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I can say with firsthand knowledge that Nintendo fans are some of the most devoted in all of gaming, as are members of the fighting game community. Both parties absorb all the information they can on their favorite games and can be highly opinionated. So when those groups are brought together with the Super Smash Bros. franchise, you end up with one of the most vocal fanbases in gaming history, and one that stages countless tournaments for high level players. However, as revealed in a new interview by our sister publication, Edge, Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai is concerned that listening so closely to their fervent demands might push away everyone else.
Edge magazine recently flew to Kyoto, Japan for exclusive interviews with Shigeru Miyamoto and developers behind many other upcoming Wii U games, as well as touring Nintendo's new R&D building in Kyoto. When Edge talked to Sakurai about Super Smash Bros. for Wii U/3DS, he was asked about why the hardcore tournament crowd continues to play Melee and didn't adopt Brawl as strongly, Sakurai had this to say:
"If tournament popularity was the most important consideration, then I think we would create a Smash Bros game that included a multitude of fast moves with complicated controls. However, I believe this is actually the greatest shortcoming of fighting games at present, and that is the reason why I don’t do it."
Sakurai continued: "While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for tournaments on the one hand, there are also users who just give up on these sorts of games because they can’t handle the complexity and speed. While other fighting games continue to work on honing this tournament aspect, I think that we need to move in a direction in which there is more of a focus on inexperienced gamers. Companies that release products that target a very vocal, visible group of gamers tend to receive good reactions and they may feel good about it, but I think that we have to pay special attention to the less vocal, not so visible group of players, or else games will just fade away."
If you're a hardcore Smash fan that participates in tournaments and watches every Melee stream you can, this quote is likely a bit of a downer, especially when it seems counter to Nintendo's actions of late. The house of Mario did a stellar job hyping the next Smash Bros. at E3 this year, thanks in large part to huge tournaments featuring some of the top ranked Melee players in the fighting game community. The matches streamed on Twitch to tens of thousands, becoming a powerful marketing tool for the game. But now, just as Smash fanatics are finally feeling validated, the game's mastermind says making tournament play a high priority is currently the "greatest shortcoming of fighting games." At the very least, this is confusing messaging to a crowd Nintendo has apparently just embraced.
The reasoning gets even more complicated when this quote follows Shigeru Miyamoto's interview with Edge from the same issue. Miyamoto's thoughts on casual fans--"It's kind of a passive attitude they're taking, and to me it's kind of a pathetic thing."--don't jibe so well with Sakurai's reasoning above. While Miyamoto hopes to get players more engaged in denser games on the Wii U, Sakurai is voicing concerns that the highly committed tournament crowd is pushing away less vocal fans. It's mixed messaging for sure, but I think they envision the same middle ground where all audiences can enjoy the game. It's the same future I like to imagine for Smash Bros. as well.
Smash Bros. started out as a goofy party game that got four friends to trash talk and beat the crap out of each other while playing as iconic Nintendo characters. It's a credit to Sakurai's brilliant design work that people enjoyed the game so much that a very devoted tournament scene grew around it. But I fear they've put so much into the game that they overlook what was so appealing in the first place. The final game needs to be approachable to everyone, which should be Sakurai's main focus instead of addressing every small demand of the hardcore.
I witnessed Sakurai try to navigate this minefield when I attended a Smash Bros. roundtable at E3 2014. The event brought Sakurai face-to-face with some of his biggest fans--the above video will give you a taste of the intense atmosphere in the room. Early on, when Pac-Man was announced for the Smash Bros. Wii U/3DS roster, the excitement in the room was infectious, but things got tense when the Q&A began. Several self-identified tournament players and Twitch streamers asked questions similar to Edge's about pro players preferring Melee to Brawl. These guys have very strict expectations of the game they want Sakurai to make, and those kinds of demands can feel oppressive for an artist like him, not to mention the larger audience that merely seeks the simple pleasures of Mario punching Pikachu.
I sensed tension in the room that day, and I see it again with Sakurai's newest sentiments. The streamers and pro gamers may be the most fervent and vocal, but they likely make a small percentage of the 12 million copies of Brawl that have sold. Why should Sakurai so stringently edit his creativity to satisfy that small minority of players without trying to understand the needs of millions more?
When compared to the elite players, I'm pretty sure I'm the casual fan Sakurai is talking about. I've played literally hundreds of hours of Smash Bros. across the N64, GameCube, and Wii, and even starred in a universally acclaimed YouTube series about Smash Bros. But my head spins at the worries of tournament folks. Wave dashing? Edge guarding? Basing your entire play style on minutia like that seems to reject the joyous, idiotic fun that first pulled me into Smash. It's this search for pure competition that ignores all the unfair junk that's supposed to happen in a battle. Final Destination with no items? No thanks.
Ultimately, I think Sakurai is right to not overly engage with the loudest voices in the Smash Bros. community. In the wake of this new quote from Edge, another moment from that E3 roundtable stands out to me. During the Q&A a man stood up, saying he's a pro Smash player who promotes multiple tournaments. He challenged Sakurai to a match, and should he win, Sakurai would hire him to help balance the game. Sakurai flatly turned down the offer, asking if the man had ever actually worked on a game before. (He hadn't.) That exchange shows the gulf between Sakurai and the professional fan--until you've developed a game it's easy to think that you know what's best for your favorite franchise.