Grinding for goodies is what makes fighting games great

Perhaps it’s silly to get excited about how things used to be, unless we’re talking about medieval banquets or penny-farthings, but by doing precisely this Capcom is making the PS4-exclusive Street Fighter 5 (opens in new tab) better than I ever dared imagine. Instead of endlessly belched-out updates and premium costume packs, the game will allow you to unlock all the extras in-game.

Read that again. No paid DLC. No new Ultra editions. All ‘gameplay related content’ – which we can assume includes costumes, stages and characters – will be earnable with in-game Fight Money, although you can pay for unlocks if you want them faster. Now let’s focus on why it’s the Best Thing Ever.

Unlocking characters is in the DNA of all fighting games. They rarely have stories – at least, not in any meaningful sense. Sticking an animated cutscene at the end of a game which has you resolving every conflict with knees to the head doesn’t count as a narrative journey; it’s violence with explanation written on the knuckles. Instead, competitive beat-’em-ups can keep us interested with the promise of unlockables. Every battle is a small step towards some indistinct goal. Ideally, you’ll play Street Fighter 5 because you love it, then head online with the loungewear Bison outfit you unlocked to amaze and humiliate your opponents.

Extra characters, stages and costumes are great – we know this, because people have already been paying for them. For hardcore fight fans, balancing updates are more crucial. But more than this, it’s that hopeful sense there’s still something left to uncover; some hitherto unforeseen treat, bestowed only upon the devoted.

It’s a feeling that we’ve almost lost in games, because we know everything in them months before release, often with the best stuff hidden behind a plush, pre-release curtain. The simple, immediate thrill of discovering you’ve unlocked something is part of the rhythm of fighting games. Here’s an example: I spent an entire weekend unlocking all the outfits in a rental copy of Dead or Alive. As shameful as it was, it kept me playing. I’d argue that I was motivated by the constant sense there was something else left to discover, rather than the numbing pursuit of digitised embonpoint.

In many ways, this is an even better deal that the one we had in the early, iterative days of Street Fighter 2. Being able to earn small, locked DLC updates purely through playing the game will keep people scrapping, grinding away for some as-yet unrevealed goal. It’ll keep the community alive, in the same way that fresh content invigorates all online games. More people equals more reasons to play: more matches, more people at your skill level and less time lingering in lobbies.

Yes, people will make the free-to-play analogy, whining like partially-deflated balloons, but they’re wrong. This is how it used to be, but better. There was always grind in fighting games, but we didn’t call it that back then. It was part of the process; one that sharpened your skills and made every beat ’em up feel complete. It’s that label, F2P, which is new, and it doesn’t accurately describe what Capcom and Sony are doing.

This isn’t the advent of games as a ‘service’. This is Capcom giving you a reason to play Street Fighter 5 for the next five years. The only thing that needs changing is the name: which idiot called the in-game currency ‘Fight Money’ instead of Bison dollars?

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