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How latency creates divergent strategies in competitive online gaming

Latency, or lag as it's commonly known among gamers, can create surprising and divergent strategies by forcing even top players to adapt to unexpected changes in gameplay mechanics.

Zoran Cunningham, Blogger

November 27, 2013

8 Min Read

Latency, or lag as it's commonly known among gamers, is characterized by the visually noticeable delay between a player's input and the game's response. Lag derails all competitive online games but for fighting games, where high level players often count individual frames of animation to determine everything from move safety and priority to combo strings and damage, lag is crippling. It's one reason why fighting game tournaments are held offline as the community sees lag-free competition as the absolute purest form. When lag is thrown into the mix, strategies and match-ups can change to the point where a fighting game becomes an entirely different experience.

Aris Bakhtanians, an accomplished veteran in the fighting game community, briefly addressed this issue in a recent episode of his popular Avoiding the Puddle podcast. Founder of the website by the same name, Aris is a world champion Soul Calibur and Tekken player, a multi-time qualifier for Japan's prestigious Super Battle Opera, and has been flown around the world to compete in numerous invitationals. His record of accomplishments speaks for itself, but when a recent ankle injury prevented him from traveling and competing in tournaments he suddenly had no choice but to play online. It's then that he discovered how lag altered some of the fundamental mechanics and gameplay strategies of his beloved Tekken Tag Tournament 2.

"I've been trying my best to play every match as clean as possible just like I would in a tournament setting, but what I discovered about playing online is that lag drastically changes how you play the game. When I'm playing against a human opponent there this interesting back-and-forth between two minds who are trying to outplay each other," says Aris. Top players in the fighting game community call this the Yomi effect, often referenced by writer and game designer David Sirlin, where a player learns and adapt to their opponent's strategy in an effort to anticipate upcoming moves and reactions.

"It always feels like a tug-of-war between two skilled players," he continues. "While that exists online, there's also this perpetual variable that is sort of like a Richter scale that both players have to continually take into account in the form of latency."

Most skilled players often denounce a game's online play if the netcode is so poorly implemented that it doesn't provide for smooth online play that at least simulates a competitive match. Even casual players will give up on a fighting game's online mode if they 'feel' that it is broken, often a result of similar frustration from combos and inputs that suddenly don't work and matches that visually appear to be stuttering. If the online experience feels considerably different from the core offline experience it can be altogether discouraging. But in an era where lag is seemingly unavoidable, Aris posits an interesting hypothetical.

"Online would be so much easier if the lag were just consistent," Aris believes. "In other words, if I knew at the beginning of the round that I had a very specific amount of frame lag, I could then compensate for that throughout the match, even though I would still have to adjust my strategy and move-set in order to do so. But with online play you always have these huge peaks and valleys throughout the match and having this constantly fluctuating latency is a lot like having a second opponent that you have to constantly adapt your metagame to."

This constant shift in latency makes it impossible for most top players to have a match where the better player feels they honestly won. "Most players understand that its currently impossible to lock in the latency, but if it were possible it would be a lot easier for skilled players to cope since they would be able to dial back or dial forward their timing," he adds. "Inconsistent latency makes you feel like you might have to dial it back a little at the start of a match and then suddenly have to dial it forward a bit in the middle of a round and then do who knows what by the end of the match."

These issues are pervasive to all fighting games but 3-D fighters most especially due to the sheer depth and complexity of being three dimensional games where combos are so dependent on positioning, distance, and timing. "Even in a live setting, Tekken players have so much they have to mentally calculate just to pull off a combo string," Aris admits. "They're considering what move they used to start the combo, what direction their opponent is facing when being hit, if their opponent is in the air, or how close they may be to a wall. That's why so many people drop combos in the game, because the game forces them to adapt mid combo for maximum effectiveness."

Throw lag into that mix and it's not surprising that most players feel they're playing a completely different game sometimes. "It gets so bad that you honestly feel certain moves and strategies are inaccessible for large portions of a match while other cheap and unsafe strategies suddenly become viable," he explains. "There are even some character match-ups that I never have problems with in tournament but they give me no shortage of trouble online because of latency."

This creates this interesting situation where players look for cheap characters and strategies that are optimal during lag. These things are often completely unexpected because they would be unsafe in a tournament and it becomes difficult for the defensive player to read that because they have only a single match to learn the opponent's mannerisms. The result is a slew of gimmicks and shenanigans that even the best of players can't predict or prepare for.

Entire forum threads on major fighting game sites like Shoryuken and EventHubs are dedicated to dealing with typically low-tier characters with very unique and awkward moves that are easily punishable when whiffed offline but suddenly become extremely difficult to deal with in online matches when their naturally unsafe moves suddenly become very difficult to handle.

"Tekken Tag Tournament 2 has such a huge roster that some characters and moves are a poor match against a good opponent. But online, where lag can get so bad that a great player can't see those moves come out, those characters suddenly have a very good tool set they can tap into. The same way the latency goes up and down throughout a match, so does the actual tier list within the game. That's why we see characters like Lili become unbeatable on a bad connection. The same goes for the bears and the capoeiras," he says laughing.

"For guys who mainly play offline matches, I think online can be a difficult transition. It requires so much patience and really thick skin,"Aris points out. "Players that can quickly get over losses and take in the learning experience after they've lost a match will be better suited for online play. But for guys like me, it's just too frustrating when I lose a match and I know that lag played such a huge role. Oftentimes I don't have the willpower to reflect on the match because I don't want to replay it in my mind knowing that the lag variable was well out of my control. It actually makes it seem impossible to learn or get better at the game."

Compounding the problem are players who purposely create lag when losing a match in order to throw their opponents off balance. Entire forum threads are often dedicated to outing players who habitually abuse this in order to gain an advantage. "This often referred to as lag switching. Some guys have dedicated devices for this, but most perpetrators have an easy set-up where they just have a ton of stuff preloaded on their torrent client and as soon as they are at risk of losing a match they just turn on those downloads and flood their connection with data to slow down the match. I've been in plenty of situations where I'm absolutely dominating an opponent when the connection quality mysteriously bottoms out and I'm suddenly in a world of trouble."

These issues have led many top players to denounce online modes in fighting games, but this isn't to say that fighting game developers are simply terrible at programming the netcode for their online modes. There are so many variables to online latency that are beyond the control of the console manufacturer and software developer, most notably the individual user's internet connection speed and stability. Even the best netcode can suffer when a player with 50mbps download speed has to play a promotion match against someone 3,000 miles away with a 10mbps connection.

"I don't think players fully blame the developers because they're really trying and improving with each release. Tekken 6 was literally unplayable online and I think I only played four online matches before I just gave up completely," Aris admits. "The jump in quality between Tekken 6 and Tekken Tag 2 is night and day. It's still nowhere near where it needs to be to simulate proper tournament quality play, but it is at least playable in some sense."

With developers getting better with every iteration it's quite possible that fighting games will eventually reach a point where they are perfectly playable online. "Improvements in broadband internet speed and technology overall will help. The only time I've seen top players play online and use the same strategies they would in a tournament is in Japan and Korea where their internet is super fast and they're all geographically very close together," he recalls. One day we'll all get to that point technologically. Until then online play will be filled awkward and aberrant strategies that players will have to deal with and adapt to.

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