Arc System Works walked away from EVO 2019 a winner. Three games the company is involved with made the EVO main stage: Dragon Ball FighterZ, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, and Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[st]. The developer and publisher used this visibility to promote the upcoming Granblue Fantasy Versus and announce a brand-new entry in the Guilty Gear franchise. The trailer for Guilty Gear (2020) was low on details, only showing off three characters, but still led to raucous applause at EVO 2019.
In a statement released earlier today, Arc System Works chief creative officer and Guilty Gear series director Daisuke Ishiwatari outlined the vision for the next entry. The studio has done a lot of fighting games, and that all began with the original Guilty Gear back in 1998. The next Guilty Gear is positioned as a rethink of the franchise, according to Ishiwatari.
"There isn't much I can divulge at this time, but I'd just like to mention that this newest title is being developers with one goal in mind: To create a game that both new and existing players alike would want to get their hands on. What we're pursuing is a brand new experience for Guilty Gear. To achieve that goal, we've disassembled the current franchise into fragment and sifted out the pieces that make it unique and charismatic, using those pieces to a complete reconstruction of the franchise.
"What we're undertaking is a full-frontal confrontation with the essence of the Fighting Game genre, a tremendous challenge for Guilty Gear. 'Game is a bridge that connects people.' Some may comment that this statement is an exaggeration, but I firmly believe in it as I continue to develop games," said Ishiwatari in his statement.
Fans have responded with excitement and fear. The statement by Ishiwatari seems to point to something completely different for the Guilty Gear series. The trailer featured familiar faces Sol Badguy and Ky Kiske, and the current 3D art style Arc System Works utilized in Guilty Gear Xrd and Dragon Ball FighterZ, but the play is the thing. Guilty Gear lives in the Street Fighter style of fighting games, but Ishiwatari and Arc System Works have shown an openness to experiment in the past. Guilty Gear 2: Overture was an action game, not a fighter. Blazblue: Cross Tag Battle has a much easier learning curve overall with auto-combos and simple command attacks, while still retaining the difficult top-end.
"I wanted to make it as easy as possible...well, maybe easy's not the right word," Blazblue: Cross Tag Battle director Toshimichi Mori told Kotaku. "I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. For one, I reset the entire control scheme to give everyone the same starting line. The entire concept around BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle is to create a fighting game that forgives a little difference in skill and still remains playable and, most importantly, enjoyable."
There's been a slow move towards this in the fighting game genre, likely driven by the popularity of Nintendo's Super Smash Bros.
A Smashing Good Time
I remember the early responses to Super Smash Bros. at EVO. The first time Smash was brought up for inclusion to EVO, hardcore fighting game community folks were against it. Many didn't consider Smash a tournament-level fighter, despite there having been smaller competitions for Super Smash Bros. Melee, which had launched in 2001. It wasn't seen as technical enough, more of a free-for-all fighter like Capcom's Power Stone series. Smash was the "kiddie" fighter.
Super Smash Bros. Melee had a passionate community though, and while EVO hadn't bitten, Major League Gaming gave the fledgling Smash competitive scene a boost. MLG would drop Smash from professional play in 2007, but EVO was there to pick it up, with Super Smash Bros. Melee officially joining the circuit for EVO 2007. The game has only grown at EVO since then, culminating in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate not only taking the top billing at EVO 2019, but also ending up with the highest peak viewership in EVO history on Twitch, at over 279,000 concurrent viewers.
Smash is big time now. Its sales numbers eclipse most other major fighting games. Street Fighter 5, released in 2016, has struggled to reach 3.7 million copies sold, and that's one of the highest-selling entries outside of Street Fighter 2 and Street Fighter 2 Turbo. As of March 2019, Tekken 7 has sold 4 million copies since its release on consoles in 2017. In contrast, Super Smash Bros Ultimate has sold 14.73 million copies as of June 30, 2019, following a December 2018 release. The only game that's anywhere near close is potentially Mortal Kombat 11, which is the best-selling game of 2019 so far according to the NPD Group.
Any fighting game developer is looking at Smash and wondering what Nintendo did to reach that spot. Drawing on the magic of a crossover fighter is part of that, but the general accessibility of Smash is also a likely draw. It's worth noting that Super Smash Bros director Masahiro Sakurai actually avoids the competitive scene if he can, thinking of it as a secondary concern to enjoyment.
"I feel like a game, at the end of the day, is about playing the game. But if we focus too much on the top level players - or the audience - then the game skews a little bit too much on the technical side," Sakurai told The Washington Post. "It comes to a point where they're playing the game for the money, and I feel that kind of direction doesn't coincide with Nintendo's view of what games should be. It's not to say that Street Fighter is failing [by more fully embracing competitive gaming] by any means, but personally, I think any games with command inputs are difficult. It doesn't beat a game where you press one button to create a special move. I think that's really easy to pick up for a lot of people."
The Trend Towards Accessibility
It's something that veteran fighting game players and developers have been experimenting with over the past decade. The two-button Divekick showed that fighting lives in the footsies: having enough strategic options to be able to psych-out and mentally overcome your opponent. Last year's release of Flappy Fighter on iOS distilled movement into dash forward and back, with only a few attacks.
Radiant Entertainment, founded by EVO founder Tom Cannon, was developing Rising Thunder with the help of Street Fighter 4 consultant Seth Killian. (That studio was eventually purchased by Riot Games, with the development of the game going dark. Killian himself recently moved to Epic Games.) Former competitive Super Street Fighter II Turbo player David Sirlin started his own studio, which recently released Fantasy Strike. Both Rising Thunder and Fantasy Strike vastly simplified inputs, seeking to create a pure fighting experience that was also accessible to more players.
More fighting games are heading in that direction. I mentioned BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle earlier, but even Tekken 7-which already had easier command inputs than Street Fighter-added new mechanics like Rage Arts to draw in a larger audience. Dead or Alive 6 likewise did the same. "We have made a conscious decision with the new features to make it easier for completely new or beginner players," Dead or Alive 6 director Yohei Shimibori told WccfTech. Every fighting game developer is making the move. Smash just got there first.
Arc System Works, with its deep pool of fighting game experience across a number of different titles, is well-placed to make something more accessible, while still keeping its flavor intact. And what better place to experiment than with the studio's flagship series? Guilty Gear Xrd -Revelator- Rev2 and BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle are still there to keep the traditional Arc System fans happy, while Dragon Ball FighterZ appeals to a slightly different audience. Now is the time for Arc System Works to use the prestige and trust it's built up to try something new.
I think Guilty Gear (2020) will be a departure for the series, but I look forward to it. If Arc System Works can capitalize on that Guilty Gear aesthetic and verve, while making a game that more people will play, that's great. Success means more people playing Guilty Gear, which means more visibility and resources for the studio. I don't think Arc System will forget to make a game that can live in the competitive tournament scene, especially since there have been a host of games prior showing that what can survive at EVO is wide open. Especially since the formerly "kiddie" fighter is now the top of the ticket.