Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Byleth: What's Really Going On Behind the Anger Around Super Smash Bros' Newest Character

Over the last few weeks, Super Smash Bros. fans have been at war with Nintendo and with each other over the inclusion of Ultimate’s latest downloadable character. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate closed out its DLC pass with Byleth, the protagonist from last year’s Fire Emblem: Three Houses, kicking off a firestorm of anger and disappointment. The reaction and feedback were so widespread that it might leave outside observers asking what exactly it is about this character that caused so much furor.

Before Super Smash Bros. Ultimate launched in 2018, publisher Nintendo and director Masahiro Sakurai announced a season pass including five new characters for what would become the best selling fighting game of all time. Unlike Capcom, which traditionally announces the Street Fighter series’ season pass rosters at its first reveal, Nintendo keyed in on how important the mystery of character reveals were to marketing. For the last two Super Smash Bros. games, character reveals were a big part of major events like Nintendo Direct streams and E3 presentations, and this strategy continued with DLC offerings. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=every-super-smash-bros-ultimate-fighter&captions=true"] Super Smash Bros. Ultimate’s first season reveal began with Persona 5’s Joker, followed by characters like Dragon Quest’s Hero, Banjo & Kazooie, and Fatal Fury’s Terry Bogard. This cascade of introductions set the tone for fan expectation: the thirst for iconic DLC characters from storied, long-running, and perhaps unexpected franchises became palpable. Each reveal rolled out individually over the last year, leaving only one final character for fans to place all their hopes onto. In the middle of January, Nintendo and Sakurai revealed Byleth from Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and the powder keg went off. As the ninth Fire Emblem character, Byleth functioned as a somewhat redundant choice for a new DLC character. Even before this latest Smash Bros. game came out, fans were already rolling their eyes at the quantity of existing Fire Emblem characters in Smash -- there had been a new inclusion in every Smash Bros. sequel so far. Byleth wielding a sword, even in addition to other Fire Emblem weapons, made them feel too close to every other sword-wielding character in the game. Perhaps Byleth’s biggest flaw, however, is simply in who the character isn’t: they’re not a major character from a third party game that would shock fans who woke up early to see the reveal. [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=] Nintendo’s YouTube reveal has accrued 83,000 downvotes as of this writing, compared to the 1,200 on Banjo & Kazooie’s. On social media, the terms “Byleth,” “Smash Bros.,” and “Fire Emblem” were all trending, usually accompanied by incredulous responses to their inclusion. Those interactions were also often peppered with disappointment that the rumored reveal of Dante from the Devil May Cry series did not come to fruition. While it is likely Nintendo expected some degree of backlash to this choice, as with any choice, it is unlikely the publisher expected exactly how fervent that backlash would be. If this all seems familiar, you may have been on the internet when Pokémon Sword and Shield were gearing up to release over the last year. After confirming that not every one of the game’s famous monsters would be returning for the Switch sequels, developer Game Freak received a tsunami of anger from players. Criticisms varied from the aforementioned loss of the full ‘Dex to the game’s graphics and animations -- some fair and some not, but none of it ultimately affected the sales of the game or, in a lot of cases, its reception. Despite that, the anger persisted, to the point where Game Freak producer Junichi Masuda had to ask people to stop harassing him on social media on his birthday. The argument that Fire Emblem is overrepresented in Super Smash Bros. is entirely fair; there are eight characters in the series already. The bigger issue, though, stems from Smash Bros. Ultimate’s marketing thrust: the need to bring in every character that has ever been in the series to make good on the “Everyone Is Here” slogan from the game’s big E3 debut. But the good faith argument ends with the insistence that the director of the game is damaging the spirit of the title, or ignoring the fans’ wishes, because of perceived Fire Emblem overrepresentation. [widget path="global/article/imagegallery" parameters="albumSlug=pro-players-wanted-smash-ultimate-characters&captions=true"] The end result of Byleth appearing in the game says less about any individual character and more about what fan ownership means for a game like this. Fans invest so much time and commitment into a game, series, developer, publisher (or really any other kind of media that attracts the same level of fandom) that they begin to develop personal stakes and connections with them. Super Smash Bros. occupies a special place in the gaming pantheon as being both incredibly popular and also a beast of burden for any continuation or contribution to its gaming history. The series shoulders the responsibility of being everything to everyone, delivering on sales numbers, deadlines and quotas, while also delivering an experience that resonates with its fans.  When a character disappoints, for whatever reason, people who are invested feel personally betrayed. [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=The%20end%20result%20of%20Byleth%20appearing%20in%20the%20game%20says%20less%20about%20any%20individual%20character%20and%20more%20about%20what%20fan%20ownership%20means%20for%20a%20game%20like%20this."]

Watching the discourse over this game, with entire betting markets based around which character would be added next, I have become fascinated by the narratives that are created by what essentially becomes a one-sided relationship with the series.

It’s very difficult to direct this discourse at any one person on Nintendo’s side. Publishers like Nintendo have multiple considerations in making games, and few of those decisions exist in a vacuum. The marketing, development, executive, PR, and other departments must work in concert with the culmination of demands made on the series. At the end of the Byleth reveal video, when speaking to the next season pass of characters, Sakurai wished he could reveal every character then and there, but admitted that was not within his control. “I’m personally very sorry that we have to release Fighter’s Pass Vol. 2 when the details have yet to be revealed,” Sakurai said. Had Byleth been announced at the very beginning alongside their third-party colleagues, would people still be upset for the reasons they are now? Or is it merely contributing to a larger issue of ownership?

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Of course, it’s entirely understandable to be disappointed by this character’s inclusion as the latest to join the Ultimate ranks. Fan reaction has proven to be a consistent factor in companies opening their sails to that wind. It seems Nintendo will keep revealing and releasing characters in this same cadence, unintentionally doing nothing to tamp down built-up expectations. The backlash against Byleth could have ended up being about any character that ticks a similar number of disappointment boxes and will continue to happen as long as hype and mystery continue to conflate as marketing. For years, fans have requested characters like the Doom Slayer for western representation, or Geno for his popularity among fans of Super Mario RPG, or Sora for the overwhelming popularity outside of his series. [poilib element="quoteBox" parameters="excerpt=Of%20course%2C%20it%E2%80%99s%20entirely%20understandable%20to%20be%20disappointed%20by%20this%20character%E2%80%99s%20inclusion%20as%20the%20latest%20to%20join%20the%20Ultimate%20ranks."]

Disappointment is part and parcel with character reveals -- there are too many opportunities for it to ever be completely avoided. In 2018, Sakurai  said , “What I learned is that regardless of doing our utmost, no matter how hard we try, and no matter how many fighters we include, there will always be people who feel [disappointed].”

Nintendo often punctuates their biggest events with Smash Bros. character reveals, and last year they bookended their E3 video with reveals for two different character announcements for the series. The marketing has made each reveal an event unto itself, each time gathering fans to speculate leading up to a reveal they can either celebrate or criticize. Video games are in the same tricky spot as every other piece of media that’s produced for profit is: they’re designed to reach their audience but are simultaneously expected to defy those wishes and produce auteur creations that we didn’t even know we wanted yet.

In a piece we reported, several developers discussed the tricky nature of the fan to developer relationship.  “As far as the consumer goes,” one developer told us, “they aren't wrong to want things, but in many cases, the lack of separation between them and people who make games turns into ‘You make games for me,’ which really isn't the case. It can't be. Devs are just making things they love, or try to love, in the hopes of doing something good.”

The next fighter’s pass continues for six more characters across the next two years, which means we’re in for another rough few years of watching high expectations struggle against reality.

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Imran Khan is a games writer living in San Francisco. You can find his other musings on Twitter.


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