The Guilty Gear Strive hype is far from over. It has charismatic characters, fun gameplay, a heavenly netcode, and some of the most impressive 3D anime characters ever made. Arc System Works managed to deliver an easy-to-learn, hard-to-master product that can be enjoyed by both newcomers and hardcore players. Once a niche franchise, it now frequently has more players than its competitors on PC. Although it is hard to imagine that any fighting game will dethrone Guilty Gear any time soon, it got really close to being a complete failure. So what happened?
The game has changed the Fighting Game Community forever, but it needed a little push. At first, the highly anticipated title was flooded with criticism due to its simplified mechanics and terrible netcode. There was not much discussion about how good Strive could eventually be since those two topics were constantly overshadowing anything else that Sol, Ky, and the other iconic characters had to offer.
Perhaps Arc System Works noticed their game would not live long enough to captivate an audience if it launched in such a controversial state, much like what happened to Marvel vs Capcom Infinite. We can never be sure of what caused them to make so many changes to a nearly finished product, but we can sure be glad. After investing so much in an entirely new Guilty Gear, the Japanese studio decided to do something everybody wanted but nobody expected: They chose to please the fans.
Guilty Gear Strive Changes the Smell of the Game
Some of the most addressed elements during the beta were not changed — the simplified mechanics and high base damage are still there. On the other hand, the heavily criticized UI, the character selection screen, some combo paths, and a few other things were either tweaked or overhauled. Most importantly, the studio made an announcement that changed the smell of the game forever.
After being spammed during streams with the same request over and over, Arc System Works announced on their Twitter that Guilty Gear Strive was going to have rollback netcode. Maximillian Dood, a fighting games streamer with over one million subscribers, had this to say about it: "This is probably one of the biggest things that happened in fighting games. This is legit something that I can't believe is happening, and I never thought it would happen, but it seems to be happening right as we are going into the next generation."
This genius move caused the whole conversation about Daisuke Ishiwatari's new project to be shifted. The developers became heroes of the Fighting Game Community, and many fans of the genre that had never played a game of this franchise now had their eyes on it.
Once the most disliked elements of the game were out of the way, the tone of the discussion changed among influencers. The community started echoing those new opinions, bringing more curious players to the next big fighting game. As characters were being revealed, the design choices and seemingly impossible graphical improvements of Strive gained more focus. We could finally see all the other good things.
Strive is not the most graphically demanding game out there, but that studio is into some sort of black magic. Their 3D models look like drawings until the camera moves, the design of most characters was slightly westernized to increase their appeal overseas, and the marketing was surreally good with one of the catchiest J-Rock songs ever made. After the first beta with rollback, opinions went from, "This game is too simple," to, "This netcode is amazing; I'm sure the game will only improve from now on!"
The Planets Aligned and Birthed the Rollback Netcode Era
Although the godlike netcode was undeniably one of the most critical factors to its success, ArcSys did everything at the best possible moment to make their game look good. Intentionally or not, everything fell into place perfectly, creating a domino effect that would eventually turn this Guilty Gear into the studio’s most successful original IP. In many ways, the other fighting game developers set the stage for Guilty Gear to thrive.
The first King of Fighters XV trailer revealed a game with graphics that look one generation too late, causing ArcSys’ game to look even better. During the Japanese Fighting Game Publisher Roundtable, when Akira Katano started talking about rollback, Yasuyuki Oda from SNK deflected the subject at first. It didn’t take long for him to tweet that SNK might be adding rollback netcode to their game. Street Fighter V was slowly regaining popularity, but it ignored their fans’ requests to fix the netcode when Arc System Works didn't. And finally, Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown launched for free on the PlayStation Plus, and it managed to annoy most of those who tried, including diehard fans of the franchise. Ultimate Showdown's terrible delay-based netcode made the game nearly unplayable for many people, being quickly dropped by almost all of those who tried it.
On top of all that, the newest anime fighter got to ride a bit on the studio's previous work: Dragon Ball FighterZ. The title put ArcSys on the radar for casual players. Many of those who came from it went to Guilty Gear Xrd right after. Eventually, they were caught by the Strive hype just like the rest of us. If you add that to the game's two beta tests in which players got to try the netcode for themselves, it becomes much easier to understand how we got to this point.
How Does the Game Smell?
It is important to remember that rollback netcode is only one of the many things that make Guilty Gear Strive great. Many other fighting games have rollback netcode, so why haven’t they changed the community? In order for people to value a game, they must be able to play it; otherwise, they will not invest their time and money on a new title. Rollback netcode is not what makes a fighting game good, but it does prevent people from prematurely dropping it. But if a good netcode is essential to keep players invested after they try a game, what makes them try it in the first place?
Visuals go away with time, but they sure get you in the door. The previous Guilty Gear still looks great by today's standards, making the new one absolutely mind-blowing for looking even better. The hype built by carefully crafted trailers that showed the new graphics along with J-Metal music definitely grasped the interest of many who had never thought of playing this franchise before.
They aged the characters and made them look less silly, selling a less weird version of their original creation. It was a small change, but they seemingly moved away from their usual hyper-anime design choices. The models look great at any angle, and the dynamic shadows also played an important part in impressing the public with those ArcSys cel-shaded visuals.
When it comes to gameplay depth, it is undeniable that Strive is generally less complicated. However, there is so much we don't know yet. Roman Cancel can be used in at least five different ways, and players always come up with weird new techniques. It is simpler for new players to grasp that the mechanic cancels any animation, but the possibilities are endless to those who understand how powerful that is.
There is also the merit of having a tower with 11 floors that work as lobbies for players. It is a unique kind of ranked match. Instead of a more clear ranking system that makes players feel bad or worse due to their titles, it gathers players of the same level on a floor. They usually can go to higher floors and find stronger competition, but Strive prevents them from going to lower ones once players get better. Whoever came up with the tower system is a genius, even though the lobbies are dissatisfactory, to say the least.
Although many players dislike Strive's damage, it was a smart way to make new players feel like their attacks are effective. It does have a side effect, though. Long combos cause way too much damage on a competitive level. Nonetheless, most fighting games are terribly balanced during their first year, anyway. Let's give it some time.
Guilty Gear Strive and the FGC
During the first week of its second month, Guilty Gear Strive's viewer average on Twitch is nearly six times higher than the two giants of the genre: Street Fighter V and Tekken 7. Virtua Fighter 5 Ultimate Showdown received excellent reviews, and its return was celebrated by all in the community, including the competition. Sadly, the delay-based netcode buried the oldtimer, just like it did to Samurai Shodown and GranBlue.
SNK delayed King of Fighters XV's launch to next year. The official statement says the pandemic caused problems in the development. Most influencers reacted to the delay positively. The general opinion is that the delay is a good thing as long as it means that the game will be improved.
Having a company that cares about the players and delivers what is asked is relatively new to fighting game fans, especially now that ArcSys is considering adding rollback to all their older and new games. Covid also played a massive part in how the community reacted to the matter — being isolated forced many of us to play online. After the taste of a good rollback experience, it seems everybody realized how bad we all had it before.
We know that DNF Duel, another AcySys' anime fighter, will most likely have rollback now. Since all their games have good graphics and gameplay, there is a really good chance the community will try all their games from now on. On top of all that, Riot Games is about to join this part of the market with Project L. To get their own fighting game done right, Riot purchased Radiant Entertainment, a studio previously owned by the creators of GGPO — the original rollback netcode and is also known for developing Rising Thunder, a fighting game designed to attract new players to the genre.
I'm sure the competition knows how Guilty Gear Strive will affect the perception of future games. The numbers don't lie. This anime fighter was a niche game, but it became way too popular to be just an anomaly. They've caused a domino effect of perfectly timed improvements and announcements. Their graphics, gameplay, and netcode set the bar up so high that we can taste the clouds.
Fighting games might be entering a new era that is marked by the birth of a new giant, and it does not intend to stop anytime soon. Competition breeds excellence. If a relatively small studio like Arc System Works can deliver such a high quality game, the other studios better start trying hard. The smell of the game has changed. Hopefully forever.