Careful, Capcom: Christian Svensson Speaks

By Brandon Sheffield

Christian Svensson is VP of Strategic Planning & Business Development at Capcom U.S. -- and that puts him in an interesting position. Though the company's big hits primarily come out of its Japanese division -- as it is undoubtedly the Japanese developer that best handled the generational transition -- the U.S. division has its say in operations.

In fact, as the owner of the Street Fighter IP, the decision to revive the series and launch the incredibly successful Street Fighter IV -- though, as Svensson discusses, the development took place in Japan under the creative control of the Japanese team, a complicated arrangement.

He also discusses the recent revelation out of Capcom Japan that Western studios, in the wake of GRIN's less-than-successful Bionic Commando, will not handle IP generation but instead work with established brands.

Svensson also touches on his hopes for the spring launch of Monster Hunter Tri -- as Capcom U.S. once again attempts to make the series, which is one of the biggest in the Japanese market, popular in the U.S.

One thing that I have been unclear on is the involvement of Capcom U.S. with Street Fighter. It's still always developed in Japan. Obviously, Dimps was involved...

Christian Svensson: Well, let's back up two seconds. There are lots of parts for Street Fighter. There's Street Fighter IV. Yes, that was developed with Japan. Capcom USA hired Capcom Japan to run and develop that project, who in turn hired Dimps to do work on the project. So, that project developmentally is managed by Capcom Japan, but the project is owned and paid for by Capcom USA, which is ultimately responsible for it.

In the case of Street Fighter, with HD Remix and perhaps some other things that might happen somewhere further down the line, those were all started, initiated, and driven by the U.S. office.

Do you think there is a fighting game resurgence now?

CS: I certainly like to think so. I do think that a lot of the interest and activity and energy that has been poured back into the fighting game community has been jump-started by HD Remix first and then by Street Fighter IV.

I think Street Fighter IV sales are a testament to how consumers have been about it, and I think that Super Street Fighter IV coming up in a little under two months now, the character selections were driven by straight out of the fan feedback that came pouring out as we were going into development on Street Fighter IV. So, we took all of the energy that Street Fighter IV brought and ported it into Super.

I definitely had a lot of nerdface ideas about who should be in.

CS: Every Street Fighter fan does. Everyone has their favorites. Everyone's very passionate about it.

My favorite's not in there.

CS: Which one?

I wanted Elena so much.

CS: She just barely missed the cut. She was the next tier down.

Every time I met Ono, I was like, "Hey? You know what would be really cool? Put Elena in the game."

CS: I agree. But she didn't make it. But, you know, we had done a number of studies as far as popularity.


Super Street Fighter IV

I'm overwhelmingly seeing everyone being like, "Makoto being in the game was a decider for me, a major point whether I was going to buy this."

CS: Dudley was a just-miss the last time around, and it was there sort of a conscious decision to leave Street Fighter III [characters] out in the first outing.

When it came around, Dudley was near the top of the list of who was obviously going to be in the next one. Makoto was sort of the number two in terms of the popularity and "fan fantasy" list.

You're setting the price point for the game lower than the original.

CS: It's $40. We had two choices, and the economics didn't work out on one... No matter what, we were fracturing the userbase, and we had to start from scratch. There was no way to just sort of do an update on the DLC, and if we'd done what we did Lost Planet Colonies -- I don't know if you'll recall -- basically it had everything had the first game had and a ton more.

And we did that as our Platinum package. The problem is that it gets a new title ID, which means no cross-play with the original consumers. And the other part is designing the game around, figuring out who has which package, even if you could do that. So, we knew we had to go from scratch. A Platinum [version] wasn't really an option no matter what we did.

The other part of this is frankly we were putting in so much new content, we thought that a platinum play wasn't the right play anyway. So, going $10 above Platinum/Greatest Hits pricing was sort of a nice compromise. And we haven't announced it, but for those who have purchased and played Street Fighter IV on the system that they play this on, there will be a nifty little special set of things that those people will have the option of enjoying that others won't.

And has the kind of fighting success extended to Tatsunoko vs. Capcom?

CS: To some degree, yes, but not to the same extent. Let's put it this way. That was always a challenging project from a "Is this appropriate for the Western market?" [perspective]. A lot of people worked really hard after the outcry of fans who really wanted to see it happen over here, to bring that Westward.

There were a whole bunch of questions like, "Will fighting fans really support something on the Wii?" And, you know, we're a couple weeks in right now, and we've been doing re-orders. We're not at all dissatisfied with the sales at this point. We are cautiously optimistic that it's going to have long legs...

The Versus series is well served by Tatsunoko as an outing. It really happens bring Versus back as a viable brand for Capcom. So, in that regard...

And I think the fighting community is what has driven that far more than the Wii community at large. It's the fans. They may also have a Wii, and they may be a 360/PS3 player primarily but they also have a Wii. And then there's also a lot of people who bought a Wii just for TvC. Without the fan support and the fan requests, A, it wouldn't have happened, and B, we wouldn't actually be relatively pleased with where we are.


The thing that kind of blew my mind is when friends of mine on a forum were talking about the game coming out. They were like, "Yeah, so here's my friend code and stuff." I was like, "Oh, right. You gotta do that."

CS: Yeah, that's perhaps not ideal, but we work on the system that we work on. The fact that we actually did a full and robust online system for TvC was something we felt was important. When we sat down to talk about what we could do if we were bringing it Westward, I was a very vocal component of online as being a central feature that our community definitely needs, especially if we're going to have the longevity and more people gathering into that community over time.

It seems like Capcom's digital download initiative that was going very strong for the last couple of years is sort of going down.

CS: It's slowly... A little bit. Quite frankly, we just have a gap. We have a number of projects that we are working on actively, and we will be lighting up more. I think we talked about it before; it has been a very successful initiative for us, and we do want to do more of it.

I think we're being a little more judicious in what we select to do and how we approach it. In being more judicious, that also means we're being more ambitious in the scope and scale of what those projects will ultimately be.

We have something we're in the process of lighting up right now that I can't talk about but I'm super excited about. I don't want to be too nebulous here, but fans of a certain franchise will be very happy.

I'm curious to hear a little bit about the comments that Capcom Japan made -- they released a statement -- about their relationship with Western developers.

CS: I'm not exactly sure what the intent of [COO] Haruhiro [Tsujumoto]'s statements were, but I also know that I saw how they were taken by a lot of media, and I think they were not quite interpreted the right way.

Haru made a statement of something to the effect of "new IPs are going to be developed in Japan, not in the West." And I think that is a fair statement. What I think a lot of people interpret that as is Capcom's turned its back on Western development. And I think if you ask [R&D head Keiji] Inafune-san, that's actually far from the truth. We probably have more and bigger projects in development or soon to be in development with Western developers than we've ever had. But, they aren't new IP.

It was interesting reading it because it was based on how the Western-developed titles performed, they were only going to have Western developers work on more established IP and stuff, but aside from Dark Void, that is all Western developers have really been working on with Capcom.

CS: Bionic Commando.

Bionic Commando. Street Fighter.

CS: I understand your point there. Spyborgs was also a new IP. But you are correct. The issue, I think, is for whatever reason, Bionic Commando was looked at internally as for all intents and purposes as a new IP in the fact that it was a long-dormant franchise that really had no broad awareness. I would certainly not categorize it as a new IP necessarily, but the effort to re-launch it was not that much unlike what a new IP would've been.


Dark Void

I see. Let's talk about Dark Void and how that turned up, and where it is now.

CS: Dark Void is moving along. I think that it was a long development process, a bit longer than we had expected. And that was, I think, part of what Haru is harping in on is if we aren't investing in new IP, hopefully we'll not necessarily have a three-plus year project kicking around, so maybe shorter cycle with a quicker path to market if they don't invent the entire world.

It is moving along, sales-wise. We're not completely dissatisfied with where it is as a first time at establishing a new property for Capcom. I think it's a solid first effort from the Western team. I think marketing-wise, we did a really solid job of raising the profile of the title and making people aware of what it is. We certainly spent appropriately to promote it. So, all in all, not awful.

I found the response from consumers interesting because...

CS: It was polarized.

Yes. And I've also seen a little more excitement and buzz for Dark Void Zero than Dark Void.

CS: Dark Void Zero was great . And being candid, Other Ocean came to us and said, "Hey, we have an idea." We embraced it and thought it was really clever, and the production team really got behind it and helped push it. Other Ocean did a great job in creating a retro 8-bit-like experience, and the other part of this is we wanted to get some experience on DSiWare in particular because that's our first DSiWare title. And it's selling, just for the record, very, very well. We're actually really pleased. In some ways, it's actually exceeding my expectations as to how it did, so we'll actually be looking at some other opportunities. I'm not saying necessarily 8-bit focused, not even necessarily DSiWare-focused, but there's some gained from learning that we take from Dark Void Zero and from Other Ocean in particular that turned out great. I can't say enough good things about Other Ocean. They've been a joy to work with. So, loads of respect to those guys.

How would you explain the relationship between Capcom Japan and Capcom USA right now? Is it parent/child, or...

CS: Yes. [laughs] There's no other way to describe it. It's definitely a parent/child relationship.

It seemed like a little while ago, U.S. was being given a little more autonomy than before. Is it scaled back?

CS: That autonomy is a little bit different in some ways. The re-organization, particularly of the product development group, to report directly to Japan, has created a global product development team where producers on both sides of the Pacific are assigned to each other's projects. The hope there is we actually start to share our learning on both sides, and we both bring, I think, different strengths to the table. At the end of the day, though, Japan calls the shots.


Do you foresee a lot more Western development coming from U.S. initiatives?

CS: I would say... Look, the process has changed in terms of how things get initiated and where things come from. We certainly bring a lot of things to the table, still, in terms of opportunities. There's just a whole bunch of extra people to convince about whether to move forward or not, and whether it fits within our strategy.

It's interesting to see how products are coming out of Capcom because some of them seem really innovative, and sometimes I wonder where that comes from.

CS: Can you give me an example? Because they come from different places. It depends entirely on the product.

Sometimes I'm surprised because it seems like there's still a very traditional Japanese workflow mentality that wouldn't necessarily support something really creative, but then Lost Planet is a weird, interesting idea.

I know Street Fighter IV originated on the U.S. side, but the way that it was put together was quite good. That combined with the very, very top-down management style of the games surprises me.

CS: It's funny. [On] Lost Planet, we have some really talented creators. [Kenji] Oguro-san was the director on Lost Planet, and the vision for that world was driven a lot by him. The feature set for the game was driven a lot by [producer Jun] Takeuchi-san in terms of what he wanted to focus on and in terms of where does multiplayer fit versus the story.

[With] Street Fighter IV, [it was director Yoshinori] Ono-san in terms of the ultimate direction that it took in terms of 2.5D. I can tell you quite candidly there was lots and lots and lots of discussion as to whether that was the appropriate direction to take for the next Street Fighter.

It could've been fully 3D. It could've been 2D. 2.5D is sort of where we netted out in the end. Much debate went on about that particular thing, but at the end, it was Ono-san and Inafune-san specifically that said, "Let's do this," and the U.S. said, "We think we can sell this," so away we go.


Monster Hunter Tri

What is the main cultural stopping block -- I assume it's cultural, that's my own words -- that's making Monster Hunter not as big here as it is in Japan?

CS: [sighs expressively] You know, we're taking another run at it with Tri in May, and Tri will have a number of things that we've been asking for a long time in the series. Online, true real online support has been one of the biggest things that we've been harping on, for literally years. This is the first time since the original PS2 introduction we've had an online mechanism for people to play couch-to-couch.

The first PS2 [version] was properly online. None of the PSP versions were full infrastructure. Ad-hoc only. Ad-hoc seems to work fine in Japan. People play on lunch breaks, play in the office, after hours, play on buses, play in the schoolyard. It's just part of the culture. I believe Westerners actually much prefer to sit on their couch and play online with another friend.

I mean, we're a very big country. Traveling to see friends just to play a game head-to-head, where both people have to have their own hardware, is not something I think that has lent itself to broad appeal. The fact that Tri will have both split-screen and online play, I think will allow for some interesting dynamics in terms of community generation that we previously haven't been.

The other part of this is a massive marketing push, the likes of which I'm not sure anyone has seen on a Wii title from a third party, that we'll be seeing across the West when it ships. So, big marketing push. Online play.

The other part of this is Monster Hunter, as a series, is a hard series to learn. It is unforgiving and very, very complex to learn. Very complex systems. Tri is a little bit easier to get into. There's a much gentler learning curve in Tri than there's ever been in any of the other Monster Hunters. That's not to say it's dumbed down, but it's much more accessible.

It still seems like it still might be a tough sell to the Wii market at large.

CS: It's not something that's limiting in any way. It's a game form that should be perfectly approachable and perfectly acceptable by Western audiences, and by Wii owners specifically. It is a core game, and core games on Wii have had some challenges, but we also know we have a built-in Monster Hunter fan base that is small-ish, but they're going to push several hundred thousand units before we even touch anybody outside that.

So, we've got high hopes for this. We really want to capture a more active Wii demographic. And the Wii is still -- in homes that own multiple consoles, the Wii is always there. There's no reason why these people shouldn't and couldn't be picking up Monster Hunter Tri to play.

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