It’s 1AM and I’m getting my first taste of Rising Thunder, a fighting game from the co-founders of EVO, produced by Street Fighter expert and one-time community manager at Capcom, Seth Killian. Competition is slim, since most of the people who normally play are heading to EVO, but not so slim that I don’t get demolished several times.
Vlad is my man. Actually, he’s my robot. All of Rising Thunder’s fighters are of the robotic persuasion. The next day, the morning of EVO, I tell Killian that I’ve become very fond of the chubby, Russian automaton. “I like the explosions,” I say, sheepishly. Combustion and rockets are Vlad’s proclivities. He’s hooked me, but he’s not even close to the most interesting thing about this PC-exclusive, free-to-play online fighting game.
It’s exciting, listening to Killian talk about Rising Thunder. Hooks – of the fishing, rather than the fighting kind – are being thrown at me left, right and centre. It’s being developed by Radiant Entertainment, whose founders also started EVO. It’s a game that tosses out the need to remember complicated inputs, but it’s still for the competitive crowd. And the focus is online play, which should feel just as good as playing someone sitting next to you.
As Killian explains what drew him away from Sony, and back into making fighting games, he reveals his goals for Rising Thunder.
“I wanted to try and build a fighting game that wasn’t just a good fighting game. I wanted to build something that could open the doors, that’s been life changing to me, to a wider audience of people.
“A wider audience and things like accessibility and whatever, all sound like loser talk to me, but literally our approach was ‘let's make a totally core fighting game, and the difference will be we’ll let you get all of your special moves’. Special moves basically aren’t buried behind an execution wall.”
This all starts with removing the input barrier. You’re fighting and you know that, right that second, firing off a special move, maybe a fireball, is the perfect move. But you cock up the input. There’s no fireball, and instead there’s a foot heading toward your face. You’d have been better off not even trying to do the special move, Killian says. He believes that it should be more important that you knew when to use the move, and the input barrier gets in the way of that.
In the matches I’ve played in Rising Thunder, I usually end up losing. But it’s never because I couldn’t make my fighter do what I wanted them to do. It’s always because I timed an attack poorly, or I misread my opponent, or they were simply better than I was.
Tricky combos and a metagame persist, but the doors have been opened slightly, welcoming in new blood. It’s still a hard game, says Killian, but now it’s hard in a more interesting way. It’s hard because you have to outthink the other fighter, because you need to make split second decisions, not because you have to remember a long list of inputs and pull them off perfectly every time.
“That experience to me is just the real joy of fighting games. and when we think back about great matches in fighting games, no one thinks about ‘that guy executed all of his fireballs properly’ – not only is that not championship play, that’s not even interesting play. It’s considered literally the ground floor of competitive or serious play. And to me, the more I started thinking about that, the more I thought that it’s kind of a crazy problem for the genre. Everyone knows fighting games are tricky, and I’m not interested in building a fighting game that doesn’t isn’t a deep experience, with a lot going on.”
As Killian talks, I start to see some parallels with strategy games. It’s similar to Sid Meier’s famous quote on good games being a series of interesting choices, and what Paradox has been espousing, making complex games that aren’t complicated. And Rising Thunder certainly looks like it maintains the complexity that you’d want from a challenging fighting game.
You can see a lot of that complexity in the variety of brawlers.
“We’ve even been making some characters that haven’t really been seen before,” Killian notes, “There are a couple of types like Crow [a sneaky, agile robot armed with a plasma disc] in particular, who's not really been seen in a fighting game before. We’re trying to do a mix of characters that are a little more straight-forward, at least in terms of their approach, and then other characters that start to get more tricky and demanding. There’s also archetypes that we just like, right out of the gate.”
Each of these characters will eventually be blessed with a series of variants, letting players customise them with new special moves. This way, people will be able to build their characters to tackle specific situations, or even shore up some weaknesses.
“The variants allow us to enhance these characters by giving them a new option,” Killian tells me. “You don’t have to play with that move if it’s not for you, but it may help you out and in certain match-ups. It doesn’t also mess with your movement, and all your normal attacks stay the same. It’s a way to play a character that you like, and keep your familiarity, and introduce a little bit of newness; a newness that you can combine with other variants in different ways.”
On top of that are a bunch of different special moves and the kinetic deflect and kinetic advance meters. Advance allows players to cancel moves and, Killian says, “lets you be more creative with combos and motion,” while deflect works as a sort of combo-breaker. With all of these options, it means that there will be 108 variations of any one character.
With so many options waiting to be experimented with, Radiant Entertainment has made sure that there are opportunities to experiment, as well. So when you find someone online, you’re not just going to play one match against them; you’re playing a best-of-three.
“This guy is very aggressive,” Killians offers as an example, “so maybe I’m better off playing a defensive spec against this guy. You can’t change your character, but you can change all of your moves in between rounds. So you could change your offense to a defensive spec or special moves, and eventually we’re going to let you swap out supers as well – we’ll give you a couple of options for supers – and those things collectively, you can try and play some mind-games even in between the games, and learn a little bit more about your opponent.”
Everything is spoken about in terms of online matches, because that’s really where Rising Thunder is going to be played. Reconciling that with the fact that it’s being touted as a competitive fighter takes a moment of adjustment.
Not far from Killian’s hotel room, players were getting ready for countless tense, live, in-person matches at EVO. How can online play compare with that? One of the reasons why EVO exists, explains Killian, is because fighting online is often considered “bullshit” and it’s not what the games were designed for. They were meant to be played in arcades or in homes, with people playing on the same system, not over the internet.
“So what we wanted to do with this game is think about online from the ground up, from day zero,” he says. “That means constructing in such a way that every single new technique, new asset we put in the game, we test it against online. Every single part of the testing for this game – even when we’re just sitting on our machines and playing in training mode – is done online. We’re playing through servers in Oklahoma, we’re not like pretending there’s x amount of ping with some ‘ping injector’. We’re actually playing over thousands of miles, constantly, because we want to have the best possible online experience.”
This is where Tony Cannon’s expertise comes into play. He’s one of the founders of Radiant Entertainment and EVO. He’s also the creator of GGPO, which uses rollback netcode to hide latency and give the appearance of a lagless bout. For Rising Thunder, he’s gone back to the drawing board to improve it, with the goal to make the online experience as smooth as fighting on the couch.
Free-to-play games and, lately, fighting games have a slightly tarnished reputation when it comes to microtransactions and DLC. Rising Thunder combines the two, which will no doubt set alarm bells off. Killian says, however, that his desire to open the door to people who might not normally make a big investment in a fighting game, won’t spend months learning intricate moves just to be competent, applies to the business model as well.
“The game is totally free [including all of the characters]. As far as monetisation goes, we’re inspired by games like Dota 2, League of Legends, those sort of things, where you can play as much as you want, forever, without giving us a dime. We’re not even going to launch with a store - we just want to spend the next few months getting the game fantastic. We just want to make it sing, making sure that as it scales with more players coming online, that it feels good across the board. It does for us right now.”
Killian wants to get people playing as soon as possible. That’s why, after only just announcing it and after only a year of development, sign-ups for the technical alpha are live, and players will be able to jump into fights from July 28th.
“Maybe it’s insane, or maybe it actually works. I don’t feel like this is an argument you can win on the internet, because people will have their decisions made before they ever get a chance to play it, which is why we wanted to turn around and put it online immediately after announcing it. Everyone’s been very good about telling us ‘hmmm, this maybe isn’t a very good idea to announce and then release in such a tight period of time’. Rather than arguing about how and if this works, we’d rather you just play the game for yourself. It’s free, just check it out. Maybe everything you’re worried about is true, and maybe it’s not. I don’t think it is.”