Discussion and Announcements at the Japan Fighting Game Publishers Roundtable

News about the development of current and future titles

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The Japan Fighting Game Publishers Roundtable (JFGPR) was held on Friday, July 31st, at 5PM Pacific Time. The conference, which was streamed over multiple platforms, was a live discussion where representatives of several different fighting game developers met to answer questions and share teased announcements. Conferences and information sharing between Japanese developers in the genre is allegedly very rare- something that was acknowledged a few times during the conference proper- so this occasion doubled as an opportunity to see the different ways that these directors and their teams handle the development process. Due to development and news cycles changing drastically or being halted altogether during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the final cancellation of Evo 2020, a conference such as this was likely the best avenue these developers saw to publish this wealth of information. (Both the original Evo 2020 event and the final weekend of its online equivalent coincided with the weekend that the JFGPR began.)

The JFGPR was split into two separate hour-long segments- from 5PM to 6PM PDT, and from 6PM to 7PM. The first hour was dedicated to the roundtable proper, where the various developers fielded five questions selected from Twitter. The second hour focused on announcements that the developers had prepared about their currently released and future titles. The conference featured producers and team directors from SNK, ArcSystem Works, Arika, Capcom, Koei-Tecmo Games, and Bandai-Namco Entertainment. The breakdown of the people involved with the broadcast is as follows:

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  • An English stream was cast on the BandaiNamcoUS Twitch channel by Michael Murray, currently a producer and English community manager for Tekken, and Jiyuna, host of the Fighting Tuesday local and co-host of the AnimeIlluminati fighting game channel.
  • SNK was represented by Yasuyuki Oda and Nobuyuki Kuroki, who respectively act as the producer and director for Samurai Shodown. Both developers are also known for their work on past Fatal Fury and King of Fighters titles.
  • ArcSys was represented by Daisuke Ishiwatari and Kazuto Sekine. Ishiwatari is the current director of the Guilty Gear series, including the upcoming Guilty Gear Strive. Sekine is currently the lead planner for Granblue Fantasy Versus, and has also worked on Guilty Gear Xrd and past Blazblue titles. During the second half of the conference, Ishiwatari and Sekine dismissed themselves and were replaced by Riku Ozawa, a planner and designer for the Blazblue series.
  • Arika was represented by Akira Nishitani, the company founder and current director of Fighting EX Layer. Nishitani is also widely renowned for being the original designer for Street Fighter II.
  • Capcom was represented by Shuhei Matsumoto and Takayuki Nakayama, who are both part of the Street Fighter V development team.
  • Koei-Tecmo was represented by Yohei Shimbori and Mochi-A. Shimbori is the current director of the Dead or Alive series, and Mochi-A works as PR for the franchise.
  • Bamco was represented by Naoya Yasuda, Katsuhiro Harada, and Motohiro Okuba. Yasuda is the manager of Yasuda Esports, a Japanese esports organization responsible for the production of events for Tekken and other Bamco titles. Harada and Okubo are the producers of Tekken and Soulcalibur, respectively.

The Roundtable

Be advised- I am not fluent in Japanese and there was no transcript or subtitling for the live broadcast. English and foreign-language speakers had to make do with Murray and Jiyuna’s breakdown of the questions and answers, which aren’t all direct translations. Furthermore, due to YouTube currently cutting their user-submitted subtitles feature, a translated version of the VOD upload may be slow-coming. Should a broadcast of the event appear with subtitles, or some fan-made transcript of the event be put together, this article will be updated accordingly.

Yasuda functioned primarily as the MC for the event, and asked the developers five different questions selected from a Japanese Twitter audience. These were questions having to do generally with the process of fighting game development, although a few of them were focused on hot-button topics within the community.

Question one: “The selection of roster characters”

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With the announcement of a final Season 5, this SFVCE roster is no longer final.

When asked about the process that goes into selecting characters that will appear in a game’s playable roster, the Capcom reps fielded the question first. Matsumoto and Nakayama took turns explaining that since Capcom has a wide variety of existing characters across all of their fighting game and beat ’em up titles, it’s very easy to pick and choose which ones to add to the roster as a new fighter. Selection is often conducted based on the viability of their mechanics in the engine and how unique their kit may be compared to the existing cast. They also stated that, when running character polls that allow fans to select new characters, tastes can vary wildly. Different generations of players may have favorite titles whose rosters they may want to see represented. Likewise, there may also be popular characters who are not actually highly played, and vice versa.

The Koei-Tecmo reps responded to the question by stating that their team focuses on making characters that they themselves want to add to the roster. Fitting into whatever narrative the game may have is important, and the team also has to take in feedback from marketing. The team also acknowledged that DoA is well known for having attractive women in its cast of characters. They are also very proud of being able to add guest characters from competing studios, such as having Mai Shiranui from King of Fighters and Akira Yuki from Virtual Fighter in Dead or Alive 6.

SNK’s reps mainly echoed the sentiments of the other developers who had spoken thus far. They specifically stated that since SNK has a wide variety of fighting game IPs, it’s very easy to examine and fulfill fan requests for certain characters. This is likely especially true for titles like King of Fighters, which is essentially a large crossover of SNK fighters- that said, even a game like Samsho has a long history and a large cast. SNK also stated that a fighting game roster should ideally have a variety of different visual designs across the cast, rather than several characters with similar appearances.

The two ArcSys developers stated that they first decide a cap on the roster size first, and then choose which characters they want to add after. A variety of playable archetypes is important, but they also acknowledged that there are a handful of popular designs and playstyles that the playerbase prefers. Having characters that are easier to play is also important so that the cast isn’t bloated with difficult archetypes. When adding new characters to the roster, it’s important to make sure they ‘fit’ cohesively with the current cast, in terms of both gameplay and design. The entire roster should also be balanced accordingly once the new character is added.

Question two: “The future of crossplay features”

(For the laymen- Cross-platform play, shortened to crossplay, allows the online playerbase of a single title to be played across multiple hardware platforms and launchers. For instance, Street Fighter V players on PS4 can sign into the game with a Capcom Fighter Network [CFN] ID and use it to play against SFV players on Steam. This is a popular feature for titles in other genres, but it’s not often the case for fighting games.)

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SFV is currently one of the few modern fighting games to have crossplay between the platforms originally supported (PS4 and Steam.) Other games, like Guilty Gear Xrd and Skullgirls, only supported crossplay between a family of consoles (PS3 and PS4.) Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid is perhaps the only modern 2D fighter with full crossplay (Xbox One, PS4, Switch, and PC.)

At this point, Harada from the Bamco reps took over the discussion almost entirely. Harada claimed that the barrier to adding crossplay is not a technical issue. Since players in fighting games are, for the most part, conducting matchmaking through peer-to-peer (P2P) connections rather than server-side connections, all that needs to happen is for the player on PSN to communicate directly with the player on Steam. Instead, the problem usually comes when the developer speaks to the various hardware platforms and their managers about making the crossplay networking happen. Harada even stated that he had, at one point, spoken to Phil Spencer of Xbox with regards to making crossplay between Xbox, PS4, and Steam users possible, but those plans were never followed through on the first party platform’s end. Development of crossplay can also be expensive, especially depending on the title and its pricing model. It can also be difficult to create the infrastructure that allows these different IDs to connect: for instance, a CFN ID needs to be associated with a Steam ID or a PSN ID, and must also be able to communicate with those accounts. Harada acknowledged the demand for crossplay and that the expectation for it is high, especially since other titles manage to have it.

Ishiwatari from ArcSys agreed with Harada’s points, and stated that the ideal goal for a fighting game developer is to make sure the playerbase is united. However, the technical aspects of each platform being developed for often makes things difficult. He also stated that different peripherals across each platform can also make development of crossplay difficult. Since different hardware platforms read inputs for controllers in different ways- an Xbox gamepad will not be natively compatible on PS4, obviously- ensuring that inputs are consistent across all platforms is important. In conclusion, it’s not like no one doesn’t want crossplay to happen, but rather that it’s difficult to implement due to problems on the side of the first-party platforms.

Question three: “About the arcade controllers”

This was an odd question, but essentially the developers were asked if it was important for future titles to be developed with gamepad or arcade stick users primarily in mind. As more games are being developed for consoles first, the newer generation is especially becoming more familiar with the use of gamepads.

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Incidentally, it was just announced today (August 3rd) that PS4-licensed peripherals, including arcade sticks, would be compatible with PS5. Good thing I don’t have to replace my Hori RAP4!

When approaching this question, the SNK devs recognized that fight sticks are an immutable part of the FGC culture, and that their use preserves a part of that culture. Unfortunately, as manufacturers for the hardware become smaller and fewer, and driver updates for the controllers become difficult to manage, their use has begun to fall out. Harada cut off the SNK developers partway through in order to allow Nishitani, who had barely gotten the opportunity to speak, a chance to provide his perspective. Nishitani stated that he had come from a generation where people were learning how to use arcade button layouts, and that this was often seen as the best way to do complicated inputs and combos. However, he recognized that new players were learning how to successfully overcome harder execution barriers on modern gamepads.

The ArcSys devs stated that it was possible to come up with new technology and execution that could perhaps be only possible- or at least easier to perform- on a gamepad. They also acknowledged that using a fight stick provides a sense of immersion and control that can’t always be captured by a gamepad. Sekine of ArcSys claimed that he preferred fightsticks but wants to create a battle system where both input systems are viable. In the era of esports, your input device is often your ‘tool’ or a piece of equipment that should work in every environment you perform in. Sekine even ruminated on the idea of different tournament formats that only players on certain devices could attend, although even in the conference this didn’t seem to be well received. Harada chimed in to point out that Toshimichi Mori, the Blazblue lead director, plays only on gamepad.

Question four: “What would be the user experience in the future fighting game?” [sic]

This question was not about the more narrow field of user experience (UX) in computer science and video game design, but a more open-ended question about what could be possible or improved upon in future titles. The developers thusly discussed different aspects of game design that weren’t necessarily related.

The ArcSys developers acknowledged that as fighting games develop, and new engines are created for legacy titles, their systems and mechanics tend to change very frequently. Ishiwatari in particular stated that this innovation tends to come from single teams that don’t often communicate with other companies, so some ideas can often be recycled. He proposed that collaborations similar to the current roundtable discussion could be fruitful to efforts that seek to innovate in the fighting game space.

Once it was their turn to speak, the Koei-Tecmo reps focused on online gameplay, since they recognized that much of the playerbase for fighting games is online at this point. They discussed improving online play and connectivity, since making a stable experience that is fun to play is important for player retention. (Of course, I have no way of knowing if they specifically mentioned rollback…) In particular, they mentioned that improving ranked matchmaking so that matches between similarly skilled players were more consistent, or improving the way skill rankings increased so that it didn’t feel as much of a grind, were two aspects of online play that could be improved.

Here, Harada spoke on the ability of fighting games to improve their AI opponents so that players can have more variety of practice. Allegedly, he had even spoken to software engineers at IBM about developing AI characters for use in Tekken. AI opponents in fighting games are usually not fun to play against, nor are they valuable practice, since they are usually either sandbags who occasionally use strong moves or opponents who can read your inputs instantly. Improving their skill may make AI opponents better training opponents who are also more satisfying to play against. Harada also mentioned using actual AI (artificial intelligence) to perhaps assist with the debugging and balance tuning processes.

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Imagine getting blown up in tournament by Watson.

Question five: “Perceived simplification of fighting games and countermeasures”

The focus on ‘simplification’ has become almost boogeyman-esque as fighting games continue to be developed with new iterations and titles. The question seemed to be focused on the idea that fighting games are becoming ‘simpler’ in the sense that developers are reducing mechanics from past iterations when making new titles, or are otherwise limiting complexity in order to appeal to new players.

Koei-Tecmo’s reps began the discussion by stating plainly that the company expects new players to purchase the title while retaining the old playerbase, which is a difficult task. The perceived simplification comes from trying to make the new titles approachable to the market that hasn’t been tapped yet. At this point, nearly everyone at the conference deferred to Ishiwatari, due in equal parts to his role in the development of Guilty Gear Strive, and due to Guilty Gear historically being a very ‘difficult’ title.

Both of the ArcSys devs had different perspectives on simplification. Ishiwatari explained that ‘simple’ is not the same as ‘easy.’ Rather, ‘simple’ is usually meant to focus on ‘ease of understanding,’ and ‘easy’ usually refers to difficulty. While ‘ease of understanding’ is the goal, it’s not the same thing as cutting systems from the game engine. The upcoming Strive is an experiment in this type of simplification. Ishiwatari further elaborated that a fighting game system should allow for players to grow, but should also be easy to grasp for newcomers. A fighting game system is successful if new players can see something ‘cool,’ and then try it out for themselves.

AzeDevs put together a video on Guilty Gear that looks at how systems in the series have historically been “simplified” during the transition to future titles.

Sekine also had his own perspective from developing Granblue Fantasy Versus to add on the concept of simplification. He pointed out that Granblue was simple to understand with special moves that had easy-input shortcuts as alternatives to traditional inputs. However, he also argued that this system had its own level of depth to it, since the additional cooldown on the easy-input methods actually made their use more deliberate. Searching for a balance between this simplification and depth isn’t always easy, but the systems in Granblue are one such example.

The Bamco reps stated that when new players first get into a fighting game, traditional inputs are often the very first skill gap they need to overcome. Making input methods easier to perform is thus one way of making fighting games more approachable to newcomers. They also mentioned that skill gaps between new and old players can feel steep, which is compounded by the fact that new and old players need to coexist. The Bamco reps acknowledged that there’s no easy answer to this question, but bridging the skill gap is important for retaining new players.

Announcements

Before the major announcements rolled in, there was some clarification that certain titles had more major content reserved for later dates. Capcom has a Street Fighter V Season 5 announcement slated for August 5th, and more news regarding Granblue Fantasy Versus will arrive on August 8th. Dragon Ball Fighterz also has more news that will debut later in August.

A majority of the announcements were regarding sales and online circuits for various titles. The Koei-Tecmo team were the first to have the floor. They explained that the playerbase for Dead or Alive 6 had grown substantially during the recent pandemic, surpassing three million downloads. They also promoted sales for the digital versions of Dead or Alive 6, which itself has a free-to-play version with a small base roster. The most recent DLC character, Tamaki, has also finally made her debut in Japanese arcades, which have recently begun to reopen.

SNK’s reps reminded their audience that the most recent DLC character for Samsho, Gongsun Li from Honor of Kings, has been made available for free. They also announced that a third season pass was in development, although their details were scarce and no characters were mentioned. At this point, an offscreen MC for the event pressed Oda for details regarding King of Fighters XV (although the title itself was not mentioned by name.) Oda was unable to make any definitive statements but alleged that news about the title would be coming soon.

The Capcom devs advertised that not only was SFVCE part of the PS4 Summer Sale, there would also be a two-week long free-to-play period where players could download the full game, starting on August 5th. They also promoted the Central American leg of the 2020 Online Capcom Pro Tour, which would be streamed on the official CapcomFighters Twitch on August 2nd. There was also more news about the Street Fighter League open qualifiers in Japan, which would be taking place on August 8th on the same stream. (Street Fighter League uses a 3v3 team battle format.)

Nishitani from Arika didn’t have much to announce, but the news itself was very important to fans of Fighting EX Layer. FEXL is previewing a version of the game with rollback-based netcode, and will also be testing crossplay. Nishitani mentioned that the small team at Arika allows them to have a lot of developmental freedom, but also makes that development a very slow process. He also mentioned that the PS4 version of the game is also included in the large Summer Sale.

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With the addition of Setsuka, only one more DLC character remains to be announced for Season Pass 2.

Bamco had several major announcements, pertaining to both Soulcalibur VI and Tekken 7. Harada stepped away during Okubo’s presentation on Soulcalibur, which focused on the next DLC character for the second season pass. The character was revealed to be Setsuka, Mitsurugi’s rival from Soul Calibur III, who would debut next week on August 4th. Setsuka would also launch alongside a major balance update that also includes a free stage, story mode additions, and costumes for custom characters.

When Harada returned, the conference call immediately cut away to a video filmed from Harada’s home office, with footage from other Tekken developers and personalities spliced in. The trailer promoted improvements for Tekken 7’s online play that were highly demanded in the wake of the current pandemic, along with a trailer for Tekken 7 Season 4. The new season would include the aforementioned online play enhancements along with a major balance update and new moves for all characters. A new character for the season was also teased, but there was no reveal.

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Your guess is as good as mine.

After the trailer cut away, Harada mentioned that the new online improvements would include a feature that would tell you if your opponent was playing on Wi-Fi, along with changes to ranked matchmaking and Tekken 7’s rollback netcode. Harada alleges that Tekken 7 natively features rollback, but due to a combination of the frame delay being locked to a minimum of three frames and the way animation works in 3D fighters, the rollbacks were not noticeable and the game appeared to have the same stuttering as delay-based lag. However, the Tekken 7 team has been internally testing changes to the netcode that have apparently been promising. Bamco also announced online tours for both Tekken and Soulcalibur- more information can be found at tekkenworldtour.com and scworldtour.com.

Ozawa made the final announcements for ArcSys on behalf of Ishiwatari and Sekine, who had both left the stream at this point. ArcSys announced their ArcRevo Online circuits for Japan and the US. The Japanese circuit would be supporting all of ArcSys’s current titles- Guilty Gear Xrd Rev2, Blazblue Central Fiction and Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, Granblue Fantasy Versus, and Under Night In-Birth EXE:Late (c-lr.) In the US, only GBVS and BBTAG would be supported. They also announced that there would be show-matches for the champions of both circuits to face off against each other.

The final announcement of the stream was a Guilty Gear Strive character trailer. The trailer debuted and presented Leo Whitefang, a Guilty Gear Xrd newcomer, making his appearance in Strive with a revamped design. After his trailer ended, however, another trailer played that revealed gameplay of the mystery swordsman from the end of the Evo 2019 trailer for the first time. The samurai, now named Nagoriyuki, demonstrated a variety of vampiric techniques alongside his swordsmanship. There was also an announcement at the end of the trailer that added the PS5 to the list of platforms that Strive would be appearing on, alongside arcade cabinets and the PS4, and that the next character would be revealed in October. (An English press release after the JFGPR ended confirmed a Steam version of the game as well.)

I actually would rather not fight Leo in any other game ever again, but if I can do it as a cool vampire samurai, it’s probably fine.

Conclusion

After the final announcement, the conference ended with the musings and sentiment from the developers present that there could perhaps be more roundtables along the same line as this one in the future, where developers could share their processes and more news about their games. The insight into the development process of the genre, and the manner in which these various directors were sharing their perspectives and information, was certainly eye-opening and informative. The news about sales and online circuits was certainly welcome, but the major content and character reveals were absolutely the highlight of the JFGPR. More information about other titles, like Street Fighter V, Granblue, and Dragon Ball Fighterz will be revealed later over the course of the month. With the fighting game community and its developers in a precarious situation as a result of the ongoing pandemic, this set of news was a very welcome and exciting update. Hopefully, we can expect developers to continue to collaborate in a format such as this one well into the future, even after we’re all able to play games in person again.

Nathan “Lite the Iron Man” Dhami can be found on Twitter (@LiteTheIronMan,) on Twitch (twitch.tv/litetheironman,) and at your local.

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