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?
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."
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."
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."
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."