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What Does Unbalanced Mean?

Derisive words like “unbalanced,” “overpowered,” and “broken” get thrown around so much these days, you’d think every fighting game was expected to have a 90% competitive roster ratio. It’s true that modern game developers can benefit from studying a long history of tournament-tested titles, but the fundamental problem remains the same: character diversity naturally fosters imbalance. There’s no escaping it.

How are designers supposed to tackle this issue? Every experienced player will tell you that concrete strategy is all about matchups. If you start with two characters, you’ll want to give them a complex array of options with the ultimate goal of staging dynamic battles while ensuring that the most skillful player wins consistently. Whenever you upgrade one move, you’ll have to match it with the appropriate adjustment on the opposite side.

When you introduce a third character, the number of matchups triples. Now when you institute an upgrade, you have to cautiously strengthen two potential rivals to that exact same degree, then compare them with each other to make sure their matchup doesn’t suffer. Every minor tweak can snowball into a series of adjustments echoing back and forth. We’re still talking about three characters here. Well, if you have a cast of 56 diverse characters to balance, you’re basically screwed. Nobody’s that smart.

Clearly, demanding 20+ evenly matched characters is an unrealistic expectation. What would be considered a reasonable number? Looking through the Classics, i’d say any “good” fighting game with a legitimate top tier of four or more characters is perfectly acceptable.

The real question is, at what point do tier rankings factor into the perceived value of a game? Certainly they don’t matter in the beginning, because early impressions almost always turn out laughably inaccurate. It takes everyone three to six months to grasp the game’s true nature. Is it offensive? Defensive? Structured? Chaotic? Technical? Intuitive? Tactical? Instinctive?

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If we’re lucky enough to find a deep, rewarding game on our hands, the next step is running it through the tournament gauntlet to ensure it doesn’t degenerate into a one- or two-character affair. As long as its top tier holds steady at four or more characters and the game itself doesn’t break down into abusing one narrow tactic, it can survive indefinitely as a competitive mainstay. This is a proven fact, because numerous such games have thrived for nearly a decade in the tournament circuit, until a sequel or upgrade was released.

Even with four evenly matched fighters, we’re looking at ten possible matchups, including mirror matches. That’s plenty! Five viable characters give us fifteen potential matchups. When we’re talking about classic-caliber games, each of these matchups can stay interesting for years on end. How long have people been playing Ryu vs Guile in SF2: Hyper Fighting?

To be clear, it doesn’t matter how many squares there are on the character select screen. Who cares whether five useless portraits remain in the game or fifty? Percentage-based breakdowns are meaningless. Only two factors count when considering balance: whether there are four or more characters in top tier, and whether the matchups between them measure up to our high standards. When either of these criteria ceases to be true, that’s when we should stop playing the game.

Until then, there’s nothing to complain about. You simply can’t expect much more than this. Yes, you may have to switch characters to accomodate the realization that your original choice can’t compete against top tier. However, if you enjoy the core game and you have four diverse characters to choose from, just pick one and continue enjoying it.

Real examples of broken and overpowered characters are ST Akuma and CvS Nakoruru. They single-handedly shut down over 90% of their respective rosters and have no unfavorable matchups to speak of. There’s literally no reason not to pick them, which forces players to choose between banning them or retiring those games. That’s what unbalanced really means. Someone like SF4 Sagat is nowhere near this dominant. The term simply doesn’t fit.

Furthermore, convincing others to boycott powerful-but-not-overpowered characters is a disservice to your local community. It’s one thing to play obscure characters because you honestly feel they give you the best chance to win. However, strictly avoiding a strong character simply because he’s strong not only weakens your game, but also any friends who rely on you for competition. This is how Japan almost lost in ST at the first USA vs Japan invitational team tournament and how SoCal became a non-factor in CvS2.

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  1. GLoRToR
    February 18th, 2013 at 05:23 | #1

    It seems like there is this defeatist attitude going on. Why pack in 55 characters if only 5 of them will be viable? Make a game with 5 then and don’t make people frustrated over their favourite not being viable. Which reminds me. There are games out there with equal opportunity and I’m playing those.
    I find it unnecessary to make a whole page of post explaining why stupidly designed games are fine the way they are when it’s clearly just tier whores trying to justify. I, for one, will stick to games where every character is viable and there are no worse match-ups than 6-4.
    The defeatist lot can do what they like.

  2. February 21st, 2013 at 17:00 | #2

    Well, because there’s pretty much only three ways to design games where every character is viable and there are no worse matchups than 6-4:

    1) Don’t take any chances. Make a game where everything is based on proven combat systems and character designs copied from older games. Personally i think this is boring.

    2) Make a game with less than 10 characters. Personally i think this is more boring than starting with 20+ characters that are all viable for 3 months, then get narrowed down to half roster for 3 more months, then gradually down to 5+ the rest of the way.

    3) Update a game multiple times after it’s released and the tournament community has poured millions of hours into stress-testing it. Capcom did this with SF4-SSF4-SSF4AE-SSF4AE2012 and other companies have done it with balance patches. But it’s very hard to sell enough copies of a fighting game to justify keeping a team working on it after it’s released, given that it takes at least 6-12 months for players to figure out the best strategies.

    All of these strategies can work, but none of them are ideal. They all have obvious downsides and challenging design obstacles. Packing in lots of characters isn’t defeatist – it’s just another strategy.

    Also you’re oversimplifying the value of a game with 5/55 viable characters. With MvC2, it’s not just about the outcome at the end of a 10 year journey. It’s about the journey itself and all the characters that became viable along the way.

    Which games do you play? Even without knowing, i’d wager they won’t last 10 years as a flagship tournament title at the biggest FGC tournaments. Sorry dude, i can’t bring myself to criticize MvC2 as a competitive game. There’s no disputing that it was an FGC classic.

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