Rising Thunder is based on the premise that fighting games are too complicated. It takes too much time and effort to master the basics, the theory goes, which limits how many players have a chance to learn the game on a strategic level. And the solution here is to remove that first layer of complexity.
In practical terms, that means not requiring players to perform motions and press multiple inputs to pull off special moves. If you want to throw a fireball, you press a button. If you want to perform a super move, you press a button. The most complicated move in the game involves pressing forward or back and pressing a single button.
It's an idea from longtime fighting game player Seth Killian, who worked at Capcom during Street Fighter 4's development and recently joined developer Radiant Entertainment to head up Rising Thunder. Radiant is also home to Tom Cannon, who founded the Evo Championship Series tournament, and Tony Cannon, who developed online play middleware GGPO.
Killian says that in every other way, Rising Thunder is a hardcore fighting game like you would expect from something in the Street Fighter series, but he wanted to peel away that layer to allow anyone do what they want when they want. And as a side effect, Killian says it's the first fighting game he feels comfortable playing with a keyboard rather than an arcade stick.
As someone with a moderate level of Street Fighter familiarity, when I tried Rising Thunder at a press demonstration recently I had to retrain myself to avoid certain habits. At first, I had to consciously force myself to not do quarter-circle motions when performing fireballs, since the game doesn't require them. When playing on a keyboard, I appreciated the simplicity of pressing a button to throw a fireball. But when playing with a controller, I missed the feeling of performing a quarter circle motion timed with a punch button, in part because I've been trained to expect it and in part because it's satisfying to pull off the move.
"I think that's a completely fair point," says Killian. "I think there's a satisfaction ... and the fireball's a good example because it does actually mirror the motion [of what's happening in the game]. About 90 percent of the specials don’t really do that anymore. They start to become more and more abstract. But ultimately the fun of actually being able to do the moves that you're trying to do when you want to do them completely eclipses the value of doing those moves in sort of a more traditional way."
Killian points to games in other genres that have hardcore multiplayer followings, like League of Legends, Counter-Strike and Dota, and says that none of those games have complex inputs.
"Now do they have super advanced techniques and mind games and all that kind of stuff? Absolutely. But do any of them depend on whatever the satisfaction of throwing that fireball might be? No."
"I don't want anybody to have to take my word for anything."
Another key feature of Rising Thunder is that — as you can probably tell from the images on this page — it stars robots. At first glance, it has a clean, modern Rise of the Robots look, with characters showing a bit more personality than you might expect from machines. One character looks like Baymax from Big Hero 6 and swings his arms like a windmill as an attack.
Killian says that the team chose robots to fit with the game's "variant system," which is a series of options players can choose on a loadout screen before starting a match. As you play, you unlock more variants and can modify your fighter with your preferred abilities.
Rising Thunder is also being built with the expectation that players will play on separate screens. Radiant is confident enough in its online code to assume that players will play online — so much so that it's giving certain characters moves that rely on the player not seeing their opponent's screen.
As a basic example, Killian says that the character Crow can stay visible on the player's screen while turning invisible on an opponent's screen. Killian explains that when Mortal Kombat 2 came around, he loved hearing that Reptile could turn invisible, but when he played the game he didn’t think it worked well because the player controlling Reptile couldn't keep track of him. This setup fixes that problem.
As another example, in Rising Thunder the character Vlad can drop a rocket on his opponent from off-screen, or pretend to drop a rocket and simply mark the ground with a target. And the player controlling Vlad will see a timer on their screen saying when the rocket will drop, but the opponent will only see a target on the ground and not know whether a rocket is coming sooner, later or not at all.
Killian says that despite including these sorts moves, the team is looking into ways to allow two players to fight each other on the same screen, but it hasn’t worked out those specifics just yet.
Given the game's experimental nature, Killian anticipates a skeptical initial reaction from fighting game fans. But the team has gone to various lengths to try to prove its case. It has external funding, so it won't be running a Kickstarter campaign or asking players to donate. It's also going with a free-to-play structure built around selling cosmetics rather than charging for gameplay. And the game will go live in the form of a "technical alpha" version roughly one week after this story posts.
"We know that a lot of people will listen to this and go, 'Eh, bullshit.' Or, 'You don't understand what you’re talking about.' And it's like, OK cool. I don't want anybody to have to take my word for anything," says Killian.
Over the next year, Radiant plans to expand the game, adding characters, variants, cosmetics and balance changes. Killian says that's one of the main reasons why Radiant designed the game for PCs instead of consoles, wanting the flexibility to update the game quickly with whatever changes feel right over time. Killian doesn't rule out a potential console version of the game down the line, but says there are no plans for that at the moment.
For now, he just wants to sign players up and put the game out, and he'll see where it goes from there.