Can Injustice 2's gear system possibly work in tournament play?

During E3 2016 we got our first look at Injustice 2, Netherrealm’s sequel to its DC comics-based fighting game. The brand new feature is gear, and lots of it. As you win matches, your character will level-up and equipment will drop. This equipment, which comes in the form of arm, leg, and chest armor, shields, capes, and other accessories, not only affect your character’s aesthetic appearance, but also changes their attack, defense, speed, and move properties. There are even pieces of equipment that will add new moves and combos to your character’s repertoire. The number of options is staggering, with over one thousand options per category per character. That’s one quintillion loadout configurations per character!

That’s all well and good if you are casually playing Injustice 2 from the comfort of your own home. But Netherrealm has been clear that they want Injustice 2 to be a staple in the fighting tournament scene. Balancing a quintillion loadouts per character is literally impossible for any human team to do. Heck, selecting from a quintillion loadouts might be impossible for any human competitor to do. How can this system be a core part of the gameplay experience and still be tournament viable?

The Sad Story of Gems

Why do we care? Why is the tournament community on edge about this decision?

Let’s go back in time to the release of a game called Street Fighter X Tekken. Designed to be the crossover event of the decade, SFXTK was meant to combine the fighters and mechanics from the two titular franchises, and it did! But it also added a new system: gems.

Gems were essentially pieces of equipment that you could put on your character. Some provided passive buffs while others actively triggered at some point during the match. There were a little fewer than 400 gems in the game, and you unlocked them as you won fights. You could equip up to three gems to a character (although some required more than one slot to equip) giving you approximately 1200 loadouts per character.

And they were a horrible failure. In the online world, gems were abusable. Speed gems in the right combination led to inescapable blockstrings. Power gems led to one-touch death combos. “Easy” gems made your character automatically block, or gave you armor at random points. Fighting felt random and wonky, unlike the high speed chess match that fighting games usually are.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Abusable gem strategies were slowly phased out as players got better. The bigger problem was the rest of the game, which inadvertently suffered because it was designed around gems.  

For example, characters couldn’t just win the game because they equipped a few synergistic power gems. Thus, every character’s life bar was a little longer to compensate, and everyone did a little bit less damage. Speed couldn’t dominate the game so everyone was a little slower. Meter gain gems couldn’t be broken so everyone’s meter filled more slowly. Using gems was supposed to be the “standard,” so everyone’s basic non-gem equipped form was pitiful and weak. This caused matches to often end in time-outs, which was not fun to watch or play.

So playing with unequipped characters was not tournament viable, but playing with gems wasn’t viable either. There were a limited amount of gem loadouts that each game allowed you to have, nowhere near enough to facilitate even the smallest 10 person tournament. Players could go into the gem equipment menu before a match to enter their custom loadout, but this was a separate menu from the character select screen, and navigating through it took an amount of time that wasn’t feasible for a tournament match.  

Capcom later patched in a “quick select” system that let you dial in numbers to select your specific loadout using the buttons on your arcade stick, but even that took too long. The additional process of loadout counter-picking frequently caused character selection paralysis before matches, and unlike traditional fighting games where you can simply tell the tournament organizer your blind pick in order to make the first fight fair, describing an entire loadout tended to require pencil and paper and this, once again, took too long to allow a tournament to run at a viable pace.

Eventually, Street Fighter X Tekken fell out of favor with the professional crowd. This reduced the amount of people who played the game online, which eventually made casual players give up the game as well. This made companies and sponsors cut their support for the game, reducing money-making opportunities for serious e-sports competitors. With pros, casuals, and sponsors all disappointed, the game faded into obscurity and players returned to Ultra Street Fighter IV.

This Time It Will Be Different?

Luckily, Netherrealm’s Ed Boon was around for the gem fiasco and is resolved not to let it happen again.“We're certainly not doing gems,” he said in an interview with Gamespot’s Tamoor Hussain. “We're definitely not going to do that. We will absolutely have some kind of a mode, whether we call it Tournament Mode or something like that we haven't decided. That'll provide the level playing field version. We're definitely not going to have people strolling into tournaments with level 50 Batman and kicking everybody's ass. We're not crazy.”

And that’s the official word from Netherrealm on the matter. They're aware people are concerned, and they assure us they won't repeat the mistakes of the past, but there are no details about what they'll offer instead. It’s a disappointing and unsatisfying answer, but it’s the only one that’s accurate. Nevertheless, it does appear as if the dev team is planning to include gear in tournament play in some capacity. Lead Producer Adam Urbano said in an interview with Gamasutra,  “balancing really involves the modes, the gear itself, and then making sure the changes players can do with gear and acquiring specials and all that are balanced. To do that, we have a dedicated little team that focuses on the tournament crowd. Because we love them; it's part of our studio culture at this point.”

It makes sense that NRS would want to try and push this into tournament areas, considering the incredible success they had with Mortal Kombat X’s style system. This is essentially the same thing, except you get to create your own styles. This opens up more characters to more players, allowing grappling, zoning, and aggro players to tailor basically every character in the roster to their playstyle.

“The goal is that you start out with a much more accessible, easier-to-play character,” Urbano said “and then you're going to grow with that character, over weeks and weeks and weeks if you choose, giving you a chance to customize it and make it play the way you want it. Actually getting to learn how to play, as well. Instead of just presenting you with 26 or so completed characters from the start, this is 26 sort of...character templates, for players to take and turn into what they want.”

He went on to say that the team was very influenced by MOBAs and RPGs, and he does have a point there. Many popular MOBAs have similar progression systems and are played in tournament settings just fine…

But…

Problems Ahead and Possible Solutions

Integrating gear into a tournament setting still presents some problems. The main problem I foresee is time. SFXTK showed that there just isn’t enough time per match to set up individual loadouts in a fighting game tournament. One would think that you could just have competitors play on a version of the game with every piece of equipment unlocked, but sifting through 1,000 choices per category would make fighting game tournaments last a week.

It’s possible that they could handle this the way Hearthstone tournaments are run, i.e. that your collection of equipment is tied to your own account. However, that would require all consoles at a venue to have access to the internet at the same time, which has traditionally been a problem even at major events. It would also require signing in and signing out of your account to be an incredibly quick process, something you could do on the character select screen with a few button taps.

Having “tournament standard” loadouts is a possibility, but that makes it hard to practice. First of all, any competitor would have to first grind to earn the tournament approved equipment. Then, they would need to practice online with it, which would be an inaccurate representation of a tournament environment since other players will be using non-tournament equipment. I suppose you could simply give the tournament equipment to everyone when they start the game, and possibly have a “tournament only” option when you are searching for matches, but then this splits the player base. You can also have every “tournament version” be each character unequipped, but if the game is designed around this gear system we may run into the SFXTK time-out problem all over again.

There’s one other fix that I think might be workable, and that’s pre-registration. Basically, when you register for an Injustice 2 tournament, you also have to send in your loadouts. You’ll probably be restricted to three or four loadouts and characters just so things don’t get ludicrous. If you do this, then the tournament organizers can set up your loadouts on one system, and simply copy over the system memory to every other system in the tournament. This will require a lot of organization and a lot of technology working properly, without any glitches, which is something with which even the biggest e-sports events struggle.

What do you think? Are there ways to integrate gear into a tournament setting or is Injustice 2 fated to be a casual game? We will reach out to Netherrealm Studios for more information as the game develops.