GG Strive will be different, and that’s okay

[This essay was funded by my generous Patreon supporters. If you liked this and want to see more, please consider joining the crew!]

Image for post
Image for post
If you want, you can listen to me reading this essay on stream instead of reading it.

I left the Evo finals hall at Mandalay Bay after the GG2020 trailer dropped. On my way out, a couple folks asked me what I thought. All I could say is “I need to see more.” Some people read that as optimistic hype — and to be sure, that was certainly part of it. But as a CvS2 player who didn’t like playing Third Strike or SF4 (but still played them) and saw what the people who loved those games went through with SFV (played that one too), I knew that the time for unqualified hype in a fighting game’s launch cycle is short-lived.

With single-player games it is not hard to be excited for a new game, because there is a finite amount of that game, and a new game means you get more of the thing you love, hopefully with some surprising new and different stuff to it. But with multiplayer games, sequels are tricky, because your enjoyment of the game is dependent on other people. For lots of us, the joy of a fighting game comes from the joy of sharing our path to mastery with others, and the more popular your game is, the easier it is to access that joy, and the more you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than you.

When a new fighting game comes out, it has to find a common ground between the people who played the game and loved it, and the people who made the game and can see where it fell short of their expectations. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the two will rarely see eye-to-eye; the players generally want more of the thing they love, perhaps tweaked and tuned a little to be more perfect for them, while the devs are here doing their job making something new based on the lessons they’ve learned since then. It’s hard for players to see past the thing they love, because they lack the perspective to see its flaws; it’s hard for the devs to look past the flaws to realize that the thing they made is perfect for the people who love it.

(This is why we are so profoundly shaped by the games that hook us, our first loves. Once I told Seth Killian that I didn’t like 3s or SF4 because they weren’t enough like CvS2, and he said I was “the fruit of a poisoned tree”.)

Recently, 4Gamer did an interview with Daisuke Ishiwatari (JP); Jiyuna posted his translation here. The interviewer asks him about okizeme and air teching, about accessibility, about story mode, and a lot of other stuff. As someone who has seen a couple different FGC generational transition points, here’s my take.

What’s happening in GG Strive

If I had to summarize my takeaways from the interview, I’d say that GG Strive is aiming to make the difference in skill between two players more “slippery”. If you play Rev2 with a group of people pretty regularly, you probably have a strong idea of the group’s general skill distribution, and you can sort people into groups ranging from “Can’t take a game” “Win one out of ten” “60–40” “Even” “40–60” and so on. If you’re playing against someone that has half your combat effectiveness, you will win two rounds for every one round they win, and they’ll probably go through a set without even taking a game. This can feel pretty bad for people, even if they’re the kind of person to think that the win should always go to the stronger player.

Image for post
Image for post
Bullshit? Or Bullshit Blazing?

In GG’s case, this skill tier stratification comes from two general buckets. The first is okizeme and setplay; GG characters can do a lot of tricky offense that is practically impossible to deal with unless you’ve specifically practiced to deal with it. The second is a wide variety of movement options within a fairly large playfield, which makes it really hard to know which buttons you’re supposed to press in any given game state (matchup, screen position, resource count, player decision history, etc.). Because movement, attacking, and defending are all very complicated in Guilty Gear, the player who practices more, in the lab and against other people, is generally the player who wins. This is not the only way to reward practice and experience in a fighting game, but it’s pretty common, especially in anime-style fighting games.

In the interview, Ishiwatari describes the transition as going from a game like shogi (think Chess, but more complicated) to a game like mahjong (think Poker, but more complicated). In both games, you would expect the more skilled player to win overall, but in Chess a stronger player could very well beat a weaker player ten games out of ten because they know the game’s possibilities better, and in Poker you have both the randomness of the deck of cards and the human element of bluffing and reads that could let a weaker player still steal a game or two.

In Chess, there is no hidden information and no variability in what either player can do, so it’s harder for a weaker player to compensate for that weakness; in Poker, both players are playing around a far more volatile game state. I’ve seen some folks bemoaning the shogi-to-mahjong analogy as “randomness” but I think what they’re going for here is what game designers refer to as “variance”.

Image for post
Image for post
“So you see, Shikadai, you have to block low for 3F, then up-back FD, then block low again, and that’s why this game is awesome.”

So: When the set of possible game states in your game is very big, player knowledge is a big determining factor in who wins. As you shrink the set of possible game states — in GG Strive’s case, by reducing the complexity of knockdown setplay and air combat — knowledge gaps get narrower, and so the game is more heavily decided by other factors. And in following the mahjong analogy, the factors that are going to determine success are more heavily based on your ability to read the other opponent, recognize their patterns in neutral, and outplay them. Which is going to have higher variance than a setplay situation, where the results are heavily influenced by whether both players knew their optimal choices for attack and defense and executed them correctly. That isn’t to say that GG setplay doesn’t reward reads, just that the reads are usually rewarded after both players have established that they can both do the other hard stuff first.

If this sounds familiar to some of y’all, it might be because this is what going from SF4 to SFV felt like. It felt slippery, and many players didn’t like it! But it wasn’t necessarily just the fact that SFV had more variance that turned players off, it was where the variance was coming from. SFV had some core gameplay changes that significantly changed how SFV neutral worked, rewarding reaction-based footsies less (thanks to 8F of input lag on launch and shorter normal ranges) and shifting the emphasis to finding small tech optimizations, playing smarter rock/paper/scissors, and managing risks (which, hilariously enough, ended up pointing players to setplay).

Image for post
Image for post
Courtesy of Alex Sanchez, powerful memesmith (and excellent Answer player)

Introducing variance to fighting games is an emotionally tricky thing for fighting game players because we typically rely heavily on consistency in competitive results to tell us that we’re getting better. In SFV, it can be very hard to sort people into those groups of “Can beat” and “Can’t beat”. It can be hard to feel proud of your progress if you won your local last week and went 0–2 this week, or if you’re Platinum one month and Silver the next.

Because these games don’t have reliable built-in progression systems, we have to use other tools to benchmark our ability and feel like the time we’re putting in is rewarding. And when consistent success is slippery, it can be really hard to stay motivated. It becomes harder to reliably invest your FG time as a player to maximize your ability and results. Instead, the game “feels random”.

Talkin’ about neutral

The thing is, plenty of fighting games have de-emphasized setplay and complicated movement without feeling random. Historically, this was the thing that Street Fighter did best, back in the day — it didn’t matter if your opponent had better combos or nasty setups because if you could outplay them in footsies, they’d never get the chance to use that stuff. Being good at footsies meant being good at both knowledge (button ranges, speeds, interactions vs. opponent buttons, and payoff for hit) and practice (learning opponent/matchup attacking patterns and habits), but both in ways that a weaker player could learn through playing with people instead of grinding in training mode by themselves. It’s a great thing when a fighting game can get it.

Image for post
Image for post

I think that GG Strive is betting on this. If the neutral is good, it won’t feel random, but we’ll have higher variance between player skill tiers. They’re designing for less complicated aerial combat within a smaller play space, so neutral is going to be less about big movements and more about knowing attack interactions/ranges and reading risk patterns. (This is probably why some of the early footage had legit footsies going on in some matches.)

If it works, Strive will feel a lot more conversational than earlier GG games; winning consistently in neutral requires that you are able to pay attention to a consistent back-and-forth between both players. It’s slippery, and it’s difficult to optimize, and it’s often easier to adapt to on-the-fly, because it’s not the kind of work that requires you to dip out of the Vs mode and go into training mode. Fighting games that do this well tend to be better at reaching larger audiences and creating hype moments.

There is a risk, though: if neutral is the most conversational phase of a fighting game, good neutral can be absolutely wrecked by bad netcode, because lag ruins the moment-to-moment interaction between players. It’s like a laggy video chat, where the high-bandwidth interaction of seeing someone’s whole face respond to your words gets super awkward with just a couple dropped frames.

Rollback netcode can often help with this, but it’s still not perfect. You’ll see more pronounced rollbacks in games where both players are quickly walking back and forth (footsies) because this is where the delta between prediction and player input is clearest; if you’ve ever noticed how SFV netplay footsies can make the opponent look like a probability cloud, this is why. It’s harder to be able to do stuff on reaction because the thing you react to is often a general change in the opponent’s position and outline not a specific move.

(Ironically, classic GG neutral is probably a bit better for rollback, because characters retain their momentum, so they change their movement speed and direction less frequently. Longer, more continuous movement means the prediction algorithm is going to be wrong less often, and the degree of wrongness will be smaller. But stuff like Chipp’s left/right FDC oki would tear people up real bad until they learned to blitz that shit.)

What this direction means for current and future GG players

In Street Fighter terms, GG Strive could very well be GG’s SFV, or it could be our Third Strike. Both games were divisive for their time, because they shifted the core gameplay away from what current players were used to and found valuable, but the effects that these divisions had on their player community were very different.

Image for post
Image for post
Just imagine the next generation of character Discords.

If GG Strive does its job well, I think that it’ll take in a lot of new players who are drawn in by the impeccable aesthetic and make them feel like they’ve got a game that they can actually break down and begin to understand. This is not an easy task. (I like to say that if I can get a new player trying out Xrd every day for a week, I can probably get them to stick around for the long haul, but most people won’t keep playing a video game if they’re not having obvious fun within the first ten minutes or so.)

Those players are going to get better at Strive faster than they would have at Xrd and +R, because the skill checks are less about rewarding time spent, and that’s gonna be uncomfortable for lots of Xrd/+R players who get into Strive expecting that their experience will give them a big head start. The nice thing about skill stratification is that it makes experienced players feel like their time has paid off. Jumping into Strive will likely feel like a hard reset, and that’s the point.

I wouldn’t fault anyone for not wanting to go through the process of being a new GG player again, and especially for one that might never feel like it rewarded you for your dedication the way that your preferred GG does. To be honest, that feeling is one of the best parts of FGs! But being willing to start from scratch on a new game is a fighting game skill like any other, and if you want to stick around in this world for a while, it’s worth developing.

But I do think that if the neutral is good, Strive will feel like the best kind of FG crack — something worth going into and digging deep, something worth playing because it’ll connect us to a whole bunch of rad new people. It’ll be a tough line to walk and it’ll undoubtedly take a lot of iteration and polish well after launch to get it to a good place, but I think ASW’s intentions are promising.

That said, if the neutral is good and the netplay sucks, it could very well feel worse than Xrd currently does online (which is already not great compared to the local play experience). In that case, we’ll get a lot of new players who are excited by the cool stuff happening on screen but have an awful time on netplay, pick it up on sale, and don’t really go deep into it unless they can hook up with a local scene that can give GG the proper context and setting to let it shine. Sounds like a Guilty Gear game to me! Right up until the new GG comes out and people get mad again.

It is easy to think that whatever happens next with GG is entirely up to the team at Arc System Works; that your fate is in their hands, and all you can do is yell until you are hoarse in the hopes that they hear you. To feel this powerless is frustrating, especially when it comes to the thing you want to spend your precious recreational time on, because the way you choose to spend that time often becomes woven into your identity. (Take it from me, the “Get In That Ass guy”.)

But one of the crazy, special things about fighting games is that they aren’t defined by what’s in the game nearly as much as they are with the people we encounter through and around the game, and because of that, you have the agency to shape your experience.

When I think of the good times I’ve had with Xrd, I think less about the time I spent in the lab and more about the time I’ve spent playing with old friends and new ones. I think about each time I’ve made it far enough in a major to get walloped by a top player, or running into an impromptu Venom Discord kumite during the Combo Breaker graveyard shift, or walking into Mikado to soak up all that good Gear (with a side of cigarette smoke). I think about the community of lovely people we’ve built on my stream and in our local scene, and how my good times playing Xrd have motivated me to share those experiences with others.

You can build that for yourself in whatever game you want to play; you can be a part of that for someone else. But you can’t do it just by playing the game. And that’s the secret that has kept the FGC magic alive through countless generations of new games. It’s that the real rewarding parts of fighting games aren’t just about being the strongest person in the room, it’s all the work that happened to get those people in that room in the first place.

Thanks for reading!


-patrick miller

follow on twitter / support on patreon / watch on twitch

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store