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Opinion: (Fighting Games) The Balancing Act


Now I’ve always been fairly mediocre at fighters. From Tekken to Dead or Alive, from Street Fighter to Dragonball Z: Tenkaichi Budokai. And probably some other ones that I never played and so don’t know the name of. But the question I’ve always asked myself (especially after getting smashed online/by my little brother) is: Are they balanced?

Now some people might not be familiar with balance (in gaming, I assume they have a general knowledge of how to balance – otherwise they might find walking difficult) so I’ll go into it briefly with an example most people can relate to (or can pretend to relate to). World of Warcraft went through a period that I’m sure many MMO’s go through (or I would hope they do) when, in The Burning Crusade expansion, they introduced Arena combat. Now this gladiator-style, four men (or elves or orcs or whatever) enter and two men leave, PvP (Player Vs. Player) event marked the height of PvP in WoW and soon enough there were even paid tournaments for Arena.

But what it did more than anything else is shine a spotlight on which classes were overpowered or underpowered (better or worse). From then on almost every patch had at least some balance changes and certain abilities and classes were reworked completely. Now this is an MMO not a fighter so obviously things are a little bit different. Fighters don’t go through improvement patches on a regular basis, so balance isn’t just another thing you can throw into the mix of features getting updated.

But, maybe they should? While there are diehard fans and known anti-cynics who will insist that X fighter beats Y fighter so both are balanced (even if X can beat ABCDEFGH and only really loses if Y spams that one move over and over), surely most fighter fans can admit that towards the high end of competitive play there are characters you see a lot more than others.

Is this because they are more powerful, more popular, easier to play or is it because they are overpowered in comparison to the others?

I’ll throw in some examples. For Mortal Kombat (although don’t quote me on this because I haven’t played the most recent one) people always complain about Sub-Zero. In Tekken people have always complained about Eddie/Christie and more recently Alisa. If you are talking Super Smash Bros. Brawl (so many people play this so I’m including it even though it’s on the borderline of being a true “fighter”) MetaKnight has always had complaints about him. And if you were talking to me, since I play a lot of Naruto fighters, I would tell you that Deidara in Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 can beat people online by only pressing the X button on your controller (seriously) and that in Naruto: Broken Bond the same thing was true of Fox Form Naruto (again, dead seriously). In fact, because I played a character with a stun in Naruto: Broken Bond, over half my Xbox live reputation (to this day) is negative due to “unsporting conduct”.

So where do we assign the blame? Is it the developers fault for not balancing the characters? Is it just that some people play the game as brokenly as possible in order to win? Is it because some people are naturally gifted with a certain character and some aren’t? Or is it because of varying difficulties to play certain characters?

Personally I think in good fighters there is a trade-off between player skill and character difficulty. If you spent several years learning all of Yoshimitsu’s and I come in and wreck you with Eddie on my third match then there is probably a balance issue. If we both practice for a similar amount of time, but due to Yoshimitsu’s more extensive moveset you are able to come up with a better strategy and beat me – well then it’s more about the player than the game.

The main problem is, it is almost impossible to tell who is overpowered, who is underpowered and who is just being played very well. This is where, in a perfect world, the game developers would come in. If there was just a little more give and take with the fighters on the market (where possible) we could say things like “well Eddie has never been nerfed, [Trans. To make weaker; “I removed the rocket launcher to nerf the map”] obviously he is in a place that Namco is happy with” or “I’m so glad they finally fixed that X combo on Deidara, that shit was getting ridiculous” (seriously, being able to say that sentence is a wet dream of mine).

Of course this kind of give and take, as WoW found out, has its own drawbacks. It’s not too long before the company is petitioned left right and center by people who think their character is too weak, shouldn’t have been nerfed or should just play more like the way they want him to play (especially true of games based off TV shows or Animes).

A famous quote which always springs to mind is:

“Dear [Game Developer],
Please nerf Scissors, but Rock is ok.
Sincerely, Paper”

So it’s good to see my logic performed a tight circle, but where does this leave us?

Are game developers who create fighters (arguably one of the most competitive genres of gaming) right in doing their own internal tests and then leaving the balance as is after a game is released?

Would it be better if they constantly updated characters and abilities based off the ebb and flow of the changes in the community of the game?

I suppose at some point affordability comes into question. Obviously WoW can afford to do balance fixes once a month, they are a subscription service. Fighters are a one-off purchase. But I still don’t think this gets them off the hook.

Personally, my dream scenario is one where developers who are making a fighting game give it an audit somewhere around 3-6 months after launch. If they see a lot of people winning with the same character or losing with the same character (or avoiding a certain character), maybe they can look into it and see if maybe that character needs its damage buffed, or it’s melee combo fixed up a bit. I’m not asking for major changes, but balance can be altered with the smallest of changes and has the capacity to change (fix) the game for a lot of people who just want an honest match without exploiting a certain move (note: I didn’t say a certain combo, that would be genre-breaking).

Sure, some people might say “oh my god, now I can’t kill you by pressing one button repeatedly! I’m quitting the game for good and taking all my friends with me!”.

But at the end of the day:  Are these the people you want dictating the culture of your game?

Because I’m getting a little tired of them.



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