It was the greatest defeat the Power Rangers had ever faced: a 6.8 on IGN.
Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid, a fighting game from San Francisco studio nWay, was released on consoles and PC in March 2019 to abysmal reviews. Despite it being based on a major media franchise that's been a cultural touchstone for millennials, critics and fans were disappointed over the game's anemic roster, unpolished presentation, and lack of single-player features. Reviews deemed the game "bland," "lackluster," and a "cash grab." Even priced at just $20, Battle for the Grid looked and felt like a cheap game.
At any other time in gaming history, such a launch would have spelled an immediate demise. Not for Battle for the Grid. For nWay and its small but growing fan community, it was only the beginning. Eleven months and countless updates later, Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid is now one of the most popular fighting games available. While still dwarfed by giants like Street Fighter V, Mortal Kombat 11, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the comments sections of Kotaku's articles and YouTube videos contain high praise for the game, like "underrated," "sick," and "keeps getting better."
"We call it the journey," nWay's Steve Kuroki tells Inverse.
On a Friday afternoon, I got on the phone with Steve Kuroki, VP of Creative at nWay. After Kuroki revealed new features like online lobbies and PlayStation 4 cross-play, Kuroki opened up about the first few months of the Grid's lifespan. A time not so long ago, when Battle for the Grid was anything but mighty or morphin'.
"We had quite a journey for a year," Kuroki says. "When we first came out with the game, it was all about speed and value. We wanted to make the game accessible, not just in the sense of mechanics but value proposition. It was a $19.99 game with solid combat mechanics. We were proud about that."
While a budget fighting game based on a franchise past its heyday — the 2017 film opened second at the box office behind Beauty and the Beast, and failed to spawn a new franchise — Battle for the Grid held street cred within the fighting game community, or FGC. The game's developers enlisted some of the FGC's living legends, like Daniel "Clockwork" Maniago, Long "Shady K" Tran, and Justin Wong as technical consultants. The outreach paid off, as the game's combat and balancing received the highest praise from reviewers.
But association with the MVPs of a niche community weren't enough to impress anyone outside of it. "The nick in the game was content," Kuroki says.
At launch, Battle for the Grid had just ten characters, five stages, and hardly any meaty single-player modes. Its sub-genre of fighting games, a 3-versus-3 game evocative of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, only made the amount of content feel small. For a 25-year old franchise with hundreds of Power Rangers, having just ten characters — most of them, like "Lord Drakkon" and "Mastodon Sentry," were unfamiliar to players who hadn't kept up with the new comic books — didn't satisfy millennial nostalgia. This was the biggest mark against the game, as reviewers found the potential in the Power Rangers brand wasted.
But nWay didn't falter. "Our experience doing live operation and games as service in Legacy Wars was always part of the plan."
The foundations of Battle for the Grid can be found in Power Rangers: Legacy Wars, a mobile game based also developed by nWay that launched in the spring of 2017, in concert with the film. While the controls of Legacy Wars are radically simpler than Battle for the Grid, the game still boasted an impressive roster of 50 characters at launch. Even more were added post-launch, including crossovers from Capcom's Street Fighter.
The game was a success for the studio. It was downloaded 50 million times by users worldwide, and laid the foundations for a presence in esports. The game crowned its first champion, Jonathan Snow from New York, at Mobile Masters 2017 in Las Vegas.
Kuroki says Legacy Wars gave nWay experience in live-service games and engagement with a community that "responds to our game."
"We had characters in development and wanted to make it feel like the game was evolving over time," Kuroki says. The game now contains a respectable 18 fighters (12 in the base game, six as paid downloadable add-ons). "We’re constantly updating the game, listening to the community. The way we develop games at nWay is we have a beat into how the community responds to our game. That's primarily due to Legacy Wars. This gives us the power to make additions, improvements, changes for Battle for the Grid faster than most fighting games probably would."
Battle for the Grid is an example of games as a service — games that receive continuous support through software updates, patches, and incremental new content. Battle for the Grid is far from the first or most prolific service game. But it does exist as a case study for a game to come out of its launch stumbling only to keep on keeping on until strong word of mouth gives it a dedicated, healthy audience.
"I think games in general should follow that [service] model," Kuroki says. "Build the community. If people like the game and love to stream it and love to have fun and compete, it's only going to build over time as the word gets out. You've seen Battle for the Grid. It worked for us. I wouldn't say that's the perfect solution for other studios but it's something we're proud of."
"I hope the community embraces where the game is now," adds Kuroki on the other end of the phone. At the time of our call, nWay was beginning the rollout of "Year Two," a new chapter for Battle for the Grid and its growing community. With more eyes on the game, new updates including new characters (Kuroki would not reveal the specifics), and an official professional tournament scheduled for July 31 and August 1 in Las Vegas, 2020, Kuroki hopes the game can get big enough to guarantee a Year Three, a Year Four, and beyond.
"I hope people keep the game alive. It's only starting with 2020. There's gonna be a lot more players coming in. By next year, who knows? As the community develops, so does the game."
Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid is available for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Google Stadia, Microsoft Windows.