How a rejected My Little Pony game helped save a historic tournament


Enlarge / These aren’t exactly ponies, but we’ll get to that.

This is a coronavirus story with a happy ending. We could all use a happy ending right now—remember those? It all starts over seven years ago, long before “pandemic” was a word you had to hear every day, with a group of fans of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic TV series.

Back in this more innocent time, you might have hopped on the Internet not to read the latest virus news but instead to find an article earnestly explaining to you about bronies and how young adults were really connecting with this cartoon about ponies and friendship. You might have rolled your eyes a bit. But don’t judge!

(Full disclosure, my youngest daughter is a super fan, and I’ve probably seen just about every episode in bits and pieces by now. It’s the polar opposite of the Hasbro toy commercials masquerading as shows from my childhood; well-written, thoughtful, and nuanced, with themes that don’t insult your intelligence. I can understand how anyone would want to connect with a world like that. The cartoons I watched frankly suck in comparison.)

These particular fans had an interest in things like gaming, storytelling, and animation, and they thought, “What better way to express our fandom than by making a My Little Pony-themed fighting game?”

They called themselves Mane6, and using an off-the-shelf package called Fighter Maker 2k, they started building a game. As they released development footage, their game picked up buzz with the pony fan community, and they got encouraged to take it seriously and try to deliver as polished a product as they could with their limited experience and the limitations of the tool they were using.

Before I spoil the rest of the story, I highly recommend this documentary about what happened next if you have a free 40 minutes to spare:

Making Them’s Fightin’ Herds: The Story of Mane6.

On with the spoilers, but I think we all saw this plot twist coming: Hasbro got word of the game, and out came the lawyers and the cease-and-desist letters. Game over, years of work down the drain. The IP was off limits, and the old janky game engine the team was using wasn’t very good to begin with. It felt like there wasn’t anything to salvage, and Mane6 was ready to just give up.

Then Mane6 got an offer of help from an unexpected source. On February 8, 2013, Lauren Faust, the creator of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic reached out to the superfans over Twitter. She had been following the game’s progress along with the rest of the community, and she knew what it was like to work that hard on a passion project. She asked Mane6, “[Do you] want some original characters to make a new game with?”

I’d like to pause the story for a moment to really appreciate what an awesome thing Lauren did here. She didn’t know these guys, she didn’t owe them a thing, and they were playing with intellectual property she created. We’ve seen time and time again what normally happens in these situations, and it’s not “creator offers to draw new art for fan project,” let alone assist with all of the work that goes into not just original character design but all the animation a fighting game requires.

How could the people at Mane6 not take Lauren up on her offer? They had to. Lauren talks about exactly how much work went into the project in the documentary above—suffice it to say it was a large job, but she followed through on her promise.

So that’s one half of the puzzle, but Mane6 was still stuck with this old game creator and all of the limitations it came with. The solution to that problem arrived when Lab Zero Games, creator of indie fighting game Skullgirls, offered to give Mane6 its engine for free as part of a stretch goal on a Kickstarter project for Skullgirls DLC. Fans stepped up, and Mane6 had a modern game engine to work with.

This is where Mane6 got to help save the day. With Lauren’s help and the Skullgirls engine, Mane6 made a new, original fighting game called Them’s Fightin’ Herds. Characters are still animals, but they now include species like a sheep, a llama, a cow, a deer, and a dragon. There’s a deep and freeform combo system, an in-depth tutorial to teach you how to play, a slick pixel-art-based single-player adventure mode, and, most importantly for this story, the engine gave the game GGPO.

GGPO (which stands for Good Game, Peace Out) is an open source software development kit that gives your game peer-to-peer networking called rollback. For the most comprehensive and nerdy explanation of exactly how rollback works on the Internet, you can read our guest feature here: Explaining how fighting games use delay-based and rollback netcode.

(“Fantastic article,” says long time Ars reader and subscriber Ragashingo. “I don’t care for fighting games, but the detail here and the examples of how designing animations properly can hide network lag was a lot of fun to read.”)

For those who don’t want the deep-dive explanation, here’s what the GGPO documentation says:

Traditional techniques account for network transmission time by adding delay to a players input, resulting in a sluggish, laggy game-feel. Rollback networking uses input prediction and speculative execution to send player inputs to the game immediately, providing the illusion of a zero-latency network. Using rollback, the same timings, reactions, visual and audio queues, and muscle memory your players build up playing offline translate directly online.

So rollback games let you play fighting games online and have them feel essentially the same as offline play. The other style of network code in fighting games, delay-based, doesn’t allow that. And unfortunately, delay-based games are more common, especially with the bigger, more popular titles.

And here’s where this story becomes the coronavirus story I promised.

Every summer, fighting game fans from around the world gather in Las Vegas for Evo, the biggest fighting-game tournament of the year. Thousands of people enter matches for the games being featured.

In 2020, the main games were to be Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Street Fighter V, Tekken 7, Under Night In-Birth, Samurai Shodown, Soulcalibur VI, and Granblue Fantasy Versus.

These games all have one thing in common: their network code sucks. Street Fighter uses rollback, at least, but it’s not a very good version, and it’s prone to issues with unstable network connections. The rest are all delay-based and quickly feel terrible under anything but the most ideal network states.

The pandemic has canceled Evo, like every other event. Evo promised an online event to help fill the void, but everyone wondered, how could it possibly do that when the netcode for every game it was planning to feature is garbage? There’s not much prestige in winning a game of skill because your opponent saw your character stuttering around the stage.

The answer came last night as Evo announced its online tournament would now feature four new titles instead. Mortal Kombat 11 and Killer Instinct—both based around robust, in-house rollback code—and Skullgirls and Them’s Fightin’ Herds, with their GGPO rollback framework.

The original titles (minus Smash Bros., which was dropped entirely) will have some kind of exhibition component, the details still unannounced, but the real online play will take place with the newly added games, which were all clearly chosen for their superior online matches. The event info and signup details are coming soon, but the tournament appears to be spread over five consecutive weekends.

It won’t be the same as the offline Evo experience, but thanks to rollback netcode and some My Little Pony fans who didn’t give up in the face of adversity, there’s a solid lineup of games that can represent real, competitive online play where the rest of the big games failed. I know I’ll be tuning in, and while the other three games are all solid in their own right, I’m familiar with their play already. Having a new game that’s relatively unexplored being played by high-level players on a world stage for the first time is a welcome treat.

A happy ending is the kind of magic we could all use more of right now.

(As an aside, Mortal Kombat 11 is the only currently supported AAA fighting game to feature really good rollback network code, and it was all done in-house. If you’re interested in the process behind how the developers accomplished that feat, this GDC talk is a great watch.)





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