The Tekken series is something of an outlier among fighting games today. Franchises like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Killer Instinct have devoted their development efforts to console releases, but Tekken still has a strong presence in arcades, especially in Japan.
After almost two years in the arcades, Tekken 7 is finally scheduled for home release on PS4, Xbox One, and PC on June 2, 2017. But during the uncertain period before before that date was announced, one of the biggest questions among fighting game fans was, “Why is it taking so long?” GameSpot visited Bandai Namco Studios in Tokyo, Japan to get an idea of how Tekken 7’s long stint in the arcades may have affected the development for consoles.
The first reason we were given was the most superficial: the extended, ongoing development period had an impact on the game’s overall visual presentation and technical performance. Tekken 7 saw the series cease to use proprietary graphics and physics engines in favor of the more flexible Unreal Engine 4. “Even from a layman’s perspective you can see big changes in the graphical quality from the original Tekken 7 in arcades  to the Fated Retribution update , and then even now the console version,” said Kei Kudo, Tekken 7’s program director. “The team had a learning curve with Unreal Engine 4, learning how best to load and use the assets, lighting, post-effects, and with all of these, the experience has led to a great increase in quality.” The team believes they’ve managed to cut down Tekken 7’s load times to a third compared to their initial arcade release.
Fighting games are worthless if the game’s mechanics aren’t robust, and while early-access and limited beta-test periods are becoming common for online multiplayer games, nothing beats months of real-world testing in Japanese arcades, according to Tekken’s long-time figurehead Katsuhiro Harada and Senior GamedDesigner Michael Murray: “Something that maybe a lot of Westerners don’t realise is, as a developer, arcades are a very severe feedback environment. When a person puts in ¥100 per play–which is about a dollar–if it’s not interesting they’re going to quit right away. So it’s very easy to see if people are enjoying your game or not.”
“For example, with Tekken Tag Tournament 2, when we released that we saw after a month there was a drastic drop in income, which means basically people aren’t playing your game. So we had to work to balance, adjust, and make major changes. The tag system itself was quite overwhelming for some people so we made it so people could just select one character or a team of two, changes like that.”
The pair also cited the refinement of Tekken 7’s online multiplayer netcode, and new features like the ability for players to choose which side of the screen they’d prefer to play on, as things that were successfully forged out of the arcade market: “If you’re playing online on a console, a little bit of lag or a dropped match or something like that isn’t going to affect a player’s perception of a game that much, but when you’re actually paying each time to play, that drastically affects a person’s experience.”
“But all of that content goes into that one ‘Arcade Mode’ when it turns into the console release and then we maybe have the rest of the game for the console, maybe 80%, that we work on until release.”
Harada and Murray admitted that they were in a fortunate position however, and that the arcade cycle might not be as viable of a development model for other publishers. They lamented the 10-year gap between Street Fighter III and IV–something which might affect a series’ mass-market familiarity and perceived profit potential to arcade operators in Japan. The Tekken series on the other hand, maintained consistent iterations during that same period: Tekken 4, 5, Dark Resurrection, and 6 were all released during that decade-long gap.
Of course, mass market appeal will always leave some players wanting more. GameSpot also spoke to Daichi “Nobi” Nakayama, a professional Tekken player who won the Tekken 7 championship at EVO 2015, and the inaugural King of Iron First Tournament in 2015. For a time, he was therefore considered the best Tekken player in the world. Nobi’s favourite game in the series is the aforementioned Tekken Tag Tournament 2.
“For Tekken 7, some parts of the gameplay were pretty simplified–they’ve closed the gap between super-good players and average players, so anyone can still be pretty competitive. That’s the beauty of Tekken 7, I believe. But for some hardcore Tekken Tag Tournament 2 players, they might think it’s only ‘just complicated enough’. Some complex manoeuvres won’t work in Tekken 7 since the system itself has been changed, so I’m sure some players might feel they might need a deeper system.”
Nobi practically lives in his local arcade, coming in at least five days a week to practice. It’s a modestly small place, consisting only of two levels situated underneath a much brighter and more attention-grabbing pachinko parlour. His trophies and medals from his various tournament wins are displayed in glass cases among the rows Tekken 7 machines. He, perhaps understandably, is a little indifferent about Tekken’s impending console release.
“There’s no specific advantages between playing on home console or arcades, but I like playing at the arcade because of the communication with your opponent after you play, the ability to turn around and say ‘Hey that was a good move!'” When we asked Nobi about what he thought about the death of arcades in the West, he responded, “It’s really sad for me to hear. Since we have arcades in Japan, if you like to play Tekken, you can always find other people who like to play Tekken to play with. But for overseas…” Nobi paused for a moment. “I’m guessing you have to ask people in the community to have a ‘home party’ with you. In my mind there are lot more ‘home parties.'”
They’ve closed the gap between super-good players and average players, so anyone can still be pretty competitive.
“Home parties” aren’t too far from what the development team was also thinking. An online tournament mode, which was recently announced at the King of Iron Fist Tournament 2016, will allow up to 8 players to participate in a single or double elimination bracket tournament. It will support match spectating, in-game prizes, as well as voice and text chat. It appears to be an attempt to give Tekken players the tools to recreate the social atmosphere of playing among others.
But the spark of motivation that led to the implementation of an online tournament mode for Tekken 7 allegedly came from, of all things, Battlefield 1. “I was playing online trying to get higher and higher in the rankings but got tired,” Harada told us. “Sometimes you kinda think: ‘What am I trying to do here? What is this? Raising my rank? What does that actually do for me?’ Then, one time when I actually got together with some friends and had a LAN party, it helped me realise how much fun the game actually was, at a point where I was tired of battling against a leaderboard.”
“Sometimes it’s a lot more fun to just get together with a group–eight people is a good size–and it gives you a chance. Maybe one day, you could be number one. With a leaderboard it could take forever, or maybe never. But playing with friends, at least sometimes you’ll get the chance to be a champion.”
Tekken 7 is also touting a cinematic story mode for its console release, where cutscenes and fights blend seamlessly into one another. And although narrative might sometimes take a back seat to a game’s systems and competitive potential for fighting game fans, Harada and Murray feel they know their audience, and believe their efforts are being put in the right places. “Tekken has always focused on story and CG character endings, back when this was something fighting games weren’t doing yet. There is that core fighting game crowd that loves the game systems, the competitive aspect and esports. But back from the start, Tekken also had the audience who looked forward to seeing the latest CG, what it would look like in games, and see what was going on in the story. Maybe 70 percent of our audience is made up of that group.” It’s likely Tekken’s original PlayStation installments are at least somewhat responsible for this ratio–Tekken 3 is still the series’ most successful iteration, with 8.3 million copies sold worldwide.
Something that may come as a surprise to fans who haven’t been keeping up with the series since then, is the inclusion of a certain character. Introduced in Tekken 7’s Fated Retribution update, this well-known fighter is now apparently integral to Tekken’s lore: Akuma from Capcom’s Street Fighter series.
The Tekken team often introduces new characters to the game’s diverse roster, not only to fill gaps in its mechanical variety, but also to recognise its community. The team regularly cites Shaheen and Josie, characters created in response to the game’s growing fanbases in the Middle East and the Philippines, respectively. Some fans speculate that Akuma’s addition is an attempt to entice Street Fighter fans, who missed out on a contemporary arcade version of Capcom’s rival fighting series when Street Fighter V was given a home-only release.
Harada and Murray admitted: “Yes, it’s partly to attract 2D fighting game or Street Fighter players. But if we really think honestly about it, I don’t think we’re going to get those fans with just one character.”
“It was more about the idea of how exciting it would be on the development team’s side first. ‘What if this character was linked to the story, and he actually came in as an enemy to fight the Tekken characters? No-one’s expecting it, it would be super cool.’ And because the series has been going on for so long–20 years now–you tend to get into a certain routine or pattern about going back to your own characters and only adding slightly to the game systems. Trying something drastically different like this was something that we just felt we really needed for ourselves at the time.”
Speaking more about Akuma’s inclusion, Game Director Kouhei “Nakatsu” Ikeda later told us: “Akuma is basically how he plays in Street Fighter–more specifically, Ultra Street Fighter 4–and that’s Capcom’s character so we try to be as faithful to it as we could, while at the same time making it play naturally in Tekken.”
Trying something drastically different like this was something that we just felt we really needed for ourselves at the time.
Nakatsu spoke about designing Akuma as a foil to reduce the learning curve for 2D players, but also leveraging one of their existing characters, the vampire Elisa, to further ease these players into Tekken’s 3D whilst giving them familiar tools as a security blanket. “Akuma’s main concepts in Tekken are fireballs and jumping, the staples of 2D fighting. Elisa’s more on the Tekken side, but still accommodates 2D concepts in the way she plays. Her Reppukens [ground-based wave projectiles] aren’t that strong, and her jumping isn’t either. She was originally in Tekken: Revolution, and that was our thinking at the time. Now we’ve placed even more emphasis on that in Tekken 7.
“Whether that’s a trend that continues in Tekken, well, it depends on what everyone asks for after the game comes out.” Nakatsu laughed: “Harada-san’s Twitter is the most convenient way to do that.”
The home version of Tekken 7 has been a long time coming, but it feels like the developers are attempting to shape it into something for fighting game lovers of all kinds. It’s a storied series that’s hoping to be a rallying point for anybody who wants to fight their friends and have a good time doing it. Although it’s had success in the arcade market in Japan, whether or not the home version resonates with International Tekken fans, old and new, super-good and average, will be up for debate once the game is released on June 2, 2017.
GameSpot travelled to Tokyo at the expense of Bandai Namco Entertainment.