Everyone likes football. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but a huge percent of the UK population enjoy a spot of football (that’s a statement that’s harder to dispute), and while a lot of that does likely come from overbearing parents and social pressures, I put no small value on the fact that anyone can ‘have a kick around’ and build some semblance of fun in the idea of football.
With this in mind, alongside the growth of eSports, streaming services and YouTube replays, is it any surprise that free to play games are growing in popularity, particularly amongst friend groups? Fancy a game of League of Legends? It doesn’t matter if you’ve only seen a few snippets of the game in passing or never even heard of it before, it’s free to ‘have a kick around’.
The above should give you at least a basic idea of why I think Street Fighter V should be a free to play title. Free to play doesn’t have to mean pay to win when handled correctly, it simply means that entry to the game is free, the invitation to see if you like the game is free, and it’s the extra glitz and glam that will cost you if you want it.
The benefits of free to play to the consumer are huge, assuming the format is correctly adopted. Imagine being able to load up Street Fighter V without paying a penny so that you can experiment, get a feel for its controls and style, and just enjoy the game at a basic level. Imagine being able to play against friends online who wouldn’t normally go in for fighting games, being able to persuade them simply because it’s free.
Imagine the global benefit to Street Fighter V as a gaming and competitive platform if all of its updates were handled by patching rather than individual releases.
But let’s back up that imagination with some numbers. Easiest thing to points to is that high quality free-to-play games frequently dominate streaming services, with titles such as League of Legends, Dota 2, and Hearthstone often claiming more than twice the viewing figures of many premium titles.
What’s more scary is that a game like League of Legends can command a bigger audience on a Sunday evening than some titles do at a Grand Final at Evo. This very minute LoL has just over 98,000 viewers (split between multiple channels, but there’s still clearly interest in League from almost 100,000 people), which is more than the finals of both BlazBlue and Killer Instinct at Evo 2014.
‘Haha! But Killer Instinct is free to play!’ You may shout at me, to which I would reply that KI is a reboot of a long dormant franchise on a system that was, at the time of Evo, half a year old. A system that requires you to buy a new fight stick at that. Street Fighter has history, it has lineage, and it’s releasing on PC, a format everyone owns and the same format that League of Legends is on. It’s harder to get people interested in a game if they don’t own the platform to play it on, so Killer Instinct’s Evo numbers don’t undermine this article alone, especially when you consider sales estimates for Microsoft’s machine.
To put things into better perspective, Capcom’s most watched game of last year’s EVO hit just shy of 150,000 concurrent viewers. Know how many people tuned in to League of Legends’ season 3 grand final simultaneously? 8.5 million. And I’m using Evo because that unofficial tournament pulls in more viewers than Capcom’s own Capcom Cup…
Thing is, anyone can try and play League, but that also means that anyone can want to get good and give it a go, and all of those people are going to want to tune in and watch your big fancy tournament to see if they can glean any tips and tricks. Obviously it helps that Riot puts up such a big prize pool to encourage people to want to be that good, but to be able to put up a big money pot means their business model must be working, right?
Street Fighter is currently locked behind a paywall, and when it’s broadcast on services like Twitch, the players show off some of the most extreme skills, with commentary so full of jargon that only those already invested in the games will get much from it. Those that aren’t already in will likely think that they’ll never get that good, and not want to spend money on something they fear will be too steep a challenge. Street Fighter currently appeals to (and is sustained by) its niche audience who are willing to pay to play time and time again. That is not the kind of community invitation that will generate an 8.5 million viewer live final. I will admit that League is primarily a team game, which likely helps its appeal, but the difference in the numbers is staggering.
Second to this is Capcom’s incessant love of retail updates. Again, this is a habit that is sustained by the genre hardcore and shunned by the masses. We’re back at a point now when, in conversations with friends and in threads on message boards, many are commenting that they’ll simply wait until “Ultra Super Street Fighter V Final Mix” is released two or three years down the line before jumping in because that’s how these games have been in the past. And that’s bad business.
What’s also bad is that review scores tend to droop with the update culture. Looking at Metacritic undeniably shows that reviews for Street Fighter IV and first update (Super) were frequently hitting the 9 and even 10 mark from most publications, but subsequent iterations Arcade Edition and Ultra have seen reviews from many commenters drop a point or two (even though I still love it), leading to casual fans seeing a perceived decline in quality when, in truth, the fighting mechanics have remained solid and interesting. More bad press.
Creating a Street Fighter platform that receives free, yearly balance and mechanics updates would be a huge step towards rectifying many player’s trepidations of the genre as a whole. Heck, throw in Ultra Street Fighter IV, Street Fighter III Online, Street Fighter II support and have it all available from a Blizzard-like launcher complete with adverts for competitive tournaments and sponsored tutorial and combo videos! I digress, focusing on Street Fighter V again more than just waylaying fears this sort of approach would completely unify the players of the game, something Capcom are already pushing for with PS4 to PC cross play. Arguably the biggest crime of the multiple retail releases strategy is that online players become fragmented between the versions, which should be a massive no-no for a genre that sustains interest via competitive play. This will keep players together.
And that’s my point in a slightly larger nutshell. I’m not for one moment advocating pay to win additions to Street Fighter, and I’m certainly not pushing for a huge smorgasbord of unlockable cosmetics or the return of Street fighter X Tekken’s gems or neon colour palettes. However, I do believe that establishing Street Fighter V as a gaming platform that’s open to anyone and everyone will only encourage more people to delve into, and enjoy the depth of the game. Then you’ll have more people watching tournaments and wanting to get better, and you’ll also have less damning the title because Capcom are charging £40 for ‘just four new characters’. Instead, you have more people talking about the fun of the game and its mechanics and more people encouraging their friends to play because, after all, ‘it’s free to have a kick around’.