Let’s Talk About Street Fighter V’s Survival Mode

In Street Fighter IV, you earned costume colors for each character on the roster simply by playing matches. Once you played a certain number of matches, you would unlock a new color and then you could select that color at any time. It was easy, it was unobtrusive (other than the notices that you had unlocked stuff), and it was quick. You got all of the colors for your main character almost immediately.

Street Fighter V doesn’t work that way. I doubt you have missed out on this, but:

  • Colors 1 and 2 are unlocked from the start for every character and costume you have.
  • Color 3 is unlocked by beating Survival mode on Easy (10 opponents, maybe 10 minutes).
  • Colors 4, 5, and 6 are unlocked by beating Survival mode on Normal (30 opponents, about 20 minutes or so).
  • Colors 7, 8, 9, and 10 are unlocked by beating Survival mode on Hard (50 opponents, about 30 to 40 minutes).

There is a higher level of difficulty, but it doesn’t grant a color; it gives you some XP, some Fight Money, and a title that AFAIK is universal (not per-character).

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Here are the surface annoyances with this method (I’m going to talk about the horrid design of this mode and unlock method in a bit):

  • Unlocks are per-character. If you want to unlock all the colors, you’d better plan on spending at least 20 hours in this mode.
  • Unlocks are also per-costume. If you have one of the pre-order costumes, you don’t get the colors for it unless you go through the mode again with the same character.
  • If you get all the way to fight 30 in Normal and lose, you get nothing for your time. No Fight Money, no EXP, nothing.
  • If you are disconnected from the (fairly erratic) online servers at any time during the Survival mode run, you can no longer unlock the costume in that run and you have to start over.
  • If you complete Hard, you don’t unlock the colors from Easy and Normal. You have to play through the mode three times with each character/costume combination.
  • The difficulty spikes heavily towards the end of the mode. You spend the majority of the time fighting brain-dead AI and then the last few fights going up against what can be a sometimes godlike and prescient AI that will murder you with no warning.
  • There is currently no existing or announced way to unlock the colors other than going through Survival. You can’t even (sigh) pay to unlock them.

That seems like a pretty good list of stupid, right?

We are just getting started.

It’s annoying enough already, because this is a mode that most people probably wouldn’t have touched at all if the colors weren’t gated behind it. Survival mode (with the exception of gimmick modes like Tekken Force) is always the most garbage single-player mode in every fighting game in existence. And it’s a tragedy of design that this mode is what holds people back from costume customization in the latest Street Fighter installment.


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(Whatever, that’s not from Survival, but it is from the match where I broke into Bronze tier this afternoon, so roll with it. I’m a Ken player now, apparently.)

(Also we will chat about the stupid “favorite character” and Ranked play thing later.)

Anayway, back to Survival mode and why it’s bad design.

Survival Mode Teaches Bad Technique

After three tries, I cleared Normal with Ken tonight and unlocked three more colors. The first two runs I did, I would do pretty well all the way up to about fight 26, when the CPU decides it’s going to do things like string more than one hit together and actually use EX moves (or any special, for that matter).

29 is against Necalli and can be pretty brutal, because that’s the fight where the CPU decides it will start trying to counter things sometimes.

30 is Bison and he will try to rip off some pretty brutal 30-40% combos when given the chance. Every time I would try to play against him straight, nothing would work. Every throw I would attempt would be teched. Every good strike I thought I could get in—and previously worked against other opponents—would get countered or even crush countered.

So how did I finally win the mode?

I spammed medium Shoryuken.

Over and over and over and over and over again. I played Flowchart Ken, but DUMBER.

I would spam SRK until it hit, then forward dash to push the CPU as far as possible, then spam SRK on wakeup, then dash the CPU into the corner, then just spam SRK forever until dizzy, combo, KO.

Survival mode doesn’t teach anyone one of the most important aspects of any fighting game: adaptation. Because the AI largely doesn’t put up a fight and even then can often get crushed with special move spam, players who go through the gauntlet are not learning anything.

They are just grinding.

It’s not effective, and it’s not fun. At least in SFIV, when you were trying to earn costumes, if you chose to grind it out with dummy opponents in Versus mode, that was your choice. But you could also grind it out by playing against other humans, which would teach you infinitely better than survival mode.

Survival Mode Teaches Bad Tactical Decisions

At the end of each (one round, mind you) fight in Survival mode, you get a results screen that shows you the time it took for you to win the round as well as the number of points you have earned:

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The number of points is determined by your character’s remaining vitality at the end of the round. A perfect round scores 15,000 points and the scale appears to be linear.

The points are used to purchase “Battle Supplements,” for the next match, which are like upgrades for your character that change the following match. You can choose either none of them or one of them. They expire at the end of the next stage, and you cannot stack them in any way.

In addition, your health and critical gauges persist from one stage to another. (V-gauge does not.) You can “bank” meter for the next stage if you want, and any damage you take during a stage carries over to the next. Because of this, you are incentivized to spend your score on refilling your health meter to try and make it through the next stage (if you need it).

Problems abound here. Check it:

  • Managing critical meter becomes significantly different because you are essentially storing it from one-round match to one-round match, which is fundamentally different from conserving or spending it between rounds in a standard match, which is important to learn.
  • The only way you can fill the one resource that directly controls your chances of making it to the next round is by not losing any of it. This generally leads to whipping through the early stages as cheesily as possible (see previous section) and banking your score so you have it to spend later in the progression.
  • When you play this way, you hardly ever build V-gauge and thus don’t learn properly how to manage it because you are spending all your time avoiding damage, which is bad because…

Vitality is a resource in fighting games. It is designed to be “spent” during a match to gain advantage in some cases.

Because your health carries over from stage to stage, you are actively discouraged from thinking of it as a resource during any given round. This is counter-productive to teaching players how they should be approaching Street Fighter and fighting games in general and when they decide to attend a tournament or hop into ranked matches it is just going to discourage them.

Instead, as I mentioned, you are rewarded for staying as close to a perfect victory as possible, so you will have enough points to spend on refilling your vitality between stages towards the end of the progression—and those spends can get expensive. Which leads us to the last big problem here…

Survival Mode Introduces RNG to a Game That Shouldn’t Have Any

Let’s take a look at that screenshot from the last section again, shall we?

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Nice store, there. Too bad that if I had taken a lot of damage, I would not have been able to refill it because I can’t afford the health recovery upgrade. But let’s take a look at the same post-stage screen from later in the progression:

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Notice anything?

The available upgrades are different. They change from stage to stage, and the change appears to be completely random. You might get a 6,000 point tiny health bonus, or the monster 25,000 point full bonus, which is not really much more health recovery than the 15,000 point one.

This means that you can’t reliably budget from round to round, because you don’t ever know how many points you will need to get the boost you want. On top of this, it leads to some pretty tragic moments. How many people have run into this going into the final rounds of a Survival run?

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For the one round where I probably really need it, the only available health upgrade is the smallest one available. I had a run yesterday where only the Low health refill came up three stages in a row.

This kind of design is nothing more than annoying and frustrating for someone who just wants their character to have a signature color. It’s forcing people to play a mode that purposefully ignores several key principles of playing fighting games instead of organically putting those unlocks behind play time or any one of a number of ways you could release them over time to reward people for playing the game.

Because the Story mode that shipped with Street Fighter V only takes maybe an hour or two to clear for all 16 characters, this moving color unlocks—and especially the fact that they are per-costume and time-consuming—smells of padding the single-player content available at launch, but in all the wrong ways.

Casual players are not going to grind out a mode where if they fail at the very end after 15 to 30 minutes of investment, they get nothing.

More dedicated players are going to grind out the colors they want only grudgingly and hate the designers for the privilege.

Both groups are probably much more likely to end up paying real money for the unlocks—which might just be the intention behind this in the first place. (And would be shameful if so.)

So What Would Have Been Better?

Find ways to get people to play, but play the way they want. Put it behind matches played, like Street Fighter IV did. Put it behind the apparently meaningless character or player levels that Street Fighter V already has, but do it in a more intelligent way like Killer Instinct has, where you get new colors, titles, and icons just by using characters and playing well, earning XP.

(Not the first thing KI has done really, really well. Should talk about that more later.)

From a design standpoint, I understand that you want people to play your game often and for a long time. If you want to gate content behind play, that’s fine. Just do it in a way that rewards players for playing the way they want to play, not hoops they need to jump through because you say so—and especially not in a mode that actively teaches bad tendencies for the real way your game is meant to be played.

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See you online.