Last Thursday night, I attended Capcom’s latest Fight Club, a continuing event the company puts on (in part through their Capcom Unity efforts) to help bring together and strengthen the fighting game community. At this latest event—held in not-so-beautiful downtown Los Angeles—many fans were given a first chance to get their hands on Capcom’s two upcoming brawlers: Street Fighter X Tekken, and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. (Being the spoiled media type that I am, I’d already played both of these a number of times already, and had forgotten that most players out there hadn’t had such a chance.)
Wandering around the event was Capcom’s Online & Community Strategic Marketing Director Seth Killian—aka s-kill, a long-time fighting game guru who is now living the dream by working at Capcom and helping to craft their new generation of fighting games. I’d known of Seth before this night, and had run into him many times here and there (the latest being Tokyo Game Show), but this was the first time I’d actually had the chance to sit down and have a talk with him.
Gaming media, websites, forums, for a few years they’ve all been proclaiming that “fighting games are back!” You’ve got Street Fighter IV, the rebirth of Mortal Kombat, SNK is trying to rejuvenate themselves through the new King of Fighters games, Arc System Works launched BlazBlue, you guys now also have Marvel vs. Capcom 3, all of these games point to that statement being true.
My feeling, however, is it’s sort of like that old L Cool J statement: “Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years.” I think fighting games never really left; they’ve always been here.
Seth Killian: It’s interesting, because I’ve been playing since basically the beginning of Street Fighter II, and have even travelled around the world to play fighting games. So I’ve been playing and organizing events all of the way through what we call the “dark ages” of fighting games. After the Street Fighter boom had sort of cooled off—and by the end of the Street Fighter III 3rd Strike era around 2000~2002—fighting games had really slowed down. There were a lot less releases, they were less successful—overall a lot of companies moved away from the business in some respects. Namco was still releasing fighting games and having some success, but Capcom was releasing far fewer titles basically up until Street Fighter IV.
For me, they not only never went away—they certainly never went away—but we were still playing older games competitively as well as some of the newer ones. But on the Capcom side, there’s no question that they had sort of cooled. So, what was interesting was on the competitive side, there were actually more and more players showing up to the tournaments all of the time, but in terms of their wider public profile and their overall impact on gaming, it wasn’t until Street Fighter IV that they really exploded again into the popular consciousness. I think that you’re right in the sense that they definitely never went away, competition stayed hot, and there were always awesome games, but the thing that changed for me was not just SFIV being the right kind of game at the right time, it’s also that the internet sort of caught up with us.
There are a lot of great games that you can play online, but fighting games provide a better experience than what we had, even in the early 2000’s. I think when the internet finally caught up with Street Fighter and let it be played online, that really helped spark things. Also, fighting games are tricky, and can be hard, so I’d also credit the birth of things like YouTube with having a massive impact on them. You didn’t have to do what I did and grind it out in arcades around the world trying to learn these arcane things, or order VHS tapes from Japan that were 8th generation dubs of some combos and stuff like that. Now you can just go on YouTube.
That’s not to say that that doesn’t count or that’s not legitimate—that’s awesome. You can now understand some of the magic, some of the challenge, and some of the difficulty much more easily, so I think technology really caught up with fighting games. And then, Street Fighter IV was the right game to push it back into the popular consciousness. So, I think there’s some truth on both sides—but for me, they certainly never went away, and we’ve now got the chance to remind everybody what’s so awesome about them.
It’s interesting that you talk about online, because I remember having my import Saturn, and having games like Groove on Fight and Asuka 120%, and as much as I loved those games, I knew almost nobody locally who played them. It was a lot of playing CPU opponents and never really getting the full enjoyment that I could be. The same was true when I picked up my NeoGeo AES. Online has really been the rebirth of fighting games—at least to me—because now I can get online and have that competition that’s so hard to find, especially with arcades dying out as much as they have here.
I think you’re right. All of these things sort of wrap up in the birth of the internet, and the internet really saved fighting games. Even before arcades went away, you only ever had your local scene. That was enough for a lot of people, and that was an amazing place, but it took a lot to find competition beyond that. Traveling around to other locals was kind of weird.
The internet has now come along, and whether its online training videos, or its actually playing online against one another, it expands your world. You’re not trapped, and it’s a legitimate way to play. Some of the best players in the world—certainly in the country—basically got most of their training online. There’s analogies to things like poker, if you follow that professionally. It used to be all home games, and then you saw the birth of online poker—which, obviously, is in some trouble right now—which gave a lot of random players the chance to go out and play so many hands of poker that they were able to catch up with seasoned pros who had been playing for 30 years. Those guys were able to get that same kind of experience, and I think online for fighting games is a similar thing, where you can get that good experience online and then take it to a tournament. You’re ready for it, because you’ve been putting in the time.
So are games like Street Fighter IV, Mortal Kombat, and Street Fighter X Tekken expanding the consumer base for fighting games, are they re-invigorating the fighting game fans who had sort of gone dormant for a while, or do you think it’s both?
I definitely think it’s both. There’s a lot of people that I know who said they hadn’t played a game in forever, and then they saw Street Fighter was coming back and they had to pick it up. And now, I’ll see some of those same guys out at events like we’re at tonight, out at tournaments and things like that, so there’s no question that they’ve re-ignited some dormant passions.
But then I also look at a lot of the people who will be here tonight, and at other events, and they’re younger players; they’re players who weren’t part of the Street Fighter II generation, and that’s fantastic. What’s so special about this is that games like Street Fighter are such generational games. There are guys I’ve met at tournaments who are bringing their sons to play, and the kids are good—they’re good at these games, and it’s something their father or their parents introduced them to as a part of their lives. Even if it’s not your actual parents, it’s people who loved these games before who are able to pass on some of their knowledge and understand of the overall strategy, joy, and history of fighting games to a newer generation.
Then I guess what you’re saying is is that Street Fighter IV is the Wii of the fighting game genre.
Yeah, maybe. It was just sort of at the right place at the right time, you know? Something that nobody was really expecting when it happened, with no special reason for it, but it was a beautiful-looking game that directly harkened back to the Street Fighter II roots.
Even though it had new characters and new mechanics, it didn’t try to re-invent the wheel, and was very close to the original Street Fighter II in spirit. It also had a great new look that was eye-catching, which was enough to draw in the people who were there for that eye candy. It was like, “Come for the eye candy, stay for the actual mechanics and the gameplay.”
So, there’s no question that there are more difficult Street Fighter games to play than Street Fighter IV, but that sort of pushing of the reset button—in terms of trying to draw more people in—really paid off. Fighting games get richer when more people play them, because they invest more and there are different techniques that are discovered. Like you said, a fighting game is only so fun if you only have a small group to play against. The more people that play, not only is there more on the line emotionally, but you’ll discover more techniques and put more into the game.
A lot of the conversation has been that Street Fighter III was an awesome game, but it was a really difficult game to get into. Not that I want to get you in trouble or anything, but do you think SFIII was a mistake for the Street Fighter franchise? At the time, was it a good idea, or did they try to cater too much to the more hardcore market?
I think it was a difficult question for the company at that point, because basically they were catering to a smaller and smaller player base.
Look at the original Street Fighter II—I mean, the real start was the original Street Fighter, but that game was so different that we’ll start with SFII. It was already a pretty hard game, right? There’s a lot to learn, there are six buttons, all of these different special techniques and strategies. So even good old SFII is a relatively complicated game even now, and all of the iterations of Street Fighter layered on new stuff, be it more characters or new mechanics or so on. Almost every version progressively gives you more and more to learn, and Street Fighter III I think had gone really far down that road. For parrying—which is simple in terms of actually inputting the parry, you just tap down or towards—to make it efective you have to know what you’re up against for every character in the entire game, which is really a big challenge. I think the designers were trying to create a new challenge for the hardcore players, and increase that challenge every time, but at the same time, anybody who hadn’t been playing since the beginning or very near the beginning were presented with an incredibly high hurdle to jump.
I think Street Fighter III had reached its logical conclusion. It’s a great game in all sorts of ways, but if I had to to tell somebody where to start with Street Fighter, I would never wish that on them; it’s a tough game to learn from the ground up. There are people who did it and love that game—it’s not impossible—but it’s a tough place to start. I think with Street Fighter IV, and getting back to the roots of the game, it opened the door for more people to come in. That’s been one of the challenges we’ve tried to do going forward. We’ll add characters and whatnot to Arcade Edition, but what we’ve tried not to do with the Street Fighter brand is add a lot more mechanics or confusing elements that are going to throw people off of where they were before.
Capcom was one of the companies known for their 2D fighting games, especially with CPS III games like Street Fighter 3 or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure—games which really pushed the idea of 2D fighters. Now you’ve got SNK—who even if it’s going to kill them, and it might—trying to stick with and continue to push 2D, and you’ve got Arc System Works doing all of their 2D projects, and yet Capcom has split off and decided that they’re going to only use 3D assets for their fighting games. As a fighting game fan—and not as a Capcom rep—is there any part of you that misses that older Capcom that used to be so heavily invested in 2D fighting games? Or do you think that that change in attitude has benefitted the company and its games?
I definitely think it’s been a benefit in so far as it’s pretty eye candy that helps draw in a new audience. However, as I said before, I think what keeps people there isn’t the eye candy, but the mechanics.
The thing I always say about this question is basically, what was so exciting about those 2D fighters was the level of detail and the little animations and things like that. It was all really beautifully done. I think if you look at the Capcom 3D games, you’ll still find that level of care, detail, and precision—and I think that’s ultimately what people react to more than a 3D model versus a 2D sprite.
Another thing I’ll say about Capcom is that we’ve not only got the technology to do this, but we felt that we had the technology to do it right. We’re really careful with the animations, and try to be careful to the characters. It also helps us to create new moves on the fly, because it’s much easier to animate a new super or ultra combo. If you have a character model, you can have them go through all of those new motions; you trace out the new moves, and have the model follow them without having to draw every frame. So I think, developmentally, it gives us a lot more flexibility as we go along.
Back in the 2D sprite days, we had to cheat sometimes. It’s like, okay, if this guy’s on fire, everybody’s going to have the same flaming body, and we’re going to reuse the animation. Or Guile’s spinning overhead kick will just be the same frames as his low-forward kick flipped upside down. You had to cheat a lot, and they did a great job at it, but you had things like that. Or Sagat’s eyepatch will switch eyes depending on which way he’s facing, because it’s just flipping the sprite. We don’t have to cheat anymore, so I think it’s given us a lot more flexibility, yet I think the care and precision you saw historically in Capcom 2D fighting games is still there with the 3D models. It’s just a 3D model versus a 2D sprite, which is how I think we’ve not had to lose any of that audience.
I still like playing 2D fighters; I still play old Capcom 2D fighters, and I play the other 2D fighters out there. I think if you asked those guys if they had the tech engine to do 3D fighters—even in the sort of style that we’ve gone with 3D models—they might want to try that. There’s some magic and nostalgia in 2D sprites, and really, games like The King of Fighters XIII and BlazBlue look really nice. It’s just a different approach, and I think the 3D model method is more flexible from a development standpoint. So that’s why I’ve really been won over by the idea, and you don’t have to make any apologies about the way the games look because they look sharp.
When you’re laying in bed, and there’s that point right before you go to sleep that your mind thinks of really weird things…
…one of those thoughts I’ve had is about Persona. I’m a huge Persona fan, and I’ve laid there and thought, “They should make a 2D Persona fighting game. That would be rad! But man, it’ll never, ever happen.” And then one day I wake up, and they’re making it, and it’s like the craziest thing in the world.
I got to play it at Tokyo Game Show.
As did I. So what did you think of it, before I get to my question?
It looks interesting to me. I don’t know if I’ll play it seriously, but it’s interesting to me. The characters are what really drive Persona, but in terms of gameplay mechanics, it’s what I call —and this isn’t to be a Capcom fanboy or anything—but it’s like the “children of Marvel”. You’ve got your chain combos, you’ve got your jump in the air dash, you’ve got your assist kind of moves, so in that sense it’s familiar. And it uses the four-button layout like a BlazBlue, which also borrows a lot of mechanics from Capcom’s Vs. series, with the super jumps and the air dashing and that kind of stuff. So it looks interesting to me, and really, I only got to play it for a couple of games. I need to follow up more to see what’s going to jump out at me about it, but as a fan of Persona, I’m guessing you’re pretty happy.
Well, so I never, ever would have expected that game to exist, and now it does. So putting aside obvious, easy answers like a new Darkstalkers or whatever, if you could go to the higher ups in Capcom and say, “This is our next fighting game,” and it could be any property, what would it be?
My problem—and you can laugh about this if you want—is that I did that. I went to Capcom five years ago, and the dream games that I always wanted to see are now here. You’re looking at them. So I actually joined Capcom to work on Street Fighter IV—that was my chance to try and see some of the things I’ve wanted to see happen, and we’ve been iterating on that since. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was obviously one as well. I have a couple of other ideas right now, but I’m not sure if I should say them because I want to make them a reality. I’ve been a very lucky boy in that sense, though. The dream games I’ve always wanted to see are the games we actually have now, and that’s no BS. Maybe I’m dreaming too small, just wanting another Marvel vs. Capcom or a new Street Fighter, but.
If you can sit here and say that the games you really wanted to exist now do, though, that’s a great thing.
That’s really, honestly it. I was born and bred with the Capcom fighters. I’ve played a lot of fighting games all throughout my entire life, but the Capcom fighters were always at the center of the universe for me. So if you’d ask me that question six years ago, before I ever worked at Capcom, I would have given you answers that are now reality. I feel pretty stoked about that, and just happy to be around and play a small part in that.
Then for my last question—and give me a chance to explain where I’m going with it before you think you know where I’m going with it—at Tokyo Game Show I sat down with [Street Fighter IV and Street Figher X Tekken producer] Yoshinori Ono and for 25 minutes we discussed Poison. There’s been a lot of discussion out there about the character, and I know that one of the things that came up recently—and if I’m wrong about this, please correct me, but I think it came from you—was this whole idea about how Capcom was thinking about doing a poll so people could decide the exact details about her gender, which caused a huge negative reaction among the online community. The first question I asked Ono-san was if he was surprised that a character who had been so insignificant in Final Fight now has such a huge aura about her, or that she has these two hugely divided fanbases who are so passionate and vocal about their side’s belief. I’d ask you the same thing—are you surprised about how much conversation and discussion there now is about Poison, and do you find it interesting or baffling?
I do find it interesting, but I’m not super surprised by it. I think the whole level of gender discussion in the country in general has moved a long way. Not only is the internet helpful for fans trading information in general, but the conversation about gender has moved far beyond what it was when Poison was originally born. For the record, the comment about the poll was not mine, it was Ono-san’s at EVO—but I think it was a tongue-in-cheek comment, and was not an actual plan.
That’s kind of what I wondered. I understand why it blew up the way it did, and I was aghast at the idea, but I’m not sure I ever truly believed—or at least wanted to believe—that it was a serious plan that Capcom was contemplating. It’s a comment that could be very easy to take out of context.
Yeah, and the other thing about that is that it was a comment made and then translated into English, so I don’t know if his comment maybe had just been if Capcom should run a poll asking what fans thought Poison’s gender may be, rather than the idea of determining that element via a poll.
Personally, for me, I actually think it’s a pretty healthy discussion. I like that people have strong opinions about it. I don’t know that it’s up to us to arbitrate those discussions, so I like to let Poison sort of stand on her own and make her own determination, whatever that means. I know that’s sort of dodging it as the company that created the character, but there are things we don’t have to know about the character, and the character can have truths of their own.
But I think the fact that the conversations are happening is a good thing, as long as people are careful. It’s very easy to delve into stupidity on these questions—especially in the sort of cheap joke kind of way that the internet tends to lean toward—but the fact that those discussions are happening makes me really happy. I don’t know that a fighting game is necessarily the best way to have the discussions, because these are real discussions about real people in the world, and those are the people who should be having the discussions. But in the world of video games, this is obviously a flash point, and hopefully that will lead to some healthy real world conversations.