There Should Be No More Excuses for Bad Fighting Game Netcode

For the most part, I’m loving Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r]. Having picked up the game a few weeks ago, its particular brand of anime fighter is deeply gratifying. I’m enjoying it so much that I’ve played dozens of matches through the game’s horrid netcode and will probably suffer through many more just to get a less-than-ideal fix. Even online matches against my brother – who is a 10-minute drive from me – feel sluggish. With everything going on, adequate online play would have been greatly appreciated.

It’s not entirely fair to bash Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r] for a problem that’s much larger than itself. Furthermore, with this game technically being the fifth update to an old game, one can argue that it’s hampered by delay-based netcode of the time.

Nevertheless, the subject of netcode in fighting games has recently hit a crescendo. As more games adopt better solutions to the fundamental problem, it’s become increasingly maddening to see major developers lean on inferior netcode solutions.

Let’s take a step back. What solutions are we talking about? This is a discussion about delay-based netcode vs. rollback netcode. To describe how each works, here’s a snippet from Shoryuken:

Delay-based netcode requires that both participants wait for the input of the other before the game state can be advanced, thus there is a delay put in place to ensure that the inputs have arrived before updating the game state. Lag in a delay-based netcode game looks like dramatic slowdown usually.

Rollback netcode does not wait for input from both users before updating the game state, rather both players run simulations of the game state simultaneously. Inputs are marked with the time at which they occurred, and whenever input is received, the simulation will roll back to when it occurred, and resimulate everything up to the present to determine the current game state. This means that rollback netcode does not slow down during more lag, but rather characters tend to teleport around as inputs are received late. Rollback netcode can also cause hits to be undone as newer inputs are received, and it’s determined what actually should have happened. Rollback netcode keeps the timing of moves consistent during combos, and allows you to set your own delay to create a smoother experience on your side.

While rollback netcode has its quirks, it has proven over the years across many games to be the better solution. Killer Instinct is arguably the gold standard for netcode and its implementation of rollback makes for a fantastic experience. The developers of Mortal Kombat X completely overhauled the game post-launch by replacing its old delay-based system with a better rollback system. Indie games such as Fantasy Strike, Skullgirls, and Pocket Rumble all use rollback netcode and are fantastic to play online.

All fighting games should move towards the better rollback solution. However, many major fighting game franchises still use delay-based netcode, particularly games developed in Japan. All of the Arc System Works games do, such as Guilty Gear Xrd, BlazBlue: Cross Tag Battle, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and the aforementioned Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r]. Namco Bandai’s fighters – Tekken 7 and SoulCalibur VI – also use delay-based solutions. All of them play worse than their rollback counterparts. There’s been lots of discussion on why many Japanese developers still lean on inferior technology to power their netcode, but the end result is that their games don’t play online as well as they could.

The only major Japanese developer that’s made the leap was Capcom. Unfortunately, their custom rollback solution in Street Fighter V has been widely panned for not working as well as it should. Most recently, Capcom caught a lot of flak from the community when a modder improved the game’s netcode in ways that Capcom wouldn’t/couldn’t. Their rollback netcode is actually much better in Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, but that game had much bigger issues that dominated the conversation around it.

Guilty Gear: Strive isn’t out yet, but it too is embroiled in the greater debate about fighting game netcode. According to the creator of the series, the dev team is torn between using delay-based netcode or rollback. Really hope they make the right choice but it remains to be seen.

In a world where arcades are essentially non-existent and online play is king, it’s pivotal for the genre to have great netcode. We’ve had great netcode solutions for years now. More developers are picking up on this, but many of the genre’s biggest players are slow to respond. As much as I love Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late[cl-r], its sub-par netcode will be the thing that stops me from playing it long-term. Here’s to hoping that everyone eventually gets on board with the better way to play.

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