Polygon: Bad netcode is killing many of your favorite fighting games

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Nov 16, 2018
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WatchingWatching the release of Samurai Shodown’s second season of DLC has been frustrating. The game continues to grow and develop without addressing its biggest problem: horrible online play. Is there any point in continuing to develop a competitive game — no matter how beautiful, or finely crafted — when the majority of players can barely play against anyone else?

The game itself is a stunner. I often pull out Samurai Shodown when my friends and I get together; it’s gorgeous and easy for a new player to pick up, and the heavy slashes make the whole room gasp. Everyone has a lot of fun, regardless of their skill level.

I’d like to be able to play Samurai Shodown against strong competition online as well as against my friends locally, but the netcode is so bad — worse than any other fighting game I can think of — that I quickly give up. Unpredictable bursts of heavy lag make the formerly razor-sharp action dull, slow, and unsatisfying. It’s hard to get motivated to try my best when I can’t trust that my own movements will be accurately reflected on screen.
Online fighting games deserve a lot better. NetherRealm Studios (Mortal Kombat) and Capcom (Street Fighter) have both finally embraced superior netcode, and even the smallest indie games — including jokey stuff like meme fighter Fight of Animals — have gotten great results with updated technology.

But genre leaders like SNK and Arc System Works — along with other developers and publishers, mostly located in Japan — haven’t changed much about their online play over the years, even as they’ve pumped out exciting new games. While Granblue Fantasy Versus is on the bleeding edge of 3D animation, it’s stuck far in the past when it comes to network code.

This backward approach to netcode is a story that repeats itself with nearly every new fighting game out of Japan. The only thing that’s going to change this state of affairs is fans demanding that something be done, while voting with their dollars for games that do so.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF STICKING WITH DELAY
Fighting games have always depended on grassroots communities to stay active and relevant, long before online play was ever a possibility. Not every game is mainstream enough to maintain a constant flow of players like Tekken or Street Fighter, and the games that can’t find a competitive scene wither on the vine.

Offline meets and tournaments will always be the best way to play, but they represent only a sliver of the total player population. There just aren’t enough physical arcades or meeting places with competitive players in most communities. Fans who buy a fighting game these days will usually only ever play versus mode online, if they play multiplayer at all. An online mode that doesn’t work, or doesn’t help their skills progress, will keep any kind of meaningful scene from developing. Again, this is death for a fighting game.

When a game is new — like the recently released Granblue Fantasy Versus, which importers have been feasting on for a month before its U.S. release — all is well, even with delay-based netcode. There’s no problem finding matches on smooth connections, because the game is the hot experience in the community and everyone is giving it a try. More players mean smoother connections between competitors who are closer together, so players rarely have to worry about bad netcode when a game is new. Indeed, for games like Samurai Shodown, this might be the only time players are able to find good matches at all.

If you fast-forward about six months, though — after the add-on characters stop coming out? Things get grim. What about after Guilty Gear Strive launches later this year, and the “anime fighter” fans migrate over to the new, hot game? Suddenly there won’t be so many active players in your region and, depending on where you live and the connection you use, there might not be any.
Fighting game developers in the West have embraced rollback, but the genre was born and bred in Japan. Companies like Capcom, Arc System Works, and SNK continue to be prolific in the genre. Of these, only Capcom has put out a major game with rollback netcode, and its implementation in Street Fighter 5behold this Capcom Cup qualifier — left much to be desired.

Part of this might be that delay-based netplay is less of an issue in Japan, with its small geographical size, dense population, and high-quality broadband internet access, so why change it? I experienced smooth connections — even playing games noted for their poor netplay, like Million Arthur Arcana Blood — when I was playing online fighting games at arcades in Tokyo. That may be the whole problem right there: Why bother with something that takes more work if the current solution works well enough at home?

But it’s not just people in Japan playing Japanese fighting games. It’s the Tekken World Tour, with Korean, Pakistani, French, and American players in the top 10. With the rise of competition and esports, it’s long past time for developers to acknowledge that this is a global community, and to serve that community to the best of their ability, using the best tools available.

Thankfully, it looks like change is starting to come. Capcom, for one, has finally committed to working to fix Street Fighter 5’s botched rollback netcode. And after years of lukewarm responses on netcode — and months of fans mercilessly spamming “GGPO!” on the company’s every livestream — Arc System Works has said it will build rollback netplay into its upcoming flagship title Guilty Gear Strive.
 
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