Guilty Gear Strive Nails Rollback Netcode, but Its Lobbies Are a Problem

Arc System Works slashed through one problem to expose another.

Netcode is the ever-present specter looming over every fighting game launch. The genre ruled by infamous arcade cabinets doesn’t always make the cleanest jump to online battles, with results ranging from solid, like Killer Instinct, to very rough, like Granblue Fantasy: Versus. Now the developer of the latter, less online-friendly game has another chance to make things right with Guilty Gear Strive.

The advent of rollback netcode, popularized with network software like GGPO, seemed to provide an answer — and indeed, Guilty Gear Strive makes use of rollback netcode. The latest entry in Arc System Works’ flagship series just had an open beta, and the results were stellar. Playing opponents not just on the same landmass as yourself, but on different continents, feels leagues better than it should. Meanwhile players in completely different regions are reporting largely smooth games. The quality of the online play, however, makes other blemishes even more glaring: specifically the lobby system.

If you’re unfamiliar with rollback netcode, here’s the simple explanation. When two players play together online their connection will occasionally fall out of sync. That’s just the nature of the beast. This system, however, essentially “predicts” what the player is doing based on their previous actions and adjusts accordingly if the actual inputs don’t line up with those predictions. That might sound like guesswork, but the delay between games often isn’t too far apart. 

Say, for example, the difference in latency is milliseconds long. If you input a kick or a jump, chances are you’ll still be in that motion when the system catches both parties back up. If the guess was wrong, it rolls both parties back to the correct position and action. It isn’t always perfect, but the results are frequently better than delay-based netcode — which simply forces artificial delays between inputs and actions. That solution can be pretty bad when you’re trying to execute a tricky combo or time a parry and gets worse over greater distances, and is generally maligned by fighting game fans

This is important for Guilty Gear Strive. Rollback makes fighting in its arenas feel as fluid as its signature art style. Having played a lot of fighting games online, mostly organizing small get-togethers with friends or just trying to find sparring partners online, Guilty Gear Strive‘s netcode is some of the best I’ve seen. The expanded search range is just an extra bonus; as time goes on, it’ll be even easier to make connections within a smaller, disparate community if the netcode is built to handle it.

I’m usually a Millia Rage main, stretching back to my first Guilty Gear game (shouts out to Guilty Gear Advance) but in Strive, I’ve been clicking with the long-ranged, dual-sword wielding Ramlethal Valentine. Rather than rush opponents down, using Millia’s speed and overwhelming offensive pressure to my advantage, I find a lot of fun in Ram’s new kit: a mix of options at various ranges to poke and prod, eventually carrying someone to the corner and then unloading her swords for an oppression session in the corner.

Using reactive, back-and-forth jabs to control space on the screen (usually called “footsies,” which is great) feels miles better with solid netcode. Combos feel easier to mash out online than usual, and even when I face opponents on the other side of the continent, the connection stays solid. It didn’t take long for videos of players from regions like Florida and Japan tussling without worry to show up on Twitter.

If that sounds great, that’s because it is! It really is. The bummer is that this draws all the more attention to the Guilty Gear Strive lobby system. Like I said before, I’ve played a lot of fighting games online, and am absolutely no stranger to the quirkiness of their lobbies. Arc System Works’ lobbies stick out in particular. From odd simulacra of arcades, like in Granblue Fantasy: Versus, to Dragon Ball FighterZ‘s Kami platform, they’ve all had their oddities that players learned to navigate with time.

guilty gear netcode

But Guilty Gear Strive has by far the strangest system yet. At times it felt like it was actively impeding my attempts to simply play Guilty Gear. These lobbies aren’t essentially new, as they were in the closed beta held last year, and they were also broadly derided by those who took part in the test. Their return in the open beta doesn’t just reaffirm that they’ll likely be in the full release; it’s a nice reminder of why they’re not useful or helpful in the least.

Players construct little pixelated avatars and explore either Towers, which have different floors corresponding to estimated skill that the game measures behind-the-scenes, or Parks, which are casual gathering zones. It seems Arc System Works wants to make social hubs — one part digital arcade and one part MMO social space like Destiny‘s Tower — to just vibe within between matches.

It’s not without merit, but the result is a lobby I spent most of my beta time trying to actively avoid. Rematching was admittedly disabled for the beta, and that’s a feature players assume will be in the final build. It was likely only removed here to encourage players to compete with others to help stress test. It goes without saying that an instant rematch button needs to be an option. If not just for ease-of-access, then to avoid a ridiculously cumbersome rematch process in the lobbies.

I ran something like 25 matches in a row one night with the same person. After each match, we had to sit through our characters’ in-lobby win or loss animation, manually ready up, have the other person “challenge” before someone else swooped in, and then accept the match. This process could take anywhere from 10 seconds or more each time, quickly becoming a major headache.

Loading up other players’ profiles, often by accident, was a strenuous task. Even readying up in a social Park was frustrating. Oftentimes my avatar would put up their weapon, the universally acknowledged sign that they were ready for a challenger, and the system would zip me away to another corner of the area, initiating a game of hide-and-seek with my sparring buddy.

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As one beta tester put it, the experience of Guilty Gear Strive lobbies is like walking a mile between every bite of a sandwich. At some point, no matter how good that sandwich is, the effort just isn’t worth it.

That’s not to say the ridiculous lobbies will kill the game; fighting game players have traditionally dealt with frustrating multiplayer systems or used workarounds. They will do it here and continue to do so. Private Discords, character channels, and subreddits, as well as just having a social network of fellow fighters invested in the same game, can go pretty far. My concern is where that leaves the average person.

Jumping into any fighting game is an investment. Good lobbies are a way to alleviate that. They provide an area where players can gather to meet, play matches, and potentially build the network that will support their long-term competitive drive. As it stands now, it seems like the best advice for Guilty Gear Strive will be to find Discord servers or friend groups and organize around them.

I spent most of my solo time in Guilty Gear Strive queuing while practicing in training mode — the same thing I do in every other fighting game. Though it really begs the question: If the best option is to avoid the lobbies altogether, what purpose do they serve? When it’s a non-issue at best, and a deterrent to playing the game at worst, the lobbies don’t seem to be anything but a problem. Something more basic yet functional would work better. Even just hopping into a training mode and matchmaking while I practiced required extra steps, and the more times I walked that mile, the longer it started to feel.

I’m sincerely happy with Guilty Gear Strive so far. The simplification of the series’ systems hasn’t taken away from how much fun these games are to play. The netcode makes it even better; now I can play with even more people, without having to worry about online latency ruining a good match. The lobby system is just the bitter aftertaste. It’s the annoying thing you have to circumvent or “just deal with it.” That added frustration stands out all the more when everything else works so well.