Chapter 9: Prelude to a Diss (Some Preliminary Remarks on Balance)

Play who you like, but play to win, or dont bother.

In these opening remarks, well try and come up with some rough definitions for this commonly used term, and investigate whether its something we actually want after all…

Ever see one of those stories where some goober gets 3 wishes, and ends up screwing himself over (i.e. very old folk stories, sitcoms, and from X-Files episodes to any number of movies, including the recent “Bedazzled” (infinitely inferior to the 1968 version))? Its always the same thing- the goober gets excited, then makes the wish without having really thought through the consequences of what hes asking for. Sometimes its just a dumb play on words that leads to the downfall, but in the best versions, the guy actually does get what he asked for- its just not quite as good as he hoped it would be. Lets try granting one of those scrub wishes, and see what happens…

One of the historically biggest complaints about Capcom games is that theyre “unbalanced”. Though the term is unhelpfully vague (as, youll notice, are most of the terms popular with scrubs and whiners), I think its basically meant as a complaint about how some characters seem so much better than others- a certain character is “overpowered”. And being overpowered leads to a game being unbalanced. Or something like that.

One of the best ways to help clear up a vague term is by looking at its contrast. Well, if “unbalanced” = bad, then “balanced” must = good, right? So to banish the scourge of unbalanced games, the scrub rubs the magic lamp and wishes for a “balanced” game…

So how do we get balance? We dont have much to go on yet. Historically, the question of “balance” didnt really come up. Why not? Its just side-stepped, because in most older games, both sides are identical. Like chess. You have the same pieces, the same options. So does this mean that the scrubs wish will be satisfied by both sides being identical? You and your opponent both have to play exactly the same character? Then I give you… Karate Champ! … “Hey! I didnt mean the characters had to be the same!” Oh. Okay. Well then what did you mean? Maybe the scrub can use their second wish to fix this one up- they of course want balance AND a lot of characters.

Okay- but before we move past the idea of identical sides as an obvious source of balance, we should note something else- There *is* one difference between the black and white sides in chess- namely that white gets to move first. This is, of course, enough to make all the difference in the world at high levels- conventional wisdom puts white at a substantial advantage simply because of this, even as they remain identical in all other respects. What does this show? For our purposes, take it as an illustration that a general background of “balance” acts to put an enormous emphasis on whatever differences there happen to be- no matter how small.

Because fighting game characters (as individuals) lack the complexity of a set of chessmen, establishing a background of “sameness” in fighting games is for these reasons, usually a disaster. Witness games like the later Mortal Kombat installments, KI2- true dogs of the fighting game world. In an MK-style game, even though you have a lot of characters, they all play in a depressingly similar fashion. Everyone has the same basic moves and options. The difference between them (aside from their different heads, and cool “personalities”) boils down to some characters simply having better versions of that same set of moves. Whee! They also mix it up with “different” specials. Of course, these also fall into depressingly similar categories (the crummy projectile, the teleport punch, etc.), and of the ones that arent uselessly suicidal, there are some that are just obviously better than the rest. The characters that end up being the winners are the ones with the best versions of what everyone else has too. This leads to a terribly flat game, and while it may seem “balanced”, its not actually an improvement- everything is just dumbed-down. Ironically, these simplistic attempts at balance, while intended to help the game, end up hurting it by making all the characters that much less interesting. It merely forces you to play in a far more restricted manner, to squeeze that tiny margin of superiority out of your remarkably similar moves.

This is a waste of time, and is at odds with the basic motivation for having had different characters in the first place. Why have a lot of characters when they all play the same way? Better to simply have a few (or even one) far more developed characters. Chess trades multiple characters for incredible depth in one, and though theres nothing wrong with that (ask me about my idealized “All Ryu v Ryu” SF4), thats not what the scrub actually wants, nor is it commercially viable.

Down to your last wish, scrubby! If he wises up here, he should realize that he shouldnt be wishing for “balance” (in any simple sense of the word) at all. What he should wish is for truly varied characters, none of whom is so weak so as to necessarily lose in boring ways. You dont need to focus on avoiding powerful characters- you just want to keep everyone interesting. I call this “meta-balance”.

SSF2T provides an excellent example of this type of meta-balance. In a “normally balanced” game, the possible opposing sides are identical, or at least functionally very similar, and of course, everyone has a roughly similar chance to win. Does everyone have a roughly equal chance to win in ST? No way. Are there stronger and weaker characters? You bet. Theres quite a bit of distance between first and last place on the rankings chart. However, look at what you get in the trade: the characters in ST are genuinely different- very few play in ways that are at all similar. Each has distinct strengths. This is cool on its own (real variety is more fun), but adds even more in another way- the relative importance of each of their individual strengths varies from matchup to matchup. This is how genuinely different characters really repay the effort that their design requires- with real depth. Being good at a meta-balanced game doesnt entail just mastering some characters gimmick, then repeating it all day, come what may. Instead, you have to understand their strengths *in relation* to those of the other, different characters. Youll often need entirely different tactics against different opponents, even though youre playing the same character throughout. Chun Li, under some circumstances is best played as a keep-away turtle, in others wants to rush you down, doing anything she can to avoid being pushed back, and in still others, somewhere between these two extremes. This is how you get a game that stays interesting and becomes deeper with time, instead of a quickly-won race to discover whos stupid version of the same generic attack cant be retaliated against, and is therefore the champion.

So, just to be clear: the price of having a lot of genuinely distinct characters is that some of them will be less effective than others. These degrees of effectiveness are really an almost direct consequence of the variety. It is basically unavoidable- and not something to complain about, when youre also (justifiably) insisting on variety. Discovering which characters ARE strong like this is a big part of the fun of playing- not some unfortunate, damning piece of knowledge which corrupts all future play. Its not like its discovered, then theres a thunderclap from on high in which God agrees- “Congratulations Brian, youve discovered the most powerful character! Your work here is done, and you can stop playing now!” Geez. The “proof” that some character is top tier consists solely in their continued, actual dominance. Its proven by someone playing with them, and winning. Thats it. Scrubs act like its some kind of disaster that a top tier even exists, much less that someone should actually play them (and god save the soul of anyone playing top tier characters, and playing them WELL- the horror!).

This highlights the way that an apparently “objective” complaint about balance is often really just another in a long line of scrub excuses for losing. “My character CANT win- the game is unbalanced!”. Exhibit A is the fact that this type of complaint is most often (and most loudly) made by those least qualified to do so. You know the type- the casually idiotic player who plays for a while, finds something he cant figger a way round, then goes “Since we know Im gods gift to game playing, and theres NOTHING I havent tried, the problem must be the game itself! Its unbalanced!”

Exhibit B is that these scrubs also seem to like thinking that theyre “fighting the power” by picking unpopular or weak characters- that theyre “rebels”. Since they cant win, they attempt to squeeze value out of the very act of picking the “victims” of unbalanced games. Now theres obviously nothing wrong with picking a character you like, but these scrubs pick weak characters precisely BECAUSE theyre weak. WTF. Newsflash: you dont “fight the power” simply by playing weak characters. Theyre in such a hurry to buck the system by playing their own “wacky” characters that they dont realize this is only half the battle. You dont get props merely for selecting some weird character- you get props for WINNING with the weird character, in ways people hadnt previously seen. You are not cool just for being wacky- theres nothing cool about moving the select cursor and hitting a button. Its your play that counts. A lot of players playing “wacky” characters dont use them as a format for experimentation and discovery- they use them as an excuse for losing. The reason they got mercilessly beat down is because they were TOO COOL to try and really win. Dud.

Play who you like, but play to win, or dont bother.

More next time.

  1. On Cheapness
  2. Mental Toughness
  3. So You Want to be a Dominator?
  4. Controlling Space
  5. You Can Lead a Scrub to Water, But You Can’t Make ‘Em Think
  6. Critical Breakdown
  7. Draw This
  8. Planet of the SF-Playing Apes
  9. Prelude to a Diss