Friday, February 7, 2014

Amazon, Double Helix, and the Future of Killer Instinct (2013)

This has been a helluva news week in my nerdsphere: new Hordes models previewed, Stryker3 spoiled, TempleCon keynote incoming (with all kinds of theories as to what will be announced,) and Amazon purchased Double Helix, the developers behind the recent re-release of Killer Instinct, for their games division.

Wait, what the hell was that last one? Is this some kind of screwed up joke?

Despite how unexpected the headlines were, it turns out they were totally legit: in an effort to build up their development stable in preparation for their forthcoming gaming console release, Amazon purchased Double Helix. Can't say anyone saw that coming.

First things first: as many others have pointed out, acquisitions like this take time, so this has probably been brewing for awhile now. We're just getting wind of it now that things are finalized, and Double Helix knows that they will be moving off of future work with Killer Instinct. There was some initial confusion as to whether or not Double Helix would be allowed to continue to work on Killer Instinct now that they're owned by Amazon, but all signs are pointing towards Double Helix's tenure with Killer Instinct ending once Season 1 is complete.

Representatives from Microsoft have stated that they've been aware of this purchase for awhile now, and they have a transition plan in place, which is at least somewhat comforting. Or rather, it's better to hear that than get the impression that Microsoft had no idea this was happening. Microsoft has also announced that they've very happy with how Killer Instinct has performed in terms of sales, and that they intend to support it for awhile. They're planning on announcing a new developer for Killer Instinct, and that developer will (presumably) be responsible for adding to the game starting with Season 2.

That's about all anyone outside of the involved companies knows right now, which is causing no small amount of consternation across the player base (myself included, though I'm keeping a positive outlook as much as possible.) Double Helix, despite many expectations, hit a home run with Killer Instinct. They delivered a very high caliber fighting game, which was surprising because: 1) their track record leading up to Killer Instinct wasn't too impressive (mostly a list of movie tie-in games,) and 2) Killer Instinct is a fondly remembered, but ultimately flawed, fighting game property. That Double Helix was able to produce a game of such high quality that is so much fun, and is at the same time so faithful to the original game, is nothing short of a miracle in my opinion (and I think many other fans feel the same way.) So of course the news that Double Helix is outta here after Season 1 is harsh. Everyone was worried that Double Helix would slip up or miss deadlines; no one was expecting them to straight up be off the project!

For what it's worth, I'm happy for the Double Helix guys. Their dedication to their craft really showed with what they pulled off with Killer Instinct, and the upcoming Strider game may add to their credentials as developers that are able to very successfully realize a concept, and refresh old ideas. Its a big sign of their success that Amazon was willing to drop the bucks to get them in their stable, and I hope Amazon gives them a lot of opportunities to flex their talent.

That said, Killer Instinct needs to keep going. As others have said (most prominently, YouTube commentator and fighting game enthusiast Maximilian,) Killer Instinct was created as a "platform." The players were given the core of the game up front: all of the mechanics are in place, and the game launched with a handful of characters that showcase what that engine can do. Moving forward, it is absolutely critical that the game is fleshed out with more content: more modes (lobbies and a story mode are supposedly part of Season 1,) continual gameplay refinements (less outright balancing, more polishing up glitches or unexpected behaviors,) and most crucially more characters. Fighting games don't necessarily need huge rosters to be successful, but you do need a sizable enough roster that: a) your player base doesn't get bored with seeing the same fighters over and over (somewhat inevitable due to "tiering", but you can mitigate that with internal balace,) and b) enough designs and archetypes are present in your game that players are very likely to find a character (hopefully two or three) that "speaks" to them. That's how you get people playing your game, and attachment to those characters is how you turn them into devoted fans. The smaller your roster, the less likely it's going to be that a player is going to get a "hit" when looking at your character select screen, and then they move on to a game that does grab them.

I think Killer Instinct is a game that can get away with a smaller roster than what is probably "average" in the current fighting game industry. It seems to be very common that a fighting game nowadays has somewhere around 30 characters, and games that have been iterating for awhile can have 40 or 50+. Due to how Killer Instinct plays (a lot of emphasis is placed on knowing specific timing for characters, and being able to recognize specific animations,) I think the ideal number of characters is somewhere in the 20s. However, the current planned roster is way below that: at the end of Season 1, the total character roster will be a whopping 8 characters. 7 of those characters are damn good, and I'm sure the final one (Fulgore) will be great, but that's still a ways to go before you hit that "sweet spot."

Killer Instinct is a fantastic game, but it feels oddly bare bones right now. Fleshing the game out more will make it a more satisfying product, and it should make it easier to market (if it's selling well now, just imagine how much better it may do when it compares more favorably to other fighting game offerings.) I feel like this is fairly obvious, and I think whatever course the game takes in the future will address this in some way or the other.

The other big concern is harder to allay. From what I can tell, Double Helix is largely responsible for this version of Killer Instinct: they built the engine (literally; they created the Hex Engine development engine the game runs on,) they came up with the mechanics, they designed the characters, they composed the music, they tuned the balance, they implemented the mechanics. They made the game what it is today.

How is a new studio going to follow up on that? Literally and figuratively. Some folks are saying that Double Helix owns the engine the game was based on, so Killer Instinct may need to be rebuilt. I'm not sure that I buy that as a concern; engines can be licensed, and if Microsoft can do that and save themselves having to rebuild the game from the ground up, I think they will do that. There's also the possibility that Microsoft's deal with Double Helix included some kind of clause that gives them an easy solution here. It's really hard to know what the answer will be here, but I also think it's one of the more incidental things. Microsoft owns the Killer Instinct IP, so they should maintain control over all of the critical assets, and anything else they need they can probably buy or rent.

The bigger concern is getting a new team in place that can faithfully follow up on the base that Double Helix delivered. Make no mistake: Killer Instinct has succeeded in large part due to it's incredibly sound mechanical base. It's a very fast, fun fighting game to play, and unlike a lot of other games (including the old KI's) it still has a lot of mechanical depth and nuance. It would have been very, very easy to deliver a game that was a polished up version of the previous games. It would have sold decently well, been favorably received by fans of the old games, and it would have failed to make any lasting impression on the fighting game landscape (just like the old games.) The team at Double Helix was able to see a step beyond and deliver a game that hits all those old Killer Instinct notes, with enough meat on the bone to make it compare favorably to the other big names in the fighting game industry.

I have full faith that Microsoft will keep Killer Instinct going. They've already sunk time and money into getting the hardest part done: the core of the game is complete, and its out in the wild. At this point, all they need to do is support it, and the game should do well for a good span of time.

However, they also can't "just support it." Whatever team they bring in has to have that same eye for detail and nuance that the Double Helix team demonstrated. They need to be able to distinguish between a cool idea and a good idea; between a good mechanic and a good fighting game mechanic. Otherwise they run the risk of bringing down the system they so carefully constructed. All it takes is one "Scorpion DLC" quality release to sour a game, which is super dangerous when you're relying on DLC characters to fill out your game. Each one released can be like pulling the trigger in Russian Roulette.

There are a fair number of people taking the negative line here, and I can't blame them. Anyone with a moderate interest in fighting games has been burned at least one good time. A character nerfed in a patch/title update, a favorite character left out, a mechanic change that ruined the way you wanted to play a game, a new character introduced that made the game miserable; so many things can happen to sour a fighting game, and as a player you feel helpless to do anything about it other than bitch. You then either keep playing or quit; not much room for anything else.

In this situation, I'm trying to be more hopeful. Killer Instinct was a game that succeeded because of the love that Double Helix put into it. I don't think anyone familiar with the game and it's development can say otherwise. Without Double Helix, the future is uncertain, and that can be very scary.

But look at the bright side (or the closest thing that passes for it): Double Helix did not own Killer Instinct. They remade it, and they absolutely did a fantastic job. But the property and (I'm assuming) the assets belong to Microsoft. Imagine how much worse the situation would be if Double Helix was just a third party that happened to make a baller launch title for the Xbox One; this buyout would absolutely mean the death of the game.

Furthermore, Double Helix has done the hardest part: getting the game up and running. In theory, by the time they hand the game off to the new dev team for Season 2, the game will be in a very stable place with the "core" features in place (8 characters, "story" mode, versus, exhibition, training modes.) The new development team can use the game turned over to them as a template, and they can follow similar methodology to Double Helix to stay successful: work closely with your players, consult knowledgeable members of the FGC to get feedback, and don't be afraid to try new, interesting things (so long as you back that up with sufficient testing and feedback to make sure you aren't breaking the game in the process.) There's no reason a new team can't give us characters and content on par or possibly even better than what Double Helix was able to give us in Season 1 (though I absolutely acknowledge that it feels like trying to bottle lightning twice, so it's scary to think that it could work out.)

Microsoft has already put a fair amount of money and effort into Killer Instinct. I don't think they're just going to let it die, and I also don't think they're going to move forward without making sure that what they're doing is best for the future of Killer Instinct. In a recent video, Maximilian said that he thinks Killer Instinct is the best launch title of all the Xbox One titles, and it's the best launch title between all of the PS4 and Xbox One games.

I happen to agree with him, and I'd go one step further: Killer Instinct is in a position where it could be one of the cornerstone games of Xbox One, akin to something like Halo. An experience that is very good, and you can only get it on Xbox One. The fighting game future isn't looking so great for the Xbox One: ArcSystem Works seems to only be interested in bringing it's games to Playstation systems (PS3 right now, probably only PS4 in the future,) and they're one of the key players in the fighting game genre. Capcom will almost certainly double-port any games that they come out with, but there's always the chance that the easier architecture and install base (PS3 was kind of the "default" fighting game platform of the last generation) may cause them to toss exclusives to the PS4.

Japanese developers in general seem to be more prone to go with the PS4 (based on my knowledge of what's coming out for each system,) so the Xbox One needs all of the interesting, exciting exclusives it can get. There is a non-zero chance that Killer Instinct will be the only "real" fighting game for the Xbox One for a long time, so it's in Microsoft's best interest to make sure that it continues to be as amazing, rewarding, and fun as possible, for as long as possible. I'd like to believe that they see this, but this is also the same company that tried to sell us a console with "always-connected" DRM and games that we couldn't loan to our friends, so they may have their heads stuck in the sand again.

Still, I don't see any reason to be anything other than hopeful. Killer Instinct is a fantastic game, and one that I enjoy playing tremendously. It was one of the main reasons I decided to buy an Xbox One over a PS4 at launch, and after playing it I stand by my choice 100%. Microsoft may fuck the football here and ruin the game with their dev choice, but if they do there isn't much I can do about it. I have to believe that they recognize how important Killer Instinct is for their system (the only two reasons to own one right now are Killer Instinct, and the forthcoming Titanfall,) and that they'll do right by it with their future decisions. Hopefully we'll be hearing more concrete details soon, and it'll put a lot of the fears out there to rest.

In the mean time, I'll keep working at not being a complete spazz after landing an opener, and continue eagerly awaiting the remaining parts of Season 1.

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