We had the excellent opportunity to interview Capcom Community Manager Seth Killian and talk about his origins as a fighting game competitor, his rise within Capcom’s own ranks, his work with Street Fighter IV, what makes the fighting community so awesome, and even talks about a touchy subject in the upcoming Street Fighter x Tekken.
The Gaming Vault: I wanted to ask about your position. You’ve got a strange and interesting role over at Capcom. How did it come about and just what is your official title? I’ve heard a few different things thrown about over the years.
Seth Killian: Well, I was a teacher at university (University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, for those interested). At Capcom I have sort of a split title. I work on the Community side which is under Marketing, so I’m the Strategic Director for Online and Community. The other half of my role is sort of as an in-house floating consultant on all of our fighting titles—so, I’m known as the Special Combat Advisor across pretty much all of our fighting games.
There’s only one fighter released since the start of my time at Capcom which I haven’t worked on, which was a PSP fighter called Fate Unlimited Codes. It was in the arcade as well, but the arcade release was actually finished before I started and it was just a PSP port of the arcade version and I had nothing to say about it.
That’s the one I haven’t worked on, but other than that I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of every fighting game Capcom has put out since.
TGV: So all through the revival of Street Fighter and Marvel…
Seth: Yes; that was why I quit my perfectly good job to come to a crazy industry full of shenanigans.
TGV: Before that, though, you did a lot of playing in the tournament scene even while you were a teacher.
Seth: Yeah. I won what they called – at that time, when I was playing, there were usually only one or two big tournaments a year – that’s where the term ‘major’ came from on the competitive scene. Now, there’s a major every other week – which is cool, I’m very happy to see that – but there used to be much fewer of them.
Anyway, I won a few of those on the national level and was always consistent. I was always the ‘best-worst’ player – which is to say I was sort of at the upper echelon – I think my average sort of placing was about third – so I’d get third a lot. Occasionally I’d squeak out an actual win.
I played for the first US national Street Fighter team over in Japan, and then slowly began to transition out of playing more to help organize events. I was excited about that, and that’s the difficulty – playing at the top level and running a top level event don’t go hand in hand, you know? You need to have your focus be one place or the other. So, eventually I made my shift away from playing and aiming to compete at the top levels. I think there was one year I was helping to organize Evo and I got seventh at Evo, and that was sort of – that nearly killed me – having to do both of those things. And I got lucky a couple of times also along the way.
So, yeah – it’s better to know your role and be the best at that than be 80 or 75 percent of both. So that was – indirectly I came into contact with Capcom through that. Of course I knew of Capcom very well, but the idea of talking to Capcom was just sort of – nobody did that. It was an unthinkable thing. I used to go to E3 and we’d go hang out by the Capcom booth and meet up at the end of the day and play Hyper Fighting on an arcade cabinet that they’d have.
My friend suggested ‘Hey, you’ve got like 1000 people coming in from around the world, you should ask for some key chains,’ and I was like ‘Yeah, great idea – maybe we’ll get some posters or something!’ Back then the idea of having anything direct from Capcom was just insane. I had not had a single Capcom-branded anything – I think I had a Chun-Li keychain or something like that from somewhere, and I used to think it was the coolest thing because I’d been playing Street Fighter my whole life.
Anyway, I asked Capcom for some of that – they told me to get lost. That went on for about three years until they hired some different people and then they eventually offered me a job and I turned it down – I said I wasn’t interested. Then they said ‘Well, we just green-lit a game called Street Fighter IV – you might be able to be a part of that.’
So then I said, ‘Now I have to do it.’ I couldn’t have a chance to be a part of a Street Fighter project and not take it, because I would’ve regretted it for the rest of my life.
TGV: When you came in, what was the attitude towards that project? Was this a last chance of sorts for Street Fighter, or fighting games in general?
Seth: Yeah, well – very much so. I don’t think anybody is ever willing to say ‘that’s it’ forever, but we’d pretty much already said that was it when Street Fighter IV was green-lit. Internally it wasn’t considered a winner. It wasn’t considered a likely winner at all.
It was a long shot, and it was struggling because fighting games had sort of gone into a 3D space that we didn’t feel was a great fit for Street Fighter, and the feeling was that modern kids won’t want to play a side-to-side kind of fighting game like that. They want it to be this crazy 3D world where you’re running around, and classic sort of Street Fighter gameplay will seem archaic and dated.
So we made our bet saying that well, if we update the models and they look really great we think the gameplay is so inherently strong that it’ll shine through to a new generation – so that was Ono-san’s concept. I, of course, was a very big fan of that. I didn’t want to see a 3D Street Fighter as such – that wasn’t the game I grew up with. Could it be a great game? Sure – but it’s not the same, and it wasn’t my Street Fighter.
I probably wouldn’t have come on board to work on a 3D Street Fighter – it would’ve been too far from my heart. So, I was excited about the concept and then the early wire frames did not look promising, so I really thought I had to do whatever I could to try and make this a Street Fighter game that will let everybody remember what was so great about Street Fighter before.
TGV: Where do you credit the growth in the fighting game scene over the last few years? To the communities, to the growing tournaments, to the resurging popularity of the games recently…?
Seth: I think there’s…y’know, this is something I’ve thought about before and I think there are three major factors. One is definitely the community itself, which has been consistent in growing over the years, but at a small, slower rate. It was small, it was hardcore.
Because of its hardcore roots it had a real spirit and connection with the players that was present in very few other games. It’s a very face-to-face kind of culture, very loud, very exciting, and just filled with amazing personalities from a lot of different walks of life – people that wouldn’t encounter each other normally or even within gaming – people you wouldn’t expect to see engaging each other within gaming.
These are the things I love about it, because what bonded me was not just the amazing game but also the people who played the game who became my friends and my really long-term partners in all sorts of things through life. They became my family in a lot of ways, so that’s what kept me. Even when I was fed up with fighting games for a few months, it would be the people who’d bring me back in. The community is amazing, and so putting a little more spotlight on that has really helped it blossom. That’s one of the factors.
Another factor is the massive improvements in online play. Other games, it used to be possible to play online in a serious way but fighting games really need high quality internet connections to be even fun. Like, even if it’s – it’s never going to be quite the same online as it is with someone sitting next to you, but fighting games moved from sort of being basically unplayable online to being pretty good.
It’s never the same as being next to somebody, but it’s a good experience and a legitimate experience – like how with poker you might learn more sitting at a table, but you can grind a lot more matches online and get the experience. I think that experience is great—some of the best players in the US of Street Fighter trained primarily online. They didn’t have any local scene.
They trained online a lot, were able to learn a lot of things and leverage that experience in offline tournaments and be successful – I’m thinking about Wolfkrone in particular here. He’s amazing – and he basically self taught – not self-taught – but learned primarily online, and a great credit to online players. Even anybody who has anything negative to say about pads can take a leaf out of his book, because he’s a pad player.
The final element is just the internet itself, which is to say things like YouTube and streaming technology. Those sorts of advancements have only arrived in the last 5 or 6 years but have really allowed fighting games to spread. They can be hard to understand – anyone can play a fighting game, but to really understand what’s going on strategically and why it’s exciting – all the great community efforts that show up on YouTube like tutorials and explanatory videos or even just tournament footage showing off the scene… I think YouTube is probably the third pillar.
So, it’s an awesome community, improved quality of online play, and YouTube! (Laughs)
TGV: I’ve heard from Community reps at other Japanese companies that it’s almost like the word “community” is dirty to Japanese companies. They prefer a more hands-off approach, but at Capcom you’ve taken a very hands-on approach. How much have you struggled to get community efforts off the ground?
Seth: I think Capcom definitely put their foot forward by wanting to be involved in the community and bringing me into the company in the first place, for one. From there this is just sort of the person I am – I’m not comfortable with asking for things always – so I didn’t really ask for a lot. My objective was to go out and show success with what I had; to show that this could be a major success.
Basically, it was easiest for me to start with fighting games and Street Fighter was happening at that time, so that was my focus and I wanted to show that this can be a really powerful thing in the case of a Capcom game. I think that not only Japan but our European branch and everything have from that point on been very receptive. The thing is, I don’t want people to do me any favours and say ‘Well, this guy seems like a nice guy and he’s asking so we’re gonna do it’ – I want to prove that it’s good business for a company to do this, to talk to their community, to have a strong community, and to be receptive for what they’re asking for and talking about.
They’re fans and the community, but they’re also customers – you need to make products that are in line with what your customers want. It’s good to surprise them too, but you want to make products that are receptive to what your community has been saying. That’s a strong business position, and I think we’ve established that.
TGV: How do you guys pinpoint and target the folks who aren’t hardcore – who just remember Street Fighter II on the SNES, but aren’t going to keep up with the results of Evo?
Seth: I think one of the lessons we’ve learned from the history of fighting games and the rise and fall of the late 90s and early 2000s is that one of the objectives for us has been to make the game as strategically deep as they’ve always been, but to make sure that the executional bar – the moves – don’t get much harder.
Street Fighter IV already has some challenging stuff in there and Marvel also has some easier moves – like the supers are either a Dragon Punch or a Fireball and they don’t get more complicated than that, but you can do amazing things with those basic elements. The approach has been to keep the elements relatively straightforward, but let people combine those elements in interesting and strategic ways. And to also make sure the execution door doesn’t get closed to new players, because you need new players coming in all the time to keep the scene healthy, to keep the game successful.
It’s not a matter of making it “noob friendly,” it’s a matter of – what makes a Street Fighter match isn’t ever that what was done was hard to pull off. It’s never ‘Gee, that 720 motion is really difficult, so that made that a great match’ – it’s that he used it at a clever time, or in a surprising way, or to set up mind games and things like that. We try to preserve the mind games and all the interesting things that happen there while making sure the moves aren’t impossible for those who are only willing to invest just a little time into it.
TGV: As you said earlier there’s a major every week now – how on Earth do you guys keep up?
Seth: Well, I’m happy to say we try, but we don’t have to – it’s sort of in the hands of the players themselves. I think there’s something to really be said for – if you want people to have something that fits them, as there’s all sorts of things happening in all sorts of parts of the world, and the organizers there will find the way to best serve their specific audience.
It doesn’t have to be Capcom coming down from on high and saying, ‘This is how it should be,’ it’s players sort of finding their own way, organizing themselves and creating the kind of event they want to see. It creates a great feeling of empowerment, but it also makes sure the events are exactly what the fan community are looking for.
TGV: You’ve spoken about the Gem stuff as potential DLC very briefly, but can you shed any light onto any other things you’re potentially looking at for DLC? Backgrounds, stages, music, costumes etcetera?
Seth: Yeah, they’re looking at a bunch of different things. I think on the costume side that’s been a success for us so they may look at things like that. This is where I have to be a little coy, but they’ve been looking at things like – we have some really interesting things that I think fans will be very excited about.
They’ve been looking at sort of different – y’know, a lot of things about Cross Tekken are sort of a different way of thinking about fighting games. Some of those will be harder to get people excited about, but some of the things we’ve been thinking of I think it’ll be very easy to get people excited about. It’ll be the kind of stuff that will be easy to love.
That includes different ideas about pricing models and how that might work…but I can’t. Yeah. I can’t talk about – these are at the ideas phase, but for everything people might go ‘I’m not sure about this’ there’s something I think people will immediately jump in on.
TGV: As someone who bought costumes for Super, I’d plump on a ‘Season Pass’ for X Tekken.
Seth: (Laughs) Yeah. There you go.
TGV: So, the big question and debate amongst the hardcore players right now is about the Gem system. How do you square this idea of having pre-order gems, DLC gems – with balance? If somebody has premium gem pack X or Y, are they better than someone with Gem pack Z naturally?
Seth: There’s no question that there’s an inherent challenge there. The way we think about the gems internally is – well, Ono-san used the analogy of Magic: The Gathering before, which is accurate to a point, but there’s no doubt that in that game there are some cards that are vastly more powerful than others. I don’t want to depend on people knowing about Magic, but there are some cards that are really, really strong and others that are just sort of ordinary or unexciting.
The gems are basically meant to be of a piece, which is to say there are different gems for different attributes and there are different gems that have different effects – but there’s not a gem that is straight up better than all the other gems. There’s not a gem which has, like, twice the power – a gem you get later will not be twice as powerful as a gem that you got earlier, it will just be different.
This is where you get into some of the actual explanation. Maybe I’ve got a 10% power boost and you’ve got a 20% power boost gem. You could say that your gem is just better than mine, but the way we balance those things out is – say my gem is activated when I hit you with three normal moves. Yours is activated when you hit me with maybe four special moves – so it’s a higher bar to activation. You’ll get a bigger benefit, but the activation bar is higher.
With more gems we’ll have more sorts of possibilities, more parameters to explore – but it’s not like a later gem is ever going to be straight-up better than an earlier gem. It’s a balancing act of if you want a small bonus with an easy activation condition or a higher bonus with a harder activation condition – these kinds of things. We look at the gems as balanced against each other rather than some being stronger than others.
TGV: So far I’ve read about Offensive Power increasing Gems, Auto Block, Auto Throw Tech, Defensive Gems, Speed Gems… can you shed any light onto any of the others we’ll see?
Seth: Well actually I’d separate those out. The Power, the Speed, the Defence – there’s also Meter building gems too – I’d call those Boost Gems. The other ones are Assist Gems. The Assist Gems are system-wide stuff, while the boost gems have specific conditions.
Stuff like Auto Block is always on, but it requires meter to use. So for the first 10, 15 seconds of a match before you build meter it does nothing at all. As soon as you do have a chance to block something and have meter it will work, but then it will also use that meter immediately. Those kinds of gems are active throughout the match – the Assist Gems.
The Boost Gems have specific conditions which may be met or may be not in a match. So maybe you don’t hit me with four special moves – which is certainly possible within a round – that gem will never be activated. But maybe you do something else and another one will be. Those conditions can be active and passive – well, not quite “passive,” but in the sense that some of your gems may be activated by things I do to you – your opponent does to you – while others may be activated and controlled by you more directly.
There will be more kinds of categories – we’ll talk about those more as we go on. The idea isn’t to overwhelm people; it’s just to say there are a lot of possibilities for tweaks. The gems are not the sort of thing that decides a match; we showed some rather extreme examples. We showed Auto Block while infinite meter was on, which meant you didn’t have to worry about losing meter – that would be a great gem if you had infinite meter – but you won’t. That limits that ability.
The other thing we did is we had three gems that were all keyed towards power and they were all active at the same time. It’s quite rare that you’d have all three gems active at the same time – that’d involve an unusual special set of events. We literally set it up, like – ‘I’ll hit you with 3 special moves, you now hit me with 5 normal attacks – now you block five times, and now three of your gems are active.’
TGV: And presumably if some crazy player strings together a combo which makes three gems activate during it, good on them, I suppose?
Seth: Yeah, yeah, exactly. That’s exactly right. There are those kinds of setups you can go for, but ultimately it’s rare to have all those gems active at the same time.
TGV: What are your thoughts personally on how the gems – the DLC gems, character selection time including button check and so on – affect tournament play?
Seth: These are things we’ve been thinking about for a while and we’ve been trying to find a good situation. Competitively we do view the game as built around gems. There is – you’re not forced to choose a gem if you don’t want a gem. Because we see the game as the gems being a core part of the game, there’s not an option online to screen people out who want to use gems, but at a tournament that’s a matter that will be up to the tournament organizers.
We’re experimenting with different possibilities – looking at a possible first party way of taking your gem load-out with you…
TGV: Like some way to take your ‘Reserve Unit’ with you?
Seth: Yeah, something like that. Faster selection criteria – different kinds of things – so, again it’ll be up to the tournament organizers, but it’s something we’ve been thinking about and trying to find a good solution.
TGV: Do you worry about hitting a wall with all these new games coming out? That we’re back in 1995 again where there are so many different fighting games coming out that it begins to become a problem?
Seth: I definitely worry about that. I basically pushed reset on my whole life to come over and try to make these games a success. I’m very invested in them personally, professionally. This is something I’ve – I’ve always believed in fighting games as amazing games.
I really was disappointed with the entire video game world for forgetting about them. Not everybody, of course, but in the main I thought it was one of the high watermarks of all games. There are great single player experiences, but a multiplayer experience is something special to me and fighting games have a really unique take on it with amazing depth and connection.
It was really sort of my mission to try to make everybody remember what was going on there. I don’t think the world will forget quite again, but I worry all the time that we’ll make missteps and we’ll blow the chance to do it again. I sweat about every single game we make.
TGV: I was really surprised when you guys said you were going to do AE 2012. From the way things have been phrased, it doesn’t seem completely out of the realm of reason for support to continue for Super until we get a proper Street Fighter V. Is that a possibility? Are you intending to keep evaluating it when you’ve got people free on the team?
Seth: Yes – but if we have people free on the team is a very astute comment, though, as those guys are usually busy doing something and if they’re not – we can’t just keep them in a holding pattern on Street Fighter waiting for the next update.
On the Street Fighter side we felt we wanted to revisit some of the choices made with Arcade Edition – to go back and be responsive for 2012. If that’s going to come in updates or a new game depends on how much is at stake. Like, do we have something new to say? Do we think this is an adjustment to a previous game or a new game? That’s a fine line, right – deciding where that really lays, and it’s a tough thing to decide internally.
We do plan to support the Street Fighter community with the best gameplay we can – whether that be with a new game or continued balance patches. I think you can go too far with balance patches – I don’t like it when things change all the time – but yeah, I think on the scale we’re on right now this is acceptable and keeps the game fresh and interesting.
Thanks a bunch for your time and answers, Seth! We’re all very much looking forward to what Capcom has in store for us in the future.