On Super Street Fighter IV, or, Capcom’s Big Bet Against Console DLC

Though it isn’t exactly a bellwether in the App Store, Capcom remains one of the most important developers in the world of console and portable video games—the company behind Resident Evil, Mega Man, Street Fighter, and too many other noteworthy, multi-million-selling franchises to itemize here. Though smaller developers shouldn’t rush to follow Capcom’s poorer iPhone and iPod touch examples, every App Store game developer should be taking note of something that’s taking place in the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 world this week: the console release of the company’s latest sequel, Super Street Fighter IV.

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If the name Street Fighter doesn’t ring a bell, one of the two brief articles we posted last year on this game’s predecessor—plain old Street Fighter IV—will bring you up to speed. In short, Capcom almost single-handedly created an entire genre of video games known as “one-on-one fighters” with the 1987 game Street Fighter and its globally popular 1991 follow-up Street Fighter II, then lost a lot of fans over the course of 13 sequels and semi-sequels that milked the series dry. In 2008, Capcom rebooted the franchise with the arcade version of Street Fighter IV, which won over the stalwarts who had stuck around through the middling years, and many of the fans who had walked away from the series. The home console version of Street Fighter IV came out in 2009, and a good-ish iPhone/iPod touch version followed in March 2010.


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We discuss yesterday’s PlayStation 3 (shown) and Xbox 360 release of Super Street Fighter IV below, as well as contemplating what this game means for the franchise on the iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Click on Read More for the details.

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Super Street Fighter IV is, like so many of the earlier, forgotten 13 sequels, the equivalent of an expansion pack—it adds 10 characters to the original console roster of 25, alongside some new backgrounds, music, and videos. The added characters are an interesting and mostly familiar bunch, including past series regulars Dee Jay and T. Hawk, the ninjas Ibuki and Guy, his Final Fight comrade Cody, the Muay Thai fighter Adon, gentleman boxer Dudley, judo brawler Makoto, and new characters Juri and Hakan. Juri is another freaky and lithe female, this time hailing from Korea, and Hakan is a greasy, overweight oil wrestler from Turkey. Each brings something new to the table, but the oil-splashed Hakan has the most added impact on all of his opponents, squeezing them in his wet arms and propelling them into the air. Capcom has given Super Street Fighter IV a little more comic personality than its predecessor—not always for the better—but its new backgrounds are deadly serious, and a vast improvement on the prior title’s, including a construction site, a street in India, another in Korea, and object-smashing bonus stages based on ones in Street Fighter II. Die-hard fans of the series will find 30-40% new content here to enjoy.


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Though our first play-through of the game felt like a tour through most of the new fighters, subsequent games revealed just how much of the “Super” title was like the original: the old backgrounds and characters have received only modest additions, and it’s possible to play through an entire multi-stage game without seeing any of the new combatants or levels. To Capcom’s credit, that’s partially because there were so many characters in the first console release, and because a full game typically consists only of eight matches, but still, Super Street Fighter IV has so much in common with last year’s game that it doesn’t look, sound or feel like a standalone title—except by Capcom’s past and sometimes disappointing standards.


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What’s noteworthy for iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad developers is the fact that Capcom expressly chose not to do what many people expected: rather than release the update as a $10 or $20 package of downloadable content (“DLC”), it’s instead selling Super Street Fighter IV as a standalone game. This is a surprise in that there were some very good reasons for Capcom to choose the DLC route: the first game included code for content downloads, fans would have been thrilled to pay less for the upgrade, and as good as Street Fighter IV was, the Super version frankly doesn’t feel like it’s worth buying all over again at full price. EA has gotten away with doing this for sports games—particularly Madden NFL Football—but even its fans chafe somewhat at the practice, and most users balk at paying for minor updates. That’s the sort of thing that burned out most Street Fighter II fans back in the 1990’s—Street Fighter II Champion Edition, Turbo, Super Street Fighter II, and Super Street Fighter II Turbo were each standalone expansions to the original, in some cases adding little more than faster speeds and additional art for existing characters. Subsequent sequels carried on in that tradition, wearing out all but the hardest core devotees of the series.


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Capcom took a somewhat different route this time. Super Street Fighter IV sells for $40, or $20 less than Street Fighter IV did when it was released a year ago, which initially seems counterintuitive when you consider that the new disc includes roughly 140% of its prior content. The asking price appears to reflect a 50% discounted valuation of the original game’s now year-old content, offset by a little premium for the additional characters and stages Capcom added to the new edition, and a realization that past fans have demonstrably walked away from the series when they were asked to pay full price for expansion pack-quality upgrades. This time, with several months of advance notice before Super Street Fighter IV’s release, a smart gamer could have sold off his original game disc some time ago and gotten back nearly enough money to buy the new one.


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Additionally, as a thank you to past customers, Super unlocks two additional costumes for each character as a bonus if it finds an existing Street Fighter IV saved game on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. The costumes are so ugly that they don’t seem like a real reward for spending $100 across the two titles, but they’re something. Once you’re playing the new game, and seeing all of the really good to great stuff that was added, a couple of bad costumes will be pretty much the furthest thing from your mind.


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The open question at this point is what would have happened if Capcom had gone in the opposite direction and released Super Street Fighter IV as a DLC pack for the original game. There’s a very strong argument to be made that its fans would have been happier, in part because they wouldn’t have needed to wait for the game to show up in retail stores—longer, incidentally, than pirates had to wait for free versions floating around the Internet—and also because the price could have been lower; no extra disc, box, manual, or retailer markup could have saved Capcom money that can be passed on to the consumer. (Sony tried this with Wipeout HD and succeeded mightily.) Capcom could conceivably have profited equally or more in the end by going this route.


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But a second game release in stores has benefits, too. At $40, almost anyone who held out on buying the first title because of its $60 price will jump on board this time; Capcom hasn’t limited its total potential market just to people who bought the first game, and those people—serious fans—will likely pony up, too. And as it offers new online play modes in Super Street Fighter IV, it can guarantee that everyone who is playing the game is running the same software, rather than needing to separately support versions of the game with and without an expansion pack. These benefits might or might not offset the additional marketing, manufacturing, and goodwill costs that Capcom is forced to absorb as a consequence of its standalone release decision.


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As mentioned above, iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad developers shouldn’t be too quick to follow any of Capcom’s examples here—it has actually bungled enough App Store releases (Mega Man 2, anyone?) that we wouldn’t hold it out as a role model outside of the console game realm—but the plus and minus points here are further food for thought as people continue to debate the virtues of In-App Purchasing and downloadable content in general. In light of Capcom’s earlier, questionable claim that it was forced to cut the iPhone/iPod version of Street Fighter IV character roster down due to memory limitations—something called into question by its more recent and surprising decision to release additional DLC for the iPhone title—it will be interesting to see how the company approaches Super Street Fighter IV in the App Store. As Street Fighter IV only came out last month, whill Capcom seriously release a second standalone version of the same game for the iPhone and iPod touch? Or will it Super-size the App Store game with In-App Purchasing?


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One thing’s for sure: we can’t wait to see what happens. Until then, and quite possibly afterwards, we’ll be playing the PlayStation 3 version.