petit shows that the game has a stability ranking of about 43%, which would explain why so many people who have played the game seem to have a real variance with how they feel the game operates.
The input lag for the game has been decreased over time, with a 2017 patch reducing to to about 6 and one more in October getting it down to about 4 and a half frames and increasing the stability to about 77%. Still, when you look at the chart above, even 77% is widely below the standard for most of the modern fighters on there, which typically rank in the 90’s. Part of playing a fighting game is relying on reactions and precise inputs at precisely the right time, and SFV is almost guaranteed to prevent that from happening, even in offline versus mode against a friend or at a tournament. The worst part is that instability was in the game in addition to originally 8, then 6, frames of lag. In a game that featured un-reactable forward dashes and dire punishment for getting counter-hit by a strong move, this made playing in the already wonky online feel even worse.
But to me, the one thing that had people lose a lot of faith in SFV was the ineptness with how the initial DLC releases and the game’s economy were handled. Before SFV was released, it was clear that Capcom was going to do the “season pass” style of DLC, where you pay up-front, in this case $29.99, for additional content slowly doled out over time. Capcom USA even released a very nice and simple flowchart that described the DLC and other content release schedule:
For the first two months, everything was dandy. We got Alex in March along with the Shop and Trials modes, then Guile was released towards the end of April. Ibuki was scheduled to be the character for May, and a trailer for her was shown at that year’s Combo Breaker tournament late that month, but…nothing was released. May came and went, and finally there was an announcement regarding Ibuki’s release:
Ibuki was eventually released alongside the June update promising the full story mode, and Balrog, who was probably supposed to be the scheduled August update, was included in the update as well. This was a nice surprise, but I would argue it was soured by the response from the development team over at Capcom Japan, who issued this statement regarding the delay. The translation is rough here, but they directly address the road map that was issued, saying that “we are not presenting a similar roadmap in Japan,” and that the reason why was because:
“…the content of the announcement is confirmed by the local team’s own judgment in order to respond quickly to the demands of the local player….Japan’s Street Fighter V team also reviewed the roadmap release, but in consideration of the progress of the current development, it can not be promised 100%”
Basically, Capcom of Japan saw the roadmap that Capcom USA released, knew it wasn’t going to be honored, but still didn’t see fit to say anything. It almost makes it sound like the left arm doesn’t know what the right arm is doing, and that the right arm is just saying things in order to appease the audience rather than going through the proper channels to find out what’s going on. After that, any sense of a plan went out the window, although they did end in September by releasing Urien. Since then, there hasn’t been a set schedule window for the DLC characters of seasons 2 and 3, although Season 3 had all of its characters revealed before the Arcade Edition went live.
Aside from the wonky DLC schedule, the game’s economy is probably the biggest broken promise that still persists in the current stage of the game. Remember again that the initial promise of the game was that, no matter what, playing long enough would earn you enough FM to buy not just the DLC characters for free, but all post-game content. Aside from that, there was going to a currency called Zenny that would be made available to purchase in-game at a set retail price that would just be a quick unlock if you wanted to fork over the real cash.
At launch, finishing each character’s little story mode would net 10,000 FM, so you could pretty easily nab 160,000 FM, and then get a few thousand more if you were a masochist and did the really time consuming and difficult survival modes. All in all you could probably snag a little over 200,000 FM, which could earn you a couple DLC characters at 100,000 FM each.
You can probably already see the problem here: with that little bit of content at release, the FM well dried up very quickly. Buying characters would leave you very little left over to pay for the other things the store offered, like alternate colors and costumes, let alone the little tchotchke things like online titles and profile frames. Once you went through the offline modes, playing multiplayer netted you roughly 50 FM for a win. You got a bonus amount of FM for leveling up a character, but that bonus gets shorter and shorter the further you level up, really taking a slide around level 50 or so. At just 50 FM, even with bonuses, that would require, at minimum, something like 1500 to 2000 matches to earn enough to buy a character. Assuming you aren’t grinding the game like a madman, that was going to take a very long time, at which case we had the Zenny system of paying real money to unlock characters…in theory.
I say “in theory” because Zenny never actually came to the game. In the June update which contained the story mode, Capcom made it clear that “stability issues” were too rampant to allow Zenny into the economy, so they just switched it up so that you would pay directly through the Playstation Store if you didn’t have the FM needed to buy something in the shop. Okay, fair enough, right? Something wasn’t going to work, so you did away with it. That’s a good thing! The only issue is that the shop seemingly wasn’t rebalanced to reflect this new occurrence; characters still cost a lot rightfully, but things like stages and costumes still required a tremendous amount of fight money that you simply could not earn through any convenient method beyond cheating the system due to the lack of content. Story mode added quite a bit, yes, but it still usually meant you were forking over real money to buy everything because it just wasn’t feasible to earn so much FM.
But like I said, you could cheat, at least for a while. On July 13, 2016, Capcom sent out this tweet:
What they were referring to was an exploit that had been discovered that let you gain close to a million FM and unlock all the character colors. Hell, even Evo did it! As deconstructed by our old pal Mr. Petit again, the reason this exploit existed at all was because of one thing: Capcom did not secure their servers’ communication. In layman’s terms, there was a very easy mod out there that let you muddle with the way the game and the game’s servers communicate by telling it you completed events that you didn’t. Normally there are checks and balances that would force the server to reject a message from a source (not the game) that it didn’t know, but that level of security was not in place.
Having insecure server communication and expecting players to do transactions with real money seems is a massive security problem that must have flew under the radar. Except it didn’t, because Capcom was apparently made aware that it was a problem before the game was released. The only reason it could not have been patched out in a feasible amount of time was exactly what game developer Mike Zaimont says in that Twitter thread: it probably would have broke the game. But, nevertheless, a fix was promised and soon it came in September of 2016, with the release of the final DLC character, Urien.
That patch, unfortunately, had to be immediately recalled for PC users because it installed malware on their PCs!
As Mr. Zamont again explains, Capcom’s method of insuring that the player could not cheat the system was to include a driver that allowed admin-level access to your computer that was installed during the startup of the Steam version of the game. This is a huge security breach, as it means that your computer becomes vulnerable to any sort of virus that is written with the same script as the driver that Capcom put into your system. It shouldn’t be underestimated how dangerous this was: any customer who purchased SFV through Steam had to download this patch and give the game a level of access to their computer that almost no other game has, a method that made the customer more vulnerable to viruses and other malware. Luckily, Capcom was pretty quick trying to address it:
A later tweet “apologized for the inconvenience.” But notice here there isn’t much of a mea culpa here. “Security measures” is a really nice way of putting it that programmers at Capcom sincerely put together malware that was going out to the public. This kind of thing doesn’t accidentally happen, so that leaves us with only two possibilities:
- Capcom was aware that they were putting in a sketchy driver and hoped no one would notice
- The people who put the driver together had no idea they were creating something so potentially dangerous
This really begs the question of how prepared the dev team was to create the kind of service-based game that SFV turned into. Even the patch that rolled back the update didn’t actually remove the file from a user’s computer, and Capcom had to put together a tool that required any one who got that update to go deep into their computer and get the file removed. If they didn’t know how to even protect the game against basic grifting of the system, nor find a method to fix it that wasn’t insanely damaging to the customer, what hope was there that the game’s economy would work out?
Sadly, as we would find out, there wasn’t much. At the onset of the Arcade Edition relaunch, Capcom made it clear that you were no longer going to be able to get much FM from the offline modes: trials, character story, general story, survival, etc. You would still get general XP points, which granted you 1000 FM every time you leveled, but as mentioned earlier, those plateaued pretty hard after a certain point. This was strange, considering it seemed to be meant as a nerf to longtime players accruing FM through those modes every time a new character came out, yet insanely limiting to a new player who purchased the game as part of the pre-AE excitement. The only thing left that was \ a substantial FM earner was the weekly challenges, a 2017 edition to the game that lead players on a sort of scavenger hunt to complete obscure objectives that would earn you a decent chunk of FM. In addition to the nerfing of the offline mode earnings, the weekly mission, which used to pay out 5000 FM, went down to 2500 FM. But there was a silver lining! Literally!
The Extra Battle mode was added for Arcade Edition, which I suppose was to blunt the impact of nerfing the FM gained through weekly missions. You now could earn some FM and costumes by beating up on silver soldiers, or gold soldiers who offered even better bonuses. The motherload was a series of battles against characters wearing cool alternate costumes, usually a reference to another Capcom game. Of course, you had to pay for every attempt to play against them, which was typically limited at three. It cost 2500 FM each time for the costume fights, and 500 FM for the Silver Soldiers, and 1000 FM for the Gold Soldiers, so in reality, you were going to spend the weekly FM you earned on these Extra Battles, which would probably earn you a net negative FM gain overall. So now, you got to spend FM you barely had to afford to fight for a marginal amount more than you put in. And somehow this was supposed to help you earn enough FM to get anything of note, which usually starts at 20,000 FM or more.
And if all that wasn’t enough, a patch in June enabled the Fighting Chance mode, where you can use FM to buy a mystery box that may grant you something like a specially-designed costume or a useless accessory for Survival Mode. And yes, that is a fancy sentence just to describe to you loot boxes. If you didn’t have enough things to waste FM on, you now have the ultimate one. And Capcom knows it too, because they have been making certain costumes available only in Fighting Chance, which is a pretty convenient way of telling a player to drop mad FM so they can run out of FM on one neat costume, and therefore have to spend actual money on things like additional costumes, stages, and characters.
Remember those lovely in-game advertisements I posted above? When it first announced them back in December, Capcom made it clear that keeping them enabled would grant a small bonus for the player, to the tune of a whopping 12 FM per match, and that’s if they pick the specially made Capcom Pro Tour stage. It also has a limit; after roughly 150 matches, that bonus no longer applies.. As they were patched in, there was also one other thing included:
Those 2500 FM weekly missions? They now earned you fifty. And those garishly colored soldiers in Extra Battle? You only have one chance to fight them now, instead of three, with seemingly no adjustment as to whether or not the the more valuable Gold Soldiers will show up more commonly due to their one-and-done nature.
With almost every new patch, the SFV team adds new ways to earn FM while also making it very, very difficult to actually get enough FM to make a dent in the game’s shop. I get it, this is a business, and no video game’s economy is in any way friendly to the consumer, but the way Capcom persists that a person could grind and earn their way through the game’s characters, especially if they started with AE, is absolutely ridiculous that doesn’t hold up under any scrutiny. Someone the r/SF reddit board actually took the time to do the math behind earning FM, and you can see there how blatantly skewed the system is. Obviously one could definitely earn their way to some characters and stages with the benefits on the one-time bonuses you get for finishing some of the offline modes, but it’s nowhere near enough to earn all post-game content “for free,” as was the initial promise.
The worst thing about SFV, to me, is that there are high points. The majority of the music in the game is quite good, the stages look pretty nice, and the most recent balance patch for the 4th season is probably one of their best to date as far as buffing previously thought-to-be-unviable characters. I’d also be lying if I said that the majority of the tournaments I watch aren’t full of incredibly exciting moments and sinfully skillful gameplay that have a top 8 unfolding like a Greek drama, full of highs and lows that end in catharsis. I think the gameplay, although at times controversial, does its job of providing two players an avenue to show off their skills in their own style. Mostly. I’m not really sold on that, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
With all that said, it’s incredibly hard to recommend the game based on its extremely rough ride to its current state. Those who stuck through the rough launch have lived through the consistent nerfing of in-game currency earned, the devs briefly installing actual malware into their PC, and a befuddling amount of native input lag and gameplay instability. Those who hopped on-board around the time of the Arcade Edition relaunch are probably wondering how they are supposed to be able to accrue enough FM to buy anything but a few characters and stages and why Capcom felt the need to slather the characters in ads and exchange the already long and tedious load screens for even bigger advertisements. Neither of these groups of players have seen a very decent netcode, nor will they ever get a stable in-game economy. At times, it seems as if Capcom was utterly unprepared to make the style of game they wanted, a freemium style fighter that raked in cash through microtransactions, yet persist on sticking to that philosophy even when it’s clear that they may not know what they’re doing.
Perhaps the worst thing about all of this is that it’s very obvious that if the game wasn’t called Street Fighter and it didn’t have a huge amount of money pumped into it, even two of the scandals that SFV has had in its lifetime would be enough to sink the game. Poor word-of-mouth from a bad early state has hurt games beyond a reasonable doubt before (Street Fighter x Tekken), yet SFV will keep on trucking. Even when the big global tour that the money buys has its own significant problems with keeping it fair for the whole playerbase, very little can put a dent in SFV’s undisputed reign at the very top of the FGC. In an era where we see a game like Tekken 7 continuously have bigger tournaments and larger tournament numbers earned seemingly all through goodwill (even though it’s by no means perfect, either!), I think it’s hard to blame people for having a significant amount of apathy towards SFV, which is consumer-unfriendly on a good day. Nothing is unfixable, but with the future of SFV’s DLC release structure in question, it’s gonna take a lot of fixing to escape the looming shadow of its troubled past.