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At Evo 2015, veteran Street Fighter competitor and designer Seth Killian and his team announced their new online fighting game Rising Thunder. Almost 2,000,000 open alpha matches and few months later at PAX Prime, Killian explained how he plans to bring the fighting game genre--whose fast and precise gameplay was designed for lag-free local multiplayer--to the world of online gaming. There are three key principles: make the moves far more accessible, design moves and movesets around online competition, and build a strong netcode to support precise online play.
If Rising Thunder was to work as an online game, the learning curve needed to be comparable to other online games. "My joke is, in the time I'm trying to explain to someone how to do a fireball or a dragon punch in Street Fighter, several new games have come out on Steam," says Killian.
In classic fighting games, people who can string moves together to execute the secret unpublicized combos are essentially playing a different game than the ones stuck doing simple punches and kicks. Rising Thunder's moves, by contrast, are simple button inputs that create dynamic fighting when strung together.
So in Street Fighter, you might have to do have circle half circle X, full circle Y to do a combo. But in Rising Thunder, that same attack might be simply pushing the joystick towards your opponent and hitting X. "The approach was, every move should be able to be done with a press of a button and some modifiers" Killian says.
The result is that even newer players can access the modes of play Killian values most in the fighting game genre. "You can turn people who don't know anything about fighting games loose, and they'll start figuring out strategies and concepts and ways to use these moves that aren't explicitly explained," he says.
Because fighting game loadouts and moves have mostly been designed around local play, two things have held constant: characters have tightly balanced move loadouts that are rarely modifiable, and all players see and hear the same visual and audio cues that influence tactical decisions.
This is not, as Killian points out, how online games do things. To bring fighting games online, he showed how adjustable loadouts and asymmetric play could be incorporated in character movesets.
For loadouts, Rising Thunder characters can always punch, kick and grab, but can swap out special power moves to create different possibilities for each fight. Now Killian and his team can tweak the metagame by constantly introducing new moves for characters and players, or swap out moves in between fights to help them make decisions about their strategy.
"We wanted to take fighting games online in a way that no one's done before, and support the way people are actually playing games now."
"Loadouts let us paint with a subtler brush," said Killian. “I can leave moves you're familiar with in there, but introduce new moves I think might solve a matchup problem, or help you overcome deficiencies at a slight cost."
One character, a masked Korean fighter named Crow, demonstrated Killian's other favorite innovation for taking fighting games online: the use of asymmetrical information. In the middle of an extended brawl, Crow went invisible on my monitor, but on Killian's monitor he remained fully visible.
"This is what we call asymmetric information. We're always playing together on the same arena, but what you see is not what I see. It's something that hasn't been possible with other fighting games before because they've been locked to a single screen."
For Killian, special loadouts and hidden information are the new baseline to evolve the genre’s complex mechanics for online play.
But none of this would be possible, Killian says, without the netcode created by one of his partners, EVO co-founder and programmer Tony Cannon.
Cannon's GGPO has actually been in the industry for several years now, in games like Killer Instinct and Skullgirls. For Rising Thunder, GGPO uses rollback data to store player inputs and fixed frame reactions as moments for both players' computers to check their list of perceived inputs and make sure they lined up. Killean and his team used GGPO3 as a baseline to develop everything from audio design to fighting inputs.
The GGPO3 grounding has worked so well, pro players like Snake-eyes have observed the frame rate is almost identical to local play, even while playing international opponents.
Looking to the Future
As Rising Thunder proceeds through early alpha, Killean remains confident that his team's goal to make an online-focused fighting is achievable. "We wanted to support the way people are playing games now, and take fighting games online in a way that no one's done before," he says.
The challenge going forward, he says, is that arranging eSports or FGC competitions will require fighting game publishers to learn even more from the successes of existing online games. Creating a new system of tournaments that are simultaneously viable at a competitive and financial level will require borrowing more lessons from that online-first philosophy, and studying eSports structure and funding tools to create a successful competitive scene. If the dream holds up, Rising Thunder's online-focused design strategy could finally bring together a hybrid FGC and eSports models that have long remained stubbornly separate despite their crowd-pleasing similarities.