I love playing Guilty Gear Strive. I’ve owned the game for a year now, and I’ve put over 400 hours into it. No one plays a game for that long while hating it. Except for Destiny players. Regardless, there is one aspect of Strive that I really don’t care for: playing ranked. Now before you put me on scrub quotes, let me clarify – I actually enjoy playing ranked matches. Within Strive, however, there are a handful of issues that make the experience of playing ranked particularly prickly, especially when compared to other games.
The first major point of contention is connection issues within the lobbies. I couldn’t even begin to tell you the number of times I’ve read, “failed to match with opponent” while playing. This stupid message makes numerous appearances every time I try to play Strive online. There’s no rhyme or reason for it either. I say that because sometimes the game will sort itself out and will connect just fine to the person I was trying to play. Other times I’ll be stuck in gaming limbo wondering what the hell is happening. The frequency of this message has made it a constant thorn in my side – one I’d happily be rid of.
Getting connected is already an uphill battle, so it feels especially awful when you finally load into a match only to discover your connection quality is undesirable. Most modern fighters, like Strive, have adopted rollback netcode. This provides a much smoother online experience with far fewer lag spikes, and allows for a much greater pool of players to comfortably play over the net. It isn’t magic though, so the geographic location of both players still plays a factor in how playable a match is. For instance, when you’re sending traffic from Ontario to Poland there’s going to be some latency. That’s just unavoidable.
In an effort to improve the end-user experience, many developers include a connection quality indicator in their games. You know the ones – those 3 coloured bars that imitate a phone’s connection strength. This, or some variation of it, is a standard found across the games industry. By including this information, players can determine if their connection is favourable before commiting to a match. This is especially important for ranked play as the stakes are higher, and neither player wants to play in unfavourable conditions. No one wants to play a slideshow peppered with lag spikes when their precious rank is on the line.
Despite it being an industry wide standard however, connection quality indicators are entirely absent from Strive. You won’t know if your connection quality is garbage until both players load into the match to be greeted by a juicy 160 millisecond delay with 4 rollback frames. I’m sure it doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway: this is extremely frustrating. For both parties. Neither player had any way of knowing that their connection wasn’t suitable for ranked play, but now they’re forced to play out the match. Worse still – one of the players is going to incur an additional penalty of an undeserved loss. Lovely.
Finally, we come to the issue of how your rank is determined. Instead of using a hidden numerical value, or tiered ranking, Strive uses what I’ll call a self sorting aggregation system. This is represented as a tower with eleven floors. Each floor is meant to represent a certain skill threshold where players of a similar level can gather. That is to say, if you’re on floor 6 then you’re meant to have a similar skill level to everyone else on floor 6. This is achieved through promoting, or demoting players based on win and loss streaks. If you get a 5 game win streak then you’re likely above the average skill of the floor you’re on, so you move up to the next floor. This should keep everyone playing against opponents of roughly the same skill level for the majority of their experience.
The problem with this system is that it only works in theory. In actuality, players constantly bounce between floors, or otherwise play many lopsided matches. This is because there is no nuance to the system. As an example, let’s say you lose 5 very close matches against players of roughly the same skill as you. This would be enough to have you demoted. What will follow is a bloodbath where you destroy players below your skill level, before being placed back on the appropriate foor. In doing this, you may also send other players down a floor, thus inflicting the same trauma onto yet more players. The result is a system where players of vastly differing levels of skill will be made to play one another.
In a more nuanced ranking system, close wins and losses don’t radically affect your ranking. You’d have to prove your ability by besting numerous foes of similar or greater skill before being promoted. Likewise, a handful of losses wouldn’t be used to penalize you, or otherwise drop you against players that don’t have a fart’s chance in a windstorm of beating you. As it stands, much of my time in ranked was spent bouncing between floors playing hopelessly uneven matches. The problem is even worse at the top floor since the best players in the game can’t move up anymore, so you end up with an ocean sized skill gap between the various players that congregate there.
While I’m not opposed to fighting opponents above my skill level, it does get a bit tiring when that’s all you can find. Fighting games highlight the skill disparity between combatants much greater than any other genre. Because you’re playing mano a mano it becomes extremely apparent who the better player is. In the best matches players will push one another to their limits. However, a very one sided match will likely ensue when there is a notable skill gap between players. While these matches can be fun, the most memorable, and enjoyable matches are those where both players are on a similar wavelength, tugging back and forth to secure victory. That unfortunately doesn’t happen often in Strive’s ranked play.
While I just spent the last 1000 words lambasting it, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression: I still love playing Guilty Gear Strive. Once you’re actually in a match, and you start trading blows with your opponent it’s incredibly fun. I just wish that playing ranked wasn’t such a scrungle bungus. I don’t imagine anything will be done to improve on the current system as it’s fairly entrenched. However, less meaningless error messages, and a connection quality indicator would go a long way. At least, I think it would.
Have you played Guilty Gear Strive? Did you have a similar experience, and grievances to my own? Let me know below, or via twitter. I’d love to hear your thoughts.