In June of 2013, hundreds of people looked on in anticipation of Microsoft’s annual E3 conference. The brand new Xbox One was right around the corner, and potential consumers eagerly watched to see what exclusive titles would be available for the brand-new next gen console on its launch. As Crytek’s Cevat Yerli departs the stage after talking about Ryse: Son of Rome, suddenly, the lights dim. Through the green light on the screen the faint silhouette of the letters “KI” can bee seen, flashing on the screen to the beat of a heavy metal cover of “The Instinct,” the classic theme of the series. To the surprise of fighting game fans everywhere, Killer Instinct was back, available at launch of the Xbox One.
Initially developed by Double Helix, before being handed over to Iron Galaxy, the reboot of Killer Instinct had many features that were ahead of its time. It included things that many fighting game players consider essential to modern fighting games, setting a standard that many fighting game developers still cannot reach to this day.
Fighting games are still a pretty niche genre, but in 2013 this was especially true. And while Killer Instinct is an iconic name for hardcore fighting game fans, the name doesn’t carry as much weight as the games dominating the market at the time: Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat. On top of that, KI is a very unique game, and due to this it may even turn away fans of those previously mentioned series. To counteract this, Killer Instinct launched with a free-to-play model. Every week, a character is selected to be the rotating character for people who don’t own the game. All of the game’s features are available, including online play and training mode. To unlock characters, you can either purchase characters individually, or unlock them all by purchasing the game at full price.
Personally, I love this for two reasons: One, it gives literally everyone who owns an Xbox One (and as of 2016, a PC) the chance to try the game out. Given the popularity of the genre, as well as the rather small number of game available on Xbox One at launch, this was a smart move. Two, it hearkens back to the old arcade days that the genre clings onto so desperately. Back in 1994, it certainly didn’t cost $60 to hop on the Killer Instinct machine and press buttons to see if you like how the game feels. Fighting games were born and died with arcades, so delivering that experience to home consoles is extremely important to restoring the genre to its former prominence.
Speaking of bringing home the arcade experience, let’s talk about online play. The online experience in a large majority of fighting games, even from games released within the past year or so, is complete garbage. Normally, this is alleviated by having in-person events like tournaments, but the insufficiency of has become increasingly more obvious, as due to the COVID-19 epidemic, in-person events haven’t been hosted for months. The misery of the online tournament experience culminated with two top players pulling out of Capcom’s major Street Fighter V online tournament because of the lag. But let’s backtrack a little.
Around mid-May of 2020, as Evo, the world’s largest fighting game tournament, drew closer and infection numbers continued to rise, it was cancelled. But that was not the end of Evo. It was announced that Evo would be held online later that year, with some titles being removed and others added, including Killer Instinct, a game that hadn’t been featured in the prestigious tournament’s main lineup since 2016 due to its age. But why? Because Killer Instinct’s netcode is amazing, and it plays better online than any of the games that were featured in Evo’s lineup that year by far, despite the fact that its older than any other game there.
This is where things start to get a little technical. Basically, the netcode of fighting games falls into two basic categories: delay-based, and rollback. This article explains it better than I ever could, but the basic explanation is that delay-based netcode, as per the name, delays the user’s input by a variable amount, dependent on the quality of the connection between the two players. Rollback, when implemented properly, uses a fixed delay and uses creative solutions to give both players a seamless experience. In other words, a game with rollback, if provided a stable connection, feels like you’re playing offline. KI was the first triple A fighting game to feature rollback netcode, and it works amazingly.
Rollback, especially due to everyone being stuck in quarantine for the majority of 2020, is slowly becoming the standard for fighting games due to social media pressure, which was prompted by Killer Instinct’s return to the spotlight. In fact, many developers are retroactively adding rollback into their games, including Bandai Namco with Tekken 7, which has notoriously terrible netcode.
Another shining piece of KI’s intelligent design is a comprehensive tutorial. This is gonna sound like it should be a really obvious addition, right? Why would a competitive game in a genre notorious for having a high entry barrier, not have a tutorial? Well, you’d be surprised. The aforementioned Tekken 7, a game released in 2015, featured no tutorial at all. Most other fighting games, including but not limited to Street Fighter V, SOULCALIBUR 6, and Dragon Ball FighterZ, feature barebones tutorials that explain how to move and attack, as well as glance over the mechanics, but leave learning more abstract concepts to the player.
Killer Instinct was one of the first fighting games to feature an actually comprehensive tutorial, that not only teaches the player physically how to play the game, but explain more how and when to apply the techniques learned in the tutorial. Tutorials like this are super important for preventing players from getting lost when they first start out. Its very common for players to feel overwhelmed by the vast sea of mechanics and moves that fighting games have, and tutorials like KI’s lower the barrier of entry just enough for players to actually enjoy themselves when they play someone else for the first time.
Luckily, this precedent has been followed. There are some fighting games now such as Guilty Gear Xrd: Rev 2 and Under Night In-Birth that feature absolutely incredible tutorials, that surpass KI. Even if you consider yourself a seasoned veteran of the genre, tutorials like this are very important for catching you up to speed on things like unique mechanics and game flow.
Back in the arcade days, the way games received updates was through new versions, the first example of which is the transition from Street Fighter II: The World Warrior to Street Fighter II: Champion Edition. These kinds of updates usually featured balance changes, new characters, and new mechanics. They were the standard for big fighting game series back in the day. One important thing to note here is that the burden was on the arcade’s owner. They had to buy the new cabinets, but the players just put in their quarters like it was any other normal day.
Street Fighter IV, which was released in 2008 on the PS3 and Xbox 360, was incredibly important for fighting games. It was the revival of the most iconic series in the genre. But here comes the stupid part: when Capcom released the first update for the game, you had to buy it again. Super Street Fighter IV was a separate game, that was the same exact price as the first version. And it was on platforms that had the capability of patching. So that’s pretty dumb, right? Don’t worry, for subsequent updates you didn’t have to buy a whole new game, but you still had to pay to upgrade to the next versions, and if you didn’t you wouldn’t get the balance patches, new mechanics, or new characters.
Killer Instinct ushered in what has become the new standard for the genre: the season model. Seasons featured the exact same things as these version upgrades: new characters, new mechanics, and balancing. However, instead of locking your ability to play the new version behind a paywall, the mechanics and balancing were free, you just had to pay for the characters. This, in my opinion, is the true compromise between consumer and developer. The things that took the most effort — the characters — , require payment to play. But if you don’t want the characters, you can still enjoy the same game that everyone else is playing. This proved so successful for the game that literally every single major fighting game that’s out now is following this model.
Arcades are dead, and its time for major fighting game developers to realize that. Sure, offline events are always gonna be a thing, but on a day to day basis, people primarily learn and play the game alone, and then hop online to play matches. Without modern features like the ones displayed in Killer Instinct, this genre is going to continue to stay in the background, as other competitive games take the spotlight. Personally, I don’t think its unfair to compare fighting games to MOBAs like League of Legends. Both genres feature primarily online play, a wide variety of characters and mechanics, and a steep learning curve. They also both require an large amount of time invested to get good.
The devs of Killer Instinct understood that you can’t just make an arcade game with a main menu and a training mode anymore. Fighting games need to be developed like other competitive games: with a focus on online play, while keeping the barrier of entry low enough for beginners to have fun. As a result of how intelligently this game was designed for the modern era, I think all fighting game developers really need to take a hard look at Killer Instinct.