Feature Article

TJ Combo: The Killer Instinct Fighter Created in Record Time

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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.
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.
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.
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.

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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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