Since its debut in 2008, the BlazBlue franchise has enjoyed a decade of serious growth, with four mainline instalments, various revisions, and an expansive cast that rivals even its Arc System Works cousin Guilty Gear. The latest game, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, is a two-on-two crossover fighter that landed on PC in the West today.
With characters from Persona 4 Arena, Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late, RWBY and, of course, BlazBlue, this is an ambitious project that strays from the developer's traditional path in multiple ways. We recently spoke with director Toshimichi Mori about how this release came to fruition and where he sees it fitting into the fighting game landscape.
BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle began its life over three years ago as a BlazBlue-exclusive title, but Mori felt the new style of gameplay was a chance to "reset the entire playing field" and create a more unique product. This meant paring down the core combat mechanics that had been expanding for years and introducing new franchises to the BlazBlue universe.
The former was daunting, especially when adding in characters and mechanics from radically different franchises. Mori's team took a variety of steps to simplify BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle as a way to prevent system bloat, alleviate the need for a complicated controller, and reduce the skill gap between mid- and high-level players.
"I wanted to make it as easy as possible... well, maybe easy's not the right word," Mori told us. "I wanted to make it as accessible as possible. For one, I reset the entire control scheme to give everyone the same starting line. And second... let's be honest, arcade sticks are pretty expensive, right? Again, not accessible.
"Then, there's the roster. It would be way too much for people to remember. The entire concept around BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle is to create a fighting game that forgives a little difference in skill and still remains playable and, most importantly, enjoyable."
Mori's philosophy is reflected in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle's basic control scheme. Gone are complicated motions, replaced by simple quarter-circles or down-down inputs. Every mechanic is bound to one or two buttons, and characters can even perform simple auto-combos with the repeated press of a single attack.
These systems naturally expand and become more complex as they're used in conjunction, but the barrier for entry has been significantly reduced for new players.
In another interview from earlier this year, Mori explained that his impetus for reducing complexity in BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle was to reduce the gap between Japanese and non-Japanese players in competition.
I found his line of reasoning wholly unsatisfying: I don't think Japanese players are inherently superior, and believe the performance gap is mostly due to release delays in Western countries and problems with online stability. I asked Mori about this; he mostly didn't answer, although he did say that Cross Tag Battle was not a game "designed solely for the purpose of competition".
(It should be noted that a developer's intentions have little bearing on how a game's competitive future shakes out. Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai has repeatedly stated that he doesn't consider the franchise a purely competitive property and has even implemented mechanics that negatively impact high-level play, but that hasn't stopped a dedicated tournament scene from springing up around every release in the series.)
Unlike the years of work Mori's team spent paring down the complex mechanics from earlier in the BlazBlue series, the foundations for adding new characters from other properties were laid in one interview.
In 2016, Mori told Forbes that he wanted to work with the RWBY property, an anime-style web series produced by Rooster Teeth. He was drawn to the individuality of the main cast and mentioned that he hoped to spearhead such a project if the franchise ever became a fighting game.
Shortly after the interview was published, Rooster Teeth reached out to Arc System Works, and two years later, their characters are in Mori's game.
In addition to the RWBY girls, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle also introduces characters from Persona 4 Arena, the 2012 fighting game spin-off of the popular Persona roleplaying series, and Under Night In-Birth, the latest from famed Melty Blood developers French Bread and Ecole Software.
Arc System Works is intimately familiar with both franchises (they helped develop the former and publish the latter), but instead of creating a neutral ground for these characters to meet, they chose to insert them into the existing BlazBlue universe. When asked about this decision, Mori briefly mentioned "politics beyond my control" as a cause, but did not elaborate.
The commitment to accessibility also extends to the price point, though there's a catch. At $US49.99 ($65), BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle is $US10 ($13) less than the typical video game release, but it's packaged with a a divisive downloadable content campaign. Arc System Works launched the game in beta with 20 characters supported by another 20 released by additional fees, and was immediately hit with a barrage of complaints.
Fans complaining to fighting game developers is nothing new, but locking half the roster behind a paywall was particularly blatant, especially when some RWBY cast members were free and some were not. The developer eventually announced that the additional RWBY characters would be free to download, and claimed that even with the additional paid downloads, the game would still not cost more than a standard video game.
"The entire concept was to price the game competitively with a full-packaged game when you purchase all the characters," Mori explained. "I think the even bigger issue is the difference in perception across Japan and the United States. This was a big learning experience for me, too. We really wanted the players to play the game as long as possible.
"And no joke, we're in the middle of developing the remaining characters, as we speak. The characters need to function within a tag-team system, which, believe it or not, takes a lot of work. 'Oh the sprites are already done, so just drop them in!' I'm afraid it doesn't work that way.
"I think the biggest mistake I made with BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle was focusing too much on [Japanese] consumers. We didn't have enough research of [non-Japanese] markets."
As it stands now, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle includes characters from four separate franchises, and Mori says it's "feasible" to add more cameos based on the game's performance. (Datamining has uncovered voice files that point towards characters from the "unapologetically pervy" Senran Kagura appearing in the game, for instance, but Mori wouldn't comment on that.)
He doesn't want to "spawn out new characters like rabbits", though - he has to save some ideas for the next BlazBlue and, Mori confirmed, future Persona projects. This is Arc System Works' first indication of a new Persona-based fighter since the release of Persona 4 Arena Ultimax in 2013, during which time an entirely new instalment of the main series, 2016's Persona 5, was released.
BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle comes out at an odd time for fighting games. Releases are coming more frequently than ever, and tournaments have gone from low-key church basement gatherings to filling arenas in a few years. With the failure of Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, the fighting game community is desperate for a competent team-based fighting game.
Dragon Ball FighterZ succeeded in part thanks to its adherence to classic Versus gameplay, but BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle is making waves in a completely different market. By mixing anime sensibilities with typical Versus mechanics, Arc System Works has developed something truly unique that they hope can bring players together no matter their skill level.
BlazBlue players are hoping to support Cross Tag Battle alongside the main franchise, but that isn't entirely feasible outside specialised tournaments such as CEOtaku, which focuses entirely on anime-inspired titles. Evo 2018, the largest fighting game competition in the world, will feature Cross Tag Battle instead of the latest mainline release, BlazBlue: Central Fiction.
"I see it as a great transition for players on the sidelines, players who are interested in 2D fighting games but are too afraid of the barrier to entry," Mori said of where he sees BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle fitting into the genre.
"In fact, I hope that it will fill that gap. The game's tempo is really speedy, too. With that demo we recently released, I saw a lot of players say, 'Wow, time flew by and I didn't even realise it.' Not just that, but some of the players said they really didn't play fighting games much before, and hours flew by. How cool is that? That's great for the fighting game scene."
"I want to turn BlazBlue and the BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle series into a piece of content that will answer everyone's expectations," Mori added. "We're going to do everything we can to meet those expectations."