Friday, December 26, 2014

The Problem With Killer Instinct

What follows is a look at the current state of Killer Instinct (2013), some factors related to it's possible long term success or failure, and a cautionary note about loving something so much you slowly smother it to death.

I love the new Killer Instinct. It's an absolutely astounding re-imagining of a series that could not have been more dated (it is 199X in videogame form) and irrelevant to the current fighting game climate. Somehow, against all odds, the developers of Season 1 (Double Helix) managed to create a modern version of Killer Instinct that was instantly recognizable to anyone who was a fan of the old games, while simultaneously incorporating enough modern elements and sensibilities to make the game much more interesting and palatable to a modern audience.

Due to a buyout, Double Helix left after the completion of Season 1, and new developer Iron Galaxy was brought in to work on Season 2. They've had a very difficult job in that they needed to pick up where Double Helix left off without a lot of time to do so, and they're responsible for a fairly difficult line up this season - four returning characters, which includes some serious fan favorites, and four (possibly five) brand new characters that they have to sell to the KI community.

At around the halfway mark through Season 2's release cycle, my review is: Iron Galaxy is crushing it. The first two returning characters - T.J. Combo and Maya - were both excellent re-imaginings of their inspirational characters (Maya's revision is nothing short of fantastic, considering the hyper-90's, ultra tacky original design of the character) and the Riptor trailer posted recently seems to put them at 3/3 in terms of updating old characters to a modern fighting game. Kan Ra, their first original character, also turned out very nicely: he has flavor, depth, and interesting mechanics while still feeling like a part of the KI universe.

If Iron Galaxy can keep this level of quality up, I have full confidence that Season 2 will be a fantastic step forward for this game and the franchise as a whole, and it will pave the way for Season 3 and beyond.

And all of that effort may be for naught if a couple of things don't change.

The videogame part of Killer Instinct is fantastic: it's a very fun game to play at a relatively causal level (it's not particularly newbie friendly, but the basics aren't much trickier than other franchises), and it can also be a deeply rewarding game to play at a highly competitive level. Even if you don't play at that level (like myself) it can be just as satisfying to watch, especially since a fair chunk of the game involves reading and understanding the opponent. On those merits, I could see Killer Instinct being popular for many years to come, and I could easily see it being a tournament staple.

There are two big issues currently impinging on that future:

1) To Microsoft's credit, their gamble with Killer Instinct has paid off: they have a fantastic fighting game that is exclusive to their current generation console (the Xbox One). Anyone that wants to play this game needs to own that console to do so, and I think that most fighting game enthusiasts that give this game a fair shake will want to play it.

To Microsoft's detriment, they absolutely football-fucked the launch of the Xbox One. The only way that Microsoft could have made the Xbox One less appealing to gamers would have been to guarantee that every Xbox One will release a cascade of angry hornets into your living room whenever you power it on, and upon connecting it to your home network it will format every connected storage device before replacing their contents with as much child pornography as it can download.

Thankfully for Microsoft, the Internet is not at all shy about sharing their feelings, and the wave of revulsion and hatred that greeted the initial Xbox One announcements caused them to (very smartly) do a quick 180 on almost all of the bad ideas they had in place. That did a lot to ensure that their console would not be D.O.A. upon release (especially with the Playstation 4 doing everything it could to advertise that it was everything the Xbox One wasn't), but the Xbox One is still recovering from the bad taste those early announcements left in many consumer's mouths. A $500 price tag didn't do the Xbox One any favors for the first year or so either.

Which brings us to the first problem: Killer Instinct is a very good fighting game, that is exclusive to a console that has only really started to compete with it's generational counterpart in the last month (and much of that has been due to lowballing console pricing). It doesn't matter how good your game is if no one owns a system that can play it.

2) The second problem is more emergent, and it also may be harder to solve.

Based on my observations of fighting games and which ones seem to thrive, community appears to be an important factor. For the purpose of this discussion, "community" refers to the environment in which a fighting game exists: the forums that are used discuss it, reference resources that are created and maintained for it, tournaments that are organized for it, and the players themselves.

In the past few years that I've been really following fighting games, the ones that stay relevant the longest are the ones with healthy communities. "Healthy" in this sense means that the community is helpful (both in terms of assisting players with questions and in having useful information to disseminate), generally positive, active, and enthusiastic.

I'm not sure if it's a chicken/egg thing - does a successful game lead to a good community, or is it vice versa - but I think it is a symbiotic relationship. A game that has a good community behind it will usually stay active. That then makes it more likely for players to pick up the game. That then increases the games popularity. That then keeps the community active, which then...

This is important because fighting games are one genre where the "OOOH SHINY" effect kicks in rather powerfully. Many players are fans of the genre as a whole, so they tend to flock to whatever the newest game is and play it for awhile. Every fighting game is popular for the first couple of months after it's out (give or take) because players are still intoxicated by the thrill of discovery and good 'ol fashioned novelty.

What seems to keep players coming back to games after the honeymoon period has past (assuming the game is worth the time) is the community. Once the initial novelty has worn off, it's the community that really starts to dig into the guts of the frame data, system mechanics, combo possibilities, match ups, etc. Its the community that puts together tutorials, wikis, combo videos, and swag montages that keep everyone excited and interested in discovering the game on a deeper level. It's the community that organizes events, promotes them, streams them, and makes them feel relevant.

An anecdote to emphasize my point: there was a period in the mid-late 90's through the early part of 2000 where 2D fighting games were essentially dead commercially. Almost no new 2D fighting games were released during that time period (3D fighting games like Tekken and Soul Calibur continued to plug along) so there wasn't any excitement being generated by new...well, anything. The communities around those games kept them alive during that time by mining absolutely every drop of info and tech out of the game, by organizing and promoting events, and by generally keeping excitement and interest going. People are still playing some of those games now (Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Street Fighter 3: 3rd Strike, Capcom vs. SNK 2) and a big part of that is due to the community having the passion and dedication necessary to keep their game alive and relevant.

That is the value of having a good, strong community. And unfortunately, at least right now, the KI community sucks. A large portion of my discussions about KI's community will revolve around the official Iron Galaxy Killer Instinct forums because that seems to be the go-to place right now for discussion and information. There are other places to look for information (Killer Instinct CentralSRK's KI Forums), but if there's a place that's more active than the official forums, I haven't found it.

Gripes presented in quick hits format:

 - The community has a decent chunk of abrasive, obnoxious posters. Probably not markedly more than your average forum (especially one devoted to a fighting game,) but certainly no fewer. And given how low a hurdle that is ("the people here aren't mostly terrible"), I still consider that to be a point against it.

 - The community is rather lean on information that would be useful to players looking to improve their play. Some characters are better explored/documented than others, but for the most part it's very difficult to find anything pertaining to character tactics, match ups, general strategies, character specific strategies, set ups, move breakdowns, etc. All the things you'd come to a community resource to find.

To the credit of the community members that do contribute, what little is there is often well informed and helpful. What is frustrating is how little there is to find. This can be especially jarring if you're coming from a community like Street Fighter or Marvel where there is a lot of active discussion, videos, wikis, and information in general readily available.

 - A frustratingly large portion of the community suffers from a powerful case of arrested development. This isn't anything new for fighting games or hobbies in general - for any uninitiated, nerds are typically terrified of change - but it seems to be much more pronounced and detrimental in the KI community than in others I've observed.

There are some possible explanations. While it was popular at the time of it's release, Killer Instinct (1994), didn't really have much of a lasting impact on the fighting game scene and it's sequel (released in 1996) didn't even make much of a splash upon it's release. Because of that, I think most of what you could call "die hard" fans of the KI franchise prior to the 2013 reboot existed in a pocket dimension. For them, every fighting game day was a day in 1994-1996.

The result of that is twofold: 1) you have a staggeringly large portion of players who are being reintroduced into a genre that has grown and changed a lot since their game of choice was released, and 2) those players are also madly in love with how the characters, story (what little is there,) art, and mechanics are in those games.

Those factors then combine to make for a lot of topics where nothing of any real value is discussed. At best, they're fun for lore enthusiasts/character fanatics; at worst they clutter up the general and character specific forums with a lot of useless fluff.

And that's kind of the state of the KI community right now: a lot of noise, little signal, and it's almost as niche as it has ever been, despite the franchise being resurrected on a modern console and given some excellent treatment.

But for as bad and frustrating as it is now, it doesn't have to stay that way. There are several things that can change that would make the Killer Instinct community into an excellent one, and put it in a position to be able to support the success of the game for years to come.

The first thing is, sadly, not something the community can directly control, but it's something they should be mindful of regardless: the game needs more exposure. Lots and lots more exposure.

To the credit of the community, they're probably already doing about as much here as they can. If there's one thing the KI community has in spades it's passion, and members are always willing to promote the game whenever it comes up in other formats. Several members have also stepped up and organized events - local and online - and promoted those events to the best of their ability. You can't ask for much more than that.

Where the real push needs to come from is Microsoft. This is a tricky proposition because Killer Instinct is only one of their many projects, so they can't afford to just dump resources into it. They have started to promote events and show more prize support, which is a start.

Another change that may improve KI's popularity is if it becomes more widely available. In the current market that means two things: 1) more Xbox One's in more gamer's homes, and/or 2) the game becomes available on another platform. Microsoft got a good jump on #1 this year with their aggressive price cuts and promotions, which should help to bump up their install base. #2 is a bit trickier, because there's only one real option for it - a PC port. Microsoft previously denied any possibility of a PC port for KI, but now that Street Fighter 5 is PS4/PC based, they may be reconsidering that stance; the official KI forums are hosting (until early January) a poll to gauge how interested the player base is in a PC port.

The issue is a difficult one for the community. Players that purchased an Xbox One explicitly to play Killer Instinct are not pleased with the prospect of a port, while other potential customers see this as a way to play the game without having to invest in a console and a fightstick just for one game. It will be interesting to see how the poll plays out (the results were hidden from voters to discourage ballot stuffing), and I'm curious to see how serious Microsoft is about considering a PC port if there is enough interest in it.

I'm of the mind that anything that grows the KI community is good for the game in the long run. Yes, it is frustrating for anyone who purchased an Xbox One just for Killer Instinct (though it's not like there aren't plenty of other games to play on it, assuming it's your only current gen console), but "dedicated" fans will have already had two years of exclusivity with the game (even if MS starts on a port ASAP, I don't see it coming out before Season 2 is finished), and overall everyone will benefit from having more people playing the game. Modern fighting games are commonly including "cross play" functionality - i.e. allowing players on two different but similar platforms to play the same games against each other - and Street Fighter 5 is promising that between their PS4 and PC players. If MS can port KI to the PC, and give it cross play backed up by good netcode, it could be a significant boon to the KI community.

Even if there isn't a PC port, just the mention of the possibility has generated some much needed attention and interest for the game. The requirement of having to be registered on the forums saw a rush of new accounts being created, and a number of those accounts are still hanging around, fueling discussion on that and other topics. It's the first big rush of new blood I've seen since Season 2 started, and it's already having an overall positive effect on the quality of the community.

And that, I think is the biggest challenge the community faces: keeping it together long enough to grow mature. A lot of the problems I have with KI's community are the problems that new, small communities run into. What usually changes over time is that enough new players find their way into the community that the fundamental tone of everything starts to shift in a more productive, positive direction; the signal goes up and the noise goes down. Even as the community ebbs and flows, there's often a baseline of quality that persists, and once the community starts to collect and share information it becomes easier for interested players to get involved, or at least stay interested.

As I mentioned before, the community is already starting to improve as more players come in. I'm seeing more tactical, gameplay discussions come up and fewer "What type of deodorant do you think each fighter uses? Here is my 1300 page fanfiction explaining each of my choices!" topics. The influx of newer posters also means that there are more posters participating that are excited about the way KI is going, versus the crust of curmudgeons that were a very irritating vocal minority at the start of Season 2. With any luck, we may start to see some stickied gameplay discussions/tactics threads/match up analysis!

Or, maybe not; I think the community is still a bit of a ways off from getting to that level. But things are definitely heading in the right direction. If the community can continue to grow and improve, and if (just as, if not more, importantly) MS can continue to broaden the access players have to Killer Instinct, then more players will likely join in the fun (this game is very, very good) and we'll have a great game to play for years to come (the "Seasons" approach makes it easy for them to extend the game for awhile without needing an expansion or reboot).

Until then, I'm going to keep coming back to Killer Instinct for it's fighting game goodness, and I look forward to what Iron Galaxy has in store for the rest of Season 2 and beyond!

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