Why Street Fighter X Tekken’s Gems Could Be Problematic for Tournaments

By on October 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm
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The Options

Street Fighter X Tekken’s controversial Gem System is going to be one of the most aggressively debated issues of all time in competitive fighting games.  By the end of this article, you’ll understand that one of three choices must be made.  We can attempt to disallow gems in competitive play despite Capcom not allowing us to disable them in-game.  We could allow only a certain set of gems, but deciding which would be based on subjectivity or worse, availablity.  Our final option,perhaps the most realistic route, is to allow all gems while letting tournament directors suffer the cost (in money and time) of making every gem available on every tournament station.  Read on to find out why this decision will be so difficult.

The Facts

Before I dig into the issues, let’s just get a few facts out of the way. Yoshinori Ono, the producer of Street Fighter X Tekken, has indicated multiple times as of this writing that the Gem system is an important part of the game’s balance and that there will not be an option to play without it. Capcom has also indicated that the gems will be available in packs of nine, given out as a pre-order bonus at specific retailers. Only by ordering the special edition can you get all four packs and an additional pack given only to those who pre-purchase the special edition.

The Excitement

I don’t dislike everything being presented here.  When I think about a system that lets you augment your characters with new abilities or stats, I become excited at the possibilities and the potential variety that this could bring to the table. After all, one of my favorite games of all time is Capcom vs SNK 2, a game that allowed the player to choose between six different playstyles (called grooves) loosely based on past Capcom and SNK fighting games. Balance issues aside, this made character selection very interesting because a player needed a set of characters that had chemistry while working together under the same set of rules, as governed by your groove selection.

Street Fighter X Tekken seems to want to take that several steps farther. Not only will you essentially be creating your own mini-custom groove by assigning gems, you’ll also be doing this separately for both characters on your team. Imagine teaming A-Groove Bison with C-Groove Sagat and getting the best out of each character. In SFxT, maximizing each character separately should only be a few selections away, as the system allows you the freedom to tailor your playstyle while teaming up any two characters you like. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

While those parts of the Gem system leave me excited, as a tournament director I have more than a couple concerns.  Wanting to change a new game to be more like a previous game in its genre isn’t a great idea, but two major issues remain even if you decide to go with the flow and give gems a fair shot.

The Selection Time Problem

In Capcom vs SNK 2, you begin character selection by choosing from one of the six grooves. After that, you select one, two, or three characters. Finally, you choose the ratio of your characters. This is all handled pretty quickly; the player is required to make only five choices before a match begins. While we have no idea how gem selection will be handled in Street Fighter X Tekken, we have to assume a few things. First of all, players will need to choose a set of gems for both of their characters separately, as they do not share. Some screenshots show characters with three gem slots, while others show five. Assuming the best case scenario (three gems), and a menu that has 45 gems in it (there are probably a lot more than that), a player will need to make a minimum of six selections in a menu that has 45+ choices on it after choosing his two characters before a match can begin.  Capcom has indicated that the game will ship with hundreds of gems, compounding the time issue.

That sounds pretty time consuming, especially when done hundreds of times over the course of a large double elimination tournament bracket. Think about the viewer watching the live stream from home, as well. As if sitting through button checks (which Capcom is almost guaranteed to get wrong again in SFxT) wasn’t enough, now spectators will need to watch both players select a set of gems before the fight. With a menu of gems potentially hundreds deep, even if you know exactly where your favorite gems are on the list, scrolling to them is going to take time. What if I lose the first match and want to counter-pick my opponent? Now he has to re-select all of his gems, and I have to select a new set for my new characters, and the viewer gets to sit there and watch me do it.

In the end, this isn’t like simply selecting a mode for your characters, like Last Blade’s Speed or Power. The depth this system is trying to bring to the table has a real cost; and that cost is time. I can only speak for myself here, but, when I play a fighting game, I want to fight my opponent. I don’t want to have to dig through menus to even begin. For this illustration, thus far, I have been assuming that gem selection will happen on or after the character select screen. Still, what if I am wrong, and gem selection can only happen in some crazy menu on the title screen? This will speed things up in online play (having gems pre-assigned) but make tournaments run even slower.

The Downloadable and Pre-Order Bonus Problem

Here is where things start to get really awful. Let’s say I pre-order my copy of the game from Bob’s Game Hut, so I get the Lightning Legs Gem Pack (which supposedly affects speed). My friend, FictionalJames, orders his copy from Pretendo and receives the very real Iron Curtain Gem Pack, which helps his defense. Thanks to our varied preference in retail outlets, FictionalJames and I are not on even ground when playing SFxT together online. I can walk faster and access link combos that he cannot by speeding up my characters, while he can add defense and auto-guard to his characters. I’d argue that this is exactly the opposite of what you’d want in a fighting game. Ideally, every player should have access to the same options. This isn’t usually the case these days with downloadable characters, but a player can decide that he isn’t interested in using a specific fighter and still get experience online playing against that character.  Unlike downloadable characters, gems are used for every character, so every player will need them.

If you want the advantages certain gems can give, you are going to need to buy them. If you play online without certain gems, you should at least be able to face off against opponents who have them so that you can get experience fighting against them. Having the option to buy an advantage, however, seems to spit right in the face of what fighting games are all about. In the case of characters, you can always choose to play from the default roster and not be at some crazy disadvantage. With gems, that may not be the case.  While both downloadable characters and upgrades are a problem, the gems seem to be a much more radical version of this existing problem.

In a perfect world, a fighting game would be ready for tournament play right out of the box. Various companies like to force us to unlock characters and stages, and others even force us to buy DLC characters for each tournament setup to ensure that each player has the same options. Marvel vs Capcom 3 forces us to buy Jill and Shuma and play for a few hours to unlock Akuma, Sentinel, Hsien-Ko, and Taskmaster. BlazBlue Continuum Shift requires us to buy three DLC characters. While this sucks, it remains plainly obvious what a tournament director should do: buy the DLC on each copy of the game so that people can make the selections they want to make. This is inconvenient, but simple.

The issue of gem availability should be a lot more clear now. Sure, I can use my gems and FictionalJames can use his when we play each-other online, but when James comes over to my house, he can only use my gems. When I visit him, I can only use his. When the two of us visit a local tournament, which selection of gems will be available on any given tournament station?

If tournament directors decide to allow gems, they will need to make sure that every console has every gem unlocked. Making a decision to only allow certain gems becomes a slippery slope in which one person’s judgement overrules another’s, so, as far as I’m concerned, this is not an option. Only by allowing either all or no gems can a fair decision be made. Without the ability to turn gems off, tournament directors lose this option. Consequently, deciding to disallow gems forces the tournament audience to play the game in a way which was not intended. If the game needs this kind of alteration in order to be enjoyed by tournament players, wouldn’t the best solution be to just walk away and play a better game? We will certainly have no shortage of choices in 2012. In the next 6 months, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, King of Fighters XIII, Super Street Fighter 4 Version 2012, Soul Calibur V, and Skullgirls will be released. That is a lot of competition, all of which seems to respect the needs of the competitive community.

The Lessons of the Past

Banning something from a competitive video game is an act that should never be taken lightly. Doing so is almost always based on an opinion that others may not agree with. No one player’s opinion should trump another’s, making the only fair option to play the game as it was intended. Unless something renders a game unplayable and can be easily detected or disallowed, a ban is nearly always the wrong choice. These examples from history do not support any argument in particular and are being presented so that you might make your own decision on what we might need to do with SFxT’s gems.

Various communities have had different degrees of success banning options or characters in their competitive games. The Smash Bros. community played Melee for over two years while two schools of thought on items waged wars on the forums. Eventually, after hundreds of tournaments, the group decided to ban portions of the game, including all items and many of the game’s varied stages. While this would ordinarily trigger a slippery slope, leading only to more bans and the eventual demise of the game, things fell into place and the community thrived using these rules until Brawl’s release in 2008. Since then, the slippery slope has returned, as more and more stages have been receiving bans. Currently, Melee is played competitively with only 6 to 8 of the 29 stages available.

In Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Akuma was added as a playable character, selectable only by code. It was found that this character had options that invalidated nearly the entire cast of the game, making him the only choice for tournament play. The community, then young, decided to ban the character. Super Turbo is still played competitively today, making an obvious example of a community thriving under a ban.

Capcom vs SNK 2 had one of the most interesting issues of all time. Console exclusive boss characters were banned previously due to the competitive scene existing primarily in the arcades, so we will ignore that for now. The major issue was a glitch, dubbed “Roll Canceling”, that let you imbue any of your special moves with massive amounts of unintended invulnerability. The community waged forum wars on the topic of banning this technique. Ultimately, because the technique’s use could not be detected properly, only two options remained. Either play the game with roll cancelling, or walk away and find a better game. Those that stayed eventually mastered the technique and found that it made a larger number of characters tournament viable. In this example, things fell into place without the need of a ban.

Tatsunoko vs Capcom had a couple of characters that occupied both slots on your two-character team. These giant-size mecha characters recieved a lot of ban debate. Those in favor argued that the game was simply better without them. Due to the subjectivity of the topic, as well as the fact that these characters were available on the character select screen without any unlocking, the characters were left in play. This may have been detrimental to the growth of the game’s community. The game’s life was short and it doesn’t receive much competitive play today.  This could be attributed, at least in part, to both the game being available only on the Nintendo Wii and the community’s decision not to ban the giant characters.

The Future

Making a decision without the game in our hands would be foolish.  There are obvious problems that fighting game developers keep presenting to tournament directors that require discussion now, even though we should wait before making a decision. Street Fighter X Tekken just happens to amplify some of these problems and is alarming large portions of the community. I wanted to share my thoughts as I’ve spent the better part of the last week reading all of yours.

Will Street Fighter X Tekken find its foothold in the competitive community despite these lingering issues? Or will Capcom follow its usual pattern and release a new and improved version of the game a year after release (a version that would hopefully address any issues remaining in the community)?

Gems seem to want to function like a competitive collectible card game. Players of Magic the Gathering and Pokemon are used to having to pay for the cards they need to construct a winning deck. Are fighting gamers willing to do the same, or will we reject this and walk away?

It is also pretty hard for me to ignore how silly those giant gems look floating around Ryu. Your thoughts are valuable, so continue the discussion in the comments and on the forums.

[Special thanks to Joey, AlphaZealot, and JohnnyChimpo. Images from Gem Images] [Disclaimer: The views presented here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Shoryuken.com]