Cash, arcade games, and gleeful griefing: the education of Seth Killian
Seth Killian held the title of “Strategic Marketing Director, Online and Community” at Capcom, and it's hard to pin down exactly what that meant, because he seemed to be everywhere. He has always been a voice for the fighting game community, and loves what happens when two people test their wills via competitive gaming. He co-founded the EVO championships. He grew up playing Street Fighter competitively, and joined Capcom when he caught wind of Street Fighter IV going into production. Seth, that game's boss character, was named after Mr. Killian. I had spoken to him earlier in the year about his history playing fighting games in the days of the arcade; his departure from Capcom and new position at Sony Santa Monica provided the perfect excuse to share some of that conversation. Killian rose up in a community that seems like it was from another time. He was one of the personalities exploring the art form of beating the shit out of people via fighting games in a time before the Internet was common, and he made his mark traveling to different arcades to play for money. Truth be told, based on his description of those years, and in sharp relief to his friendly persona now, he was also something of an asshole.
The joys of angering your opponent
“I’ve always been kind of a griefer. I enjoy sticking it to someone else, once in a while, hopefully in not too vicious a way. The idea that I as a punk coming off the street and could beat a dude who was 19 or out of high school was unimaginable to me,” he told me. “And you could tell the guy wanted to throttle me, but he was just barely not allowed to do that. That’s thrilling. And there was money on the line, kind of. It’s not really gambling, you both put in money and one person leaves and the other keeps playing,” he said. Killian didn’t have much money growing up, so he would camp by the machines, waiting for other people to play so he could watch and pick up tricks and strategies. “Street Fighter was immediately compelling to me. I knew if I was good I could keep that quarter going without having to pay again for a long time,” he explained. He loved gaming in general, but he quickly saw something special in the Street Fighter II game, and the community that was growing around it. “There’s a sense of depth that was apparent to me about the game right away. It was like walking on the beach and finding a crafted item, versus the rest of the stuff in the sand,” he said. “This is a thing. It just stood out versus the other games in terms of craft and care and thought.” He imagined the game to be a mystery box, and he felt that with enough practice he could open it and understand what was inside. The play wasn't random, nor was it stacked against the player. You could figure it out and beat it, and in turn beat other people. His secret was to stand back to watch players and their respective styles. Who in the arcade liked to pick which character? Did they like to jump, or stay on the ground? He began to find ways to use people’s habits against them. This trick allowed him to stand out in the local arcades; he was playing the other person as much as he was playing the game. “I had immediate success with that, and you could tell because people became agitated,” Killian said. “That really hooked me, because it wasn’t just beating this older guy, it was making him mad.” It was the first time Killian had seen a game cause an immediate emotion reaction in other players. Then something interesting happened: Players began to share information online. “It was like the birth of the Internet, there was a lot of things going on in Usenet,” he recalled. The conversation about Street Fighter overwhelmed the general video games discussion, so they were kicked out to begin their own group. “I remember arguing about whether there was such a thing as a combo. People were talking about getting hit with a jump kick and then a sweep and they couldn’t block it, and they were told that they had to block down-back, and people said that didn’t work. It was super basic stuff, but people didn’t know.” There was no easy way to share videos or proof of your exploits, if you read about a strategy or a glitch, you could only confirm it by going to your local arcade and attempting it yourself. After a while arguing online turned into trips to other arcades to challenge local players in order to see the strategies of other players outside of his area. Killian traveled to distant arcades during summer and spring break in his college years. Part of these trips was to keep an online reputation for high-level play. Part of it, he admitted with a laugh, was to make money betting on games. The “sort of” gambling turned into actual gambling. “I just loved the action. When gamblers talk like that, I know exactly what they’re talking about. I wanted to win, but the fact that this was happening at all was the thing of it. Gamblers just want to have their money in the game, even if they lose.” I grew up with my own smoky arcade/hangout in my neighborhood, where it was known that you could also buy cheap pot around back, among other things. I asked Killian if he ever feared for his safety. He didn’t hesitate. “Oh yeah. That was not uncommon. I witnessed fights. There was a knife incident at one of the arcades I played at, although I wasn't there. A lot of players have these kinds of stories, because there’s no question that for as much as I spent time telling my mother that arcades just had a bad reputation, it wasn’t the case. They really were shady places.” He had to ride his bike or find a ride into Chicago to play, since video games were illegal in his town. There was money to be made in the arcades, sure, but there was also the very real threat of being punched in the face for your efforts. The world was a very different place before people could troll with immunity online. During one match, with money on the line, the locals became agitated and their friends started to show up and muscled around the machine. Killian remembers being disturbed by the energy around the place. “I remember telling my friend Benny, you know, you have to go start the car.” Killian grabbed the money and made good his escape. He was threatened on multiple occasions, and had friends who ended up on the bad end of physical confrontations.
Evolution came slowly, and you had to piss people off first
Killian pointed out that it’s difficult to describe how different things were in terms of information flow. You couldn’t just talk to Capcom about things you discovered in the game, and people in different arcades found different styles and methods of play. The idea of owning an arcade board yourself was crazy. Ideas and concepts of play spread slowly, and had to be tested on the local level. It was a science: The players came up with theories and had to test them in the arcades. There were no strategy guides, and players in different parts of the country could play in vastly different ways. “There were things like the rumors of Chun-Li’s handcuffs, because Guile’s magic throw ended up being true,” he said. “I remember the first time I saw the magic throw with Guile and said what the fuck, for real? That’s for real? So what about the rest of it?” It was like seeing a real live Yeti in the wild, now who can say that vampires don't exist?It was also common for arcades to enforce an “arcane” set of rules about when it was okay to throw, and when throwing became cheap. In some arcades, if you threw another player they expected to be able to throw you back for free. “I remember going to the University of Illinois, and meeting this guy named Ming.” He would throw people with glee, just having fun with the cheap attacks. “I was wondering why no one was kicking his ass, and not in the game, either,” Killian said. Ming took joy in capitalizing on every advantage, and no one knew how to counter his