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Feature Article

Tekken 7 Producer Says Making Crossover Characters Is Harder Than They Imagined

Expanding the reach of Tekken.

Tekken 7 solidified itself in the fighting game community with its PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC release earlier this year, having sold well over two million copies to date. Along with that success, developer Bandai-Namco is continuing to support the game with new content and the tradition of worldwide tournaments. One of the things to get excited about is the implementation of crossover characters from other franchises. The game launched with Street Fighter's Akuma, but Geese Howard from the Fatal Fury series will join the roster by the end of the year, and Noctis from Final Fantasy XV is jumping in next year.

Tekken producer and director Katsuhiro Harada along with designer and translator Michael Murray visited our office here at GameSpot with a hands-on demo of the next crossover character, Geese Howard. But we also took this opportunity to speak with them about the process of incorporating characters outside of the Tekken universe, why the the Tekken World Tour tournament had its finals in the US, and if there's a Nintendo Switch version down the road.

This interview was conducted prior to the announcement of Noctis coming to Tekken 7.

GameSpot: Now that you're bringing in a new character, how does, if at all, Geese Howard change the balance within the game and where would you say he falls into the character tiers in the competitive space?

Harada / Murray: One of the things we face with Geese, and this is kind of similar with Akuma, is that we didn't receive any assets from SNK or Capcom. We created the character from scratch, so all the character modeling, the animations, everything we did on our own. And also, when taking new characters and putting them into our game, obviously, the Tekken characters have a lot of techniques, a hundred or so on average per character. The 2D fighters, they have their very famous techniques that we implement first, but then we have to also fill out the rest of their technique list with moves to mesh them well with the Tekken. Even before we get to the balancing part of the development, this section alone is quite the priority.

As far as the game balance goes, two characters fighting each other on the ground is something we have a lot of experience and confidence in as far as the frame data, the attributes that we give to the techniques, how much time they need to recover after their techniques, etc. All these balancing issues are something we're very familiar with, but when we implemented Akuma, he appeared to be quite strong to a lot of people at first because he was one of the first characters in a 3D fighting game to actually be able to jump at your opponent like you do in the 2D games, and Tekken wasn't designed like that. So, some characters don't really have a lot of options against that particular aspect, at first, when he was released. So we've continued to balance out Akuma through a series of different patches after we released him. Now we feel that the feedback from the community is that he's fairly balanced. But it took some time developing that. We're in a good space with the blend of 2D characters with our game.

What's next for franchise crossover characters? Do you see more Street Fighter, any Guilty Gear characters, or Persona 4 Arena characters, maybe?

After doing two collaborations so far in Tekken 7, one thing we found is it's a lot more difficult than we've originally come to vision. First off, there might be a certain character that we would want to do that maybe the person on the other end, the other company and their licensors, might not be on board. Or it could be something that the fighting game community would really like to see, but that particular IP owner wouldn't sign off on being in Tekken.

Even a lot of times, the point is not to try to take the fans from the respective IP and bring them into Tekken. It's more, by adding that IP if fighting games as a whole kind of become more exciting, and you attract a newer audience that wouldn't have bought either game in the first place because it's so exciting, and that's really what we're trying to achieve from a marketing goal, especially. So when you look at these kind of collaborations, there might be some that the fighting game community just go crazy about, so some of the marketing people in charge might be in the mind that "Okay, that might be really cool for the hardcore fans, but it wouldn't bring a new audience." Collaboration is really, we've found, quite difficult. It's just that in certain cases, we think, "Yeah, this is awesome." The IP owner then thinks, "Yeah, this is cool. Let's do it." And the marketing guys as well say, "Yeah, that's a good opportunity." And then it's finally able to come together. It is a lot more difficult than we originally imagined.

How do these cross-IP collaborations start? Was it easier to get a hold of and work with SNK?

It is kind of an interesting story. In past interviews when we were still creating Tekken 7, Harada was often asked who he likes, characters from other franchises. We all often answered that we love Samurai Shodown, and also Geese [from Fatal Fury]. He's just an incredible villain that both of us really love, and the fans caught on to that interview, and they were like, 'Wow, I love Geese, too. He would be so cool in a Tekken game!' And it turns out that the SNK team actually saw that, and they approached us and said, 'Hey, you know the Geese thing? Is there anyway that we could make this happen?' So they actually approached us, which made it a lot easier, and so it was quite smooth.

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Another factor in discussions is, from a market standpoint. For example, we often receive collaboration offers from other IP owners for like Tekken, and maybe the game designers on each side think, "Okay, this could work, and we might get along well," but from a marketing team's perspective, the scale might be a little bit smaller for Tekken. Tekken is a franchise that sold 47,000,000 copies worldwide to date. One particular installment might sell three to four million copies each, so if the IP being offered is quite small and not as well known worldwide as our game, a lot of the times our marketing team won't be able to work it out just because the balance isn't there. So, a lot the elements really have to come together to make one of these projects happen.

Going back to Tekken characters specifically, have there been any thoughts of bringing some older characters that aren't in the roster? A lot of people like Lei Wulong and Julia! Or are you sticking to trying to do collaborations?

Up until now with Tekken, we haven't really done much DLC. It's always been a new, developed game, a particular installment, and then it's released, and that's it. You move on to the next one. But since we're doing DLC and the lifecycle is a bit longer, this opens up doors to do other things with the franchise for a particular installment. It's not like the possibility is zero that we'll see a returning character like the ones you mentioned.

We obviously have to have new content or people will say the game feels stale or what's new about this particular installment. So, a lot big games do bring back certain characters from past installments, etc., and that's a really good thing to do. But at the same time, if you are creating this new content that's expected of your game, especially for a fighting game, there's some older elements that you have to decide not to include often times, especially with characters.

For example, if you had game with a hundred characters, and it would be pretty hard to make into a balanced game. Your typical fighting game has 20-30 characters, so if you're trying to balance like 70 or 80, that's quite difficult in itself. It might be good for players selecting a character, but as far as creating the game, it's a lot not only for the assets but the balance itself, since your opponent also can pick from 80-70 characters. Just trying to learn the matchups and the balancing is a nightmare. And if we were to do that at the same time as including new things, we can't have both. It's kind of a trade-off. And if you were to have 80 characters in your fighting game, people would start giving questions about the game balance as well. So, it's really a difficult problem for us in trying to fulfill all these different needs because they often contradict each other.

It's quite difficult as far as who we pick for the character roster because a lot of times people will be very vocal and stand out on social media once a character that they were using has been eliminated from the game. But they're completely silent when a particular character is in the game. For example, Ganryu is a character that everybody uses a lot and likes, but he's not in the game currently. And it's a character you don't really hear much about if he's in or if he's missing. So, it's really difficult to gauge how accurate and how big the numbers are behind that particular character.

And when we do make these decisions, it's not just based on our personal preferences. With Tekken Tag Tournament 2, we have to use these numbers and try to look at how much a character is being played. For example, Jun was a character that was added for Tag 2, brought back from an installment after a lot of outpouring on social media. But then when we did include her, we actually went and looked at the raw numbers of usage and how many people were playing. We saw that it wasn't nearly as much as it seemed on social media at the time. So, it's quite a difficult problem to ascertain exactly how many people are fans of certain characters. We would really like to, and part of the problem is a character might not be as popular as we think, and maybe the character wasn't designed well enough on our side to make it appealing enough to a wider audience. So, Harada does give that to the community, but at the same time, if there is a character that you like, you should show a lot of love and maybe they won't disappear.

Akuma from the Street Fighter franchise was the first crossover character for Tekken 7.
Akuma from the Street Fighter franchise was the first crossover character for Tekken 7.
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Let's talk about the Tekken Finals! What was the impetus in bringing it here to San Francisco and out of Japan for the first time?

Well, it's really a simple answer. It's basically that in the past we had tournaments in Japan, and if you look at fighting games, we've had fighting game tournaments for quite a long time before it developed into esports. But in recent years, we've seen this gradual jump to esports in the fighting game community, which also means you have sponsors, but you also have prize money. And in Japan, there are a lot of restrictions on prize money, so that's something we couldn't do in Japan. So for this time around, to actually have a proper world tour, we gave the reins over to our American and European offices, they're their own separate companies. They were basically in charge of planning the whole tour, all the logistics and regulations and everything. It's really strange that Harada and I are just guests at the tournament this year, just like the players. It's quite difficult to hand off everything to them because we can't be involved. But that's kind of one of the reasons that it's in the U.S. this year for the Finals.

But another reason we were able to hand it off easily to our Western counterparts, is that Japan has always kind of been the home of fighting games because of the arcade culture, the way that the genre grew up. We've always seen a lot more tournaments in the arcades and also in Japan. But with our game, with Tekken, we've notice that the player base is 95% in the West. Over half of that, European. So, we were happy to see our American and European offices take over this and to perhaps give our players in those different regions more opportunities to participate in tournaments and to enjoy the game in that manner.

When you have these huge events like these Finals, especially, what's the most exciting part for you, though?

We've actually purposefully designed Tekken 7 this time to have a lot of elements in the gameplay linked to a spectator experience; what's typically exciting for the player can also be exciting for the viewer as well. Like, when someone turns the tables with their Rage Art or Rage Drive, or certain times when the game will go into super slow-motion right before the last blow by their opponent. These kind of things are what make the game really fun not just to play but to watch. These big events showcase those feature game. And personally, I would just say that you have all the communities together from Europe, the US, normally there's a lot of focus on Japan or Korea because they see the arcade installment first, but it's always cool to see the rivalries between the different player bases in different regions. And in Japan and Korea, you'll kind of see a tendency for players to gravitate towards whatever character seems to be the strongest at the moment. But I see, especially in Europe, a lot more interesting choices that we don't see come out in tournaments in Asia, as well. Even the way they play is quite different in each region. Seeing that all come together at one worldwide tournament is really exciting.

Now, you have Tekken 7 out there in the open on all platforms. It's currently sold over 2,000,000 copies at least on consoles. I'm sure you would consider that a success. How has that enabled you to plan for what's in the near future? Has that changed how you're approaching the roadmap for Tekken?

Well, that's an interesting question. If you look at the previous installment before Tekken 7, it would be Tekken Tag Tournament 2. And that was game that was really well received from the fighting game community and Metacritic, as well, but it actually didn't sell nearly as well as a lot the installments in the series. It was actually maybe one of the more difficult titles throughout the history of the franchise. Now we're almost at the start line because Tekken 7 came out and like you said, it sold over 2,000,000 copies worldwide, and it did so rather quickly compared to internal company expectations. So, that combined with esports becoming a more exciting scene and Tekken being able to play a major role in it, these two things have brought Tekken back to the scene in our company. It was a series that didn't quite meet expectations with the past installment but now people are saying, hey, Tekken still has broad appeal. And with those two things, we're finally on the starting line so that we can now perhaps have more authority in some decisions, and maybe that'll pave the way. Obviously for Tekken 7, there are some things we would've liked to include in the game that we couldn't for a variety of different reasons. A lot of these things are some of things that fans are pointing out as well. Maybe this makes it a little bit easier to try to do some of these things that we initially wanted to do but couldn't.

Would that include a Nintendo Switch version?

Well, you know, it's always a challenge. For example with Tekken 7, because we use Unreal Engine 4 that allows us to first bring the game to PC, something we've never done before. Unreal Engine was great because right away, we could get the graphics to a certain level quality the game was running fairly quickly. But it's not something right out of the box we can program and it's done. There are a lot of things that people don't realize, we have to reprogram on our side to make it work well with Unreal Engine. That was just for the current hardware, so you can imagine that for Switch. Especially at launch, that's something that wasn't a viable option. Some of the core components have to be handled by the engine, so I guess, as time goes on, maybe we'll see more of the adaptation of the engine to the Switch. Maybe we'll see methods to make a lighter version of the game that's easily portable to that platform. At the moment, that's not necessarily the case.

Actually, we haven't really done much research into how much it would take to do that, yet, as we're still working on trying to address certain areas of the game or to add features for the current platforms that people are interested in. So, we're not even really aware yet of how many people would actually want a Switch version of the game. We understand the appeal there, being able to take it anywhere with you, that's quite an awesome feature. But at the moment we're not in a position to do that. But like we said, we're not quite aware of how many people out there are looking for Tekken 7 on Switch. Maybe it starts by people saying, "Hey, this something that I really want." And we would go from there, but who knows? At the moment, nothing planned.

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    Michael Higham

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