Fighting on: Killer Instinct’s battle to survive

By on December 15, 2017 at 1:00 pm

Killer Instinct is an oddity within the timeline of modern fighting games. It was ahead of its time in some ways – the best netcode in the business, a great tutorial, the first fighter with a seasonal structure and the lowest input lag of any other contemporary fighter – yet it somehow became reviled by many of its most dedicated players. It did so much to keep its players engaged, yet its legacy is tainted by negativity. As someone who only started playing during Killer Instinct’s controversial third season, this complicated history was something I wanted to better understand. So, four years on from Killer Instinct’s initial release and with its future uncertain, I’ve talked to some key figures in the community about its past and what it needs to do to stay alive.


But first, here’s a quick history lesson for those who aren’t clued up on their Killer Instinct lore. After languishing in Rare’s back catalogue since 1995 and with a new console on the way, Microsoft revived Killer Instinct in 2013 as a launch title for the Xbox One. Rather than being developed by Rare, Killer Instinct was given to Double Helix Games, a studio made up of former staff from The Collective and Shiny Entertainment. Before KI, Double Helix’s resume was made up of licensed games like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra and franchise spin-offs like Silent Hill: Homecoming – so it wasn’t exactly the first studio you’d think of when developing a brand-new Killer Instinct. The first game to be developed in Double Helix’s new HEX engine, Killer Instinct released as a free to play title, with players being able to buy new characters as they released or as a whole via a character bundle.

While releasing on the Xbox One acted as the first black mark against its name, there was a healthy fan base surrounding this revived Killer Instinct. Along with seasoned players like Justin Wong, PR Balrog and Filipino Champ, a swathe of new players entered the scene, with Killer Instinct acting as their entry point. You only need to look at the results from Evo 2014 to see how new names there are compared to the old guard. The number of established names would lessen as time went on, leaving a community of mainly new players to chart Killer Instinct’s destiny.

Cut to 2014 and Double Helix were bought out by Amazon to become part of their own game studio. With the original developer gone, Iron Galaxy became the custodians of Killer Instinct and started development of Season 2. Unlike Double Helix, Iron Galaxy had a fighting game pedigree, working on titles like Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike HD Online, Marvel vs. Capcom: Origins, Darkstalkers Resurrection and the greatest fighting game of all time, Divekick. Besides adding returning fighters like TJ Combo and new faces like Aganos, Iron Galaxy overhauled much of Killer Instinct’s core combat system in Season 2. From adding a recapture mechanic, increasing the damage on pokes, making Shadow Enders scale with your combo level and adding air combo breakers, Killer Instinct Season 2 was a different beast to its predecessor – one that focused less on unbreakable/one chance break combos, and more on footsies and punishing unsafe approaches.

This resulted in the first shift for Killer Instinct, with there being “2 different ‘generations’ of players with S1 and S2-3”, according to Dayton “UA Wheels” Jones. It is in Season 2 where the majority of Killer Instinct’s most prominent players come to the fore and it is this season that is often quoted as the golden era for KI – for one reason in particular. “Every character on the roster had something super cheap, making the game balanced”, says Darnell “Sleep” Walker, who became one of the leading lights of Season 2 with Kan-Ra and ARIA. Wheels agrees, stating that “almost every character was so strong to the point where I thought the game was balanced” while Kenneth “Bass” Armas was “super happy with the game” and didn’t even “want a Season 3”. Looking back over the patch history for Season 2, every character in the roster had a moment where they were top tier material. Whether it was Spinal and his oppressive corner pressure and meter denial, Maya’s guaranteed unbreakable damage or Kan-Ra’s inescapable set-play, the power creep of Killer Instinct Season 2 ensured a sort of chaotic equilibrium – you’d get your shot to do your damage if you held on for long enough. Among some, the consensus was that Killer Instinct was pretty much done. “The level of competition was high” says Wheels, with Bass thinking that the game was in a perfect position bar “some necessary touch ups to the current build” and the addition of missing characters like Gargos and Tusk.

Killer Instinct Season 3 Gargos 750x400

While it was fun for the players, this boom and bust balance cycle did not bode well for the future of Killer Instinct. As Calvin “Storm179” Phelps puts it, the wilder elements of Season 2 “would have been insanely broken long term” if Iron Galaxy hadn’t reined things in with Season 3. Given time, the more degenerate strategies would have been exploited to the detriment of the whole game, or so reckons Storm, so an overhaul was needed sooner or later.

March 29, 2016. Killer Instinct Season 3 launched with a huge balance patch, along with the addition of Tusk, Kim Wu, Arbiter and Rash. The goal: to re-tune the risk/reward of the combo and Combo Breaker system, while also giving players tons of new toys to experiment with. No character was spared, with each fighter receiving changes – whether it was new moves, buffs or nerfs. Along with this, some severe engine changes were made, like the removal of “unbreakable” combos and combos after an Air Counter Breaker, plus the addition of the new Flip Out mechanic and more. It was such a drastic overhaul to KI’s systems that Iron Galaxy even asked players “not to panic” in the patch notes, and to view the changes as part of a greater whole.

The response was not a positive one.

For Sleep, “the game balance changes and bugs were so outrageous that it wasn’t even the same game anymore.” While Bass was initially impressed by the changes, “the game had changed to something I didn’t love anymore.” No matter what Iron Galaxy did to refine Killer Instinct or fix lingering problems, the answer remained the same – this is not the KI that the community fell in love with.

“The scene seemed to actively reinforce negativity about its own game,” laments Storm, with some community members “spending all their time complaining about all the faults of the game (both real and imagined) instead of just playing the game and having fun.” This naturally effected the relationship between developer and fanbase says Storm, as the discourse was set by a group of people that reckoned that Iron Galaxy “should do exactly what they wanted” when it came to patching. Rather than looking at the game’s long-term balance or adapting to the new changes, sights were set on reverting Killer Instinct back to a game that only existed within players’ heads.

Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite is going through this struggle at present, with a subset of vocal naysayers relishing a chance to run the game down. Unlike with Killer Instinct, the relative silence from its developers – combined with its treatment at PlayStation Experience – do not aid the perception of it being a “dead” game. However, key Marvel players are actively speaking out against negativity and doing what they can to champion their game – something that was drastically needed during Killer Instinct’s rough patch.

Unlike Street Fighter V’s second season, where the lure of Capcom cash and big events counteracted the pockets of fierce negativity, the double whammy of Microsoft’s waning support for Killer Instinct and a loud and pessimistic echo chamber did irreparable damage. Despite Iron Galaxy attempting to fix community issues like guess-breaking, adding new characters and always explaining their reasoning for changes via patch note breakdowns and video updates, the well had already been poisoned by those who should have been inviting people to drink. With Street Fighter V approaching its third season, it will be interesting to see how the largest game in the FGC handles its own seasonal shake-up.


But despite all this, Killer Instinct endures. While a large portion of its top player base has moved onto different games, they have left behind one of the most unexplored fighting games of recent memory. “There is so much to discover in its many creative systems” says Infilament, creator of the complete Killer Instinct guide, with “many of the things that we do know about not [being] regularly implemented, even during high level play.” Unlike other fighting games where there are tech monsters slaving away to innovate, many characters in Killer Instinct have yet to see their potential unlocked – partially due to players writing them off as terrible during the start of Season 3 and then never going back to experiment with their new tools. Take a character like Sadira, who was thought to be bottom tier during the early stages of Season 3. With some practice, UA Kalypso managed to take Absolute Battle 8 with her, defeating players like Circa|Nicky, LetalisVenator and ThrashHeavy – a win that would have been written off as unthinkable earlier on in the season.

Just as characters are being innovated upon, a new generation of players is coming up through the ranks, now that the old guard has moved on. Always a strength of the title, Killer Instinct’s online community has remained lively. You can always get a game no matter the time of day, there are still players competing for Pro Stars on the leaderboard and efforts like regular Discord tournaments, KI Singapore and KI Brasil League prove that the fire of competition still burns. With development of Killer Instinct looking to be complete, the current community can now enjoy the game for what it is, rather than what it used to be.

And it is working. In the case of KI Singapore, the embryonic nature of the scene means that players are coming to the game without exposure to the negativity of the past, and embracing the game wholeheartedly. “[Killer Instinct] turns heads and has people asking ‘how do you play this?’” says Storm, who is currently living in Singapore. The scene is still small, but the players there are determined to see the game endure and hopefully grow.

But more needs to be done. The community needs to “think of real solutions on how to keep the game alive and well, both offline and online” says Bass, as the wait for a new Killer Instinct is going to be a long one. Having a thriving online scene is great, but there needs to be a presence at offline events to show the wider FGC that Killer Instinct is still alive and well. “Show up to offline stuff, from locals to majors, to support and get a feel of the actual FGC,” Bass implores, as Killer Instinct never fails to get the crowd going – just look at Combo Breaker finals from this year. Infilament echoes this thought, stating that community focus should be on “stamping out the residual negativity that [the scene] has harbored” and showing the world “what makes KI so great and unique.” If nothing else, both Wheels and Combo Breaker 2017 champion Rob “Valoraxe” Doherty encourage existing players to take a break and try the plethora of other fighting games out there. Burnout seemed to be a major contribution to the negativity surrounding Killer Instinct, so time away from the game will do everyone some good. Should Killer Instinct get a sequel, it is imperative that the community “take losses on the chin and attempt to actually learn and improve, instead of blaming developers for their shortcomings”, as this is what hamstringed this iteration. “Be a community. Show the rest of the FGC why your game is great,” says Bass and there will be a future for Killer Instinct.

Shin Hisako Killer Instinct

Killer Instinct acts as a cautionary tale, both for its community going forward and for the FGC as a whole. Despite struggling to get going, the third season of Killer Instinct is arguably the best the game has ever been – with some of the coolest characters in fighting games to date and plenty of things left to discover. Sure there are glitches that need fixing and it is looking ragged at the edges, but it’s still immensely fun and inviting for newer players. Combined with the resilience of those players and fans who have stuck around, KI’s future remains hopeful. Events like Combo Breaker, Frosty Faustings and of course Killer Instinct World Cup are all happening in 2018, so let the coming year be a renaissance for KI. Sticking up for your game now is the only way to guarantee a community for the future.

SRK's Englishman in residence. Most likely seen rushing you down or getting perfected in the corner. Still waiting on a sequel to Clayfighter 63 1/3.