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Street Fighter 5’s economy is bad, and loot boxes make it worse

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Your in-game currency shouldn’t be too rare to spend

Street Fighter 5 - Cammy Capcom

Capcom has finally added loot boxes to Street Fighter 5. It was a quiet addition, slipped in underneath at the same time as the new character Cody, some gameplay revisions and overdue fixes to the reviled Survival mode.

It felt inevitable. Street Fighter 5 acts like it’s a free-to-play game, despite being a full-priced retail title. It’s even stingier than a standard free-to-play experience; Street Fighter 5 is the kind of game that sells you a $30 season pass, and then tries to charge you some more cash to fight on the same stage, but at night.

The only mercy is that these aren’t cash loot boxes. Rather, players pay a premium currency called Fight Money that can only be earned through gameplay. But Fight Money is a bad-faith currency, designed to be so scarce that players will find it easier to spend real money than to earn the currency by playing the game.

Capcom continues to add ways to spend currency that nobody can earn in sufficient quantity without paying, and now the company wants us to gamble with it.

The scarcity of Fight Money

Capcom assured fans that they’d be able to buy future downloadable characters for free if they just played the game enough. This early promise is probably the single biggest reason that Street Fighter 5’s economy is such a mess, and Capcom never should have made it.

Playable characters are the heart of a fighting game, and are the most valuable form of DLC. Capcom didn’t really want its players bypassing the $30 season pass that funds the game’s ongoing development; it just wanted the goodwill that comes from telling players they can get a free lunch. The economy only works in Capcom’s favor if the amount of work required to unlock new characters is unreasonable for most players.

Enter Fight Money, an earnable currency similar to the “magic stones” or such in a mobile game, which has a high effort to earn and low value in practice. (Unlike mobile games, Street Fighter 5 does not yet sell Fight Money.) As in other fighting games, you can spend Fight Money on all kinds of character customization goodies in the shop. You can also buy new characters — retail value of $5, although you can’t buy them à la carte for cash — for 100,000 Fight Money.

This doesn’t seem to be too difficult at first. You can earn thousands of units of Fight Money just by playing single-player modes with different characters and shooting through the lower experience levels. A new player can grind their way to a heap of money large enough to buy two or three characters without much trouble.

But that exchange rate of time to fight bucks can’t keep up for long if Capcom wants to be able to sell characters for money.

An image showing a player winning 50 units of Fight Money in Street Fighter 5
The longer you play, the less Fight Money you earn — just 50 in this case.
Capcom via Polygon

The flow of Fight Money is designed to get slower and slower as a character’s level increases. Play one character for long enough, and the experience needed to level up reaches astronomical heights. Just like in a free-to-play game, veterans see the flow of Fight Money slow to a drip. Saving up 100,000 Fight Money quickly becomes a matter of months, rather than hours.

The reward for winning an online match is a pitiful 50 Fight Money, so hardcore players who play thousands of online matches over the course of years — Street Fighter’s core audience — still had little chance to earn enough to get new characters. Players who preferred the single-player modes got even less.

Things were so bad at the launch of Street Fighter 5 that players were creating elaborate hacks to bypass the tedious Survival mode and claim its (since removed) Fight Money rewards. It’s still common to see players in online matches using a bot to press X over and over again, just to grind out experience points. These are symptoms of a game with a problem.

A chart showing the high cost of in-game color options in Street Fighter 5
Simple options like the colors of outfits are ridiculously expensive.
Capcom via Polygon

Even players who had paid real money for the characters quickly found that there just wasn’t enough Fight Money in the system to go around. The in-game shop charges tens of thousands of Fight Money for most of its goodies, and players are making five grand a week if they play relentlessly. In Tekken 7, you can play for an hour or two and make enough cash to buy your character a full wardrobe. In Street Fighter 5, you might spend two weeks grinding up enough cash to make your character’s outfit purple.

Fight Money became too precious to spend. Players took to hoarding any of the stuff they earned, because they didn’t know what they were going to need it for next. If a new background popped up, should you spend 70,000 Fight Money that took months of grinding to earn, or just pay $4?

Fight Money was never meant to be a viable alternative to spending real money, and its scarcity encourages hoarding in so many players that it might as well not exist. It took forever to earn, no one wanted to spend what little they had and the economy stagnated. The Street Fighter 5 shop remains fully stocked with goodies too expensive for players to justify buying, and this is happening in a game that is sold at full price.

Arcade Edition made it worse

Two years into Street Fighter 5’s lifespan, it was pretty clear that the Fight Money situation was a problem. Players looked to the Arcade Edition update as a chance for reform: Maybe Capcom would fix the economy or the online play. The game had a lot of issues that could be improved.

The update ultimately didn’t deliver any meaningful quality-of-life changes when it dropped in January 2018. Bizarrely, Capcom slowed down the flow of Fight Money even further. The weekly check-ins that were players’ main source of funds now only paid out half as much.

The update did add Extra Battle, another place for players to spend the Fight Money they didn’t have. Extra Battle offers limited costumes that you can win by checking in every week for a month, spending 2,500 Fight Money each time. Incidentally, that’s most of the money players make every week by completing the weekly quests. Weird how that works out!

Extra Battle was a transparent attempt to extract Fight Money from players who had been determined to save up for new characters. Capcom really doesn’t want you to be able to afford new players without paying cash.

Loot boxes, the natural next step

And so Capcom added Fight Money loot boxes. The company waited until after E3 to say so, perhaps to avoid the negative publicity that loot boxes earned at the show. The Street Fighter 5 showcase at E3 was a delightful grudge match between the crews of pro wrestlers Kenny Omega and Xavier Woods.

The implementation is what you would expect: You pay 500 Fight Money for a shot at a rare Cammy costume among a pile of junk items and exclusive costume colors. Don’t save, gamble!

The costume, a deep cut based on the obscure Psikyo shooting game Cannon Spike, is cool. I’d have paid for it. I’ve been paying the flat $4 for Street Fighter 5 costumes because I prefer directly buying the character costume I want to the Overwatch method, in which I play for 30 hours hoping for the costume to drop, and then drop $30 into a black hole while begging the black hole to be merciful. I have no interest in moving from the first system to the second, but Capcom isn’t giving us many options.

A row of prizes from a Street Fighter 5 loot box, including the Cammy costume
I was one of the lucky ones.
Capcom via Polygon

But for the sake of this piece (surely!) I did give the Fighting Chance mode a shot, and to my shock I got the rare be-rollerbladed Cammy in “just” 20 spins, for 9,000 Fight Money. That’s a few weeks’ earnings, but significantly lower than what the Fight Money shop charges for most items.

More and more to buy, nothing to buy it with

The problem with the Street Fighter 5 economy is that there are so many ways to spend Fight Money (and more are being added), without a way to earn any reasonable amount. Adding loot boxes — where, depending on the odds, players have no idea how much they’re going to need to spend to get what they want — only compounds the issue.

Capcom is finding more ways for you to spend more Fight Money in order to get items you might want, while making it harder to earn Fight Money. Nothing about this system benefits the player, and Capcom keeps tightening the screws without giving hardcore fans anything in return.

The best reform would probably have been making DLC characters pay-only, and increasing the flow of Fight Money or dropping the prices at the shop, but with the Arcade Edition’s release and the new season of DLC characters in full swing, that ship has sailed for now. Capcom has showed us the direction in which it’s taking the economy, and it’s not great.

Capcom clearly sees the Fight Money problem, but its solution has made things worse. It pains me, because I enjoy playing Street Fighter 5 — the game itself is fun and yet I can’t recommend that anybody buy it because of this horrible economy.

There’s a reason people are only ever excited about the game around tournaments like Evo and the recent CEO: Those are the only times that the spark of a great fighting game shines past the incompetent, anticonsumer product.

How did this and Monster Hunter: World come out of the same publisher? The flagship of a genre deserves a lot better.