Rollback Netcode Can’t Save Your Burning House

Manu Schwendener via Unsplash

“If you’re thirsty and there is a glass of water right in front of you, you should drink it to solve your problem. If your house plant needs watering and there is a glass of water right in front of you, you should pour the water in the pot and solve your problem. If your house is on fire and there is a glass of water right in front of you, you should probably call the fire department and ask them to help solve your problem.”

This was a piece of advice I heard some time ago and it came to mind as I was reading your article on the recent heralding of rollback net code in fighting games as the hero that is saving the entire genre. The anecdote above is about how the size of your problems needs to correspond to the size of your solution. Being thirsty is a minor problem for most people and an ice cold glass of water will usually be enough to dispel that annoying dryness in your throat. When your house goes up in flames because you let your Hot Pockets get too hot, that glass of water will start to look pretty useless. When relating this to the topic of fighting games and rollback netcode, much like you Jon, it makes me wonder just how efficient rollback netcode is at combating the issues holding fighting games back from being as big as something like Fortnite.

Your central argument in your previous article was that rollback netcode is a fantastic feature worthy of being celebrated by the players, but it is not the main feature that is reviving life into the genre of fighting games. As you state “I have seen opinions on rollback that kind of suggest that it will COMPLETELY change the way fighting games exist and that it will solve all our problems.” On this we agree. I think that rollback is an essential for all fighting games going forward, but it’s only one solution to a persisting issue. Rollback netcode does not solve every single issue a game have in regards to its community longevity, player engagement, or overall fun factor just like our glass of water cannot extinguish all the flames our burning home.

Dave Hoefler via Unsplash

In this letter, I want to expand on your argument and dissect how rollback netcode can make a gamer’s life better, but it can’t fix every one of their problems. So if rollback netcode can’t solve every single problem fighting gamers have, how important really is it?

I Mean, it’s Pretty Important

I think before we dive deeper into answering that question, we need to establish that rollback netcode is really, really cool and I’m certain you would agree. Not only is the technology at work incredible (its basically time travel and predicting the future working together to make your button mashing more responsive in online matches), but it’s also generally inexpensive to implement into your game, allows for a massive expansion in terms of matching with players across the globe to have stable battles against, and has shown to have a pretty dramatic impact on lots of the things surrounding the button mashing like how a game looks or feels.

Thomas Despeyroux via Unsplash

Being the massive fan of old school fighting games I know you are Jon (just a bit of sarcasm for ya), you know all too well that fighting games have evolved from the quarter munching cabinets they used to be. The modern fighting game needs quite a few things to find success with a massive and fluctuating audience consisting of: old school veterans that just want to play Marvel vs Capcom 2 again, players that might like that new Cammy skin a bit too much, casuals who just want to hit buttons and win regardless, the guy who just wants to see all the fatalities or supers in the game, training mode professionals, and everybody in between.

Okay. So rollback is important and only serves to give players a better overall fighting experience online, but there are other problems we need to solve. Just what are those problems though? I think to truly analyze just how big an impact rollback has on fighting games accumulating a larger audience, we need to start from the ground up. So let’s pretend that we are making an awesome new fighting game. What do we need for our fighting game to succeed? What fires do we need to extinguish?

Everybody Can Play, Except for Those Guys Over There

First, we need players. A LOT of players. Having to play against the CPU all day is only fun for so long, practicing your combos in training mode can get exhausting, and fighting the same guy over and over can get pretty old, even if you’re winning. Allowing people to play each other from across the globe from the comfort of their home with minimal latency during a fight sounds like science fiction to people who have played delay based fighting games online, but thanks to the awesomeness of rollback netcode, it’s not the future; it’s the present. As you pointed out in your article Jon, it’s clear that rollback leads to some big spikes in player numbers on top of all other benefits I previously listed. Well…rollback it is! So there. We did it. Players all around the world are happy cause they can battle strangers online. Problem solved. Thirst quenched. Right?

Not exactly. When I said “Allowing people to play each other from across the globe from the comfort of their home with minimal latency” just a few sentences ago, what I actually meant was: “people with the same hardware who have purchased the same game on that particular hardware can play each other from the comfort of their home with minimal latency.” One thing we did not account for when making our game was crossplay. Crossplay is when the gal playing on her shiny gaming PC can cross fists with the guy playing on his first generation PS4 whose cooling fan screams every time he plays Tekken 7. A few console generations ago, Xbox owners being able to play the same games online with Playstation owners would have been considered witchcraft, heresy, or both. Thanks to the magic of modern technology and a few executive handshakes, you can now play games like Rocket League, Fortnite, and Minecraft with gamers using all types of gaming machines; even their phone. This has led to an explosive growth in players numbers for those games, leaving very little struggle to connect and play with friends and strangers online.

The live player count for Fortnite…at 11pm PST; via PlayerCounter.com

While fighting games are making strong showings in the crossplay department, it’s still a far cry from what we could have. In your article, you mentioned Dragonball Fighterz and its massive player base leading to more possibilities for matches. I agree! The large amount of online players undeniably allows for a greater range of potential matches, even without rollback netcode implementation…on Playstation anyways. Meanwhile, the players on Nintendo Switch are stuck on an island cut off from the rest of the player base on PC and Playstation (who also can’t play each other). If DBFZ implemented crossplay to allow all their players to connect to one another regardless of their chosen gaming hardware, people wouldn’t need to worry about what gaming device they have and could feel at ease knowing that the game they just paid for will have a thriving community because there will always be someone to fight with. Always. Despite that wonderful benefit, crossplay can sometimes have limitations. For example, Mortal Kombat 11 supports “Krossplay” between PC, PS4, and Xbox….but not the Switch. The Switch version is such a different version of the game that it is impossible for players on that console to connect with literally everybody else playing.

the live player count for Mortal Kombat 11, a fighting game that sold 12,000,000 copies, also at 11pm pst; via PlayerCounter.com

So let’s say we have rollback netcode and (by some miracle) the money to pay for servers so we can support cross play between all major consoles and PC (while also ensuring players on PC don’t have an advantage due to their hardware). Now we have good online connectivity and a massive range of players to connect with from console to console and beyond. Giving us the largest variety of opponents for players to fight against. We’re good now, right? Nobody needs a drink of water?

Well sure, now everybody can play together…but what’s keeping them playing?

Updating the Old and New

In your article, Jon, you compare the steamchart numbers of Blazblue: Central Fiction and Street Fighter V. Both of these games, as different as they might be, are fun, engaging, and nuanced games that should keep any online warrior satisfied. You mention how Blazblue had a massive leap in players when the game was updated but began to decline after a few weeks. Meanwhile, Street Fighter V continues to have a stable and consistent playerbase. Based on this evidence, you suggest that while rollback netcode had a sizable impact on how many people chose to boot up Blazblue (a very good thing), it shows signs of a standard decline in player numbers once the hype died down.

Blazblue: Central Fiction promotional art

You conclude that rollback netcode can reinvigorate players’ interest in a game, but it does not mean we’re getting Fortnite numbers overnight. I agree with your conclusion! Rollback netcode, just like a glass of water, can solve many problems that plague the online fighting experience and actively encourage more people to play the game who otherwise wouldn’t. A wonderful side effect of enhancing a game’s value with features is enticing the old players to come back and see what’s new. So, after a massive update like this, the kind that leaves players hungry to get the Wheel of Fate turning again, what’s next for Blazblue?

Nothing.

Blazblue: Central Fiction is an older title, meaning it is not currently being developed for by Arc System Works. This means no new characters, no balance changes, no new stages, no new themes, nothing. The update simply allowed you to have a better online experience with people on the same platform as you. I want to emphasize that this is fantastic especially for an older game no longer in active development. The hype surrounding the update only can last so long, though, as players begin to realize that Blazblue is better, but it isn’t going to get any bigger. However, for a game no longer in active development, this isn’t really an issue because the developers didn’t need to invest millions into remaking any assets or animations, they just updated it to be a better experience for active players. This is why implementing rollback into older fighting games is usually the route to go for most developers because it doesn’t require them to remake the entire game from the ground up or require any major changes that would compromise what made the game a classic in the first place.

Street Fighter V promotional art

Street Fighter V was a different beast. This game has rollback netcode that doesn’t function properly leading to a very infuriating online experience. The experience can be so bad that some people might dare to say they wish they could return to delay based netcode. Despite this, Street Fighter V boasts some incredibly high player numbers on steam and supports crossplay between PS4 and PC. But if it’s rollback is so bad, how come people are still playing it, especially when alternatives with superior online exist?

Simple. Street Fighter V is constantly changing. Prior to Luke (the latest and last addition to the SFV roster), Street fighter V was introducing new costumes, characters, stages, and modes. Each time you booted up SFV, there was usually something new and exciting to do or some changes to your favorite character (hopefully in the form of buffs). What this evidence would suggest is that players also need a steady stream of new things to enjoy about the game they’re playing so that it doesn’t turn stale. Blazblue has received one major update, but SFV and Guilty Gear Strive are still creating new things for players to enjoy and things to get excited about.

All This Reading is Making me Thirsty

Well my friend, we have it all. Properly implemented rollback, cross play between every gaming device you can get your hands on, and content for years so our game is constantly growing and improving. So…is it selling? Do people love our game more than their own husbands and wives?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Despite all these incredible features, this stuff doesn’t necessarily guarantee sales in our pockets. While all these additions sound wonderful (also complicated and expensive) on paper, none of them mean anything if our game isn’t fun and flashy. That may sound superficial, boiling a game’s success down to its good graphics and “funness” (especially after spending this entire time talking about the importance and benefits of these features), but it is actually crucial to a fighting game’s outreach. Why? Because a fighting game’s fun factor and feel as well as it’s art, animation, sound, and overall presentation are responsible to fueling what (in my humble opinion) is the absolute, undeniable, number one thing that determines how successful a fighting game is.

What is all that stuff fueling, you ask? A topic for another day I’m afraid.

Like you said Jon, rollback netcode is very important and very impressive. While it can solve many issues that certainly need solutions and even get people talking about a new or old fighting game, I agree that it can’t do everything for your game. Fighting games, and video games in general are a combination of a million different things, some big and some small. Yet as necessary and wonderful as it might be, rollback alone isn’t enough to satisfy an audience hungry for the next fight. Connectivity, expanded player base, diverse and varied content are tools for developers to help enhance their game beyond providing good online matchmaking that will do wonders in helping a game have the longevity and success it can have. Just as our opening quote suggested, however, you need the right tool to tackle the right problem. So don’t mistake rollback netcode for the entire reason fighting games see growth and success, it’s just one of the many things that make fighting games great.

Thanks for reading all this Jon. I’d write more, but I’m feeling quite parched after all that.

Your friend, your rival,

Blake

What the heck is Rollback Netcode?

How many old fighting games have rollback?

Who are you talking to?

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Join fighting game try-hards Blake and Jonathan as they discuss (and argue) about what they love about fighting games and why you should play them.

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Join fighting game try-hards Blake and Jonathan as they discuss (and argue) about what they love about fighting games and why you should play them.

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