We take some fighting game traditions for granted. Why do we require players to put in those sequential inputs for special moves (like Down, Forward, Punch for a fireball)?

That’s a question Seth Killian, who was Street Fighter publisher Capcom’s community manager and an employee at Sony before starting Radiant Entertainment, has asked himself a lot, and you can tell by playing his new game, Rising Thunder (you can visit the site to receive an invite to the July 28 technical alpha). It might look like a Street Fighter clone, but this free-to-play PC game does away with those special move inputs. Instead, you can use them just by pushing a single button. A cooldown timer, not your mastery of button combos, determines when you can use them again.

We talked with Killian about this daring project, how he expects the fighting game community to react to it, and the influence games like Dota 2 has had on it.

The best robots know martial arts and special moves.

Above: The best robots know martial arts and special moves.

Image Credit: Radiant Entertainment

GamesBeat: When I started playing Rising Thunder, I was expecting it to be a lot like Street Fighter IV. And then I put in a hadouken input and realized something had gone horribly wrong.

Seth Killian: Horribly right, you mean! I could build a version of the game for you to put quarter circle-forward back in there.

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GamesBeat: It’s interesting. It gave me this weird moment where I started to question everything. That’s what Street Fighter II, and every fighting game since then, does. It’s interesting to see someone be like, oh, special moves are buttons now.

Killian: I hope I put in enough time in that world to validate the fact that I am from that world, very much. I played Street Fighter for a long time and worked on it for a long time. I had this nagging thought in the back of my mind. Why? Do we have to have this? Hmm. Maybe we don’t need it. It’s an uncomfortable thought, when it first started digging holes in my brain. The entire inspiration for this game came about because — I worked at Capcom for a long time. I got to work on some of my favorite franchises. Those games did well and helped invigorate fighting games. I felt like I was happy, or just done with fighting games. I stayed involved on the competitive side, doing commentary and things like that. I still loved everything about it. But when we got to talking about making a fighting game.

One, I had a job at Sony I really loved, working with people I really loved. Sony was at their highest point of the last 10 years when I decided to leave. Things were great. I wasn’t leaving a sinking ship. Everyone said, hey, you’re stupid, things are going really well here. Everybody likes you. We’re doing fantastic. At the same time, I felt like I was done with fighting games. What drew me back in was not the idea of, I just want to make another fighting game. I don’t just want to make another fighting game. Honestly, there’s a lot of people on the traditional fighting game side that — the quality work is high right now. People are doing good stuff in traditional fighting games. It’s not like the late 90s where people are just crapping out questionable fighting games and hoping to catch the mania again. Those days are done. The people who’ve stuck around are doing good work. But the thing that always killed me — when I talk about fighting games, which is something that’s super important to me — it’s changed my life and opened my mind to this whole different way of interfacing with people through games. So few people have that experience in fighting games. For a while I thought, maybe we’re just crazy, but honestly, to get to that point to be able to play the game — I don’t mean becoming a world-class expert. I just mean playing the game, doing the fireballs and uppercuts that we built the 90s games around. To get those base elements you have to put in months sometimes. Sometimes much longer than months of work. At the end of that work, it’s not like, now you’re a good player. Now you’re just competent. You have the ability to execute the moves we designed the game around. Now you’re basically at the ground floor of being able to play the game.

Rocket punch!

Above: Rocket punch!

Image Credit: Radiant Entertainment

GamesBeat: A lot of us take for granted how easy it is for us to do that rolling motion with a stick or a controller. We’re used to it.

Killian: If you hang out at the kiosk for a fighting game at any convention, you can watch people go up and just hit buttons. They’re failing at that fireball motion. That’s what kills me about fighting games. You want to talk to people who are serious gamers, committed to gaming, very interested in certain types of games. When I talked to those people about fighting games, you could see their faces just glaze over. As much as I love it and I’m happy to talk to people about it, there’s a sadness, because I know most people are never going to have the experience I’m having with fighting games. They’re never going to get to play the game as it’s designed. They might spend a couple of weeks playing around and then drop out, because they can’t execute the moves.

It’s almost more insidious than that. If you can do an uppercut a third of the time, which is not the easiest thing, you’re in a worse position in a lot of ways when you start playing. Now, when you see the guy jumping at you, you think, I know I’m supposed to uppercut, but if I have only one in three chance of hitting him … . You get this weird negative feedback loop. You’d be better off blocking. You’re not going to win a lot of matches sitting back and blocking all the time. But being in that situation, which is a big part of the learning curve for traditional fighting games, you are better off. There are these weird negative loops. You’re penalized for trying to learn the game.

I know that the hard way, because I’ve been talking to a lot of people about fighting games for a very long time. There are people like me who break through to the other side. Maybe there’s something wrong with us. Maybe we just had too much time on our hands at a given moment. Whatever it was. When I decided to come back and try to make another fighting game, I wanted to do something that would let people who didn’t have six months to practice moves — I wanted them to have the same kind of experience.

I’m at EVO, the biggest tournament in the world. When we talk about great matches at an event like this, we’re never talking about, man, that guy sure didn’t miss any uppercuts. Nobody cares about that. That’s the baseline of competition. If you have a guy who can only do an uppercut a third of the time, he’s not even competing. We don’t consider that guy really playing the game. What we’re talking about when we talk about great fighting game action is great decisions, great insight into the mind of your opponent, a great read, a great surprise. That’s the experience that makes fighting games come alive, that gets everybody here on their feet. That’s not the experience most players ever get. They flame out just trying to learn the moves.

GamesBeat: So you’re cutting through some of the bullshit and getting straight to the metagame, trying to anticipate your opponent.

Killian: Yeah. I’m fully aware this is considered crazy within the bubble of the fighting game world. If you had asked me three years ago if this would work, I would have told you no. But today we built it. This is a prototype. And it does seem to actually work.

We want to try to remove the barriers to people really playing fighting games. Things like special move inputs, we want to get those out of there. Also, online in fighting games has historically been considered just total bullshit. It’s a kind of online technology that’s been successful in other games, like shooters — when you use that kind of code with a fighting game it doesn’t work. The space in which you play means you can’t use those kinds of predictive algorithms. But there was this development 10 years back called GGPO, which is a rollback-based networking solution. That was invented by my partner, Tony Cannon. I wanted to work with him on this game, because online was a big priority. That revolutionized online fighting games. On the back of raw player support, companies like Capcom and Namco Bandai and Iron Galaxy all ended up buying that technology and trying to build around it going forward.

But again, online is usually kind of an afterthought. Let’s make a great game. Six months out, what do we need to do? We need to get the ESRB logos in, make sure all the voice acting is finished, and oh, yeah, we gotta bolt on the online and fix that up. You get varying results.

Tornado hold!

Above: Tornado hold!

Image Credit: Radiant Entertainment

We want to think about this game as an online game from day one. Before we even had the ability to do damage to one another, anything like a game — as soon as the characters could move, we were playing it through servers in Oklahoma, which is a good stretch from where we are south of San Francisco. We wanted to make sure the experience was as tight as possible. At no point were we ever playing offline.At no point were we playing with fake lag inducers or something like that. We were playing under actual online conditions at all times. We’re like, look, if this doesn’t work, we don’t have a game. That’s our level of commitment to online. It wasn’t like, let’s make a fighting game and online is tacked on at the end. From day zero, this was how we were going to build it.

That’s the other thing about fighting games. Usually you have to pick up your console or your stick and go to your friend’s house or to EVO. Hanging out with your friends is fantastic. But that’s also — I don’t know. Most people like to go home now. Maybe they can get a friend to come over. But getting a bunch of friends over to play, it’s awesome when it happens, but the reality is it doesn’t happen too much. Also, for people trying to learn a fighting game, you need local people to play with. That’s already really hard. You have people driving hours every week to do that. They want good competition and they can’t get it online. They’re willing to drive hours to a place to try to make that happen.

But you also need people who are just about as good as you. There’s no matchmaker for in-person competition. You might get a guy who’s way better than you, and that’s not fun. Or maybe there’s some guy who’s way worse than you, and that’s also not fun. The more I think about it, from where my mind is at these days, it’s a testament to how awesome these games can be. You have to suffer a lot to play them even a little bit. You have to put in a crazy amount of work. But that experience, when you get it, is great. I want to try to make that possible for more people.

I didn’t just want to make another fighting game. I think fighting games are doing their thing. It’s great. They’ll be fine. That tradition is strong. But a lot of games have made an effort to be easier. The entire trajectory of Street Fighter, from Street Fighter one through Street Fighter V upcoming, has been getting easier every single time. That’s been the direction. I’m jumping to the end of that line a little bit. Even as they make those kinds of moves to be easier and easier — you can judge against your own experience, but they’re still hard. Even if it isn’t turning away 95 percent of the people who want to play –I’ve been there. I’ve spent months on a game. Oh my gosh, there’s a million people online, this is the best! Week two, okay, there’s 150,000 people online, that’s pretty good. And then by week three it’s 15,000, and those are the guys who survived the culling. But even if you make the moves easier and you don’t alienate 95 percent, maybe you still alienate 80 percent.

I want to make a game that is an absolutely hardcore fighting game, but the one thing I’m making sure of is that you can’t mess up your moves. You get to do your moves. People still mess them up  —  hit it at the wrong button. That’s the full extent of the hand-hold. You’re not going to fail the motion for these moves. We built a completely straightforward, core fighting game. That’s the only thing we’ll do differently.

Rising Thunder in action.

Above: Rising Thunder in action.

Image Credit: Radiant Entertainment

GamesBeat: Instead of that whole barrier, you have cooldowns, which is a different thing to see in a fighting game. How did you come to that idea?

Killian: There’s a few directions. We wanted the moves to feel good and powerful, but there can be downsides. If you can react to any move with another move, and then you’re injecting core fighting stuff like invulnerability, you don’t want to just boil it down to a reflex test. The game can go wrong in many ways. The cooldowns allow us to make the moves feel really good and be really strong, and then we can rate their strength with how long we think the cooldowns should take to recover. There’s ways you can sort of fudge around that. It’s a unique balancing tool, but it also creates a ton of interesting situations. That was another thing we tested early on and thought, I don’t know if it’s going to work. When I hear it as an idea, I have an immediate negative reaction to it, because I feel like it’ll slow me down.

If you try a character like Chel in our game, this down-the-middle iconic fireball/uppercut type of character, you don’t want to feel like you have to wait 10 seconds to throw another fireball. That’s not a fighting game. But you look at those kinds of moves and they have a cooldown of under a second. That’s a really fast, rapid-fire move we want to support. The uppercut has a bigger cooldown. If you do this move, you better land it. If you land it and keep your combo going to get to the ultimate at the end, you’re only at maybe two and a half seconds until you’re back up again for another uppercut. That’s a nice thing to do.

It creates these interesting micro-situations that we hadn’t really anticipated. We’ve seen things like this in other games, but it might be that you continue with an uppercut and you do a combo that can do more damage, but also burn time for your cooldown to be up by the time you’re recovering. You get these interesting situations where I know that for two and a half seconds, Chel doesn’t have an uppercut. That limits her options in a certain way, but only for a brief window. It gives me these little windows of a crack in a character’s defense. Something you could beat easily every time — If you had your cooldown up, if it was recharged, it would be no problem, but I know you don’t, and so I can attack in a new way through those little spaces. That was a little happy surprise.

GamesBeat: You keep saying yourself that if somebody told you about this, you would be skeptical of it. Is that a concern of yours, that the fighting game community is sometimes a bit traditionalist and this might be a hard sell for them?

Killian: Absolutely it’s a hard sell for them. Traditionalist is the nicest possible way to put it. As a fighting game guy for a long time, I appreciate your very politic description of that worry. But yeah, that directly is a big part of why — there’s a lot of things that everybody has told us are really bad ideas about this game. Maybe they’re right. But so far our playtests have borne it out. Another thing people have told us is it’s a really bad idea to announce the game and then release it a week after that. The reason I wanted to do that is, one, I’m confident that it’s fun and that there’s a real game there.

Anybody who builds fighting games will tell you, being honest, that you don’t always know. You can tell whether it’s fun, whether there’s something basically there, but you can’t see how it’s going to develop until you start getting it into people’s hands. For us, you’re right, the immediate Internet reaction to this I expect to be very broadly negative. “It’ll never work, this is the stupidest idea I ever heard.” I actually enjoy arguing with people on the Internet, as many people know. So rather than argue with people on the Internet, I’d rather just say, hey, here’s my game. Please play it. Everything you think might be true, but you can find out for yourself. You don’t have to take my word for it.

Also, as far as tearing down the barriers for competition, that’s also why the game is free. We have a free game, a game where we’ve worked hard on the online, trying to make it as amazing as we can. We’re really happy with where that’s at. We’ve also got a game where you’re not going to have to spend months practicing just to be able to play the basic game. You’ll be playing the game very quickly. Whether you actually win at the game is a separate question, but you’re not going to be missing moves left and right. You’ll be making bad decisions left and right.

It's not a fighting game without balls of energy.

Above: It’s not a fighting game without balls of energy.

Image Credit: Radiant Entertainment

GamesBeat: It’s a free game. What are people paying for? Are they paying for characters?

Killian: Right now you pay for absolutely nothing. Everything is free. We’re not even going to have a store. I don’t know. It depends when we finish it. For the first six months, I would guess, we won’t have anything to sell at all. But when we look at games we were inspired by, things like Dota — when you say free-to-play, it has such a wide range, and it’s been crapped on by so many terrible practices with games. I don’t even want to say those words. I say, let’s just talk about the people who are doing it right.

Our business is going to be basically cosmetic. Lipstick on robots, obviously, but you get the idea. Games like Dota have shown us that if you build a fun game that attracts a community, you can have a real business doing it that way. If you don’t, well, people don’t like your game. That’s what separates you. You’re not owed a business. That’s on us. But that’s what we want to do. You’ll never have to pay to play.

GamesBeat: You say there will be no in-game shop for six months. How are you guys going to make any money?

Killian: We won’t.

GamesBeat: That sounds like a horrible business plan.

Killian: We’ll put up a Patreon page or something like that. (laughs) But no, the first six months we’re really going to spend — we want to get feedback from people on their experience with the game and make sure the online works. Online has been great for us, but as you add people, you need to make sure that scales. We have some super talented engineers who we’re extremely lucky to have. Some straight from Google, who we really can’t afford to pay what they’re worth, but they want to make games. So we’re lucky to have world-class network engineers. But the way to build those systems is to let people in to start playing with it and fix things as they come up. We’re confident in what we have now, but you never really know until you turn it on.

We just want to get the game in people’s hands and convince them that it’s not just some bullshit alpha. We know the game’s not done. We’ll be sending the game out, and only two of the characters have finished textures. For a major studio, someone would get fired for leaking something that looked like this. But we’re cool with it. We just want people to play and tell us what they think and try to make the game and the online experience as good as we can. At that point, if we feel like we’ve got enough here for people, then we’ll turn on a store with cosmetics and things like that. Until that point, we don’t want to ask anybody for their money. Even then, we’ll let you pay us money, but you don’t have to. You can play free forever. I just want people to play the game and have a chance to have that kind of experience that’s been so important to me.

GamesBeat: You worked on another non-traditional fighting game with PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. A game I loved, by the way, but it was never really embraced by the fighting game community. What lessons did you learn from that game?

Killian: That game got a lot of crap it probably shouldn’t have deserved, but I also can’t really take credit for too much one way or the other. I got there four months before it shipped. Four months before a big title like that ships, you’re not going to be able to complete redo anything. But that was an interesting game. It was a mix of traditional fighting game mechanics and Smash Bros. One, Smash Bros. is one of the all-time greatest achievements in fighting. It has a lot of unique ideas. It’s not a traditional fighter in a Street Fighter, King of Fighters kind of sense, but it’s got a lot of unique ideas, all the great Nintendo characters, and a ton of other stuff. The production values on that game are stellar. They kill it pretty much every time. Not from the competitive side, but Sakurai’s pretty much on record — I mean, for me, I wanted to build a game that was closer to my own past, closer to my heart, which was the more traditional side-to-side fighting experience.

Take that, foot!

Above: Take that, foot!

Image Credit: Radiant Entertainment

GamesBeat: How did you come up with this sort of robot theme for this game? It seems like a lot of fighting games these days stick closer to the old martial artist theme.

Killian: For sure. It is a little different. For us, we were super excited about what we called the variant system. If you go to the select screen or the loadout screen, you see all those different buttons you can select. We just turned off about two-thirds of those buttons. In the build we had a week before, they were all on and online. We’re reining it in so we have more stable choices. But what we were excited about on the meta side — the metagame is super interesting and important to me. You can basically swap out all the special moves with other special moves. It ends up being like 108 different possible combinations per character. Some of those are pretty subtle. Some of those are fairly distinct as far as the different moves you can do. Some of them are like, this fireball starts up a little slower and hits twice instead of once. That would be a more boring variant. It might be important in certain matches, but it’s not a dramatically different move.

Other moves are completely different. Vlad has his little elbow-mounted rocket right now. He has another variant that should be online in about a week with a missile strike from the sky, which plays totally differently. Vlad is still firing a missile at you, but the gameplay impact of the move is completely different. One is basically a fireball, one is more like a trap or a land mine. It lets us paint with a subtler brush.

There might be a character who — a grappler like Talos has a hard time getting in against characters like Chel, who has a good long-range game and can keep you out. But one of the Talos variants that was, again, online last week — he has a variant where he can do a shoulder charge. He can also do it in the air, and basically it gives you an option to — if you’re getting pelted with too many fireballs on the ground, you can do a short hop and do the shoulder charge in the air and you recover on the other side of the fireball. Now you’re in Talos’s optimal range, more up close. He has grabs and things like that. It’s one option you have that helps you in a fight. Obviously that’s not going to win a match, but it gives you another option.

If you run into a particularly tough matchup for your character, you can adjust your loadout to optimize your chances. We have a guy at work who’s kind of the theory master. He has these great ideas for the characters’ loadouts. The only bad part is he always loses because he’s not actually good at the game. But he has all these great ideas. Thinking of a good variant is a long way from winning a game. But it does open up the doors for you. If you’re in a frustrating situation you can try to switch stuff up. It keeps older characters that you’ve played for a while — It keeps them fresh if you have new options and new moves. But if you don’t want those options you don’t have to take those variants. You can stick with what you already know and want. It’s a nice balance of familiarity and strategic options.

GamesBeat: You still have things like dash-canceling and jump-canceling. The initial impression might be that you don’t have to do inputs precisely, but when you get into it — when I was playing it before this interview, I was already figuring out combos and juggling and all this stuff. It definitely seems like a neat project. I’m interested to see how the community takes to it and where it goes from here.

Killian: We’re excited to put it in front of the most vicious audience possible. We want to get some of the EVO guys playing. They’re a nasty bunch, but they’re guys I’ve known for most of my life. They will tell you if your shit stinks. We’ve been having some of those guys play. They’ll be some of the first people we want playing in our early alpha, even though it’s — We know it’s not finished. We know there will be problems. But we want the toughest audience in the world to go at it and realize that there is a real game here. As you notice, you start to see the way the game extends beyond — fighting games aren’t just about doing special moves. It’s about precision. You see how that factors in.

We also have this enormous meta of characters with so many different possibilities. There will be a lot to chew on. We’ll hopefully be able to roll more out at a pretty consistent pace. We have six more characters we’re working on now. We’ll keep the characters and the variants rolling out at what we hope is a good pace to try to find what works for the community. At the beginning we just want the game to feel great online, and for people to be able to give us feedback.

Updated on July 20 to correct spelling of the GGPO networking solution.