Give Virtua Fighter 5 Real Competitive Netcode: An Open Letter to Sega, Sega-AM2, and Ryu ga Gotoku Studio

I’m really tired of the image of connections around the earth being used to promote games that can’t make them.

Dear Sega, Sega-AM2, Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, and anybody else whom it may concern:

Here is what it’s like to play Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown online right now.

First you train. VF is demanding, after all. You invest time into learning how this game works, how to control a unique character, making precise movements, landing combos *just so*. You become one with the game: its feel, its timing. That part is fun.

Then you go online, and that all gets whacked out of place. The game says every connection is 4 bars, the best you can get… yet every other match feels off in its own way. The lag behind your inputs fluctuates from game to game, so you lose the feeling of a consistent timing behind your moves. Some connections are so poor that it’s better not to play against them at all. You can’t trust your own hands or your own reactions. Your training, and your ability, are compromised.

As a competitive player, this is very frustrating. After a really bad session, the time you invested feels like it was for nothing. It is more frustrating to know that play conditions could be better, but they’re not.

And for a game which features online play as its focus and which is titled “eSports” in the Japan region, complete with its own online tournament series, VF5’s inadequate netcode is a major problem.

If Sega and RGG Studio really want VF5 Ultimate Showdown to bring the series back to relevance, then they need to implement rollback netcode.

A 15-year-old problem: delay-based netplay

19 frames of delay is roughly equivalent to a third of a second

This has been a controversial topic for so long in the fighting game community that many of us are simply sick of talking about it. I could just as easily make these complaints about Granblue Fantasy Versus or Samurai Shodown, and I already have. People tell me I’m beating a dead horse; a lot of us have been complaining about this for over a decade. We’re frustrated, tired of repeating ourselves, tired of being proven right and then ignored.

So let’s get to the heart of the matter. Many current fighting games continue to use inadequate input delay-based netcode that delivers laggy, inconsistent gameplay and which functions poorly over long distances. Low-lag matches are possible in these games, but only against people who are located very close to you. I’m in New York, for example, and testing Ultimate Showdown against a friend across the country in Portland was laggy and unsatisfying, regularly dropping our moves and combos.

Thank you Ciel-sensei

From what I understand, Ultimate Showdown uses relay servers to try to alleviate the inherent lag, but tweaking an inferior method won’t fix it: the input lag remains noticeable, and it’s a little different every time you play. (Not to mention, it seems that areas of the world that aren’t close to a Google relay server don’t benefit at all.)

Who notices a few frames?, you might want to ask. The target audience for fighting games does. We have been trained to do so. Everyone who can guard-cancel Jacky’s standing kick, pull off Akira’s one-frame knee, or reads the frame data in training mode has learned to feel a couple of frames of lag. And for competitive players, losing four or five frames to lag cuts reaction times and can lose the match by itself.

Competitively, the best you can do with delay-based netplay is run regional tournaments in a relatively small area, like a few states in the northeast US.

If delay was the best technology available for online play, we’d grit our teeth and bear it. But it’s not. There’s a better way, every player in the community has at least tried it, and everyone who tries it agrees that it’s much, much better.

About rollback

Explanation by Code Mystics, responsible for rollback in SNK’s classic games such as King of Fighters 2002 and Samurai Shodown V Special

A method called rollback, popularized by the GGPO software in 2006, delivers superior results when properly implemented (note that Street Fighter V got rollback wrong). Players on good connections feel as though they’re playing offline, without the game throwing off their timing. It also becomes possible to have quality matches between players at much greater distances.

Rollback is said to be difficult to implement, and it has its limits, but the results of the investment are above and beyond what delay-based netplay can offer. It expands the player pool, and it extends the life of the game.

It also saved the community during the COVID epidemic. Without arcades and in-person meets of any kind, serious competitive players were effectively forced to move to games with rollback, of which there are many. It is no coincidence that all of the main games in this year’s Evo Online roster feature rollback: you simply can’t run a serious international online tournament with anything else.

“The fact that this is even possible online — do you know how crazy that is?” — announcer

Notably, professional rivals GO1 (Japan) and SonicFox (USA) were recently able to battle in Guilty Gear Strive, which uses rollback and delay to deliver a relatively smooth match from across the globe. This exhibition is a milestone esports moment. It’s also impossible in a purely delay-based game.

Though I was able to fight against a Japanese player in Ultimate Showdown, the match was extremely laggy, and I could tell from our actions that neither of us wanted to play it. So much for fighting Itazan or Chibita one day.

While many developers have deemed rollback unnecessary or “overdoing it” in the past, the superiority of rollback in those fighting games which feature it is so complete and so proven that many fighting game players will no longer play a game that doesn’t use it.

This goes even for a game they’ve been given for free. The investment isn’t money, after all, it’s time and effort.

About testing

I have read that the Ultimate Showdown dev team tested distances like Japan to Europe and US to Japan and encountered no lag. That was not my experience, and perhaps we have different definitions of “no lag”, but I’ll take it in good faith.

Pre-release testing is always going to look a lot better than the truth. I had Ultimate Showdown a day before release (thanks to my comic); it was all influencers, hardcore fighting game players, and VF specialists whose tags I remembered from the old days on the Xbox 360. These people were sure to have good connections, and I ran into a lot less lag that day.

Then the game formally released, and as the wifi players started to flow in, Ultimate Showdown started to feel like every other delay-based game. One of the reasons that rollback has so much international support is that a lot of us don’t have great Internet connections. Many Americans are stuck under ISP monopolies that deliver the cheapest possible service for the highest possible prices. A lot of people can’t even get an Ethernet cable to their consoles.

For it to really work for everyone, fighting game netcode needs to work for connections that you or I might describe as “garbage”.

If that wasn’t technically possible, I wouldn’t be arguing for it. But the technology is right there, and it’s been there for 15 years now. It’s called rollback. Please give it a try. There are so many games that use it right now. Don’t judge it by Street Fighter V.

In Closing

Next week, Guilty Gear Strive comes out. I’ve already played Strive in beta, and the online play puts the fighting game world to shame. The word “rollback” will be on everyone’s tongues again. King of Fighters XV is using it, the new Melty Blood will use it, and soon it’s going to be standard. Delay-based games will be left behind. It took a decade too long, but the day is coming.

Guilty Gear and Virtua Fighter are my two favorite fighting games, and I was really excited about having Guilty and VF on my current console to play whenever I wanted. You might not guess it from this piece, but I actually love everything else about Ultimate Showdown. But when I choose which of these games I‘ll play online the most, well… it’s probably not going to be the game I have to struggle with.

Any fighting game releasing in the present day that’s serious about being called an “eSport” — in Japan or anywhere else — must feature rollback netcode. Otherwise, “eSport” itself is an empty claim. I’ve been around from the beginning. I have never known the Virtua Fighter series, or Ryu ga Gotoku Studio, to do things halfway, or to get left behind by their peers. I hope it doesn’t happen this time.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.