Can Capcom's Puzzle Fighter Deliver a K.O?
Capcom is one of the most renowned game developers in history. Founded in 1979 and located in Osaka, Japan, they were the pioneers of the fighting game genre with seminal 90’s smash hit Street Fighter 2 and creators of other huge IP’s such as Resident Evil (survival horror), Devil May Cry (stylish action) and Monster Hunter (Co-operative RPG). It’s a company that I used to work for and one that I have amazing memories and experiences from. Whilst they’ve never been considered a tier 1 developer in terms of revenues, they are in my opinion (or were) a tier 1 developer in terms of games and critical acclaim. Capcom also boasts a catalogue of some of the best games ever made across multiple different genres, over multiple different decades, and on multiple different platforms. A feat that is not easy to achieve.
What is probably less known to the public eye is that Capcom has a mobile games division. In fact they have had this division for an extremely long time, dating back to the i-mode days of NTT Docomo in Japan in the early 2000’s, creating Java games for feature phones in the East and J2ME (Java) compatible phones in the West. In the pre-app store days, Capcom was a reasonably successful company with titles such as Street Fighter 2, Who wants to be a Millionaire and “Are you Smarter than a 5th Grader” making decent revenues for the division.
What may surprise you even further is that the first ever free-to-play game on mobile that reached the top grossing position in the USA was also a Capcom game - The Smurfs Village released in 2010, before App Annie’s Intelligence services existed.
In what must now be looked back on a case of “peaking too early” the company never managed to turn this position of strength into a long-lasting success with companies in years to follow such as King and Supercell showing them how it was done. Quite unfortunate and a missed opportunity is given that mobile games now make more money than any other gaming platform and that free-to-play as a business model is one of the key reasons for that. Certainly, the decision to go all-in on The Smurfs Village, a freemium game, on mobile, with an IP in an era where most big players thought that either super-cheap apps like Angry Birds or premium experiences like Infinity Blade would win the day is an excellent example of forwardthinking.
Given the undeniable ability of Capcom as game developers and their impressive catalog of IPs, it’s surprising that they continue to struggle on mobile. Compared to other famous Japanese game developers, the revenues they generate from their titles are incredibly weak, even when including their home territory of Japan. This is a big surprise given that one of the most lucrative mobile games in Japan of all time is the Monster Hunter series on the Sony PSP which Capcom themselves own.
This situation can be put into context by comparing their revenues with other traditional home console / arcade manufacturers in the Japanese markets. Capcom is dead last, and this is not taking into account some of the new upstarts in Japan such as GREE, DeNA and Gung-Ho. Quite simply, given the strengths of the Capcom IP and its back catalogue, it’s fair to say that they are massively underperforming on mobile, especially when more than 66% of their estimated total revenues was derived from their Smurfs Village game released 7 years ago and which is no longer operated by the company.
So it appears that 2017 is the time to start addressing those problems and Capcom has decided to have a fresh stab at mobile through their excellent Vancouver studio, most famous for developing the Dead Rising franchise. Their first mobile title is a reimagining of the 1990’s arcade classic Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo - simply called Puzzle Fighter.
A Blast from the Past - Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo
Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo was released in the mid 90’s as a way to cheaply take advantage of the insane popularity of the Street Fighter franchise. It’s a block matching puzzle game with a unique twist - you play against another player and the trick is to match more blocks faster and more skillfully than your opponent. The game design is a work of genius as it’s incredibly simple to pick up with very few rules and yet has a large degree of mastery to it. Fights are very quick but insanely rewarding and fun. It’s a game that on paper should be a throw-away title but that in reality is a hidden gem among many other games released in the 1990’s. Even to this day, it’s core gameplay is timeless, addictive and fun, with some gaming communities still supporting it. The game was re-released by Capcom in 2007 through Backbone Entertainment as Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo HD Remix. This version of the game contained improved high res graphics, fixes to the original game balance and 2 new modes to add more variety to the base gameplay. The team on this game did a great job, faithfully recreating the gameplay that makes the title so awesome.
So now fully 10 years on from that title, we are back again with a Puzzle Fighter title. This time the “Super” moniker has been dropped and the platform of choice is mobile, with the F2P business model. With incredible core gameplay, short sessions and depth of mastery on paper this could be an absolute smash hit. As a Capcom fan and a former employee, I was super excited to play it.
The Art Style
Before jumping into gameplay, I must comment on one of the most noticeable changes to this version of puzzle fighter - the decision to change to a 3D art style. I imagine the intention is to have broader appeal in western markets, however, I personally find the art horrendous, especially when compared to the incredible style that the original game had. The original Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo had an awesome “chibi” or super-deformed look for all of the characters, making them look cute and giving each character real personality. The original art is in fact some of my favourite ever Capcom artwork as it simultaneously manages to appeal to both the veteran Capcom fanboy and those that have never played games with characters and animations that literally make you laugh out loud. The newer style looks OK in the app store screenshots but in-game it doesn’t really seem to fit. Capcom have used assets from modern games such as Street Fighter V to make their backgrounds and the new quasi-cute look with these backgrounds just comes off as two styles that don’t work together.
The newer style also makes all of the characters look weird and they lose their original charm. I imagine that the style was selected to appeal to a broader audience with hopes of bringing more of the causal puzzle crowd who love King and Playrix puzzle games, but I think it’s been a huge failure and something that is criticized in many of the reviews for the game. When the hard work has already been done 20 years ago to make a great art style that was universally loved among its player base I find the new art style to be a contemptuous change, to say the least! Whilst art style is always going to be subjective at the best of times I do think this was a problem that the team behind the game has created for themselves. It’s a problem which did not need to exist.
To be fair to Capcom, the new game has a very good overall presentation. Opening Chests, activating a special move, browsing through the menus, etc is all very well handled and has a real feeling of quality, slickness and polish to it.
Puzzle Fighter is a block matching puzzle game, but with a twist - you are battling another player (or AI) at the same time as you are matching blocks, so is your opponent. Thus the game is called Puzzle Fighter and the game takes place in a Street Fighter stage with two characters and health bars. Every time you make a match, you do damage to your opponent and when they reach zero HP they are knocked out and you win.
Moment-to-moment gameplay consists of trying to match crash gems with regular gems. The gameplay is a bit like Tetris or Puyo Puyo in that you are incentivised to make matches of large amounts of gems clustered together called a Power Gem. This is the same gameplay as the arcade original from the 90’s. Where the game differs is that when you explode a Power Gem, it also triggers an ability card that your character possesses, which changes the amount of damage and / or causes an effect on the opponent. In the example above, matching 4 gems triggers the Hadoken ability if you have picked Ryu. These abilities make up the metagame / progression system of the title which can be collected and upgraded - more on that later.
Whilst matching gems, you drop counter gems onto the opponent which makes it harder for them to make their own matches. However, after a while, these counter gems turn into regular gems which the opponent can use to make a counter attack. Thus the game has a really nice excitement level and balance as you have to gauge whether you want to make a match and potentially give your opponent enough Gems to hurt you back, or if you want to take a risk and build up a large set of power games and chains on your side to finish them off with one devastating attack.
Finally performing matches and activating abilities charges up your super move. This move does a large amount of damage and often has some other effects like rendering your opponent unable to make a match for a limited time duration. This is a great nod to the famous Capcom fighting games such as the Street Fighter series and is something that was not present in the original arcade release of Super Puzzle Fighter. The only slight frustration is that the sequence takes a few seconds to play out which you must watch, which gets boring quickly when you’ve seen it a few times as you aren’t able to look at your gems and plan what you want to match next.
General Gameplay Notes
Playing the game feels like a lot of fun, with the controls working well on mobile despite the game originally being designed for an arcade stick or console d-pad. There do seem to be some technical issues in terms of finding real opponents to fight, which I hope is ironed out ahead of full launch. For the most part, the core experience of Puzzle Fighter in terms of making matches, chains and trying to second-guess your opponent is intact. The only downside is that the free-to-play mechanisms in the game have changed the importance of skill, which is a big letdown. More on that in a minute.
The core loop in Puzzle Fighter is pretty similar to understand. You fight matches against either the CPU or real players and unlock chests as a result. You open those chests to get new characters, new costumes and new ability cards to progress through the game. Chests unlock instantaneously instead of being put into a queue like Clash Royale, although impatience is added into the game via timers for missions. Once you have completed all of your daily missions, you have to wait for them to refresh before you can get more chests from them, or you can pay to speed up the timer or buy more chests to skip the step altogether.
I’d personally call this system inferior to Clash Royale simply because it misses out on the callback mechanism that Clash Royale introduced. In that game, having to come back in 3 hours to open a chest of rewards is a powerful motivator to bring you back into a game, whereas in Puzzle Fighter, when you come back into the game, you have to play to be able to claim more rewards again. That’s definitely not a bad design decision per se, but as players can’t always commit to gameplay every time they open a game, it’s not as powerful as a meta or progression system. As a result, Puzzle Fighter lacks a “30 second” gameplay session where you can dip in very quickly and achieve something meaningful. It’s not a huge criticism, but compared to the proven best in the market, is an unusual decision.
Monetization primarily comes from buying new chests to unlock more content. This is a traditional Gacha system that is now commonplace in the market and generally works well. Currently, the game only has 8 characters and limited moves and costumes so the desire to purchase is not that strong. However, given that this will be a live game and that Capcom has already announced a new fighter - Jill Valentine, it’s likely that this problem will sort it itself out in the future.
Free to Play or Pay to Win?
So, getting to this section you might think we are onto a winner. The title has great core gameplay, slick presentation, and an intuitive metagame with proven monetization mechanic. Granted the art style is what it is, but as we know, the style or quality of art guarantees seldom guarantees more than a featuring. What could go wrong?! Well, as the title of this post alludes to, the overall experience is sadly soured by the implementation of free-to-play in the title.
This version of Puzzle Fighter ends up playing completely differently to the arcade and console versions because of one key difference - skill. In this version, it’s nowhere near as important as it was in the original as your attack strength and power, and thus chances of winning are gated by how powerful your character’s attacks are and your character's overall level. Which sadly means the game sucks as a result!
You see, in the original game the gameplay was not just fun and frantic, but also very skill based. Though the game was easy to pick up, it had incredible depth and you had to play quickly and try to create large chains to defeat the opponent. This is the hallmark of a great arcade game, but it’s not great for monetization as players won’t be motivated to spend if it doesn’t improve their prowess in a match. Or at least this is the philosophy around which this game has been designed.
The game has pauses, a big deviation from the original game. Instead of frantically trying to match as fast as possible, players take their time to match, which makes the game way less skillful. If I make two more gem drops than my opponent, the game will wait for my opponent to make some more drops before I can go ahead. This means that being able to play faster than your opponent is not rewarded, and matches are largely determined by the level of characters and the power of their ability cards. The Power Stack in the is geared towards your progression in the game (and thus money spent) instead of how good you are at the game.
An idea of the power stack in Puzzle Fighter. Being able to make good matches and chains are important, but nowhere near as important as having an upgraded deck of abilities.
Skill versus Power
So why take a game where the core gameplay is incredible and mess around with it? Well, it’s been done to add F2P systems into the game to encourage players to want to spend money to progress and upgrade. In this game, the more money you spend on your cards and character, the stronger they will be and the more chance you have of winning. On paper, there is a justifiable reason for making this decision. If you have no reason to spend money to improve your performance in battle, then players won’t spend at all. The problem is that the power stack in the game is far too heavily weighted in favor of cards.
If we look at Clash Royale as a game that everyone knows and loves, you will at some point run into opponents who have the same cards as you do, but which is more powerful than yours. This makes it hard to beat that opponent unless you are significantly more skillful. However, that element of skill definitely exists and you can beat opponents with the right competitive metagame choice and with better game knowledge and execution of your strategy - or at least play for a draw. I personally have an issue with Clash Royale in terms of it being a totally “fair” game because of this, but I will concede that the gameplay is almost perfect and that skill is very much a factor that contributes to success in the title.
However, by moving the skill element of the game away from playing quickly and intelligently and putting more emphasis on your special moves, Puzzle Fighter has very little skill involved. There are far too many occasions when you can battle a higher level opponent and make more chains, more power gem matches and trigger more abilities than they do, but still lose because they have the more powerful character. This completely defeats the point of the game! It also gives a horrible feeling as often the opponent will be stuck on very low HP and you can physically see that no matter how many matches you make, you are not going to beat them. This feeling is really awful for a player because it causes you to lose motivation. Losing in a game is never fun, but if you feel you lost because the opponent was better or more skillful than you, it can prove a motivator to keep playing and improve. In Puzzle Fighter it simply comes across as “pay more money or lose.”
So if this is the biggest weakness of the game, why did Capcom decide to make this design decision and what could they have done instead? The decision was likely made to improve monetization, as historically speaking we see that being able to buy pure power generates more short-term revenue than cosmetics, content and vanity items. Ironically though, the current revenue per install rate during Soft Launch is very poor, leading me to argue that this effect is not taking place. The idea behind a monetization design like this one would be that the most engaged or heavy spending players would spend to get more powerful, immediately getting the satisfaction of being stronger and finding the game more rewarding. This technique works in many mobile F2P games but it’s a poor system to use in a heavy skill based game.
I feel that Capcom missed a huge opportunity with this title. Though King and Playrix are the undisputed masters of puzzle games on mobile, neither of them has competitive Puzzle games and neither of them has the Capcom IP to utilize to reach core players quickly. This could be (and possibly still is) a potential blue ocean in the mobile world. However, to embrace it, the design needs to support skillful play instead of working against it. The alternative would have been to go for more of an RPG style meta with single player progression only. This design has been used successfully by Marvel Puzzle Quest, among others, which has generated $50M revenue from just 7M installs.
Arena of Valor by Tencent is the biggest MOBA in China right now on mobile and making incredible revenues. It is not a pay-to-win game. Players spend money on content and on XP boosters that allow you to unlock content at a faster rate. I feel that Capcom could have tried a similar approach for Puzzle Fighter. Make the characters require a lengthy amount of time to unlock/acquire through grinding but allow players to boost XP gained every they battle. This way skill would determine the best players, but players could optionally pay to get content at a faster rate. This called Pay-to-progress instead of pay-to-win.
An alternative would be to use the system used in Golf Clash. This is a casual game, but uses a wager system between two players. This is almost a throwback to the arcade era of the 90’s where both players are putting something on the line to win. This makes the game feel competitive and adds another currency sink that players can invest in to keep playing. Golf Clash has been a real breakout hit on mobile coming from almost nowhere to be a perennial top 50 game so could definitely be used as inspiration.
Finally looking at Clash Royale, it’s obvious that Puzzle Fighter is based off that game in terms of monetization sinks. However, Clash Royale has a heavy skill-based element. Though paying money definitely gives you a feeling of progressing quickly in your local maxima, the ELO ranking in the background ultimately puts you around people that are as skillful as you are. And there are many examples of tactics and strategies out there that can allow you to beat players that have spent more than you, if you can think of and apply these techniques in battle.
Where Puzzle Fighter goes wrong is the way in which power is applied in the game. Often times you can be pitted against an opponent who is more powerful than you, but whom you are outplaying. You can make more matches, more chains, and more ability triggers then they do, but you can’t beat them. In fact often times the opponent will be left on almost zero HP but no matter how many matches you make, you can’t defeat them. Meanwhile, they make one power gem match and can take 25-30% of your HP away and you lose the match! From a design perspective, some serious rubber banding is going on here, with the developers trying to make the game feel like a close-run thing when in reality your fate is already pre-determined. As a player, it sucks because it doesn’t motivate you to want to play because it doesn’t matter how good you are if stats are that important.
Monetization Needs to Match Target Demographic
Monetizing from power gains is often one of the best methods of monetization developers can add to their games. This is because the spend capacity in power can be far-reaching and because from a value proposition players can feel immediate satisfaction from their purchase. Taking Clash Royale as a prime example, if you buy some chests and open rare and powerful cards, you have got good feelings from having new exotic cards that wreck the arena you are currently playing at, and because your cards will be more powerful than your opponents. You are in a sense paying to win, at least for a little while, as your purchase helps you progress and gives you a feeling of power and a lack of buyer's remorse. This impact lasts a little while before you eventually reach a new ELO level where other players are either as skillful or have cards in roughly your power bracket which slows down your progression again. Whilst this is a big complaint in Clash Royale, in general it works because skill still plays an important part in success in the game and because by having so many arenas and a good matchmaking algorithm, Supercell can put you into matches where you have a chance but won’t be completely stuffed even if the opponent has spent a lot more money than you. Puzzle Fighter does not achieve the same thing.
I’d be interested to know who exactly Puzzle Fighter is intended for on mobile. The change in art style suggests to me that Capcom wanted to reach a more casual crowd. Seeing the success of both King and Playrix puzzle titles, this makes a lot of sense. However, if was the intent, then the meta should have involved best practices such as having a Saga or Upgradable area style meta. Capcom could have monetized from boosters to help you complete levels and have players fight an endless succession of enemy characters with scenarios. It would have been a very different game, but one that may have appealed to a casual audience.
Instead they have gone for a competitive PvP game and used a Clash Royale style meta. However, in their implementation they have forgone skill and made card power and character level become too important. This works against the idea of making a competitive game, unless the intention was to make a pay to win game. The problem here is that in a real-time PvP game, this feeling is terrible for the player and goes against the competitive nature of the game. Whilst choosing a different meta may have led to less monetization, it may increase retention and engagement, which are the key areas where competitive games win in. The one saving grace I would say for Capcom is that they could adjust the balancing in their game to make skill matter more and reduce the power of cards to see if that will make a difference to any key metrics. I’d strongly suggest moving away from being greedy and trying to capitalize on being the best (and only?) competitive puzzle matching game on mobile. Candy Crush Saga and Homescapes / Gardenscapes don’t have the monetization per user levels of midcore games, but are still among the most lucrative puzzle games out there. There are multiple ways to make a successful mobile game from a business standpoint!
It’s great to see Capcom releasing new titles on mobile in the west again, as with such an incredible background of IP and gave development heritage it gives me hope that we will see another masterpiece again. Sadly Puzzle Fighter won’t join their hall of fame due to being too much of a pay-to-win game and going against the core skill-based element of the older version. I think Capcom have to decide with their back catalogue if they want to create pay-to-win or skill-based games going forwards. Making a pay-to-win game is best suited to titles such as RPG’s where most of the game is PvE and players are playing to accelerate their progress through a title, such as in Summoner’s War or Final Fantasy Brave Exvius. This would be well suited to the Monster Hunter franchise which is a co-operative game and where one player being ahead of the others is more of a boastful / showing-off type of monetisation than being better at the game.
However, it’s a bad idea for a skill-based game, especially one with synchronous PvP. Given that Capcom own one of the best PvP IP’s of all time in Street Fighter, I’d encourage them to think carefully if they intend to use a similar design to Puzzle Fighter going forwards for future titles
As it stands at the moment, Puzzle Fighter is a missed opportunity and a disappointing title given the obvious time and effort put into making it. However, there are opportunities to correct it and I hope Capcom give the title a rethink. The game is after all still in Soft Launch.