Feature Article

TJ Combo: The Killer Instinct Fighter Created in Record Time

Teamwork makes the dream work.

TJ Combo was an impossible assignment. In just three short months, Killer Instinct's newest combatant needed to become a playable fighter fit for public consumption at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo. Traditionally, a task of this magnitude would take roughly four months to complete, but doing it in three is still feasible for an experienced developer. Too bad Killer Instinct's experienced developer had just been bought by an unlikely buyer.

In February of 2014, online retail juggernaut Amazon announced it had purchased Double Helix Games, Killer Instinct's original developer. Shortly thereafter, publisher Microsoft passed the development baton to Iron Galaxy Studios, known for its work on Divekick and several updated Capcom fighters. Somehow, in this three-month window, Iron Galaxy needed to learn the tools for a game they had never worked on, design an entirely new character, and have that character ready to show for the biggest gaming event of the year. This should have taken months. Microsoft and Iron Galaxy pulled it off in just six weeks.

A color concept for TJ Combo's stage done by Iron Galaxy's art team.

TJ Combo may have been completed in record time, but development started very slowly. Switching developers on any game is a laborious process as files are transferred, hardware is shuffled around, and the new team is brought up to speed on what the old team was doing. When Microsoft announced in late March that Killer Instinct would be helmed by Iron Galaxy, both development teams were already busy training on-site at Double Helix headquarters. Even so, it still took until late April before development began in earnest on TJ Combo.

"The heart and soul of TJ Combo carried all the way from paper to the final game, and that's really rare. Usually, a lot gets cut or reworked." --Lang, on TJ Combo's design.

"We're all fans of Killer Instinct and have been playing it since it came out," said Iron Galaxy CEO Dave Lang, "but that is very different from living and breathing it every single day for two years. We had a lot of stuff to get caught up on, so while Double Helix was stepping down and we were stepping up, Microsoft started coming up with a bunch of awesome, detailed design documents to help give us an idea of what they were thinking for TJ Combo." These documents were a vital jumping off point for the team, both in terms of TJ Combo's fighting style and appearance. "Microsoft's familiarity from season one, and ability to do some of the design work while we're getting our gears up to speed, was super helpful."

"We started with just myself and [Iron Galaxy game designer] Adam Heart working on TJ Combo," explained James Goddard, design director at Microsoft. "Heart is learning the tool from scratch, while I'm re-learning it, and we have only two animators to work with and that's week one of six weeks. Then you get to the end and we have a character and a stage and, yeah, it was pretty wild and it's going to continue to be wild. This could have been a complete disaster--having nothing to do with Iron Galaxy--just transferring developers itself is a nightmare. Boy were we ever fortunate!"

Finishing TJ Combo in the time allotted required all hands on deck from both Microsoft and Iron Galaxy, leading to a much closer relationship than the game development norm. While each game is different, a developer will typically handle the nuts-and-bolts work on a game, while a publisher offers insight, feedback, and assistance. Microsoft, the publisher, and Double Helix, the developer, worked like this on Killer Instinct, but after the developer transfer, the lines between developer and publisher blurred. The way Goddard and Lang see it, they are one developer--one voice--that is now guiding Killer Instinct. The two teams communicate on a daily basis and work hand-in-hand on every aspect of the game. And considering the time constraints, this was a requirement to finish TJ Combo in time.

This chart shows TJ Combo's auto-barrage progression. Originally, these were photos of the developers throwing punches that have since been traced over.
Planned range and collision coverage for TJ Combo's tremor attack.

To help kick off season two of Killer Instinct, Microsoft and Iron Galaxy wanted a fighter who was every bit as flashy and distinct as the rest of the roster, but also a bit easier to pick up and learn. To this end, they examined TJ Combo's namesake and drilled down into the very fundamentals of Killer Instinct: combos. "TJ Combo is all about combos and juggles," Goddard said, "so we decided to go all in on that and expand the combo system to include more dynamic juggling and a new recapture mechanic where you slam people back down to the ground from the air. TJ Combo also came highly requested. I know a lot of fans were bummed he didn't make season one, so that was part of it."

"In terms of play style it was one of those rare times when the paper design was actually super fun," Lang added. "That play style has been locked in for a long time, and we have just been adding stuff in on top of it. We're always asking, 'What if we add armor to his powerline?' for instance. We're always trying on different attributes and seeing how they all work together. That's the kind of stuff that comes and goes pretty fluidly and that's all part of normal development."

A lot of those tweaks have been to the powerline, which both Lang and Goddard consider to be his most important attack. TJ Combo is a close-quarters, in-your-face fighter, and the powerline is an armored, dashing punch that is perfect for closing the gap between fist and face. It's actually the first attack you see him use in the reveal trailer, embedded below. From this attack, Lang explained, TJ Combo has a multitude of different options and angles of attack. "You can cancel into a feint, a rising knee to go over low attacks, a roll, finish the power line proper, and all sorts of other stuff too. It's the starting point for a lot of different plans of attack, and when people get their hands on him I know they'll come up with some stuff we never even considered."

TJ Combo's instinct mode has also been designed with newer players in mind. In Killer Instinct, each fighter can enter instinct mode during a fight to receive some sort of benefit. For TJ Combo, that benefit is an extra boost to his overall speed. However, it also has a secondary function. If TJ Combo gets knocked out with a full instinct meter, he will automatically come back to life with a small percentage of his health restored. In addition, he will also be in instinct mode--complete with the extra speed boost--but it only lasts half as long as a normal activation. Goddard and Lang know that fiddling with instinct mode can be the last thing on your mind, especially for new players, so they wanted something that still provided a benefit.

In the end, both Goddard and Lang are happy with how their teams came together and executed on TJ Combo. There is still some more work to be done in terms of balancing and tweaking, but both are already turning their attentions to the future of Killer Instinct. As Goddard explained, "We're now off of the E3 scramble and now want to make sure we make an awesome character, and that's what we're doing. After [the Evolution Championship Series], we'll take the last round of feedback and then close him out. After that, we have a season to launch and characters to get going. It's now about the big picture, and the long game."

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37 comments
Exquisite
Exquisite

I don't play KI at all, but I love watching it.  The artwork is amazing, but this new character looks generic and underdone.

chippiez
chippiez

Why would anyone want to play as a black boxer stereotype in a game?  What are they saying about blacks here, exactly?  That deep down, they all want to punch their women and bite a dude's ear off?  C'mon guys... create a more sophisticated representation of a black fighter.  Make him like Kimbo Slice.

Bowser05
Bowser05

I'm very skeptical of this change in hands. To be fair, I was confident Double Helix would screw up KI and I ended up loving what they did with Season 1. Still my most played game on my X1 I play it far too much. I'll give these new guys a chance, but after DH JUST built trust with me suddenly I have a new group making the game I love? I don't know...

Ha2e
Ha2e

I don't think this is something that they should be proud about. Balance is something that can make or break a fighting game and a lot of thought and testing should go into every character implemented into the game. They just started working on Killer Instinct. They should take their time to ensure the game stays as good or better than Double Helix made it

lorider25
lorider25

Ohh look a black character...and oh look, he's a boxer. Very original.

Uiltetwr
Uiltetwr

I don't if anyone else noticed but TJ Combo suspiciously looks very alike Emmet Graves from "Warhawk", a PS3 game 

jack00
jack00

I didn't even know the original developpers weren't working on KI anymore. All I sudden I am not in such a hurry to play it anymore.

mike468
mike468

I can't wait for Season 2. I just hope they smooth out  some of TJ's animation. I know they originally said at E3 he was in rough shape and they where going to work on some stuff with him. I just hope they smooth thing out to be comparable to the Season 1 characters.

KimCheeWarriorX
KimCheeWarriorX

i dont think many kids realize that the series originated in arcades in the mid 90's. it was one of the first games besides the crusin games to use nintendo's hyped ultra 64 arcade board back then.

joey2010
joey2010

More like steal steve fox's move list from Tekken and lie.

VegasAceVII
VegasAceVII

He's pretty hot!  I look forward to trying this out when I pick up my Xbox One later this year.

nyran125tk
nyran125tk

i wonder why they have yet to implement a create your own character and create your own move sets in these games yet? Im surprised Street fighter hasnt done it yet or even experimented with the idea. It would make the tournaments interesting to watch if all the characters were made by the players in competition.

shinrae5
shinrae5

Looks great! KI was the main reason I got an x1 and I haven't been let down by it, it's an amazing game.

His combos look good, maybe a small bit sluggish but I'm excited for his return! Hope they do him justice

Pyro77
Pyro77

I love the game but I'm just not feeling his design at all and his moves don't look as fluid as the rest of the cast.  Hopefully the final  product will address t his.

gameroutlawzz
gameroutlawzz

Does his stage still have the same music it had in the original game?

gajbutler
gajbutler

One of the best games on the Xbox One, shame it is so overlooked, but that is probably down to Microsoft treating it as some throw away F2P thing on the console and not a proper physical thing that is in stores.


Iron Galaxy is behind this now, so I have faith they'll continue to do good by KI.

daikkenaurora12
daikkenaurora12

So they made a generic character in 3 months.  Good for them.

sanchango
sanchango

@lorider25 oh look someone who doesn't know he existed in the original killer instinct....

omar_q
omar_q

@Uiltetwr You realize Killer Instinct came 13 years before Warhawk, right?

Gen007
Gen007

@joey2010 Lol you do no that KI came out before tekken not only that but steve fox didnt show up til ltekken 4 which was like 2001 if i remember correctly. So yeah its def stolen.

gerd357
gerd357

@nyran125tk Because it would be an impossible feat to balance i think . I mean they take 3 months to create one character with a certain set of moves .


Imagine if they give you 100 total moves and now they have to balance it in a way that every possible combination of moves is balanced against every other possible combination of moves . I would say it is an impossible feat and when someone will find the perfectly imbalanced character you will obviously see everyone using the same build unless they want to lose everytime


To give an example if there is a total of 50 moves and 10 moves per character there are 10272278170 possible combinations . That is impossible to balance even with such a low set of moves , unless moves are copycats of eachother with a different skin

Gen007
Gen007

@nyran125tk It really wouldnt be interesting and the fgc would never play a tourney with created characters at leats not a main one. Some side action maybe. For one these said characters would have to be made using some sort of algorithms which leads to extremely generic designs. Second the movesets would have to either be taken from existing characters and there would have to be a generic move pool for created characters which would be pretty blad and boring. Lastly, it would be impossible to balance that which is crucial.

tman978
tman978

didn't Tekken and Soul Calibur do that? also, rare wants you to buy their original characters.

King9999
King9999

@nyran125tk Any sort of customization would most likely be banned in tournaments.  The only way it would work is if you can make characters without making them broken.

Gen007
Gen007

@daikkenaurora12 Except tj combo was made over a decade ago and probably helped defined what you would consider generic so yeah lets just ignore that i guess

imajinn
imajinn

@daikkenaurora12 Okay, so you should totally start making a "generic" character on some other developers original engine that you have no idea about. Then in 3 months show everyone what you made. I am sure it won't be anything near up and running, complete with intricate combos, etc.

Guest1001
Guest1001

@omar_q TJ Combo looked completely different back then.

And it's Starhawk, people.

KimCheeWarriorX
KimCheeWarriorX

@Gen007 @joey2010 i dont think many kids realize that the series originated in arcades in the mid 90's. it was one of the first games besides the crusin games to use nintendo's hyped ultra 64 arcade board back then.

Gen007
Gen007

@tman978 Tekken lets you customize characters but they are still the original characters with their original move sets they just look different. SC has an actual create a character system but at the end of the day the moves you can assign to them are just taken from the original characters for the most part and you can end up creating some pretty umbalanced stuff which of course isn't good for competitive play.  Fighting games are all about competition so thats no really a desirable thing.

Ahiru-San
Ahiru-San

@tman978 Rare? Rare has nothing to do with this game anymore… 


@nyran125tk there's Mugen for that, if you play on PC that is… but like @King9999 said, fighting games tournament uses the original games and characters without any modifications, so big name games won't implement that for that reason alone… that and to keep milking from DLCs like @tman978 suggested (although it's not Rare in this case)

joey2010
joey2010

@KimCheeWarriorX Ugh who are you indirectly calling a kid?Just because it came out earlier doesn't mean it's above stealing or tapping some inspiration from other games.