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Nishitani shows what’s behind the curtain.
Michael Firman

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The story behind Arika’s mysterious fighting game

20 years later, Akira Nishitani shows the benefit of owning your IP.

Matt Leone has written about games for three decades, focusing on behind-the-scenes coverage of the industry, including books on Final Fantasy 7 and Street Fighter 2.

In the mid-‘90s, Akira Nishitani recorded some footage on a tape, went to meet with Capcom and hoped for the best. The young game designer had just left Capcom to start his own studio, and he was shopping around his team’s first project: an early prototype of a 3D fighting game.

He wasn’t confident in it.

"It was very, very basic,” he says, sitting in his studio’s conference room in Tokyo. “There were no textures. There was no collision. It just showed animations for three or four characters.”

It was so bad,” he says. “Super embarrassing.”

On top of that, Nishitani had an unusual request: he wanted to keep the rights to any characters his team — Arika — designed for the game. As a new company, it wanted to build value for itself beyond whatever royalties it earned on the game. Money was still flowing toward anything with fireballs and uppercuts, but no one knew how long that would last, or how well the game might do. And given the reluctance of game publishers to give up any portion of ownership — especially in the ‘90s in Japan — it was a bold request to piggyback onto a simple prototype.

Yet Nishitani had a history with the person watching the tape.

Yoshiki Okamoto was one of Capcom’s star producers and one of Nishitani’s biggest supporters. A decade earlier, he hired Nishitani, and the two went on to oversee some of Capcom’s most popular titles including Final Fight and Street Fighter 2. When Nishitani sent out his footage, Okamoto was first on the list.

In a response that surprised Nishitani, Okamoto was almost instantly on board — he not only wanted to publish the game, but he wanted to let Arika keep its character rights. Capcom didn’t attach any strings. Okamoto just said “OK” and Arika got to work making the game that became Street Fighter EX, which ended up being the first entry in a successful spin-off series.

“It wasn’t common at the time, but he was very good to us,” Nishitani says. “… Today, you’d never see such a nice contract.”

And now, 20 years later, that contract makes Arika’s latest game possible.

The mysterious fighting game

In early 2017, Arika recorded some footage on a PC, sent the video out and hoped for the best. Again, the team had developed a 3D fighting game prototype. And again, it had three characters — two of them, even, the same characters that Akira had used 20 years earlier to pitch Capcom.

This time, though, the footage didn’t embarrass Nishitani and it didn’t have Capcom’s address on it; Arika set it live on YouTube, on April Fools’ Day, and let viewers wonder what they were seeing.

The footage showed high-detail 3D characters fighting one another, with screen-filling particle effects and the type of attention to detail typically seen in a commercial product. Arika had brought back fighters Kairi, Hokuto and Garuda from the Street Fighter EX series and pitted them against each other in what looked like a new competitive fighting game.

Fan favorite Skullomania returns for Arika’s untitled game.
Michael Firman

Initially, fans weren’t sure what to think. The game industry has a long tradition of pulling pranks on April Fools’ Day, but to many this footage looked a little too real to be just a prank, a little too expensive for a small company like Arika to pull off as a goof. Fans were also confused about what, exactly, the joke was — if the joke was the game existing, and the footage looked like something fans wanted to play, then wasn’t Arika just being cruel?

Theories shot in every direction, with some speculating that Arika had worked on a canceled project and figured it might as well show that work somewhere. Others wondered if this was simply a game announcement under the guise of being an April Fools’ joke.

As time went on, Arika revealed that the project started out as a way for its staff to familiarize itself with Unreal Engine 4, and the team had developed it as a prototype — and then, because of the positive reaction to it, it had decided to turn the project into a full game, building the character roster around the rights it got from Capcom in the ‘90s. But even then, once the cards were on the table, Arika kept calling it “The Mysterious Fighting Game (Title Still Undecided),” leading some to wonder what other surprises were on the way.

As Nishitani runs through the history, he says the sense of mystery isn’t the result of some grand Hideo Kojima-style plan where the team is going to keep the secretive approach going, but simply the result of Arika’s decision to develop the game in the public eye — with the ultimate goal of actually being more open than on an average project, rather than less.

“It wasn’t so much a joke as it was good timing,” says Nishitani, who refers to the original footage as a market test to see how players would react.

Historically, Arika has been a fairly closed-off company, in part because many of its projects deal with external licenses or agreements to not speak out about the work. While the studio started out with a handful of Street Fighter EX games, in the years following it branched out into other areas, doing a mix of low profile work-for-hire jobs and developing hardcore favorites like the Endless Ocean and Tetris: The Grand Master series.

And for the mysterious fighting game, Nishitani saw an opportunity to not only get back into hardcore fighting games, but to move toward open development and share more about the game as it’s being made.

Nishitani says one of the perks of doing the game without any outside partners — at least, for now — is that Arika doesn’t need to get approvals, so it can show the game a few months after starting on a prototype without worrying about upsetting anyone or losing a contract.

“With regards to the public development approach, I’ve actually been a fan of that for years,” Nishitani says. "Seeing creators interact with fans on forums and social media is very interesting and I’ve wanted to try it for years and so for this new project, we’re trying to be very open, very public with the development so we can get a lot of dynamic feedback.”

Thus far, this idea has played out with Arika showing each character as they get into the game, despite the game still being early in production. This approach runs the risk of Arika deciding to change something later on and fans being disappointed since it might not match their expectations, but Nishitani says that’s not a huge concern because no one has spent money on the game yet — Arika doesn’t have a publisher or crowdfunding backers who bought in expecting something to work one way when it ended up working another.

“Since we’re not involved with any other companies, we don't have to worry about contracts or approvals or anything else getting in the way,” he says. “So when we need to make a change, we can just go ahead and tell people, ‘Look, we had to make a change.’ We’re not worried about saving face or anything like that.”

Arika is currently self-funding the game, and Nishitani says the company has “just barely” enough in the bank to see a version of the game through to completion on its own. He hasn’t settled on that plan, though. He’s also talking to external publishers and investors, and says potential deals there could allow the team to add extra characters, new modes and other features to the game.

Such as, as many players have requested, a deal with Capcom.

The Street Fighter connection

Given Arika’s history with the Street Fighter EX series, one question hanging over the mysterious fighting game is whether it will hold up without Street Fighter characters. While many of Arika’s characters have a hardcore following, they haven’t yet had to carry a game on their own.

In 1998, Arika released a Japan-only arcade game called Fighting Layer with a handful of the EX fighters, but the new game marks the first time the studio has really leaned in on its character rights and made them the focus of a game.

Think of it like players getting half the family in a divorce. Capcom has a deep roster of its fighters that it’s cycled into recent Street Fighter games, while Arika is reuniting its own cast for the mysterious fighting game.

Some fans have even speculated that Arika hasn’t given the game a title yet because it’s secretly a Street Fighter EX game.

The last time players saw the spin-off series was in 2000, when Capcom and Arika released Street Fighter EX3 — a game Nishitani says led to the most challenging time in his studio’s history, given the stress of producing a game in a very short amount of time to launch with the PlayStation 2, and the disappointing sales relative to prior EX games.

For now, Arika is moving forward without Street Fighter characters like Ryu.
Michael Firman

“Since then, we've been very careful and tried to avoid a similar situation happening,” he says.

Following EX3, Capcom stuck the series in a drawer and eventually went on to use 3D graphics for its mainline Street Fighter games, making for less of a distinction between the two branches of the franchise. Nishitani says he has pitched the idea of reviving the EX series to Capcom over the years — and notes that Arika went so far as to make a demo of a possible 3DS entry as part of that process — but hasn’t seen anything pan out.

Despite the history, Nishitani confirms that Arika is not holding back the game’s title because of a hidden Street Fighter connection. In fact, he says Arika came close to settling on another title for the game, but it didn’t end up passing trademark searches. (Nishitani declines to say what that title would have been because he says he doesn’t want fans to harass the company that owns the name.)

“I definitely understand why people might think it's related to Street Fighter EX,” he says. “If I didn’t work here and know all of the project details, I might think that too. But no, it’s not currently a Street Fighter game.”

The “currently” means he’s open to that changing, though. He says if Capcom shows interest and the two companies come to an agreement, Arika could turn what it has into a new Street Fighter EX entry.

“I don’t have strong feelings on whether that happens,” he says. “Obviously, we can publish it ourselves and we’re prepared to do so. But if over the course of time, our connection with Capcom deepens and that happens, we’re open to [making it a Street Fighter game] as well."

Regardless of what happens, Nishitani says he’s “very interested” in including guest characters in the game — both from Capcom and other companies.

And he says that while certain elements are out of his control, as Arika is developing the game in the public eye and publisher deals or guest character negotiations may change on the fly, he doesn’t intend to keep the mysterious nature of the game going any longer. Arika has leaned into that angle for its marketing thus far, but Nishitani says the team intends to be more open going forward.

The pet project

At this point, Nishitani can’t say exactly what the mysterious fighting game will look like at launch. Arika has committed to a 2018 release on PlayStation 4, though Nishitani admits the project is malleable should the right partner come along.

What he can say is that Arika is not expecting to lose money on it.

Back in July, streamer Jiyuna claimed that Arika was planning to “take a hit” on the game, and was making it as a passion project in spite of that because the staff “just want to make a [fighting] game again.”

Nishitani says that’s false, saying he has a business plan that he thinks can pay off and that he takes too much responsibility for Arika as a company to throw money away on a passion project. Long term, he says his primary goal for Arika is to keep the company healthy, even well after he retires.

“In Japan, there are companies that have been around and well-respected for over 100 years, founded in the Meiji period,” he says, “and I want Arika to become that kind of company.”

At the same time, though, he says he does view the new game as a passion project as it brings Arika back to some of the characters that launched the company more than 20 years ago. To that end, he says that while his title in the game’s credits will likely be “producer,” his role is dipping into “director” territory more than it usually does. In particular, he says he’s spending a lot of time mentoring younger staff who have less experience working on fighting games. Combine that with running the company, and Nishitani admits it’s difficult to balance.

Still, Nishitani says, despite those sorts of challenges he’s proud that Arika has made it to this point. Toward the end of our interview, he mentions that he recently bumped into Yoshiki Okamoto, who signed the original agreement with Arika to publish Street Fighter EX, at a Capcom reunion event, and Okamoto congratulated him on Arika making it 20 years.

Without Okamoto hiring Nishitani in the ‘80s and signing a publishing deal with Arika in the ‘90s, Nishitani wouldn’t be where he is today and the mysterious fighting game wouldn’t exist, so for Nishitani it was a coming-full-circle moment.

If Nishitani’s plan comes true and Arika ends up existing for more than 100 years, there will be plenty more of those along the way, but for now Nishitani is back with the genre that catapulted his career and back with the roster that helped launch his company, so he says he’s happy with how things seem to be playing out so far.

Correction (June 2020): In an earlier version of this story, we wrote that Arika pitched its prototype fighting game by sending Capcom a tape in the mail. Arika actually pitched the game in-person. We have corrected the story to reflect that.

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