As a big fan of fighting games, I’m always excited when a new game comes out. No other genre captures my attention in the same way. The feeling of discovery, community and competitive spirit – a good release potentially means thousands of hours of playing and learning, not to mention all the sharing and conversation with other players.
This week I’m excited about Guilty Gear Strive, will be released on April 9 on PS4, PS5 and PC. There’s an open beta this week, and Ars got early access to try it out, including the recently improved web code.
I’m happy to report that the beta is already doing the right thing to make an online game feel as much like an offline game as possible.
On pre-pandemic days, which already feel like many years ago, I would host a weekly fighting game night. People gathered in my garage to drive friendly but competitive sets, help each other learn games and just talk about life. Fighting games for us are not just about competing – they are about community and contact with people.
For me, there is just no purer gaming experience than playing against another human being. No CPU opponent or single-player story can give the same feeling of give and take, test your skills and reflexes, but also your ability to adapt and dig into the opponent’s psychology.
If you are the better player? It’s a chance to teach someone or test ideas against someone more forgiving. The moment you see them avoid the setup they had been going through all night or challenge the move you had bullied them with, it can feel as good as you won.
If you turn the tables and you are the weaker one, there is a chance to learn, and it is much more satisfying when you finally take a fight. One night I ran a first against 20 against a friend who is a much stronger player than me, I lost the set 3-20. The three fights I took? Best feeling in the world, even after getting my ass.
The real joy, however, is when you find an opponent you are about equal to. Trading games, constantly pushing yourself to find an advantage, adapt and watch them adapt, that’s when fighting games shine in a way few other games can. Can be a good friend, or a complete stranger, but it’s like having a conversation in another language.
A year ago, when COVID started showing up in Los Angeles County, I had to cancel the night. All the other weeks, the tournaments, the friendly sets at your friend’s house – they dried up. Offline fighting became an endangered species worldwide, and the only way to obtain it was to play online.
Fighting in an online world
Fighting games, by their nature, depend on reflexes and being able to quickly assess data. We count frames, we look for things we know are unsafe we can punish, we look for calming movements that can indicate that an overhead attack is coming, so that we can move our block to high. If someone pops up in your face, can you react quickly enough?
In short, it is a crooked genre to cram through Internet pipes. Any team can ruin the feel of the game. Without offline games, completely dependent on the Internet, what should a fighting game fan do?
Fortunately, there is some smart network technology, called rollback netcode, that can alleviate most of the disadvantages of distance and physics (no matter how good your internet connection is – it does not beat the speed of light).
Unfortunately, not all fighting games have a feedback network code, especially those from Japanese developers who are the titans of the genre, but who have been slow to adopt the technology. They have relied more on delay-based online code, which provides a much less consistent or enjoyable experience. Or in case Street Fighter V, half-baked return that provides as many frustrating online experiences as it provides good.
We have already published what is probably the most comprehensive explanation of the fighting game’s online code and how rollback works. It’s a deep dive, with both technical explanations and many short video clips to demonstrate the concepts – I highly recommend it for the curious. Here is a quote from what works as a quick summary if you do not want to dig in:
Since a game’s choice of netcode can never magically change the distance between a player and the opponent or prevent networks from dropping or delaying information, you may be wondering how a netcode strategy can be drastically better than any other. The key lies in how the web code handles uncertainty.
When there is no information from the external player, delay-based network code must pause and wait, as described in detail on the previous page. Rollback’s main strength is that it never waits for a lack of input from the opponent. Instead, the feedback network code continues to run the game normally. All inputs from the local player are treated immediately, as if it were disconnected. Then, when input from the external player comes a few frames later, resetting fixes the errors by correcting the past. It does this in such a smart way that the local player may not even notice a large percentage of network stability, and they can play through all remaining instances with confidence that their inputs are always handled consistently.
In short, good feedback feels much more like offline. Your time is the same as offline, and with reasonable ping, it is almost indistinguishable from sitting next to your opponent. Even matches played from California to New York or across the ocean can be very playable, with minimal visual jumping.
enter Obliged equipment
Back in late 2019, I interviewed Daisuke Ishiwatari, the creator of Obliged equipment series, about the upcoming release of the latest version of his game. I did not know that the pandemic was just around the corner, but I wanted to ask him about returning the online code. The previous Obliged equipment games did not have it, and their online experience suffered for it. Even in a world where offline gaming exists, it is much more convenient to jump online at home to play whenever you want. Did the designers intend to do the work to put the game back?
Daisuke’s response did not inspire much confidence, but it left the door open for hope:
Where we are right now at ArcSys, when it comes to retrieving web code, we have not really come to the conclusion that we need a super programmer so much, since the engineering team is actually split. There are some who say that this would be very good, and others who say, you know that implementation of this would not really work with Obliged equipment system. And it makes sense for a game like that Street Fighter, but how Obliged equipment is designed – this would not really fit the bill. So we are actually in the middle of the survey on the engineering team what it might look like.
His quote from my interview was widely circulated on Twitter as part of a shout from fans that the developers should take netcode seriously. It became difficult to find any discussions about the game that did not include hopes of a return. The question was, would the developers listen?
It turns out they did, and I was able to jump online and play a few sets to get a hands-on feel for how both the game and the netcode feel.