Fighting game players have always understood the value of a worthy adversary. You can be the best in the world, but if there’s no one challenging you to get better and truly testing your abilities, it doesn’t really amount to much. It’s fitting, then, that fighting games themselves have a truly formidable rival that has challenged them time and time again: the future. And it’s back for another round.
The first big heyday for the genre was ended by the death of the arcade, as home games caught up and the economics of running a dedicated game center started to be less and less favorable. As a fighting game, how do you develop a community without a gathering place? How do you meet and challenge people without quarters and whispered reputations at the local mall or bar? It needed a new infrastructure to drive what it had long had through more organic means.
Then it struggled to define itself in a world of full-featured boxed releases by figuring out what sort of content outside of traditional head-to-head play made sense and what didn’t for games that truly did boil down to 60 seconds of versus mode over and over. Is it totally unrelated minigames? A story? In-depth training? It took a lot of attempts to land on some options that enhanced the experience rather than detracting from it. And online play! This fight may still be ongoing, but the early years of developing decent net code to support the needs of this particular sort of bloodsport were much more challenging than the sorts of games crafted in the online era.
As we look toward our future, fighting games are once again the harshest targets of the looming crisis: streaming lag. While services like Google Stadia and PlayStation Now offer play that has less of a problem than many might expect, the fighting genre is highly sensitive to even the smallest hiccups and delays. We’re already seeing the shift from “look at how realistic our cars are” to “look at how playable this fighting game is” as a benchmark of advancing technology, but these are still done in controlled situations and simply aren’t ideal for rural areas or high-traffic situations like, say, big tournaments. And though it looks like local play isn’t going anywhere in the near future, it may not be wise to count on it forever.
So what will fighting games do to overcome a lag problem? Will a new style develop that’s less sensitive to the smallest timing changes, and what would that mean for high-tier play? Will it develop quasi-local technical solutions to get around the cloud infrastructure on which they’re run? Will they load server racks on trucks and drag them around to limit the problem at every event like EVO? Or will the community lean further into artificial intelligence solutions, building more accurate computer opponents from players’ behaviors to bridge the gap when same-room play isn’t possible or conditions aren’t great?
Even when the fighting genre has been knocked down, it’s managed to get back up again for another round, so the tenacity and long-term prospects of fighting games in general can’t really be questioned. But it will have to adapt, as it always has. And it seems its fate is to never stop fighting for its own existence.