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KI Anniversary Edition Character Icon Updates

UltraTech Timestamp:

Killer Instinct Anniversary Edition released November 28, 2023 with a whole batch of updates. Of the many Anniversary Edition changes, one of our favorites is the addition of refreshed Character Select portraits for all 29 fighters. Killer Instinct Definitive Edition set a high bar and our art team wanted to take a stab at what an updated screen could look like. To hear more about how those changes came to be, Community Manager Keeman45 interviewed artists Ernie Perez, Erik Ehoff, and Jess Wiedner.


Keeman45: Hi Ernie. Thanks to you and the team for setting aside time for an interview. When deciding what would change in KI Anniversary Edition, how did the icons on the Character Select screen become one of our priorities?

Ernie Perez: During one of our review meetings with James Goddard, the Head of Killer Instinct, and Kristofor Mellroth, Xbox Game Studios Publishing’s Executive Producer, the idea of refreshing the character icons came up as a way to visually reinforce the idea that the game had been updated. They appeared on multiple screens, particularly the Character Select screen, which is one of the screens players see the most. After looking over the schedule and available resources, we provided MS with a proposal which they thought worked well.

A comparison of previous and current default and retro icons, featuring Sabrewulf, Cinder, General RAAM, Glacius, Rash, and Mira

K45: Very cool! An exciting choice to freshen up the game. Who on the art team contributed to this effort?

EP: Jess Weidner, a recent addition to the UI Art team and Erik Ehoff (aka Samurai Cop, aka SamCop), one of our concept artists, did the bulk of the work, while I helped where I could.


K45: That’s an impressive effort by a team of three. How would you describe Jess and SamCop’s contributions?

EP: Jess pretty much captured all the in-game images of the characters that SamCop painted over. Jess worked with SamCop to figure out good camera angles that would help capture the feel of the characters.

SamCop took the in-game captures and painted over them, using real-world references to get the character portraits to look more realistic. He worked digitally in Photoshop delivering the portraits in a higher resolution than would be needed in the game should we need to scale them up.


K45: How long did the whole process take?

EP: From the moment we started capturing images until they were in the game, it took about twelve weeks. This included the first pass, a retouching pass, then altering them to create the Mimic and Shadow versions. Two other artists, Brian Goodsell and Jess Ulloa, tagged in to help with those alterations prior to final formatting so the new icons could be put into the game.


K45: Talk about a quick turnaround for such detailed work. The results point to a tight-knit, hardworking team.  What memory sticks out to you when thinking back to those twelve weeks?

EP: I think the level of detail that SamCop brought to the new portraits was impressive. It gave the characters more personality and depth.


Keeman45: Agreed. One quick question for you, SamCop. When painting over Jess’ screenshots, which character would you say proved the most difficult to bring to life?

SamCop: Without a doubt, it was Eyedol. While painting over each character’s 3D model, I found that I had to improvise the most with his. Trying to find a way that could fit both of his heads within the icon took some considerable trial and error.

Two images of trying to fit Eyedol's heads in one screenshot, then a transition arrow showing the artist's progress toward fitting both heads in the newly created character portrait

Keeman45: You could say you were trying to fit two characters in one! Thanks for sharing, SamCop. Onto Jess. What were your responsibilities for Killer Instinct: Anniversary Edition?

Jess Wiedner: I had a hand in staging and posing characters on a green screen for SamCop to paint over.

A GIF showing a frame by frame review of trying to find the right still of Mira to use for the character portrait creation process

K45: Interesting. Can you share more about the whole capturing process?

JW: Using a dev build of the game, I would load up characters into a match using a green-screen background. This helps with easily masking out the characters from the screenshots captured. I used console commands to hide the UI, paused the game and unlocked the camera so I could zoom around and frame the shot. I used a key to cycle through animation frames. This allowed me to find the perfect character expression and pose. I would take several screenshots that I thought were good candidates for SamCop to use and send him the best 5 or 6. Most of the time, SamCop was on a call with me, so we were posing the characters together. Some characters were easier to capture than others. We had to think a little outside the box for characters with a lot of visual effects or translucent material, like Glacius. For those difficult characters, we used a black background. I could go into the game’s config file and change up the character’s lighting, selecting the most dynamic one. Keep in mind, this is all done in game, not in-editor. It was cool to learn about how to control these parameters in-game. SamCop and I worked hard to find cool poses that were good descriptors of the character’s vibe, giving them a fresh look.

Jago's final character icon positioned in the center of the image, surrounded by 4 smaller images of different reference frames used to create the final image.

Fulgore's final character icon positioned in the center of the image, surrounded by 4 smaller images of different reference frames used to create the final image.

K45: Fresh looks secured. Noticeable detail was put into Hisako and Shin Hisako. What was it like working on them?

JW: Hisako is probably my favorite character, so I had a lot of fun creating these two icons. We noticed that Hisako and Shin Hisako’s original character icons were very similar to each other; same facial expression and angle of the face more or less. So, we decided to give Shin Hisako a completely original pose for her character icon. Hisako got a spooky-glow-up, and Shin Hisako looks like she’s about to eat your face off! It displays a good contrast to help differentiate the two characters.

Hisako and Shin-Hisako's final character icon positioned in the top-center of the image, with 2 transition photos comparing the previous icons, with green screen reference images used for the latest art, ending with the latest icon.

K45: Well, done differentiating the two. What was the focus when building out the Character Select screen?

JW: We wanted the characters on the Character Select screen to look like they are all facing off, so we paid mind to the direction the characters are facing in the capture process. It gives the entire composition of the screen a VS vibe.

A full screen shot of the character select screen, featuring Sabrewulf for Player 1 and Spinal for Player 2.

K45: What challenges did you overcome working on a 10-year-old game?

JW: While I enjoyed learning how to do the captures using a dev build of the game, it would have been a lot quicker for me to have editor access and pose the characters from there. I love a good challenge though, so it didn’t take long for me to get a groove going with taking captures in the debug build. Editing the config files was the main way that I could control the way the characters look in-game and that process gave me insight on how the game itself was built.


K45: Sounds like you had an informative time to learn new skills. At Iron Galaxy, we love hopping into partner titles, new and old, to learn about games. The Character Select icons were redone for both the retro and default icons. What steps did you take to make them feel cohesive across characters?

JW: SamCop and I made sure to capture similar poses for a character’s default and retro skin. This in turn, makes the character icons feel more cohesive. If I had captured the Default skin for a character, I would reference that pose for the Retro skin capture. It helped save a lot of extra painting time for SamCop.


K45: Any memories you’d like to close off this interview with?

JW: I remember doing QA for KI seasons 2 and 3 several years back and I totally fell in love with the game and its characters. It was really cool getting to circle back years later and get to work on the anniversary update. I wanted to do the character icon redesigns justice for the fans and new-comers alike and get people excited about playing KI. I think the game is super fun to play personally and hope that players enjoy the new look!


The new character icons are a staple of Killer Instinct Anniversary Edition. Browsing through the updated Character Select screen, just to discover after selecting a character that the retro icons also received some love, is the perfect sendoff before testing out the patch’s balance updates.

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