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Killer Instinct design philosophy and pricing will evolve fighting games

After years of fan requests and ongoing adoration, Killer Instinct finally makes its return to the gaming world. Developer Double Helix Games hopes its design philosophy and unique mechanics will exceed all player expectations.

Zoran Cunningham, Blogger

November 15, 2013

13 Min Read

The design and development of Killer Instinct at Double Helix Games is a rare example in the fighting game community. After its surprise announcement at Microsoft's E3 2013 press conference, the game quickly made playable appearances at seemingly every single convention throughout the summer with numerous appearances at major tournaments and even a few local events at Southern California's renown Super Arcade. Each public appearance was an alpha test of sorts, allowing Double Helix to gather fan reactions and data to help polish the game and refine the systems they feel will revolutionize fighting games.  

The most important appearance came at the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) in Las Vegas in late July. It's hard to imagine a better served location than the world championship of fighting game tournaments, where thousands of seasoned and casual players were eager to get their hands on the game. Alongside fans, the event is home to hundreds of artists, professionals, designers, programmers, PR managers, and sponsors who live and breathe fighting games. Whatever happens at EVO has big implications for fighting games and the pressure on Double Helix Games to impress was at an all-time high.

“EVO was definitely our big coming out party,” says Richard Bantegui, famously known as Filthy Rich, a fighting game community (FGC) mainstay and now community manager over at Double Helix Games. "We had been working on this game for years and we knew we had to absolutely bring our A-game.”

Debuting the game to some of the best players in the world had plenty of payoffs though. “We learned so much about our game at EVO,” Bantegui continues. “The pace of the game actually changed after EVO because of the response we received from all the players. Throughout the event we got a chance to look at thousands of matches across eight units. We had lines hundreds of players long from the very start of each morning until the very end of each evening. Best of all, this input was coming from players who understood fighting games and knew all the terminology.”

In a lot of ways Double Helix Games approached each of these events, especially EVO, as public QA tests where players of all levels could help reveal potential flaws in core system and design mechanics. Competitive players especially are often driven by nature to play fighting games as cheaply as possible to ensure victory and this is exactly what Double Helix Games was looking for.

“All the telemetry data we got from EVO in regards to character use, combo-breakers, length of combos, and match length was essential in helping refine the next build of the game. The biggest step for us in regards to system mechanics was actually EVO where we implemented the Counter-Breaker system, which is technically our reversal combo breaker. This came about when we saw players learning the game so quickly that there were almost too many combo-breakers and that the pace of the game lent itself too easily to a reactionary playstyle that centered around breaking combos because the system made it so easy to do so,” Bantegui recalls.

For a series best known for its flashy combos, Double Helix suddenly faced the very same problem that prevented the original Killer Instinct from becoming a tournament standard in the 90's where skilled players could easily break combos. This shaped the metagame in a way that discouraged players from going for lengthy stylish combos for fear of being punished by their opponent.  

Well aware of this, Double Helix quickly went to work on implementing the bluff system, a clever bait-and-switch mechanic that hasn't found its way into any other fighting game. Michael Willette, Lead Producer at Double Helix believes its one of the key achievements that will separate Killer Instinct from other fighting games and help make it a viable tournament staple for years to come.

“The bluff system gives players an active response to a potential breaker,” Willette explains. “There will be times when high level offensive players will try to telegraph certain moves and that's where our bluff system comes in. With this system, a player can condition an opponent to anticipate and break a medium strength auto-double and instead bluff and punish with an entirely different string.”

This alone stands to revolutionize Killer Instinct by separating it from previous installments in the series while still maintaining the core DNA of what makes it so appealing to players worldwide. “We needed this bluff system because defensive players had from the start of a double animation until the last hit to combo-break,” Willette admits. “What the bluff does is it allows the offensive player to continue the combo if the defending player decides to break during a bluff. If the offensive player bluffs and the defending player doesn't attempt a breaker then the combo ends but the defensive player gains an advantage. It adds that extra layer of depth for players to consider.”

For the uninitiated, Killer Instinct's core combo system remains the same as ever:

Opener > Auto-Double / Manual > Linker / Shadow Linker > Auto-Double / Manual > Ender

How will a game known for epic ultra combos prevent players from finding and abusing infinite combos that could break the game?  

“We want players to be creative with combos but we do have an infinite prevention system in the form of the Knockout Value (KV) Meter at the start of a combo. When that meter completely fills up, the defending character is knocked down and the combo is effectively stopped. This puts a greater emphasis on players thinking more strategically when performing combos in regards to what openers, doubles, linkers, and enders they want to do,” Bantegui reveals.

This means that players will still have the opportunity to execute long 50+ hit god-like combos, but a player won't feel helpless if they get opened up at the beginning of the round and just have to sit and watch their character get infinite combo-ed to death by a skilled player.  

From watching countless high skill matches, Killer Instinct has retained this consistent focus on what all high level fighting game players demand when it comes to providing offensive options that carry a certain high-risk, high-reward mechanic. Top players will have plenty of opportunities to style during a match, but they will also have to anticipate how a highly skilled opponent might react defensively as they are being hit by a combo. The game places great emphasis on creating a lot of interaction within the combo, both offensively and defensively. In most fighting games, once a player is caught in a combo their only option is to watch it play out or hope their opponent drops it. Not so with Killer Instinct.  

“It all comes down to players doing their best to decrease the chances of their opponent breaking out of combos because we have an entire team that worked to give players certain tells and reads through character animations to help them see what appropriate action they can take to break a combo,” Willette highlights.

“We aren't throwing in anything off the wall when it comes to offensive character animations in combos,” he continues. “If a players uses a medium punch for their double after and opener, it will have the same range and animation as a standard medium punch. On the defensive side, however, we decided to implement different damage animations for the character being hit based on the strength of the move. How badly a character reels from a heavy punch is going to look much different from a jab. This helps the defensive player from feeling completely helpless or from resorting to a guessing game in order to break a combo. It will be a big payoff for players who spend even an hour a day playing the game and learning these intricacies.”

While flashy combos are certainly what the series has become known for over the years, Double Helix is keen in making sure that all the basic fundamentals and mechanics that have become essential in fighting games since their resurgence are in place when Killer Instinct launches.  

“Like all great fighting games we wanted a robust spacing game with lots of footsies. To that end, each character has a different move speed that will affect player strategy in specific matchups,” Willette explains. One obvious example is how Sabrewolf's back-walk speed is so much faster than Jago's that it almost matches Jago's forward walk speed. Sabrewolf's dash also crosses-up, going through the opposing character. Conversely, Jago has a much better jumping cross-up. These additional variables should help each character feel vastly different from the rest of the roster.  

Also adding to the game's uniqueness are some of the unique meters in the game. Unlike a lot of other fighting games that feature some form of a buff meter, Killer Instinct's appropriately titled Instinct meter isn't simply used as a basic buff mechanic to provide a flat speed or strength bonus for every character.

“With Instinct we asked ourselves 'what would the pure killer instinct be for each character?' and designed it that way going forward,” says Willette. “So you'll see Sabrewolf literally increase in rage and musculature to perform additional damage on both hit and block. Jago's Instinct allows him to harness his inner tiger spirit so when he does damage he gains back life. He also gains +2 frames on all his attacks, effectively increasing their safety and priority.”

“In addition to providing character specific bonuses, the Instinct meter can also be used to cancel any offensive move in order to make it safe,” Willette continues. “Players can also pop the Instinct meter to reset their KV Meter and potentially extend combos. This allows players to use Instinct in a lot of different ways rather than simply as a comeback mechanic or as a super move.”

Then there's the Shadow Meter, a two-stock meter bar on the bottom of the screen that fills when players deal and receive damage. Like most of Killer Instinct's design features, the Shadow Meter has multiple uses. Each player can store two stocks of Shadow Meter. Defensively, skilled players will be able to use it to perform a Shadow Counter at the moment of hit stun to both counter and go directly into a combo opener. Offensive players will be able to bluff into a Shadow Linker if their opponent whiffs a Shadow Counter.

“We put maximum emphasis on making sure players constantly have this two-way interaction with lots of options on both offense and defense,” Bantegui explains. “We want there to be these crazy mind games between players because we know players of all skill levels love that sort of thing”

With so many offensive and defensive options it hardly seems like there will be any time to blink during a match. Even the brief time between rounds when a character loses a life-bar provides little respite for players. “After a player loses a life bar, as soon as they get up and before the announcer says 'ready,' players can move around and jockey for position. Even in those few short seconds players will have to engage in some element of strategy to best position themselves for the start of the next round,” Willette reveals.

And all that talk of '+2 frames' and 'move canceling' and 'block stun' that creep their way into high level matches? It understandably might be somewhat overwhelming to the uninitiated when it comes to fighting games. That's why Double Helix Games went all out in including the most robust practice mode in any fighting game to date. In addition to giving players an easy to use record function and the option to turn on hit-boxes, Killer Instinct's practice mode includes tutorials on everything from whiff punishing and wake-ups to fundamental concepts like frame advantage, zoning, and hit priority.

“From the very beginning we took into account that there will be players who approach this game on multiple levels, from the casual to the tournament player. Our practice mode will be essential in helping new players understand core fighting game concepts and then apply them to the actual game,” says Willette.

These design initiatives should help with the wave of new players that will pick up Killer Instinct due to its unique pricing model. Anyone can download the game absolutely for free and have access to all gameplay modes and a single character to start. Players can then unlock eight main characters for only $20. A $40 bundle will give players access to eight characters, alternate costumes, accessories for each character, and the 1994 arcade version of Killer Instinct. They can also buy individual characters at $5 a piece and should they decide to upgrade to the bundle at any time, the cost is reduced by $5 for each individual character already purchased. It's a nice break on the part of the developer and should free up any inhibitions new players might have at purchasing new characters.

“With Killer Instinct we wanted to build a platform from the very beginning,” Willette admits. “We really want to change the landscape and approach players have with fighting games in general. There are lots of casual players who are afraid to pay a premium price for a  fighting game because they fear they might not be very good at playing it. Our model removes that barrier and allows anyone to download our game demo and have access to all the modes right from the start. Players will be given one starting character they can use can play online, go into the full practice mode, or play single player absolutely for free. If they like what they see they can then purchase the full game and unlock all the characters or pick and choose the specific content they want.”

The studio hopes to have potentially upwards of thirty characters on the final roster released throughout the lifespan of the game in waves or seasons. “The constantly growing roster of characters will make Killer Instinct similar to a TV series that introduces new characters every season and the popularity and hopeful success of the game will just encourage us to make more and more content in the future. It will also helps us maintain player attention in the long run by giving players something new to play with on a frequent basis.”

On both the casual and competitive level, Double Helix Games seems to be doing everything it can to build Killer Instinct into a brand that will last for years to come. After the game's release, the studio will make a heavy push in promoting and supporting the tournament scene, recognizing that high level tournament play on TwitchTV streams will spark the interest of many new players. “From the design principles to the gameplay mechanics to the accessibility, we want encourage players to just go for it,” Willette proclaims. As the hottest launch title for the Xbox One, it's certain almost everyone fortunate enough to get their hands on the console will do just that. 

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