Lag kills: Why all fighting games are secretly terrible online
Over recent years, huge advancements have been made in online play for fighting games. Anyone who played online fighting games back in the mid-2000s knows that things started out pretty rough when the genre first started going online en masse.
Today things are much better, and the experience of playing online is much more enjoyable than it ever was before. Generally matches appear smooth, and it's rare for lag to be so bad that it obviously ruins a match.
It's still not perfect though, and in the world of fighting games if it's not perfect, it's bad.
Lag ruins everything
Most gamers intuitively understand that lag is bad for any game, but fighting games rely more on millisecond reactions than any other genre.
“I dont accept matches with people if their ping is over 100,” said Adelheid Stark, one of the best Divekick players in the world, a champion Guilty Gear player, and the winner of the Divekick competition at PAX 2013.
“I don't deal with lag very well at all,” she said. “Divekick uses a rollback-based netcode system which means you always see you as doing what you're doing when you're doing it. But since it can only be transmitted at the speed of light, and generally far below that, it takes some time for your opponent to see what you did. The moment your opponent's computer realizes what you've done it basically turns back time and plays out the game instantly and shows them the result. It's good for you, but for your opponent your movements can look sort of choppy.”
That said, it's not usually a disastrous system, and you can have relatively good matches as long as the person is within a close proximity or has a great net connection.
The problem is that even with a really good connection, the basics of online play are harmful to truly learning fighting games. They can be played online, but it's unlikely that you can master the game playing in this manner.
Fighting games have always been designed so that a single frame of animation can, and often is, the difference between victory and defeat. If your block is just one frame too late then you can end up in a combo that leads to defeat. Skilled fighting game players are learned in the number of frames of each move's interaction, and consequently, which moves can be used to “punish” other moves.
In online play, that single frame that can make or break a game becomes extremely difficult to take advantage of.
Fighting game experts we spoke to said that even with a tiny amount of lag, simple things can become more complicated. For instance, when playing Street Fighter IV offline, you might have 1/2 a second to react to an opponent's jump attack in order to punish it with an uppercut. When playing online that time window gets smaller as the lag gets worse; you're seeing the jump a millisecond later than it actually happens. So instead of a 1/2 second reaction window, you instead might only have 1/4 second. That might not seem like much, but it's often the difference between getting hit with a combo and starting a combo of your own.
The flipside is also true. While defending is more difficult, going on the offensive can be easier because your opponent essentially has a 1/8 to 1/4 second blindfold that prevents them from seeing what you're doing right away. That might sound like a good thing, but it's bad news for both players.
“The one thing I would say is that playing online can condition you to do some things that are bad offline,” said Adelheid Stark. “Because it takes that little bit longer for your opponent to see what you're doing they might not be able to punish something that is actually unsafe.”
Playing under these sorts of conditions can give you bad habits that can be exploited once you start playing offline where latency isn't a factor.
“An example would be if I'm playing S-Kill,” said Adelheid Stark about her Divekick character of choice. “He has a move which is a parry, it's instant. His other special move teleports him close to the opponent. A lot of times S-Kill wants to use that teleport to get closer to the opponent in order to kick them immediately. But because it's got [a few frames of startup animation] to that - in the mirror match (which is to say my opponent is also S-Kill) I can react to their teleport by using my parry to stop their kick. But online maybe I can't because I don't see all of the startup [of the teleport move.]”
In essence, players of that particular character might win matches online by using the teleport, but in offline fights a skilled player will be able to turn the tables on them.
Video of Adleheid Stark's Divekick finals win at PAX 2013 which displays S-Kill's parry and teleport moves.
The other bad
“Some online is good, [Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3] in particular is just not,” said James Chen, a fighting game expert and co-host of the popular UltraChen fighting game show. “Fighting games are really hard when it comes to online. It's really hit or miss. Street Fighter IV online is pretty passable and Street Fighter X Tekken has pretty decent online. Which, despite it's unpopularity, still has a lot of people playing it online, and I think a lot of the credit goes to good netplay for the game.”
Not every game has passable online play though, and it's harmed the health of some of their communities.
“King of Fighters for example, terrible online, and its one of the things I feel has really hindered the game's growth,” said James Chen. Chen and I spoke prior to the recent release of King of Fighters XIII on PC which reportedly fixes some of the online issues of its predecessor.
“[Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3] is based off delay lag,” said James Chen. “So what happens is that Marvel is a very execution-focused game with a lot of very specific timing on your combos. So you can imagine what it's like when the game speed keeps fluctuating based on bad connections. You just end up dropping combos all the time.”
The result is that the game you're playing online isn't really even the same game you'd play in an offline setting.
It's one of the foremost challenges of the fighting game genre going forward, and the game that fixes that problem could be revolutionary. But until that happens, the offline arcade will remain the true homeland of the fighting game.