It took about 17 years, but Killer Instinct is coming back this week. Microsoft revived the series with help from Strider developer Double Helix and Ken Lobb who worked on the original arcade game. Siliconera spoke with producer Torin Retting about how they selected characters, why they took out No Mercys, and why they made Killer Instinct a free to play game.
How many discussions were there about rebooting Killer Instinct before it finally happened?
Torin Retting, Producer: There was a lot of desire to do Killer Instinct internally, even from before when I joined the team in 2010. What made it really come together was a bunch of passionate people on both the design and production teams who were super excited to make it happen, the opportunities of launching it on a next gen console and finding the right developer to work on it.
After we sent out our proposal to several developers we got some great pitches back, but the pitch from Double Helix really blew us away. In addition to having the right tech and tools for the job, they also brought extensive knowledge of fighting games and a passion for Killer Instinct. They had really thought through many aspects of the game, from the reimagined art style to the feature set to the detailed gameplay ideas. We knew they were the right team for the job and the experience of teaming up with them and seeing such an awesome game come together has been amazing.
Can you tell us about the team working on Killer Instinct at Double Helix and how did you build this team up?
Lucky for us Double Helix came as a package deal. They already had all of the great talent they needed when we started working with them and that was a big reason why we decided to go with them for Killer Instinct. They’re doing an amazing job and continue to outdo themselves with each new build of the game.
We’ve also got a pretty big team on the Microsoft side as well. In addition to myself there are other producers on the project, an Art Director, a central art team, an Audio Director, sound designers, and an awesome design team, which includes the incomparable Ken Lobb. We’re working together with Double Helix as closely as we can to make sure all of the great talent on both sides contributes to making the game awesome.
Can you tell us how you went about selecting characters from the first season?
We had a good idea of a core list of characters from the very beginning. We definitely wanted to come out strong and have most of the characters that were the most popular in the initial wave. We knew the characters that had to be in the game like Jago, Thunder Sabrewulf, Glacius and Spinal. There were many others though and we were really interested in what characters fans of the series would like to see.
However, we had to decide on this well ahead of our E3 debut and Double Helix or Microsoft posting to a message board asking “hypothetically” what characters they would like to see in a reboot of Killer Instinct would not be very subtle. Luckily there’s a great fan base out there and looking at the characters that kept on showing up in discussions, fan art, and other areas helped us narrow it down more. We also relied on our resident Killer Instinct guru, Mr. Ken Lobb to find out what characters were played the most in the arcade.
Thunder turned out to be a fan favorite and was actually voiced by Ken Lobb, a role he reprised for the new game. Glacius was a really iconic character in terms of his look and move set and he was also remembered really fondly. Because he is an alien who controls ice and his body in interesting ways he seemed like he would be really fun to work on. He definitely was. Lots of challenges in making him into a zone style character but we’re really happy with how he turned out.
Orchid was the biggest no-brainer for us. We need to have a female character and she was incredibly iconic for the game. The only tough part was deciding when to announce her. Making her the final character of the opening 6 seemed like a great way to complete the opening roster.
I’m sure a lot of fans want to see returning characters, but all fighting game installments need some fresh blood. How did you go about creating new characters like Sadira and will we see any more newcomers?
Something that was really important to us though was introducing a new character. We know players want to see as many classic characters come back as possible, but if we’re serious about bringing Killer Instinct back we felt we had to expand the universe. We actually had the idea for Sadira very early on, but over the course of development her look really evolved. You can see it in the concept art in the game and in the art book available on launch day, but because she was totally new it was a lot of work to hone in on her look and make her fit in the Killer Instinct world. Lots of iteration, but she ended up really cool looking and lots of fun to play.
In terms of other new characters, stay tuned ;-)
Why were the No Mercy finishers removed and how can players do Ultra combos in the new Killer Instinct?
We had to make decisions early on about what features were most important to Killer Instinct. While No Mercies and stage finishers were really cool we felt that the massive combos, combo breakers, the wild cast of characters and the iconic announcer were these key elements that people remembered most fondly about the game. They were the things that most strongly defined what Killer Instinct was.
Don’t despair too much over No Mercies and other elements though. One of the key ideas about the new KI is that it will evolve and expand over time. New features and content will be release regularly after the game launches and as long as players are engaged and supporting the game we’ll continue to make content for it. No Mercies and stage finishers are definitely on our list of things we’d like to add.
Specifically, to perform an Ultra you have to get your opponent’s life down below 15% on their second down (life bar). Once there, you’ll see the life bar flash and “Danger” appear. This is the signal that an Ultra can now be performed. Once the opponent is in this zone you perform an Ultra by starting a combo and entering the input for the Ultra. The input is a joystick motion plus all three punches or all three kicks. Jago’s Ultra is forward, down, down forward + 3 punches, Sabrewulf’s is back, forward + 3 punches and Thunder’s is down, down forward, forward + 3 punches.
After that you can sit back, relax and watch a stunning pummeling take place. However, that’s not necessarily the end. All of the Ultras end by launching the opponent in the air, so you can actually follow up the Ultra with some extra hits or Shadow moves. If you have Instinct Mode available you can actually cancel your Ultra, start another combo, then start your Ultra again. With this you can get 100+ hits in a single combo. Super fun!
Can you explain how Instinct Mode and Counter Breakers work? Why did were these mechanics added to the game?
With Instinct Mode we wanted to add a mechanic that changed how the character play and helped facilitate come backs from tough situation. As opposed to Shadow Meter, you build Instinct Meter by taking damage and doing Combo Breakers. Once the meter is full you activate your Instinct Mode by pressing Hard Punch + Hard Kick. Your Instinct Mode abilities are then activated until the Instinct Meter runs out.
Each Instinct Mode is unique to a character. With Jago’s he gets life back for attacking and continuing to move around the stage. He also causes more hit recovery on each one of his hits. This rewards Jago for doing what he does well, being aggressive. Glacius however gets 5 stocks of Ice Armor. Once Ice Armor is activated Glacius can take a hit and he has not hit recovery and takes no damage. This makes it really dangerous to attack him and turns Glacius’ normally challenged defensive capabilities totally around.
Sadira has a particularly crazy and awesome Instinct Mode. When activated she can leave web balls anywhere in the play field she wants, even in the air. If the opponent touches the ball when not blocking then they are stunned and rooted in place momentarily. This can happen even if the opponent is in the middle of comboing Sadira. The combo will be stopped and the opponent is rooted. This gives here both great defense and offense.
Orchid’s Instinct Mode is probably the most exciting though. She can continuously spawn firecats that run at the opponent. This not only increases here combo ability, but also her mix-up game. She can spawn a firecat on one side and then try to cross up on the other to start a combo. She can then use her cats to augment her combo for more damage and hits. Really powerful and looks awesome too.
Counter Breakers are essentially counters for Combo Breakers. When you think your opponent is going to Combo Break, you press Medium Punch+Medium Kick and you’ll perform a Counter Breaker, stopping the Combo Breaker and starting a combo of your own. However, if your opponent thinks you’re going to Counter Break they can wait for it and use the opening caused by the missed Combo Breaker to start a combo. Crazy mind games.
We added Counter Breakers so that the game of Combo Breaking could become more interesting than just trying to react to or guess the attack the offensive character was using to break it. This is all in line with our philosophy of constant two way interaction between opponents. In most fighting games once the attacker starts a combo, there’s not much the defender can do but wait until it’s done. Killer Instinct introduced the novel concept of breaking a combo, which instantly made the combo game more interesting. We tried to take that idea of two way interaction to the next level with Counter Breakers, Shadow Counters, Lockouts and Manual adds. In a way the real fight starts when a combo starts.
The Ultra Edition has accessory packs and extra costumes. What kind of costumes are included and how does equipping accessories work?
Because the original Killer Instinct had such an iconic 90’s look that was steeped in the pop culture of the time, we definitely wanted to bring back retro costumes for our costume offerings. Expect to see some great vintage gear.
As for accessories, these are parts of a costume that can be freely interchanged. As opposed to a full costume, which is essentially a single piece, accessories can be mixed and matched with other accessories, and can make the costume totally different. Take Sabrewulf for example. You can take his goggles from his scientist set, the arm shackles from his prisoner set and the pants from his steampunk set to make a unique look.
We do create the accessories in sets though, sets of three items that go together and are cohesive when used together. However, they’re also flexible enough that they can be mixed and matched with pieces from other sets. Our idea with accessories was to allow players to create definitive looks for their character online. There will be innumerable Jagos, but with a unique combination of accessories and colors you can create a look for Jago that can be immediately recognized by rivals and friends, without having to look at their Gamertag.
I think ease of access to online play was a key feature for fighting games last generation and matchmaking in particular is still evolving. How does Smart Match work and how will it be able to ensure a new player doesn’t run up against a veteran that just started playing Killer Instinct late?
Without getting too technical what SmartMatch does is use criteria selected by the developer but also by the platform to match players with opponents that are close to their skill level. It uses our ranking system to make these determinations so you don’t end up being matched with players way outside your ranking. However, it goes beyond this to use criteria such as bandwidth and latency to selectively choose opponents with whom you’ll have a good connection and smoother online play. It’s all geared towards having a great experience in terms of both the content of the gameplay as well as the quality of the online experience.
I remember how the game would update with balance changes. That was an interesting feature, but how is Double Helix going to manage what changes get implemented?
The classic line of “With great power comes great responsibility” holds here. We’ll have the ability to implement balance changes very quickly, but we’ll have to be very patient and very selective of what we actually choose to change. It would be very easy to quickly make changes to characters as soon as techniques and strategies emerge that seem too powerful. However, even though the community may initially complain and insist we make drastic changes immediately, most players will settle in to figuring out how to defeat these new strategies on their own, getting better at their respective characters and figuring out new strategies of their own. This is the ‘metagame’ of the competitive environment of a game evolving over time and it takes the game as a whole to new levels even we never knew were possible.
However, if something emerges that is undeniably overpowered, we’ll have the tools to go in and make changes quickly. In most cases though the key is to stay in contact with the community, understanding the nature of the tactics, strategies and character matchups that emerge and to only tune what really needs to be tuned.
It seems like a lot of fighting games are dabbling with free to play models. Tekken Revolution uses an energy system , which draws parallels to an arcade model, while Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate gives players a core pack with extra content sold separately. Why do you think the fighting game genre in particular is moving towards this model?
We think it’s because of the nature of how players engage with fighting games, and it was a guiding principle for us from very early on. Traditionally fighting games have been contained and comprehensive experiences. You buy the $60 retail product and get anywhere from 30 to 50+ characters. However, most players couldn’t master that many characters even if they wanted to. Most players gravitate towards only a few or even one character.
Taking this into account, why not allow players to only purchase that one character or those two characters they want to play? This is great not only for players who want to just focus on one or two characters, but also for those who are new to fighting games and may not be willing to invest heavily in the experience initially. We took it one step further and we’re allowing players to play a demo of the game with all of the single player and multiplayer content with a freely available character.
If you want to keep playing for free that’s fine. If you want to get just one or two characters you can do that too. Each character is $4.99. Pretty low barrier to entry. You can also get one character and just the costume and accessories for that character. Or you can get all of the characters at a much cheaper price than buying them individually, much like a traditional product. Our Combo Breaker Pack includes all 6 launch characters and 2 DLC characters released after launch, for a total of 8, for $19.99. And then for the truly hard core we offer the Ultra Edition that has all of the characters, costumes for the characters, all of the accessories and the original Killer Instinct arcade game for $39.99. A really awesome deal with all of that content.
The key for us is offering players flexibility for getting into the game. They can get in and play for free, get individual characters and content or get great bundles with all of the content in the game. We talk to players about this approach and they agree that it really makes sense for fighting games, and they really appreciate the flexibility it provides.