How soon is too soon for a new game in a fighting game series?

Happy New Year! Today marks the dawn of a new year- the year of 2019- and I was instantly reminded of the insanely hype promo SNK released last year for the upcoming Samurai Spirits/Shodown title, which is due this year. SNK also held a meeting with investors, showing that the company also intends to release a new King of Fighters title sometime in 2020, though this has not been confirmed to be a solidified release date, appearing instead to be the more target date of release rather that a full committal. This got me thinking… it has only been a few years since the release of the last King of Fighters title. Is it too soon to be thinking of releasing another?

It seems a popular theory of the status of Street Fighter at the moment is that Capcom is bypassing the usual annual Season Pass DLC to release fewer characters that will impact the meta, or to wind down the release hype in order to shift focus on to a new project, hypothetically, Street Fighter VI. Whether or not this is true, a new Street Fighter even coming out in 2021 would mark a significant jump in release dates of a new Street Fighter IP. In terms of mainline entries into the series, Street Fighter usually sees a significant gap in release dates between their new titles that are numbered- SF3: New Generation was released in 1997 before receiving a few updated versions and going practically silent outside of a couple non-canon releases on PS2 and other platforms not necessarily internally developed by Capcom. Street Fighter IV’s vanilla version was released in July of 2008- an 11 year gap. This title would also receive numerous updates and rereleases, the end of which is handled with Ultra Street Fighter IV coming to current gen consoles. It wasn’t until February of 2016 (almost 8 full years after the launch of Street Fighter IV) that a new mainline Street Fighter was released.

While Capcom did apparently plan to rely on Street Fighter X Tekken to help financially boost the fighting game department, its sales expectations fell well short of its goal partially due to some horrid mismanagement, poor PR moves, and a badly implemented gem system that was much more restrictive than freeing in execution. Combined with the slow-to-warm reception of Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 at the time, and the fighting game department of Capcom was suddenly found to be struggling despite being one of the most well known fighting game studios on the face of the planet. Things didn’t exactly get better with Street Fighter V’s release, which saw numerous critics lambast its poor internet connection problems and lack of content at launch. Perhaps multiple people were still sour from 5 years previous, and the very suspect methods with which Capcom publicly announced handling its DLC practices and very slow loading menu screen. At this point, it might seem wise for Capcom to start fresh and get away from the latest Street Fighter V issues, but this would be the shortest gap between mainline titles since Street Fighter II was originally released in 1991 to Street Fighter III in 1997. That isn’t particularly a good look, even if a new Playstation and Xbox console are on the horizon, and many players might question why they bothered to invest in SF5 to begin with if their permanent, expensive, paid DLC would become irrelevant so quickly. There are pros and cons to Capcom moving on past a project that has been regarded as- at best- immediately flawed, and to move on so quickly.

Perhaps we should examine the current top competitor for the FGC spotlight- Tekken. Tekken has become one of the most lauded, watched, and played fighting games in the current market, routinely seeing some of, if not the most, viewed streams the past two years since its console release came overseas. Mainline Tekken games have also seen a similarly wide trend of release dates over the years, but have a bit of a different situation: the console ports routinely release much later than its arcade versions, which skews the dates of release a bit. For example, both Tekken 6 and Tekken 7 took about 2 years to come from its arcade versions (which also included a free update in Japan) to console, with the whole bundle packaged as a mainline titled game and the “full experience” to pay for. Tekken 6 was initially released in November of 2007, but its console port didn’t arrive until 2009, while Tekken 7 first released for arcades in March of 2015, and didn’t come to PS4/XBO/PC until 2017. Regardless, the dates of release between mainline titles are much more scattered than Street Fighter- Tekken 6 was released only about 3 years after Tekken 5 hit arcades, but there was an 8 year gap between Tekken 6 and Tekken 7 seeing action, only broken up by the less-than-stellar performing Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (2011). Earlier on the in 90s, Tekken games actually released more frequently, with Tekken 2 coming to arcades in 1995 (1996 on PSOne), Tekken 3  seeing release in 1997 (1998 on PSOne), and Tekken Tag Tournament entering in 1999 (becoming a PS2 launch title on console).

There is a sort of irony in Tekken’s release history, given that Tekken was originally a Sony exclusive, not coming to Microsoft consoles until the sixth installment, and Nintendo got almost zero Bandai Namco action until Tekken Tag Tournament 2 was released on the Wii U (except for a very limited port of Tekken 3.5-ish onto the Game Boy Advance). While Tekken was Sony’s original fighting game workhorse (alongside Capcom’s competing Street Fighter Alpha series), Tekken is now the multiplatform darling while Street Fighter has become the Sony exclusive. Tekken has also avoided many of Capcom’s larger PR problems, particularly with predatory DLC practices and having characters on disc that needed to be paid for to unlock. While there are certainly warning signs that Bandai Namco is slowly turning to more of Capcom’s business model (just look at the Season 2 DLC and question why it seems many of these “legacy” characters weren’t in the game in the first place), it hasn’t soured with players as of yet, and Tekken 7 has been an all-star seller since its console release. Part of that may have to do with how much time Bandai Namco’s Tekken team is willing to put into its product- a whole 8 years between mainline titles, and even 4 years between arcade releases of a non-canon side game and the next mainline release. Supposedly, work on the Tekken X Street Fighter game being developed by Bandai Namco is around 30% completed, but its release likely would not be before 2020, which would still mark a 5 year gap between a mainline title release and a (likely) non-canon side game. Even if Bandai Namco were to continuously release content, fewer players are likely to feel stilted as the next mainline Tekken game is nowhere on the horizon after a strong 2017 console port launch.

NetherRealm Studios is one of the biggest names not just in fighting games, but in mainstream gaming as well. Casuals and hardcore types all know who NRS is, due to the decades of cultural relevance NRS has enjoyed by its “controversial” violent content and government attempts of intervention and censorship. While there have been plenty of games released throughout the years, many of those games were… well, frankly, they were bad. NRS seemed unable to truly find a “voice” in their fighting game series after the initial releases of Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat 2, and Mortal Kombat 3. People still bought their games, but their status had waned somewhat to just being known for making violent fighting games (except for a brief popularity stint with Mortal Kombat Vs. DC, which was much more spectacle than good game). However, Mortal Kombat (or MK9, as it’s known unofficially) rebooted both the franchise’s story and NRS’ mainstream relevance all over again, delivering a much more polished fighting game experience with great-looking updated graphics and more gorey fatalities than ever before. Throughout the years of experimenting and turmoil, NRS finally developed a game that felt unique from its peers while still being fun to play, and released about halfway into the lifespan of the PS3 and Xbox 360 consoles in 2011. Because DC appeared to love the concept of Mortal Kombat style fighting gameplay and the more realistic body proportions compared to more animated stylings of its contemporaries, a DC-only fighting game titled Injustice: Gods Among Us was released in 2013. Both of these PS3/Xbox 360 titles received multiple updates and characters along the way, before Mortal Kombat X stepped into the arena in 2015- also receiving a full season pass and multiple characters post launch. The latest NRS fighting game to be released is simply titled Injustice 2, debuting in 2017 and also receiving multiple characters and updates post launch. Mortal Kombat 11 was shown off at The Game Awards this year and is scheduled for an April 2019 release.

You can probably see the pattern here. Around April to May every two years, players can expect a new NRS fighting game of some sort- either with Mortal Kombat series or the Injustice series. Since each of these games in recent memory has had post launch content support, players can assume there will be frequent updates throughout the game’s lifespan and prepare accordingly. In fact, MKX is still played by players who aren’t as fond of Injustice’s differences from the “main” series, or perhaps who just aren’t as interested in DC as others. MKX still receives plenty of grassroots support from its playerbase, and still appears to pull in large viewership numbers considering the game’s lifespan of almost 4 years now. This is likely the closest fighting games could get to annual series like Call of Duty.

Pressing forward, we have the Guilty Gear series developed by Arc System Works, who also appears to have a certain habit of releasing titles per a schedule. The most recent series, Guilty Gear Xrd, is the 5th in the mainline series of games, and was initially released in February 2014. The Guilty Gear series is likely the biggest anime fighting game series of all time, dating back to the 90s and a time before anime fighting games had really hit a mainstream audience in the West outside of certain novelty titles. While the original Guilty Gear has seen multiple sequels and content updates, the specific schedule for those are a bit more frantic, likely due to the competitive nature of the industry of the time with quick turnarounds and updated content being necessary to compete in arcades. Due to this, I’d like to focus on the handling of the Xrd series, which has been a fairly large success in arcades and its console ports. After the initial release of Xrd Sign in 2014, the game has regularly received updates roughly every 16-18 months or so, with Xrd Rev 2 being the most recent coming to consoles at the end of May last year. As of right now, this actually marks one of the longer stretches of lack of new content for the series, with plenty of rumors as to what is in store next for the series. Whatever the situation may be, Daisuke Ishiwatari and Arc System Works haven’t revealed anything concrete yet, although they do appear to be working on a timeframe, with a possible announcement at the end of the currently ongoing ArcSys World Tour.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the company and two series that compelled me to write all of this: SNK Corp. Admittedly, I’m new to actually playing most King of Fighters games in a competitive fashion, but I have loosely played multiple titles in the past and even played Samurai Shodown II a long time ago as a kid in a friend’s basement on imported (possibly stolen?) parts on a working board. King of Fighters is the flagship fighting game series for SNK, featuring fighters from multiple other fighting game and non-fighting game lineages over the course of SNK’s history, including Metal Slug, Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting, Samurai Shodown, and more. A very long time ago, SNK actually released King of Fighters games annually, though this meant that many of the games looked exceedingly similar and were released in story arcs rather than full standalone titles. From 1994 until 2003, mainline KoF games were released annually until SNK decided to refocus on each mainline title to improve their quality. While there were 3 non-mainline KoF games released the year before it, King of Fighters XI came in 2005 as the first to not be released annually, followed by King of Fighters XII in 2009. The “second half” of XII came out over a year later in 2010, numbered sequentially as King of Fighters XIII. It was another 6 years before King of Fighters XIV was released in 2016, featuring 50 initial fighters before two separate character packs were released, bringing the total to 58. Many of King of Fighters’ core gameplay elements are retained from title to title, with a few drastic changes depending on the year. On the other hand, Samurai Shodown was an annually released series from 1993 until 1999 before taking a short break and releasing another mainline title in 2003, then an updated version of the 2003 title in 2004, before the final mainline SamSho was released in 2005 for the PS2. The only arcade or console follow-up to Samurai Shodown VI was Samurai Shodown: Sen, a non-canon game released in arcade and the Xbox 360 in 2008, and Samurai Shodown Anthology which compiled the mainline SamSho games for Wii, PS2, and PSP in 2009. Before this year, Samurai Shodown was believed to be a dead series, likely not receiving a new title in the future as it has been almost 14 years since a previous mainline release.

SNK changed that in 2018 by announcing an Unreal Engine-made Samurai Shodown, titled in Japan as just Samurai Spirits. As mentioned, it has been 14 years since a mainline SamSho, and it has had fans clamoring in praise since its announcement. It seemed to boost the number of people interesting in playing Samurai Shodown V Special, which also had been more recently released on the Playstation Store digitally. If players weren’t aware of SamSho before, they certainly were now due in large part to this surprise announcement, which appears to reboot the initial title in Samurai Shodown history. Later in 2018, SNK revealed in a meeting that development was underway to release a new King of Fighters in 2020, titled King of Fighters XV. Nothing else was revealed at the time- only that development had been underway at SNK.

Which brings us to this point: it has not even been a full 3 years since the release of KoF14. While the title didn’t sell as well as many of its contemporaries, plenty of people still play it in both Japan and the West. A core, devout following of players seem to be able to keep KoF in just enough light and appeal to keep the game afloat, including a player who is likely the most prolific and well known KoF player of all time, Xiaohai. In fact, seeing these fans be passionate about the game and insist on its quality is what drove me to abandon Capcom and their recent shenanigans for SNK and its King of Fighters series as my “mainstay” title. I had learned of the pending release of KoFXV and began to wonder, would it be worth it to spend any time learning 14 if 15 was around the corner? As it turns out, its due date is further out than I originally thought (likely not until at least Q3 or Q4 2020, at earliest), so I decided to go all in on KoFXIV and get as much practice in as possible, but 4 years is still not a particularly long time to invest in a game’s overall lifespan- particularly when the game between King of Fighters XIII and XIV was already at 6 years, and another 6 years between XIII and XI. (Personally, I consider XII to be the “first half” of KoFXIII, seemingly only made to get KoF to compete on a global scale before the launch of XIII in 2010.)

If we look at a series like Tekken, with much less frequent releases and a generally large amount of content, is it justified to release a new title in a series so soon? I suppose the answer can generally be found in what series best appeals to you, as if we look at NetherRealm Studios… you’d be expecting to play a new title every two years just to stay up to date, and every four years in the same series alone. It’s relatively easier to stay competitive in Guilty Gear, as the game’s updates are generally large balance patches and new content added to the game has been added in as paid DLC, such as the Rev 2 add-ons. A larger focus on using digital add-on content to further maximize one’s time in the game appears to be a method ArcSys is working on at large, as can be seen in BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle’s emphasis on adding characters via DLC, and DragonBall FighterZ receiving a Season Pass (and likely another as it enters its second year). Quite literally nobody outside of Bandai Namco knows when the next Tekken game will release, TxSF game or otherwise, and Bandai Namco seems to like the method it has of supporting content with paid DLC. If a new Guilty Gear title was announced for 2019 or 2020, it would still be removed only 5 or 6 years from Xrd Sign, and only 4 or 5 from the first version of Xrd Revelator. If the series was a further continuation of the Xrd plot line, it would only be about 2-3 years removed from Xrd Rev 2.

The question remains: is that window long enough to justify reinvesting in a title after launch? Does it perhaps alienate potential consumers who may be late adopters, such as my situation with King of Fighters XIV? In a niche genre that is already notoriously difficult to penetrate with large sales of units, is there a potentially better business model the industry could adopt to encourage new players invest in the scene? I suppose only time will tell, but so far, I don’t regret investing both my time and money into King of Fighters XIV, and I hope my extended practice with the game will assist my endeavors in the future of King of Fighters.

It’s simply interesting to examine how each of these series approaches its inherent value of longetivity. Each company appears to have a different philosophy, but many have core similarities that are commonly shared amongst them. Perhaps there is no “best method” when releasing fighting games- rather, an individual should best examine the release history of a title before approaching it in a competitive mindset. After all, money is not an unlimited resource for most of the FGC. These factors can be taken into account, but only as a certain variable to consider rather than be the overwhelming indicator of choice. It’s simply another factor to remember when a member of the FGC is approaching the idea of getting into a new scene, and who might populate it in its entirety- peer and developer alike.

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