Seth Killian, Competitive Gaming And The Value Of Gems

In terms of value, not all gems are created equal. Some are technically 'precious', others aren't. There is no universal grading system, there is no consistency. And if there is something the competitive fighting community values over everything — it is consistency.

The new 'gem' system in Street Fighter X Tekken caused a fair amount of controversy within a strident competitive community used to stripped back, refined tests of skill. Simply put, the gem system is an attempt by Capcom to add customisation to your fighter. You can select, say, Ken, then endow Ken with specific abilities. Think of it like loadouts in Call of Duty — an attempt to tailor your experience to your own specific play style. There are gems that allow you to block automatically, gems that allow players to pull off special moves via a simpler input system.

Gems could be seen as a mechanism that reduces Street Fighter X Tekken's skill cap, making it easier for new players and, conversely, more difficult for competitive players to develop their raw skill through practice.

In other words: 'gems' in Street Fighter X Tekken represent precisely the kind of feature competitive communities hates. Or does it?

Diamonds

Seth Killian doesn't think so, and he should know. Now a Community Manager at Capcom, Seth has major roots in the competitive Street Fighter scene. Remember this video? Perhaps the most famous clip in competitive gaming's history? Seth filmed that. He is deeply ingrained in the community, and he understands its concerns.

"Yeah the competitive community is quite worried about the gems," begins Seth. "I’m in that competitive camp so I understand. Any time you make changes, it’s like SACRILEGE! UNACCEPTABLE!

"I get that, because I had the same reaction myself internally. I was excited about the idea of customisable characters on paper, but then I started playing and seeing how the whole thing was evolving and I was thinking, ‘this is going to be a hot mess, I better go find another job pretty quick!’

"But then I actually went hands on with the prototypes and it started pushing my nerd buttons."

Street Fighter X Tekken has literally been built around the inclusion of gems. It's as central a feature as focus attacks in Street Fighter 4, or parrying in Street Fighter 3. Elements of the gem system are intended to make the game more accessible to new gamers, but Seth hopes they'll ultimately result in a new meta-game, a system that adds depth to an already fluid fighting system.

"I started trying out the ones I thought would be cheap — I was using for an autoblock gem and a meter builder, choosing Zangief and just running in and piledriving everyone! That build didn’t work out for me, so we had to balance and evolve over time. But once you start playing with the gems, you move from trepidation and fear to thinking of all the possibilities. Now I wake up from dreams going EUREKA! No-one has ever thought of this!

"And it’s not as though I could give a beginner player what the internet has decided is the best character with his optimal load out, and then have him play me and he’ll win! Because I’ll smash him — it’s not a win button!

"I play golf once every three years, and you could hand me Tiger Woods’ clubs and his set up, and it might help me a little, but it probably won’t make that much of a difference! I’d be much better with the opportunity to take a second mulligan or something. Beginner gems are for beginners. We’re not trying to make this a noob friendly game; we’re just trying to extend that hand. We’re trying to minimise the barriers to entry as much as possible."

Balance

The success of gems will, of course, boil down to one essential issue: balance. Are these multiple customisation elements fair? Can they be exploited? Is there a single optimum load out that will break the game in a competitive sense. It's an issue that Seth Killian is keenly aware of.

"We could definitely blow it," admits Seth. "But the thing with gems is that rather than there being some sort of optimal gem set up, it really depends on your play style.

"Like with the attack gems — some gems, like the power up gems only work when you meet an activation criteria. So a level 1 gem has an easy activation criteria like hit three normal moves. That’ll definitely happen in a game unless you get totally beaten down! But for relatively easy activation, it’s a smaller reward; maybe you’ll just get a 10% damage boost. A level 3 gem is balanced out by giving you, say 30% damage bonus, but it’s much harder to activate.

"It’s interesting because it can affect your play-style, like you choose to do certain combos because it helps you activate certain gems. It’s a cool meta game."

If gems are balanced in the way Seth hopes they will be, the system will help people play to their own strengths as a player.

"I do think some work better than others — but it’s really about play-style. Even if there is an idea about what works best, that might not work for you.

"Even if the internet agrees on an optimum loadout, that might not be best for your style."

The gems themselves make for an interesting meta-game, but Seth believes it'll also provide a new psychological element to competitive battles. Once a gem is activated, it's important to play to the strengths of that new ability. If you've managed to activate an attack gem, should you play more aggressively? Will that give your opponent more openings? In that sense gems add a real dynamic layer of drama to proceedings.

"Once the gems activate it create a whole new mind game," claims Seth. "Say I manage to activate my 30% power boost — that doesn't mean the opponents health bar is automatically going to go down! I still have to hit you! This makes me more prone to attack, which means it can sometimes be a liability.

"We've barely been scratching the surface on it, in terms of our own internal testing, but it's flexible enough that I think it'll produce some interesting results."

Activation

When new elements are added to games that are considered 'competitive' the instinct is to remove it. It's only natural — it's difficult to adapt to new elements, particularly if you've spent years honing your skills in one particular discipline. Capcom has added the ability to turn off the gem system, but the team is adamant gems don't represent a cheat system — it's an integral part of Street Fighter X Tekken and should be respected as such.

"You can actually play a game with no gems, you don't need to turn them on," begins Seth. "But on the other side of things, we have actually built our game around the idea that gems will be used.

"Online there is currently no way to screen people who have gems turned on. But if the community reacts negatively, I'm sure we'll patch in an ability to screen for them."

On Super Street Fighter 4 3D on the 3DS, players were able to screen out gamers armed with the unfair advantage of touch screen controls. Initially Seth believed a similar option should exist for players who wanted to disable gems, but creator Yoshinori Ono was adamant that gems would not provide players with an unfair competitive advantage. Therefore Street Fighter X Tekken does not provide players with the option to screen for players using gems.

Seth believes it's about having faith a system the team trusts implicitly.

"Ono-San was really worried that gems were considered some sort of cheat — because this is the core mode. This is what we've spent the most time balancing. This is what we balanced around. I didn't necessarily disagree, but it was one of those things where I was saying maybe we should consider an option.

"I'm just cautious. I come from the competitive scene, and I wondered if they needed a way to turn it off if they didn't like it. But Ono-San was like 'this is the way we built the game', you know a kind of stand by your man sort of thing! This is the girl we brought to the dance! We didn't want to ghetto-ise this feature.

"It's going to be a learning experience. Parts of it might work brilliantly out of the gates, or maybe not. But it's something we're willing to experiment with."

Perspective

Faith in such an untested system may seem arrogant, particularly for those with specific expectations regarding how a competitive fighting game should work, but Seth understands the reservations — he's just looking for a bit of patience. And perspective.

"Sometimes I want to step back and say: 'let's have a little bit of perspective here," says Seth. "It's not the end of the world, we're on the same team — we want this to be a success.'

"If these guys were half as strident about, you know, foreign policy as they were about new features, we might live in a better world! But it never bothers me because I come from the same place, and it shows how much the community is invested in these games.

"If you're building a game and you want to make something for the ages, I think there's no higher compliment than people willing to freak out! It's not necessarily pleasant, but ultimately it means you're into something good."


Comments

    I'm really into the scene, and I have no problem with the gem system. However, I do have a problem with not being able to aquire all the gems by just playing the game.
    Having preorder gems, DLC gems you can pay for, is not balanced. You shouldn't be able to pay cash for an advantage.

    First dlc has been leaked and has gem packs you pay for-
    http://shoryuken.com/2012/01/31/rumor-street-fighter-x-tekken-dlc-leaked-adds-christie-leo-cody-and-guy/

      This is the reason I stop playing games.
      I've played SF since the early 90s at the local videoezy. Would be a great disappointment to buy a game knowing that others that like to waste money have a advantage on you from day 1..

        Don't worry... this is Capcom..

        They'll just release a Super Might Gems Mix version later on w/ all the gems and moar for the cheap price of 60 dollas =P

    i for one, am interesed in the GEMS system, i think it'll make mirror matches much more interesting.

    however, i think the backlash is because the announcement for gems came right around the announcing for heroes and heralds in UMVC3, and H&H pretty much breaks the entire game, so i think people thought gems would break the game as well...

    Heh, this reminds me of the Halo forums with people complaining about AAs and Loadouts. The self proclaim "pro" players constantly complain about removing all features in the game until Reach is just like Halo 3. Kinda hard to enjoy the company of these "pro" players when their idea of "gaming" is to remove nearly everything the game has to offer.

      I actually spent a lot of time discussing the parallels between Reach and this -- I wish I'd added it to the article! I'm a huge fan of competitive Halo, and those parallels are the first thing that came into my mind.

      Not really the same thing, Neo-Kaiser. "Pro" players may complain about things like loadouts and AAs, but in the end, every single person has the same tools available to them. With SFxT, this isn't the case. With retailer preorder gems, collectors edition gems, and paid DLC gem booster packs all but confirmed, some people are going to have more (and in the case of the collectors edition gems at least, better) tools available to them. With the fighting game genre relying on people having the same options available to them, people are understandably pissed off.

      The example I like to give is: imagine a game of Chess where one player has the option to use a 'super-queen', which works like a normal queen except you can also 'teleport' to any unoccupied square instead of moving regularly. In a game that relies on people having the same tools and options, one player having an instant advantage over another because of a mechanic the other doesn't have access to just isn't a fair situation, and isn't balanced.

    Balance was never an issue with gems. The real issue is tournament logistics (setting up gems taking lots of time) and the fact that some are DLC.

    Once again Capcom's desk thumping idiocy shines through.

    Rather than evening the skill discrepancy between beginners and veterans; how about providing a decent tutorial for those who don't have the time to spend hours and hours trawling the internet.

    I've only managed 50% of the challenges for SFIV for the simple reason that every choice Capcom made in designing the game was made to make the game more counter-intuitive.

    High punch then low kick? I did that, nothing happened.

    Oh, you want me to time it in a certain way... ...but you're not going to tell me the timing, or how to find out the timing...?

    Tekken shows a move performed by the AI if you ask for it, along with actually listing all of the button presses, while lighting up the buttons in the correct timing.

    Mortal Kombat has a tutorial mode, explaining each move, and a 300 mission tower to teach the finer points of the game.

    While MvC3, SFIV relies on players either having retained some sort of mythical knowledge passed down from previous installments of Street Fighter, or a sixth sense akin to seeing frames in a trance-like bullet time.

    /rant over.

      I honestly think that you're blowing it out of proportion, it doesn't take a mystical sense to guess the speed of input per character in SSF4 or in UMVC3. Discovering the timing is half the fun and part of the learning process. In doing so, you increase your understanding of the game and level up your gameplay because once you figure out how to do moves with the timing necessary all moves after that become easier and I for one love that aspect. That moment of discovery or that eureka moment that makes my level of play more streamlined or more competitive. I respect that not everyone has time to put in the time to do so but i don't think that it's something that you should count as a negative....just saying...

      The timing in SSFIV is indicated by a line going across the opponents health bar, when it reachs the end of the bar you have to hit the next button, this is called plinking, in SF it's all about feeling out the timing though, you need to practice, practice, practice to find the correct timing. You can't expect them to give it to you.

        Sorry that's not plinking but the timing thing is correct. The bar that moves across....

    My main concern is the same I think most people have but at a higher level. I throw tournaments and all this DLC crap makes things expensive when you have to provide a minimum of 3 setups per game.

    Having said that. I am not against DLC. I am against DLC that isnt an expansion to the actual game like SSFIV 2012. When you throw DLC that is vital to the tournament experience and I can foresee gem packs being a common DLC option this can be a problem.

    I also understand that It is my responsibility as a tournament organizer to provide a great experience and the necessary setups but it's all kind of counter productive when DLC is mandatory to do so.

    Nice article Mark! As you mentioned with Halo, when I moved from CSS to MW, the reaction was the same. People basically wanted to mod it until it was CS with better graphics. I'm somewhere in the middle, I think the eSports scene can be too quick to reject new ideas, but they also have a right to be sceptical as developer rarely look after their interests. Infinity Ward definitely had public server play in mind, not wars.

    The annoying thing is when there's no ability to mod it out. It may be with SFxT that only a few gems are deemed OP, and competitions will just want to ban those specific ones. That's ok, not the end of the world, we're used to it :) I kind of admire Ono-san's convictions.

    @Reign

    I believe Capcom put these trials there as a test of your execution. I remember first trying to do Ryu's trials in SSF4 and being miffed at one frame links, but once you get a grasp at the system, it becomes a LOT easier. Take Juri's trials, the game wouldn't tell you to activate her Ultra 1, it would just let you experiment until you've figured that it must be activated. I believe it's like Zelda, figure it out for yourself, lol. Instead of the whole game being walked through.

    I'm quite interested in the gem system, to be able to make your characters unique really adds a lot of depth, it's a better interpretation of the assist system of umvc but more universal. I prefer a less aggressive, more tactical approach, so if I can tailor the gems to suit better my style, then I'm good for it.

    At tourney level, capcom should add some kind of code related to your specific gem combination, so that by entering that code at character select you are ready to go and that would take a few seconds at most.

    The only thing I don't like about gems is that the characters are constantly glowing green, pink etc, they should have placed a gem icon and when one is activated make the gem blink and that's it.

    Gems do not affect the game balance at all. I know...

    D3V is right,

    I'm all for customization for fighting games so the in a mirror match a character can behave in different ways. I think this was achieved with CvS2 with the different ways a character can play.

    90+ Gems I'm not so worried about the balance, the cost of tournament organizers to find enough consoles to cater for tournaments when DLC may be necessary as it will be tournament viable.

    Add to that the potential that in these 90+ Gems there will be Gems that can potentially break the game open in certain ways, this will require Judges trained to look out for specific banned Gems and training them to deal with a lot more.

    There could have been numerous ways to achieve customization in the fighting styles, this is closer to the penny pinching Magic style more than anything. This debate has been going on for a good while in the FGC, won't end soon.

    Lets suppose that the DLC method for the Gems gives Capcom some nice ideas about releasing more Gem packs later on down the line. EVO 2k13 may have entrants of about 3k and the number of consoles required to run SFxT with all the DLC may be astronomical.

    While I feel this game is not for me after playing it, I hope that the latest build at OHN does enough to change my mind. Gems are but one issue with this game unfortunately. >.<

    Note to self, proof read when tired.

    Edit: Customization has been achieved in a great way. This model of customization may be worse for the competitive community due to cost per station.

    Price point is my major issue.

    Gameplay is my second.

    Training Judges to look out for several banned Gems in a Gem lineup of 90+ with the potential for more down the line is my third.

    >.<

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