Why Arc System Works games struggle in the West (and why clumsy scrub Westerners aren't to blame)

In a recent press event, BlazBlue producer Toshimichi Mori said that the controls of BlazBlue Cross-Tag Battle and Dragon Ball FighterZ were vastly simplified in order to appeal to western audiences. He cited that the majority of pro-fighting gamers that specialize in Arc System Works titles are Japanese, and he assumed that western audiences prefer to mash attack buttons rather than learn complex systems.

In short, he called us all scrubs. He certainly did so politely, but he is still calling us all scrubs.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think simplifying the controls of ASW games will go a long way toward making them more appealing to general audiences. It’s not a bad idea. I just think that Mori might be a bit off considering that American pros like Chris_G and SonicFox are currently dominating DBFZ tournaments, and these players have also dominated games with more complex control schemes.

ASW’s problems with appealing to western audiences have nothing to do with control schemes and everything to do with how ASW markets their games. ASW’s arcade first marketing approach causes five serious problems that result in these games doing worse in the western market.

Problem #1 – America Has Little to No Arcade Culture

Have you ever wondered what the Arc in Arc System Works is short for? It’s short for “arcade.” ASW made their name making fighting games for arcade audiences. Their most popular properties, from Guilty Gear to BlazBlue always show up in arcades first. In fact, these games can spend almost a year in arcades before we get wind of a console release.

These arcade releases are a massive part of ASW’s marketing. Japanese gamers are playing ASW games without access to anything but a traditional versus mode. Then they announce the home console version with training mode, story mode and new characters and the audience goes wild. The entire period when an ASW game is arcade exclusive is essentially one giant marketing blitz for the console version.

While arcade culture is still strong in Japan, it hasn’t survived here in the West. Arcades are rare and even those that do still exist rarely have access to ASW’s Japanese exclusive games. Since arcades are one of ASW’s main venues of marketing, this means that ASW has next to no marketing in this hemisphere. We never see commercials for ASW games on TV. We never see ASW games featured on ESPN’s e-sports roundups. We never get any notice that a new ASW fighting game is coming out until it’s already on store shelves.

This prevents much of the casual audience from getting into ASW’s games, simply because they don’t know they exist. The only audience for ASW’s games is the audience that is keeping up with fighting game news to begin with, which tends to skew toward the hardcore tournament scene.

Problem #2 – ASW Games Don’t Have International Releases

As our world becomes more and more connected through the use of information technology, more and more games release in all markets simultaneously. However, ASW still follows an archaic model of releasing in Japan first, waiting to see if it succeeds, then localizing it, and then releasing it in the west several months later. This splits the ASW fanbase into three separate categories.

The first is the aforementioned arcade crowd. These are the players who managed to try out ASW’s releases before they even hit consoles. There are always a few players in the west who manage to do this, and by the time the console release hits store shelves, some of these players will have already moved on to other fighting games.

The second is the importer crowd. These are players who will import the Japanese console release the day it comes out. These players will be able to practice their skills for months or years before the west gets an official console port. By the time the official localization hits store shelves, many importers will have already moved on to another fighting game.

Even if they don’t, many importers will not buy the official localization, just because they don’t have to. Their version of the game plays perfectly fine online, so there’s no real reason to buy it twice. ASW doesn’t even really see import sales. They just chalk these up to local Japanese sales, which would reinforce their perception that ASW games sell poorly in the west.

The final group is the group that waits for the official localization. This is the only group that ASW can accurately track sales. However, this group has already been watered down as the most hardcore players (which, as we discussed in the previous section, are the only ones tracking ASW releases) will have already imported a copy of their game of choice. As a result, there just aren’t enough players left to purchase and play the official western release.

This isn’t just speculation. We can actually see the difference that an international release makes in games like DBFZ. This was also an ASW made game with all the flaws inherit in their design. However, it had no arcade release and was released in western and eastern markets at the exact same time, and as a result it became one of the best-selling ASW games of all time.

Problem #3 – ASW Refuses to Update their Netcode

People in Japan and people in the West play fighting games in very different ways. Video games are always a social activity, but Japanese audiences still primarily play them face to face. Whether they are going to arcades or going over to each other’s houses, this is the preferred way to play.

In America, most of our multiplayer games are played over the internet, rather than face to face. There are many reasons for this. America is just larger than Japan which necessitates internet communication to keep in touch with long-distance friends. America has no arcade culture making public fighting game meetups harder to organize. We also experienced the shooter boom early in the last generation of consoles which made console based internet play a common feature.

ASW is not known for focusing on their netcode when developing console fighting games. I wrote a long article about these netcode problems  and how they affect DBFZ, but the short version is ASW, for some reason, refuses to use rollback netcode, the variety of netcode that works best over long distances.

We can only speculate on the reasons for this. Japan’s internet infrastructure is better than America’s, if only because they are a more densely populated. This would allow ASW’s current delay based netcode to function decently across the country. Unfortunately, here in the states we end up with 5-10 frame delays even on local matches.

As a result, playing ASW games online just isn’t as fun as playing them in person. Since we don’t have the culture and community to allow casual players to play ASW games face to face, they just don’t catch on with that audience. Instead, they remain the territory of hardcore gamers, who will go out of their way to schedule fighting game meetups and tournaments.

Problem #4 – ASW Focuses on Re-releases Instead of DLC

ASW’s main problem is that they seem stuck in the past, stuck in a day when arcades were commonplace, stuck in a day when netcode didn’t matter, and stuck in a day when games released in Japan before other territories. However, nothing shows their inability to adapt to the future of gaming like their reliance on re-releases.

Try to guess how many times ASW released BlazBlue in North American markets. Seven times. Seven times since its original release in 2009. That’s almost one BlazBlue game a year.

That’s insane. Even though most of them were released at a budget $40, that’s still insane. You are looking at spending $280 to $420 just to keep up with BlazBlue, and that’s not even counting all the DLC. That’s way, way too much money to expect even hardcore fighting game players to spend on one series.

Meanwhile, other fighting games have transferred over to digital models. Instead of releasing new versions of their popular games, they release update patches, DLC packs and more. Granted, many people still have issues with this DLC, but it’s certainly more affordable than seven individual releases.

Problem #5 – Buggy PC Releases

Finally, ASW has always has problems appealing to PC gamers. While they have been better in recent days, they used to have an issue getting their PC ports to release the same time as their console ports. Heck, the Arcade port of the original BlazBlue came out in 2008, and it didn’t come to Steam until 2014… and that version didn’t even have online play.

They also routinely create PC versions that don’t handle controllers well, sometimes causing players to have to close the game just so that a new player can connect an arcade stick. This makes them nearly impossible to play in any setting other than single-player.

While PC gaming has largely kept to indie-games and doujin games in Japan, AAA PC gaming has always been a big market here in the west. While fighting games have never been the most popular PC titles, they have exploded on the PC platform in recent years due to modding communities and universal controller support. The PC platform also appeals to more casual fighting gamers who don’t want to have to purchase expensive $200 controllers every time a console generation turns over. If ASW is unable to produce prompt high quality PC releases, then they are unable to satisfy that market.

In Conclusion

I’m a huge fan of ASW’s fighting game releases. I personally feel as if they are one of the best fighting game developers out there, at least when it comes to core game mechanics. Solid mechanics might carry an arcade release, but international console and PC releases need more.

Until recently, ASW was not supplying that something more. Instead, they gave us late releases with buggy netcode that could only appeal to the most hardcore of gamers. ASW games aren’t selling better just because their mechanics are simpler. They are selling better because they release internationally at the same time. They are selling better because their PC ports function properly. They are selling better because they are focusing on DLC over individual releases. None of this has to do with the American audiences relative fighting game skill. It has to do with how well ASW reads and responds to the markets desires.

No, Toshimichi Mori. Western gamers are not all scrubs. Western gamers just want a very specific experience out of their fighting games that you haven’t provided, and it has nothing to do with a desire to mash buttons or a lack of a desire to learn deep systems. We just want good, solid, console and PC ports with working netcode that we don’t have to wait years for. Is that so much to ask?