Paul Weeks, like most kids of a certain generation, used to play Flash games and emulators in the computer lab. It's an experience I can certainly relate to; hidden away from the teacher's eyes, crafty kids often figured out how to get games like StarCraft, Halo, and more up and running on mini-LANs when we were supposed to be working on our MLA citations.
It was there that Weeks played fighting games, battling others on a single keyboard. That mix of instant availability and side-by-side competition clearly sparked something, because years later, Weeks has worked with animator Amy Xu to launch Tough Love Arena into beta.
Tough Love Arena is a completely browser-based fighting game, that you can simply access by heading over to its website. It's a fairly straightforward game, with basic controls that map easily to a keyboard and a striking doodle-based look that seems ripped straight from the margins of a notebook.
"I wanted to make the sort of next generation of that," Weeks tells me on a Discord voice call, referencing back to Flash games he used to play in computer labs. "A simplified, beginner-friendly, local fighting game."
The connection happened in Fall 2018, when Weeks was helping with an animation event that Xu was showing her thesis film at. They are programmer and animator, respectively, by their day jobs. Weeks had been working on various games, in this case a puzzle-platformer, but wasn't able to nail the right look.
"I was like, 'Man, this looks really bad,'" Weeks jokes. "And I really liked her film, and I approached her afterward. And we got coffee, to talk about [collaborating] on this puzzle game together."
It didn't quite click then, but the two stayed in touch. And when Xu said, a year later, that she was still open to working together on a game, Weeks drew from a different inspiration. He had seen games like Skullgirls take fighting games in a direction he wanted to, and the desire to make his own fighting game set in. With Xu's help on art and animation, that prospect became much more doable.
The result is Tough Love Arena, which as of this writing, features just six fighters: Rice, Noodle, Beef, Pork, Onion, and Garlic. They're split up into three classic archetypes for fighting games. Rice and Noodle are the long-ranged fighters, able to hit you from long distances but with key drawbacks. Beef and Pork were originally intended to be all-rounders, though they have a wealth of options between the pair like rolling a lemon at enemies and blasting through moves with their armor. Garlic and Onion are the "Yun" of Tough Love Arena, Weeks says, referencing the twins Yun and Yang from the Street Fighter series; close-combat fighters with high combo potential, and of course, a hopkick.
The beauty's in the simplicity of Tough Love Arena. It's a five-button fighter—move left or right, and three attack buttons corresponding to light, heavy, and special. If you noticed, yes, there's no jump button, and no block either. For the latter, Tough Love Arena adopts a Tekken rule: if you're not hitting anything, you'll automatically block incoming attacks. (You can still throw or guard-break an opponent, so pacifism isn't a guaranteed winning strategy.) And while characters can have a jump as part of their attack set, it's not a movement option.
Tough Love Arena is not the first to simplify down fighting games to their basics. Weeks took inspiration from several other simplified fighters, ranging from Flappy Fighter to Fantasy Strike. What's interesting to see is what gets kept and what gets scrapped in this sort of boiling down of a genre; there may not be fireball inputs, but there's a meter that can be used to cancel moves into others, extending a combo, or spent further to perform a "get off me" move that can break up an opponent's combo.
Weeks says he added the meter to add some high-level choices to be made. It's easy to over-simplify, after all, and be left with something that isn't much fun to play. But Tough Love Arena is still very engaging. You're given a very basic skillset, some help in the form of guided tutorials that teach you each of a characters moves and their use cases, and then let loose.
Within a system of just a handful of options for attacking and reacting, Tough Love Arena finds compelling combat. Justin Wong, a notable name in the fighting game community with a storied legacy in series like Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom, told me he tried out the game and didn't expect it to be as fundamentally sound and fun as it was; an easy game to get into, but with its own mind games.
"What is different about this game versus others is that they took out the execution part of the game and made it more of a mental game of rock-paper-scissors, with a huge hint of reacting accordingly to your opponents," Wong told me over email.
Weeks still laments what the lack of complexity can mean for a fighting game. During our talk, we discussed the idea of the "bad option;" moves that might be situationally useful, but sometimes inferior to other options. Essentially, the further you expand a fighter's moveset, the more weapons someone might have at their disposal. But as that list of options grows, you might run into cases where players need to learn which attacks work best in different scenarios.
In Tough Love Arena, if someone jump-attacks at you, you usually have a few very clear options for response. It makes it easier for new players to panic and mash buttons less, but it does remove a bit of that pride from having mastered a massive movelist and wielding it to perfection. Weeks, a Gouken player in Street Fighter 4, does miss that a little, even if it's ultimately for the best.
"I feel like every other fighting game sort of already has that, you know?" Weeks says. "And I think it was okay for us to sort of try to carve out our niche."
Of course, the design and art style are both in its favor, but Tough Love Arena's instant appeal runs deeper. Weeks describes it as magic words that have been able to wedge the foot of this beta in the door: rollback, browser, and free.
"It's like, okay, it's free, I can play it right now without installing and it has rollback, okay," Weeks says. "And then once they actually try it, then they see Amy's art, then they see my game design, and hopefully they stick around and actually enjoy the experience. I cannot undersell how important rollback is to our community."
Rollback is a term for a type of netcode that's become more and more popular in fighting games over the usual delay-based netcode. When you play fighting games online, two people are essentially playing on two different arcade cabinets, and every time they hit punch, it has to be sent along a wire and to the other person's cabinet, so that both parties can see it and react accordingly, hopefully in unison.
In delay-based netcode, you might hit a button, but you won't see it until the other cabinet has registered the input as well, sometimes creating a "delay" in what you do with your hands and what you see on-screen. Rollback netcode uses, in essence, prediction to keep both instances running smoothly. As Core-A Gaming outlines in their video "Analysis: Why Rollback Netcode Is Better," if you kick in a rollback game, you'll see it instantly and the other side will see it at the same time, with some parts of the front of the animation shaved off.
When the difference in latency is in milliseconds, it's actually a pretty effective system. Chances are, if you're blocking right now, then in the next frame, chances are you're probably blocking. And if predictions are wrong, it jumps the opponent to the right position and action, rolling it back.
It's not perfect, but it often works better over long distances compared to delay-based connections, and more fighting game developers are starting to catch on. Especially in the last year, with the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down the in-person tournaments that forge the backbone of high-level fighting game play, fluid online play has become absolutely critical.
That doesn't mean rollback is easy to implement; usually, you have to design for it from the start, and as Weeks notes, it can be difficult for older engines and systems to adapt. He refers to a GDC talk from NetherRealm Studios about how the company worked rollback into its games, and how difficult it was to implement.
In Weeks' case though, it made Tough Love Arena appealing. What could have just been a local co-op fighting game, meant for playing on a single keyboard like in the computer lab, is instead a game you can easily hyperlink to a friend. He estimates the player count averages somewhere between 200 to 400 players, with anywhere from a quarter to a third of players competing on mobile devices. That might seem small, but for a debut fighting game that's had to spread primarily by word-of-mouth, it's very respectable numbers.
"To me, this is a resounding success," Weeks says. "We are super, super proud and super flattered how much people have been enjoying the game and talking about the game. But we definitely came into this and came into the beta launch especially, with pretty low expectations of we're just gonna put it out there, see if we can get any feedback, see if we can get any interest."
There's a desire to do more with this game. Weeks has kept an up-to-date to-do list with everything from small bug fixes to lofty goals, like online ranked play, and even the occasional joke, like "known issues: Noodle is OP." Even in the time spent writing this article, Weeks put together a work-in-progress lobby system, making it even easier to recreate that social gathering aspect of wide-eyed fighting game players huddled around one keyboard.
Despite the success, getting the pair's game on the Twitter timeline of players like Wong and Dominique "SonicFox" McLean, Weeks and Xu are keeping this to themselves for now. Weeks says he's been sent offers to collaborate, to help the game, and even one eager fan hoping that the two get bought out. He says they're looking at some ways to make cash, enough to cover the server costs of hosting Tough Love Arena, and the game does have a Patreon. It's important to the two, though, that this one stays free.
"But at the end of the day, and I'll admit this, you know, it's a little selfish, but this is our game," Weeks says. "And this is our game that we're making for fun."
The thought of what comes when tournaments eventually become a reality again has certainly crossed Weeks' mind. He says he's considered an offline version, whether that exists on a platform like Steam or just a file you can stick on a thumb drive, so tournament players don't have to connect a laptop to the Internet to download assets for every match.
In the current fighting game climate though, there's a lot of appeal in a game that's so easy to share. Tough Love Arena has some fantastic art, jovial mouth-noise attack sounds, and a deceptively simple design that makes it easy to pick up and play. But how easy it is to truly pick up and play is what's made it stand out. In a post-Flash world, it's nice to be able to send a friend a link and say, "Let's play a round." So here's the link, if you want to meet up at the great computer lab in the web sometime.