Fighting Words: Capcom’s Seth Killian Talks ‘Street Fighter’, ‘Tekken’ and Marvel

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Video game publishers have been shooter-crazy over the last few years, but gun-centric titles weren’t always king of the hill. For a good chunk of the 1990s, the fighting game genre captured the majority of gamers’ attentions in both the arcade and home console arena. Franchises like Tekken, Street Fighter and Soul Calibur each have had dedicated fan bases grow up around their characters and movesets.

And one man’s seen the fighting genre go from life support to million-dollar tournaments, managing to emerge as a guru for several quick-multiplying generations of gamers. Seth Killian is a revered name in the fighter communities, going from competing in matches to announcing in tournaments and consulting on development.

(MORE: Mortal Kombat Review: Banned in Oz)

Years ago, Killian was a prime mover in the organization of EVO, one of the world’s biggest fighting game tournaments, with fans and contestants coming from around the globe to bask in the glow of virtual fisticuffs. Nowadays, he’s a special consultant to Capcom on the Japanese company’s top martial arts series, Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom. I talked to Killian about the recently released Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, the upcoming Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and the allure of fighting games

You’re just coming off of the EVO fighting game championships a few weeks ago in Las Vegas and overall, this seems to be a year where the fighting game is very resurgent as a genre. Can you talk about some of the things that might be feeding into that?

I’ve wondered about this, too, sometimes and, for me, I think it kicked off with Street Fighter IV, but it’s been sort of a rolling thunder since then. It makes me excited.

I look at fighting games as sort of a focal point. In a lot of ways, fighting games are a pure distillation of the kind of connection and human interaction you get when you’re playing somebody else in a video game. These kinds of games put a lens on the people involved and on the interaction that other genres don’t.

I think you can express a lot more of yourself personally in a fighting game than you can in some other games, even with character customization and all that. If you really sink time into a fighting game, I can learn a lot about you as a person by playing you.

You also get that whole grudging respect thing. So that interaction has always been great. And of course, all of this came from the arcades. Arcades have mostly gone away now, which is sad. But that experience is still there. But I think for fighting games the technology sort of finally caught up with it.

What kind of improvements are you talking about? The processor speeds, arcade stick controllers for home use that are as good as ones in the stand-up machines or something else?

The fighting game technology I’m talking about is things like vastly improved online play versus no online play or unplayably bad online play. Now we have pretty playable online play. And you can really learn a lot and get a lot of experience, sort of like poker or something like that.

You can start grinding in those rooms. And then the other thing is YouTube. I used to have arguments at the beginning of the Internet with no pictures and no videos about Street Fighter. And those were very difficult arguments to win that went on for hundreds of pages. Now, we have all these great tools and people have gotten so smart about fighting games. There’s been this sort of stored knowledge base that’s become more readily accessible. As the original generation of fighting gamers, like myself, have gotten older, we’ve sort of passed on the spirit of educating each other and trying to give back to the community and putting up videos to share tactics and all that kind of stuff.

So I think those two, the power of online play–as in at least a possibility–and then also just all the great online learning resources have really made fighting games successful and viable like they weren’t before. It’s the same great DNA, but it wasn’t really possible to do those things.

(MORE: Snikt vs. Shoryuken: ‘Marvel vs. Capcom 3′ Review)

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So know that all this sharing is going on, do you feel like the differences between the various camps of fighting game fans, like Tekken fans, Street Fighter fans, Mortal Kombat fans, is it all just one big happy family now because they’re all on the Internet? Are there still really big differences in their attitudes?

Yeah, I think there’s definitely still camps. And there’s flavors to each of the communities. But I also think there’s also been a recognition that there are more commonalities than differences. So, there’s a bit of the brotherhood feeling but then there’s also, “we just like to fight.” You just don’t want to win at your game, you want your game to win out over the other games. 

You talk about cross-cultural stuff between the different camps. Capcom’s own cross-cultural titles with the Marvel characters have a long legacy, with the latest game coming out this year. What made Marvel vs. Capcom 3 such a hit, in your opinion? Was it the fandom waiting so long for a sequel? Was it the fact that Marvel has this whole entertainment company now? Or something completely different?

I think those are two major elements, of course. There was a lot of anticipation. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 is a very loved game. When we released it online, on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, that was a huge hit. So that was a great indicator that MvC3 was going to be strong. And as you say, Marvel has gone from a comic book company–a struggling comic book company, frankly, when we made MvC2–to one of the biggest entertainment juggernauts in the world, with real cross-cultural appeal.

Those really early crossover games like X-Men: Children of the Atom or X-Men vs. Street Fighter sort of pioneered that really over-the-top formula that you see in the super-jumps and really crazy specialty moves. A lot of games have borrowed elements of that and have done their own spin on it. But Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has stuck close to that and looks fantastic, thanks to an all-new graphics engine and updated console technology.

It’s just an easy game to pick up and play but then you can really sink a lot of time into it. For your entertainment dollar, it’s hard to beat a fighting game if you really want to put in the time. You get hundreds, thousands of hours out of these things.

In terms of interface, balance, or substantive gameplay changes, what’s going on with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 that wasn’t going on with the previous edition?

A lot. We’ve actually gone back and re-balanced everybody. Obviously, the primary feature of the game is the addition of the 12 new characters. That’s the meat and potatoes of any new or updated fighting game, you’ve got to have fresh characters.

We went and looked back based on some of the tournament results and just watching a lot of matches and that actually influenced the 12 new characters that we added. The 12 new characters in UMvC3–and some existing characters in certain cases–have brand new moves and modifications to existing moves. It’s character-by-character, but almost everybody has something brand new.

We watch how people play and try to fill in gaps and give people new styles and moves to experiment with. Everybody on the dev team tracks all that stuff closely. One of the guys over in Japan is almost as big a nerd as me about that stuff. He goes to tournaments all the time. Tracks when there’s going to be trade matches online and says, “Check out what this X23 player did here. Very clever.” We balance based around the collective feedback from the community, and it’s all been balanced to be a more holistic package around the new 12 guys. We added Spectator Mode and things like that to, again, enable that social experience that’s so powerful in fighting games.

The other big thing you have coming in the fighting game genre is obviously Street Fighter X Tekken. What has the response been so far as fighting tournament season has progressed and what kind of feedback are you hearing from the hardcore fans? What do they want?

This one actually worries me. Because you know the hardcore fighting guys are not shy about telling you what they think. If they’re not happy, they’re going to let you know. This isn’t even sort of, “I’m sure I can put a shine on this if I wanted to,” but this is really the worrisome truth, which is that people are just having fun with it, and they’re like, “This is awesome. I’m having a great time.”

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And I’m like, “Well, don’t you want to complain about…no? Nothing?” And so the element that they’ve complained about most had been the HUD and that the life bars were not clearly visible because they’re orange but a different kind of orange and then ringed in orange flame. I was like, “Touché.” We took that back to the dev team and they’ve already made adjustments there to try and clear that up. But I was like, “This is really the worst thing you guys have to say? Because I don’t believe that for a second.” We’re going to hear about it.

So, for me, it’s just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like everybody is setting me up with, “Oh, it’s great. It’s great. It’s great.” And right before it comes out, I’ll get hammered with, “Oh, this is horrible.” But, as of right now, it’s been unadulterated love which is a little eerie.

But the game has a long way to go yet, with a lot more surprises. Not only in terms of characters, either. The other thing we’ve been doing almost every show, is showing a new, big mechanic. Like Tag Super Moves, or bringing in both characters to play at the same time which leads to a lot of zaniness. We’re going to keep doing that right up until launch. So, the game has a lot of surprises in store. I’m sure we can derail the happy train that most people are on. Give us a chance.

In terms of this partnership crossover with Namco Bandai, you guys are coming out first. What do you think the big challenge for them is going to be in executing their Tekken x Street Fighter game?

We’ve had a lot of interesting challenges and they’ve been fun for us to try to make those Tekken characters play in that franchise’s signature style with a clear Street Fighter flavor over the whole thing. The Tekken guys, they are going to have a much harder road to hoe.

They’ve got to make that 2D stuff seem viable in 3D.

Indeed. And trying to make fireballs do something that they can’t, for example. I’d just laugh if someone tried to throw a fireball at me in Tekken. Seems like it would be too slow up close and across the screen you would be like, “You got to be kidding me. That’s never going to hit.” So you got stuff like that. And, also, I think about like Ryu’s  hurricane kick and how it’d pretty much kick the butt of every Tekken character…”Oh, you’re trying to sidestep? Hurricane kick.” Because Tekken’s all about using that 3D space but a move like the Hurricane Kick should still be able to hit a character trying to rotate around it. How do you solve that problem and not have it feel cheap if you’re a Tekken developer?

It’s fun for me because we’ve had our own challenges on the Street Fighter x Tekken title. But now we can throw it back and go like, “You guys figure it out. What have you got? Don’t screw it up.” We’ve seen them show a little bit what they’re doing. It’s very early and only in wireframe models. So, I think they’re quite a ways away yet. But I’m really looking forward to see what they’re going to do. And then I’ll be posting anonymously on the Internet complaining if they don’t have the hurricane kick right or fireballs.

So, if you see people trolling the Tekken x Street Fighter YouTube videos, Seth Killian is your first suspect, guys.

No, no, no. Those guys are going to do a great job. I have a lot of confidence in them and I think there’s lots of great fighting still to come over the next few years.

(MORE: Capcom Announces Street Fighter X Tekken)

Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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