For the past month plus or so, I’ve been burying my nose deep in Guilty Gear Strive. I’m relatively new to fighting games, having only gotten into them properly after a fateful encounter with Pokken Tournament in 2018.
For the longest time, I’ve pretty much stayed out of any popular fighting games. Street Fighter, while cool, just never really cut it for me visually, neither did Tekken. For the next 3 years instead I roamed around between games like Dead or Alive 6, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle and Guilty Gear Xrd.
While those games were incredibly fun, there’s one problem with them- they’re not exactly the most populated games right now. Not just in terms of overall players, but most importantly, in terms of new players.
While it sounds shallow to argue about games being unpopular, fighting games are incredibly social at their core- as great as Hammerfall is as a move, not thinking about your opponent is how you eat damage when they correctly predict it and score a punish on you for doing it.
At the same time though, new players shouldn’t be expected to have the entirety of Dustloop memorized on their first trip out. Some moves are totally amazing when you’re a new player, only for you to outgrow them later, and that’s fine. Just like how you’re not expected to know everyone’s favorite flavor of ice cream the moment the minute you join a party, you should be allowed the space to learn the social elements of fighting games over time, too.
The best way to highlight this would be another game I played, Skullgirls. Skullgirls hasn’t gone much further than 1k viewers on Steam in the past year, and that’s only after announcing a new wave of DLC characters. If you jump into Skullgirls’ online, you’re probably fighting someone who uses the phrase “The launch party never ends” or has perfected their Parasoul setplay to the point that the game becomes more of an FMV experience, where you just watch your characters get juggled in the corner until you get sent back to the lobby in shame.
Unfortunately for you, the person kicking your ass probably had an experience you don’t- being there at the actual launch party, where everyone was just figuring stuff out. Even if certain moves ended up being less-than-optimal, the point is when a lot of good players started out, they were surrounded by people exploring just as much as they were.
The Social Experience Of Pressing 5H
And that’s kind of the point of this article- you need players around you that are the same level if you want to grow. I played a lot of Elphelt in Xrd- yet because I could never get any matches online (the PC scene is basically dead if you’re not part of any Discord communities or waiting for streamers like Calliope Mori to inject it with fresh blood) I never had the opportunity to get the kind of practice you can only get by playing strangers.
What can you only learn by playing strangers? With Elphelt for example, there’s the case for her 5H- a rapid fire pistol attack, which can be mashed for more hits. This move is generally okay, but once you know it’s coming it becomes fairly predictable, and you can easily get punished for standing in place. For most of my time with Xrd my time was spent only ever really practicing in arcade modes, where the AI doesn’t really do the same on-the-spot thinking you get in an online match.
What few online matches I did get in though, all showed the same pattern- people would fall for the 5H once or twice, then immediately realize it could be ducked and I’d be sent back to the lobby faster than you can say “Heavenly Potemkin Buster”.
The point is, fighting games are a community-based game. While you can practice technical skills on training dummies and arcade mode all you want, a lot of the thinking-based skills- things like mixups, neutral and such- those can only be taught by playing against real people. Moreover, if those real people are varied, you’ll actually learn to use them properly, not just tailored around the thought processes of your friend circle.
With Strive being as new as it is (and the amount of marketing its been doing), I think fans of more anime-style fighters have a real chance here. Strive’s playerbase is still booming, with its Ranked mode having constantly populated floors, full of players around roughly the same level as you.
It’s not perfect- many fans have decried the Habbo-hotel lobby system, to the point the game was delayed just to make it more bearable- but by grouping you in rooms with people around your skill level, you rarely ever get a match that’s going to overwhelm you. Floor 4 is full of people just learning their characters, who probably have one combo at best, while Floor 7 has way more advanced offense people who are still likely to accidentally drop a combo – no matter your flaw, you’ll always eventually be surrounded by people with similar ones.
That’s not to say blowouts don’t happen, though- every now and again you meet a 10th floor denizen who’s been wrongfully assigned to start lower than that. I’ve had my fair share of 3-0s to players in the middle of their meteoric rise to Celestial, sometimes at the cost of my own rank going down. But the point is for as long as people are still playing Strive, you won’t have to worry about the situation many other games have where only its most elite 10% are still playing the game.
Remember, the idea here is that it’s not that you never get a bad match- it’s that for every bad match, you get three more really good ones, and those are the ones you need to get better.
Yes, We’re Going To Talk About Netcode
The other reason Strive’s multiplayer works so well is that it actually has working netcode. For the longest time fighting games have been held back by their use of delay-based netcode: an older format that absolutely falls apart in any area not using internet infrastructure from 10 years from now. Over the years, smaller fighting games have been adopting GGPO, or Rollback Netcode- something more akin to what other multiplayer games use.
The result is that you can get more matches, since you won’t have to worry about your games being slowed down horribly by the artificial Delay caused by Delay-Based netcode. Obviously this doesn’t fix the problem of just generally bad internet- not even Netflix can save you from someone playing on theWiFi of their local McDonalds- but the fact that the middle tier of players can now all play with each other more comfortably means less blaming lag for your losses and more actual introspection on why Wake-Up DP doesn’t always work.
It’s almost a tired talking point, but knowing that a lot of influential people in the industry like Tekken’s Katsuhiro Harada are constantly pushing back against the idea of something that unilaterally helps their games means that there’s a long way to go if you want a future where more games have active playerbases that aren’t all killers.
Where To Go From Here
Is Fighting game multiplayer solved? I don’t think so. For one thing, Crossplay is definitely the next big step- once players aren’t bound by what platforms they’re on, you should see fighting games across the board go up in popularity as everyone starts to have access to the same pool of eager-to-learn players.
But I think despite its flaws, Guilty Gear Strive is definitely a big step forward- it’s one of the biggest fighting game releases this year, got a main stage slot at EVO and it’s got the quality-of-life fixtures to make sure that even if you’re not SonicFox you can still go out and have a good time.
If nothing else, it’s proven one thing- make the effort to make a game that works, and people will play it. And more people playing a game is good for everyone, even the people who were already playing before it was cool.