When Capcom's Street Fighter producer Yoshinori Ono unveiled Street Fighter x Tekken's new gem feature at New York Comic-Con, the internet erupted. Gems, Ono said, would enable a weaker player to close the gap with a good player.
It works like this: gems, which are attached to characters, provide statistic boosts and gameplay assists. One may boost damage output. Another may allow you to automatically block attacks. They're triggered in different ways, but they're all designed to aid players. And it's this that has caused fighting game fans into erupt in outrage.
The game's balance is now broken, fans fear. Online, competitive, even casual play is ruined. What if one player has more gems at their disposal than another? What if one person can afford to pay for downloadable gems and another can't?
Here, Capcom's fighting game guru Seth Killian launches an impassioned defence of Street Fighter x Tekken's controversial gem system, attempts to clear up what he describes as "misunderstandings", and explains in detail gems are not as bad as gamers fear.
Eurogamer: Do you understand where the fans are coming from on this?
Seth Killian: Completely.
Eurogamer: Is there anything you can say that might reassure them?
Seth Killian: It depends on the particular concern.
Eurogamer: What's been the most vocal concern?
Seth Killian: There's been a lot of consternation over particular gems. People see auto block and they're like, well this is screwed. The thing that's been going around a lot is a slide from a New York Comic-Con presentation that said the gap between good players and bad players can be overcome with these gems.
That's, to say the least, a massive overstatement.
The objective with some of the assist gems, that do things like auto blocking and auto throw teching: it's active the whole round, but it requires meter to use, still. So for the first few seconds of the game or until you build the meter it's not going to do anything at all.
The idea with assist gems is - despite Ono-san's statement that this is going to close the gap between new players and good players - it's more in a friendly way, where if you've got a friend that doesn't know anything about fighting games, they can help themselves along by seeing how blocking works or improving their understanding. If you've got your whole game going but you've never really figured out how throws work or how to get out of them, this is something that might help you out.
But in general the power of the gems has been somewhat severely overstated. The only time we showed it was unfortunately with the meter always full, so it looked quite strong. Someone with auto block and infinite meter would be tough to beat. I concede that one. But it really doesn't work that well if you've not got infinite meter.
"If you're going all out for blood, the better player is always going to win."
The idea was to try and overcome some of the struggles new players have initially. There's no way choosing those gems is going to somehow actually make you a better player. So if you're going all out for blood, the better player is always going to win, no matter what gem combination there might be. Once people see it in action, it's not a major concern in that regard.
The design philosophy he's going for is we want to keep the door open always to new players. Fighting games are a tough proposition, and part of the success has been finding a way to bridge that gap and bring in new players while keeping the strategic depth on the executional side. Things like the auto block and throw tech gems are meant to assist there. But by picking those things you're giving yourself different kinds of liabilities where you're missing out on certain other strengths. So, you have to choose that gem rather than another gem.
A good player will always beat a weaker player, and the gems aren't going to change that mechanic in any way shape or form.
Eurogamer: Has Ono been misunderstood, then?
Seth Killian: It's very easy to do and these are all hot buttons so anything that smells like an unhappy answer, yes, the internet will be all over it, and very much were.
Eurogamer: I'm a bit concerned about how this will impact the competitive scene.
Seth Killian: Sure. One, the system is still in development as far as implementation goes. Historically, a lot of competitive events haven't used DLC options because it creates a potential imbalance between players. Somewhere in there is a slippery slope. Maybe some DLC characters should be allowed. Maybe some shouldn't be allowed. There's also time selection involved with the gems. Is it going to take too long for a tournament to effectively run it with the gem selection?
We're trying to take that into account and trying to work with first-party on different ways you might be able to carry your gems around with you as a potential loadout. We're exploring all the possibilities and trying to keep that in mind.
Will gems create an imbalance inherently? If you have more gems than I do, does that give you an advantage? Ono-san mentioned the Magic The Gathering concept. There were some ridiculously powerful cards versus, here's a land card. There were some cards that were clearly massively more powerful and valuable than others. The gem system is not approaching it that way. The gems are all meant to be balanced against each other.
Think less about the assist gems and more about the boost gems, which will represent by far the majority of the gems. You can even have multiple of the same gem with the same effect, but they'll be two different gems because they are activated with different activation conditions. Maybe it's a ten per cent power boost, and you and I both have a ten per cent power boost gem, but yours is activated by hitting me with two special moves and mine is activated by you hitting me with five normal moves. It's the same effect, different gems.
So the gems are meant to be balanced that way. You're not going to get the 20 per cent power boost gem at the same cost by executing two special moves. Maybe you'll have to hit me with four special moves in order to activate that. The way we're thinking of it is a zero sum game in terms of attributes across the different kinds of gem abilities.
"It creates some possibilities and customisability, but it also creates interesting mind games."
Think about it like a simple RPG, where you have speed, defence and offence. There's more possibilities than that with gems, but if you have 15 stat points to assign across defence, speed and offence, you could say every gem has 15 points but they've been assigned differently. Some of them go all the way towards offence and have stiffer activation conditions. Some of the gems have liabilities built in, where you'll power up your punches by 25 per cent, but your kicks will now lose eight or nine per cent damage.
Ultimately to me it creates some possibilities and customisability, but it also creates interesting mind games. There are some where I'll power up my offence if I can get you with two special grabs. So every time my Abel rolls in you're thinking, oh here comes Tornado Throw because he's going to get the power up. But because I know that you know... So it does create all these interesting little meta-games around whether you're going to change your strategy based on an effort to try and activate the gems.
And also, the gems are very far from an insta-win button. We showed off an extreme case where all three gems were active at one time. They were all on power. That's one of the bigger bonuses you'll ever see. But having those gems active all at the same time is relatively unusual, and it's also geared specifically towards doing damage as opposed to other things. Maybe the other guy will have his 40 per cent damage reduction active at the same time as 40 per cent power. There are all sorts of configurations possible.
So, I understand the concerns very much, but as we get into it, hopefully we can tickle the nerd, theory fighter fetish that's got me going very much, and try and figure out what's the best build not only for my character but also for my play style and also not just for one character but a team of characters. It becomes interesting on the super bar front because, although the characters have separate gems, the super bar is continuous. So if I can use one character who is able to activate a bunch of boosts in the super bar and then find a way to bring in the other character, he can still benefit from that super bar.
Eurogamer: So it's not game-breaking?
Seth Killian: No, I don't think so. Right now we're in the process of trying to balance them out. The point I was going for is, we see the gems as balanced against each other. It may be the case that if you have more gems than I do, you have more customisability options, but it's not going to be the case that you have straight up more powerful gems than I do.
I have no problem making you block ten normal attacks. My play style is such that I'm always making people block with a good series of chains, so I'm always able to activate that. So if I see somebody else who has that gem and I think that may be a better suit to my play style, I may want that gem particularly and then need to go get it. But it's not going to be that that gem is inherently more powerful than other gems that I might get right out of the box. That's the concept.
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Eurogamer: Will Capcom make further announcements that will help explain the gems a bit better?
Seth Killian: Yes. We've got a lot more to say about gems. Certainly there is a lot that needs to be said because there is a lot of confusion, so apologies for that. You get a bit of, well, 'my friend saw this,' and then you know, once it goes down the road it can go into some scary territory.
We must have talked about the concept of a Magic the Gathering style of customisability maybe two-and-a-half, maybe three years ago. You think about the different decks, you've got a drain deck to sap the opponent's ability to do anything. These were interesting concepts that have strong analogies to fighting games. I was excited by the concept, then when we started to get a little further I became very, very worried. It was like, I'm quite afraid of this. Then, once I got to get more hands on with working prototypes rather than on-paper stuff it started pushing my nerd button as far as, I want to figure out what's the cheapest possible combination I can get?
Eurogamer: So keep calm and carry on?
Seth Killian: Yeah. At least we want to get it in people's hands and let them make the decisions for themselves.
Eurogamer: Will you be able to play online with gems turned off for all combatants?
Seth Killian: You do not have to choose any gems, but the way we envisioned the game is with gem play. For instance, if you're a stronger player up against a newer player, maybe you have an agreement, I'll pick one gem or no gems, and then let them pick as many gems as they want, and that would handicap you. But as far as online options, that's not the plan.
People are always able to adjust to their preferences and make the decisions they want to make about how they want to play the game. But as far as the way Ono-san has envisioned the game, it's with gems.