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If you step back and think about it, Killer Instinct for Xbox One is pretty amazing. When the new Killer Instinct was announced for Xbox One, I remember being excited, but afraid. A brand-new KI? Awesome, but it had been 17 years since the last title in the series. Double Helix Games was a studio with a pretty poor track record up until that point. Would Microsoft be able to live up to the series' pedigree?
So when Killer Instinct launched on Xbox One, the fact that it was a great fighting game was awe-inspiring. The title took the original characters and mechanics and brought them into the 21st century. The first season of the game re-introduced a number of classic characters, including Jago, Orchid, and Saberwulf, giving them new looks and new mechanics to further differentiate them. It even added an all-new character in Sadira, who fit right in with the rest of the cast.
The idea of new challengers in Killer Instinct took off once Season Two was in full swing. While the season began with revamped classics like TJ Combo and Maya, the character releases quickly turned to all-new fighters like Kan-Ra, Aganos, and Hisako. These characters are Killer Instinct's way of expanding outward into new areas and they've all been created under the watchful eye of Microsoft partner Iron Galaxy Studios. I was curious about the new cast and how they came to be, so I'm talking with Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang about the challenges of forging a new path for Killer Instinct.
Working Together With Microsoft
One thing I don't think people understand about the all-new Killer Instinct is the development of the title is shared between Microsoft and its partner studio. For Season One, that was Double Helix, but for Season Two and hopefully beyond, Iron Galaxy is in the driver's seat. The collaboration has Microsoft focusing on the narrative side of the Killer Instinct franchise, while Iron Galaxy handles the mechanics, determining the specifics of how the characters play and ensuring the game is competitively-balanced.
"We generally start off every character, stage, or feature where we both know what we want," explains Lang. "Then we individually noodle up some ideas, we come together, and we hash it out. Our creative team and their creative team. On our side, we have [lead combat designer Adam Heart], [designer and producer Victor Lugo] and his guys, who get with [creative director Adam Isgreen] and [design director James Goddard] at Microsoft and just kind of smash all the ideas together until they come up with something supercool."
"Sometimes that process takes a little bit of time," he adds. "It's rarely one meeting and we're all in agreement. I try not to think about it like creative control. It's a very collaborative environment where we're all working together. I can't think of an instance where us or they forced an idea on each other."
Land calls Isgreen "the keeper of the lore" for Killer Instinct. Isgreen is the living story bible that keeps everything narratively consistent, while Iron Galaxy gets to make up cool new gameplay concepts.
"Microsoft and Iron Galaxy compliment each other well," says Lang. "Frankly, no one at Iron Galaxy cares about the KI lore, we just want to make cool characters that are fun to play. We're not writing fan fiction on the side. Adam really gets off on that stuff. We focus on mechanics and gameplay and we find a way to make it all work so everyone's happy at the end of the day."
For Microsoft and Iron Galaxy, the primary rule is every character in Killer Instinct needs to be unique and have a reason to exist beyond a narrative thrust. They all need to look different and play different to justify their inclusion into the roster.
"We don't want it to be like Street Fighter IV," Lang tells me. "I play the game and I love it, but there's not a huge differentiation from Ken to Ryu to Akuma. Akuma has less health and deals more damage, but they still have the same basic moveset. You could argue that creatively there's not a reason that all those characters need to exist. With Killer Instinct, we want every character to all be different in some shape or form. They look totally different, conceptually they're different, they control different."
Characters, New and Old
One of the recent releases in Killer Instinct: Season Two is Hisako, a homage to Japanese horror tropes like Sadako from The Ring. The character is not only unique to Killer Instinct lore, unattached to any previous character, but she also features some pretty unique gameplay. She walks slower than any other character, even the hulking Aganos, but she has a crazy fast, super-low forward dash, a teleport, and a wall jump to give her other movement options. Hisako is also a counter character, focusing on keep her Wrath Meter full to do extra damage.
While many of the new characters in Killer Instinct: Season Two started with a gameplay concept and then layered a narrative concept on top, Hisako was the opposite.
"A lot of the other characters, before we were involved in the project, Microsoft sketched out," says Lang. "We knew we were doing TJ Combo and Cinder, but the others were like, 'We'd love someone who's a zoning offensive character in this slot," and that's how we sketched them out. The one exception being Hisako. Adam Isgreen had the original concept for Hisako. He had her from day one. He knew he wanted-- I think he called her the 'Skinwalker' or 'Skincrawler'. She's like a revenant from The Ring. How we make that play and what that turns into is part of the process."
"When you get down to Hisako, what void in the pantheon of fighting games has Killer Instinct not touched yet?" Lang asks. "Okay, well we don't have a counter-hit player; would Hisako be interesting in that mold? Then we try to kick around design ideas in the collective group. Once we're convinced that this is an interesting character who fills a hole in the KI creative space, that when we start working on it. That's where a lot of the implementation details come to life. We try to do everything different all the time and it pushes us to do things like Hisako's movement."
Omen is a bit of a fluke, stemming from Season One bonus character Shadow Jago. Like that character, Omen isn't a completely standalone entity. It borrows moves from Jago, the original Shadow Jago, and even Saberwulf. One thing that stands out about Omen other than its extended Shadow Meter is its fireballs: they have a number of different attack patterns that come out at random. Playing Omen is about learning to adapt to new situations on the fly.
"If you look back at Season One, Shadow Jago was a bonus character," Lang recounts. "That's why he started off as a close relative to Jago in terms of moveset and look. We had the idea of leaving Shadow Jago the way he is and doing another version of the character; just keep pushing him in the direction that Adam and Double Helix started going down. Omen became our bonus character for Season Two."
"It's still not quite a fully-fledged character, it still has flavors of Jago in there. We had some crazier stuff in there for Omen originally. His projectiles were even nuttier than they are now. At one point there was like 30 different patterns he could fire off. Some were completely broken."
Kan-Ra was the first real indication that this season of Killer Instinct was going to go in some new directions. The character is an ancient necromancer who returns to the world after 2000 years of slumber, cursed to walk the world as an emaciated, rotting mummy. For his crimes, Kan-Ra is also constantly hunted by Aganos, the subsequent Season Two character release.
Kan-Ra's primary mechanic is his Sand Traps, which allow him to hold foes in place. The traps can be laid on the battlefield via various moves and Kan-Ra can even interact with them to improve certain special attacks. What's odd about Kan-Ra is the specific hole he fills in the franchise.
"Adam and Microsoft knew we wanted this trap grappler character," says Lang. "In the first concept, it was a net you could shoot out and set traps with. That wasn't super interesting. We kept spitballing ideas about how this trap grappler would function mechanically. 'What if there was a mummy with bandages?' 'What if it's not a mummy, maybe a necromancer?' We zeroed in on that from the mechanical side. We start with mechanics and come up with cool fiction ways to justify those mechanics, building the world and character around that core."
Lang admits that Kan-Ra was "the hardest character" for Iron Galaxy to get right in Season Two. Part of that was down to the character being a trap concept, which is usually defensive, in a very aggressive game.
"The thing about the notion of a trap grappler is that traps are usually invisible in a fighting game," Lang explains. "And how does a grappler work with traps? There's not a lot of historical characters we could look at. KI is not a game where we want the character sitting back and turtling up. We want you to be aggressive. We err on the side of offensive, not defensive characters. Getting a trap grappler to be offensive was tricky."
"He didn't come together until a couple of days before we were supposed to ship," Lang laughs. "We thought we were going to have to delay Kan-Ra a month."
Aria is a character that was hinted at the Arcade Mode ending for Killer Instinct Season One. The character is the new head of Ultratech, the corrupt corporation behind most of the problems in Killer Instinct. (Seriously, who digs up a mummy and angers a werewolf as part of their business plan?) We don't know much about Aria other than the fact that she'll be the last character release for this season. I try to pry at Lang for more information on Ultratech's final enforcer.
"Aria's a boss character," Lang replies. "If you look at Galactus in Marvel vs. Capcom 3, he's not a character in one sense, but he is. He's this big, broken thing at the end of the game and we want our bosses to be like that. We want a boss to be really special and unique, but still be tournament-viable. We want to walk right up to being broken and take a step back. TJ Combo and Saberwulf are cool, but they're not bosses. We want Aria to feel like this uber-powerful character. We've had varying degrees of success so far."
Season Two isn't all new characters though. TJ Combo, Maya, and Riptor were all launched earlier in Season Two and the next character release will be Cinder, another Killer Instinct classic. Microsoft and Iron Galaxy are still teasing out Cinder's new character design and backstory, but Lang gives me a taste of how Cinder will play in-game.
"Cinder is definitely going to be a very aerial character," he tells me. "If you're someone who likes characters that get up in the air, like Sadira for example, I think you'll like Cinder a lot. He has a lot he can do when he gets airborne. Very offensive, very aggressive playstyle. The character is angry and we want that to come through in the mechanics and the gameplay."
Part of handling the reboot is revamping these old characters. Iron Galaxy has to straddle the line between staying true to the spirit of the original character, while also making sure their new version fills a unique space in the roster. Understanding this balance has been a learning experience for Iron Galaxy this season, according to Lang.
"It's one of the harder parts of any reboot, especially something as beloved as Killer Instinct. Cinder's a great example," he says. "If you look at Cinder, I think the reaction to Cinder has been very positive, but there's always going to be a handful of people that are like, 'Wait. That doesn't look like Cinder.' I think the way we compromise on stuff like that with the community is the retro costumes. That's how we can give them Cinder from KI 1."
"We used to worry about it a lot. Now with Season Two going on, the fans have come to appreciate what we're bringing to the table. We're giving ourselves a little more rope to be playful with stuff and do what we think is cool. Obviously you don't want to stray too far, but there's still room to put your stamp on stuff."
Last week, Iron Galaxy showed off the new character design for Cinder, in addition to some previous character concepts. One of the more outlandish designs played up the initial alien origin of the character, an idea that has since been shelved. Despite that, some fans really liked the unique design. I ask Lang if there's a possibility of seeing that design as an additional costume later.
"The free-to-play nature of Killer Instinct means if people like a certain type of content, you can be absolutely sure we'll make more of it," says Lang. "If there's a clear need for people wanting more retro costumes or more looks for a character-- I would love to do that version of Cinder with the four eyes. That's crazy and out there. Ultimately, it's a free-to-play game, so the community has to say what gets made and what doesn't."
Heading Into Future, Hoping For Another Season
Iron Galaxy still has a ways to go before it finishes off Season Two. The team is going hard on online ranked leagues, which were added at the end of February. They want to do more stage Ultras if they can and perhaps add more unique auto-double mechanics for the characters. Lang seems particularly excited about the all-new Shadow system, which is coming this month and allows the game to create an AI clone based on how you play the game. That lets players to play against themselves and understand their own weaknesses, or potentially share the Shadows with others.
"The Shadow system is amazing," explains Lang. "It's going to melt people's brains. It's really hard to talk about the Shadow system. It's one of those things you have to see in action. A lot of people describe it as [Forza Motorsports' Drivatars] for Killer Instinct, but it's not that at all. If you play against your own Shadow, it's like challenging yourself. We are just scratching the surface of what this feature is. It's going to be amazing."
When I ask about Season Three and what other characters and concepts we can expect in the future, Lang tells me that Iron Galaxy is just focused on this season. It's up to Microsoft to decide if there's even going to be a Season Three for Killer Instinct.
"We don't even know if there's going to be more Killer Instinct in the future," he says, with a single tear falling down his face. "We hope there is, we love working on it, but we don't know for sure. Microsoft will figure that out and let us know."
"I can answer the question as a hypothetical," he adds. "I'd want to round out the cast. Some people really want Eyedol, some people really want Tusk. We want to make all those fans happy. Personally, what more exciting to me is now we're getting to add things to this amazing franchise. If 50 years from now someone does Killer Instinct 4, our stamp will still be on it. I want to do more original characters. There's still untapped potential in the base that's been laid."
Here's hoping Iron Galaxy gets to keep exploring that potential.