Often, balance issues are what a game is primarily judged on, especially among the more competitive players. While graphics, characters, and sound design are part and parcel for making a game aesthetically pleasing enough to initially try, the balance of a game can make or break it; while people will differ on stylistic preferences, one thing people remain adamant about is proper balance.
One of the things that initially plunged the fighting game genre into relative obscurity was an oversaturation of games, in an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Street Fighter’s popularity, coupled by a poor understanding of how to actually design fighting games at the time. As a result, bad titles emerged with clear imbalances–Batman having an unblockable only on a certain side in Justice League Task Force, a nearly unbeatable Ivan Ooze in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and almost the entirety of Shaq Fu spring to mind immediately. Even during this Wild West of fighting game design, there were several surprise sleeper hits that maintained strong balance, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters for the SNES, and Sailor Moon S for the Super Famicom–both of which still see competitive play to this day.
Because we, as a community, lived through this period where very few games were truly competitive, we have become a far more discerning bunch when it comes to game balance. If there are issues with this, then the game often sees its player base dwindle in an instant–should the developer not take the initiative to try to counter imbalance. But, have we become too obsessed with balance? Are we seeking that which may never be achieved–a perfectly balanced game?
Definition of Balanced
To look at the potential for fighters to be perfectly balanced, we must first look at what balance actually means. The best way to understand what is balanced, is by looking at what is the most useful data in determining balance: tier lists and matchup data.
Tier lists are often a legitimate factor in choosing competitive characters–and yet almost always the subject of great debate due to their own subjectivity. The best tier lists are often created off of matchup charts, which are usually compiled by the competitive community of a game at large. The principle that matchup data goes off of: if two players of equal skill and understanding of the game were to match up their best characters against each other, who would win the most matches? You’ll often see this quantified by saying something like Chun-Li beats T. Hawk in Ultra Street Fighter IV 7 to 3, meaning that Chun-Li should beat T. Hawk seven out of ten matches, if both players are playing perfectly.
These lists and charts are always in flux across the lifespan of a game, with even an aging title like Super Street Fighter II Turbo still seeing matchup changes over the years. Thus, this leads into the subjectivity of them: as we develop and discover new tech and strategies, this information can fluctuate wildly over the course of years, and even decades.
However, if we take it as face value based on the information we have now, we can clearly see an imbalance. If a T. Hawk player in the above example can play perfectly and still lose by virtue of facing Chun-Li, then that actually tilts the game in favor of the Chun-Li player. By this, we can now deduce what perfect balance would look like. Perfect balance would make it so any character, when played perfectly, can beat any other character played perfectly 50% of the time. This is the epitome of fairness.
Now that we know what perfect balance is, the question becomes: is it possible? Not only that, but what would it look like?
We’re Going to Take You Back to the Past
The truth is, perfect balance is possible. Not only is it possible, but it has already been done. Let’s go back to the 1980s, shall we?
In 1987, Capcom released the most balanced multiplayer version of Street Fighter ever released. It was, indeed, Street Fighter 1. The title had perfect balance. The reason? There existed only two playable characters: Ryu and Ken. The two shotos weren’t as dramatically different as they were from Super Turbo onward. In fact, they were completely identical aside from their color palettes.
The problem was: no one played Street Fighter 1 competitively. There exist no Street Fighter 1 side tournaments at Evo–although I now halfway expect someone to attempt to create one this year to spite me. Part of the reason that this game never gained a following was that the controls were terrible–it took a large amount of joystick maneuvering plus no small miracle to actually execute special moves in the game. That alone, however, did not make the game largely unplayed.
If you look back even further in time, you can find fighting games such as Karate Champ and Yie Ar Kung Fu–two more titles that feature two characters with the exact same design and moveset battling against each other. These titles, much like Street Fighter 1, largely go unplayed to this day–relegated to the dusty shelves of fighting game history. You may be catching on to a pattern: No one wants to play the exact same character against their opponent. The lack of variety remains highly unenjoyable.
Mirror matches still happen in fighting games, and while a lot of people dislike playing them, they are tolerable in the grand scheme of competitive play. However, if that were all you could ever play in a fighting game, it would become boring in a very short period of time, and you would likely quit playing and never think of picking it up again. This stems from the human brain, and its own proclivity to enjoy variety. [A good modern example of this is Nidhogg, a game generally quite well-regarded for its fighting mechanics, but with no character variety, and thus not retaining much competitive interest. – Editor] The same thing happens in daily life. If you were to eat a hamburger for every meal, you would eventually tire of it and crave something different, no matter how much you initially liked hamburgers.
That is why variety in a fighting game is important. It is the very reason that Street Fighter II caught on and took the world by storm. That is also why every fighting game since has taken the idea of having a variety of characters with varying movesets, and ran with it in their own series. But the flip side of the coin: in order to have a variety of characters with varying movesets, you have to accept a certain level of imbalance in order to make this happen.
Players do accept this, within an acceptable range. Anything from 8-2 matchups and lower are universally accepted as severe imbalances. Yet beyond that, it becomes subjective. Some players will accept 7-3 matchups where they are the underdog, so long as not every matchup is similar to that, while others would steer clear of a character like that even if they had strong matchups otherwise. Some players want everything as close to even–or at least 6-4 either way–as possible. Others still want to watch the world burn and try to pick outright broken fighters like Akuma in Super Turbo–despite his banned status.
Glossing over the latter group, players choose within themselves what sort of imbalance they are comfortable with and accept it. If they are unable to, they simply choose a different character, or move on to a new game if they find no other character that they enjoy. But ultimately, their choices stem from how challenged they want to be in matchups, and whether they are comfortable continually playing at a disadvantage. This is part of their own psychological makeup, allowing them to determine what sort of balance is acceptable and come to terms with it.
So it’s an inherent fact that fighting games need to be somewhat imbalanced to enjoy a healthy competitive scene. But what if I were to tell you that fighting games aren’t the only games that have this same problem?
Way Back to the Past
Chess is one of the most studied and scientifically-discussed games in the world. Its Grand Masters and championships are hotly contested to this day, and the game still sees no sign of stagnating. Yet, the game has one inherent imbalance.
White usually wins more than black–between 52 and 56% of the time, to be exact. The reason for this is simply that white gets to move first. This means that white can set up their opening gambit–thus taking control of the pace of a match. This forces black to play in a defensive position from the very beginning. This is not the only game that houses inherent disadvantages.
In Texas Hold ’em Poker–as well as any poker variant that has a community board, such as Omaha–the player in the dealer position is at an advantage compared to the rest of the table. The reason for this is that that player acts last after the flop, giving them more information about the current betting round than the person who acts first. This advantage is somewhat balanced out by rotating the dealer position around the table, but ultimately you will see acceptable opening hands be very tight for the person who acts first before the flop, and gradually loosen up the closer you get to the dealer button.
To go further back in card games–as well as to further illustrate my above point of acceptable imbalances–poker legend Stu Ungar was first well-known for–and is still widely considered to be–the best Gin Rummy player of all time. Around the time he started playing poker, he was having difficulty finding challengers in Gin, to the point where he would set handicaps for himself, such as playing from dealer position–which is an inherent disadvantage in Gin–and even letting his opponent see the bottom card of the deck.
So the point is now driven home–balance doesn’t always equate to a fun, competitive game. When you look at it from this angle, it actually proves to be the antithesis of it.
Games are supposed to be fun, no matter how competitive they become. This is why we play them to begin with. While balance is a major issue to be concerned with–given that it can actually make games virtually unplayable–the closer we get to perfect balance, the further we get from enjoyable games.
When we see stunning upsets in tournament, we not only talk about the player ranking, but also the character matchups that should not allow for it to happen. That is another part of the human psyche–we want to see upsets. We want excitement. We want to be shocked and awed by matches we have witnessed. Perfect balance allows for no such things to exist, outside of player talent alone.
When talking about balance and how it should be done, we should also be looking at how much imbalance is also acceptable. If we fail to do that, we run the risk of turning Street Fighter VI into Street Fighter I HD Remix.