Note: Originally uploaded on Red Bull. Post has been slightly altered from original upload.
Developers are listening to the FGC more than ever. That can be great — but it’s a double-edged sword when balance complaints don’t always fit the scope of the problem.
Not all fighting game characters are created equal. Some have better defensive options, some have more offensive tools, and others only shine with specific playstyles. This variance is in part what makes fighting games so engaging, but this difference tends to result in some characters being better or worse than others. This is an unavoidable consequence of competition, though these differences usually require extensive player testing to fully understand.
Character matchups vary in terms of who comes out on top, but sometimes certain fighters are viewed as too strong or too weak in such a way that player skill doesn’t factor into a win or a loss, something that’s gotten more and more absolute over the years. It is no longer rare to hear about players avoiding 4-6 match-ups and referring to anything past that as “unwinnable.”
This behavior shows up in players across every fighting game, and is already starting to happen with the most recent fighter Injustice 2. So before those discussions get too far along, let’s take a moment to think about tier lists, how fighting games develop over time, and how exaggeration can hurt a game in the long run.
Mastery takes time
One of the best ways of determining which characters are good is through tournament play. That highly competitive environment exposes flaws in specific playstyles, while accenting the strengths of others. It is true that in today’s age of information sharing tech and strategies has never been easier, which does lead to games developing a lot faster than they used to, but no amount of tech can substitute for testing characters out in a competitive setting.
In addition to this need for battle testing, even more time is needed to uncover useful bugs, unorthodox strategies, and for the community to establish a metagame. These factors all come into play, and they’re all necessary to uncover the true strengths and weaknesses of the cast. On top of this, even weak characters can take advantage of being off-meta, using their opponent’s unfamiliarity to their advantage. A character being strong isn’t the only factor to consider in terms of who’s worth using.
Let’s look at a good example in Red Bull’s own Bonchan. Despite using Nash — widely considered one of the worst characters in Street Fighter V today — he’s been performing well in the Capcom Pro Tour. He’s even managed to win a CPT event in recent weeks.
Nash is considered weak because of how many nerfs he received in Season 2. The character was hit hard to appease player complaints about his strengths, but by that time the community had already figured out how to deal with him. So not only did the character lose its strongest tools, what little he had left was already exposed from being under the microscope during Season 1.
Another example of finding hidden strength in “bad” characters is Razer’s Xian, who was known for playing Street Fighter 4 with Gen. Gen was a character considered competitively unviable in each version of SF4, though Xian managed to do well at tournaments, even scoring an Evo win in 2013 against Tokido.
So, character strength takes time to fully discover. It’s important to be open when approaching your idea of how balanced the cast is, especially when developers are listening to community feedback. There’s always the possibility that no one’s figured out the right way to play as or against specific characters yet, so making decisions on balance too early doesn’t give the game enough time to grow.
Big Brother is listening
In and of itself, players weighing in on what’s good or bad isn’t big a deal. It’s natural for players to want to discuss strengths and weaknesses, and it doesn’t hurt to have discussions. That is, unless the company that developed the game is listening to such feedback and changes the game to accommodate premature complaints.
Sometimes the strongest fighters and tactics aren’t discovered for years, and counter strategies to deal with powerful characters often take time to develop. Let’s take for example Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and its title update, which addressed some common complaints. One often complained about was Phoenix, who was nerfed with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. These knee-jerk nerfs interfered with the natural progression of the community, and as a result the competitive landscape is different than it should have been.
Phoenix was because she was able to revive herself if she dies with 5 bars of meter. This gives her access to a very powerful moveset, which combined with Level 3 X-factor could kill characters very quickly, even just through chip damage. Today she’s not common at tournaments outside a few top players, and there are many counter strategies specifically designed to take her out.
Now on one hand, this is an excellent example of a character with a powerful tactic, and a community rising to the task of deconstructing its strengths. But on the other hand there were many players who made her seem unfair, even though there were ways to deal with her — like snapping her in early so she doesn’t have enough meter to transform. These complaints influenced Capcom to nerf her before she was fully understood, allowing this artificial player-driven manipulation to interfere with the natural cycle of the game.
Before the age of information took hold and players had a direct line to developers, the only option when dealing with a powerful character was to adapt. Telling players to adapt rather than complain or ask for patches has long been a slogan of the FGC, manifested a million different ways.
Tier lists aren’t set in stone, and characters have been known to shift around over time. One example of this is Marvel vs. Capcom 2’s Iceman, who was thought to be too powerful early on. In a projectile based metagame, he had a lot of zoning tools and took no chip damage, giving him the edge on other zoning characters. However, once the game evolved and heavy rushdown became dominant, Iceman melted away into obscurity.
This doesn’t just happen to strong characters, either. It also has allowed some fundamentally weak characters to find niches where they can win. One example for that is T.Hawk from Super Street Fighter II Turbo, who for nearly 2 decades was competitively unviable thanks to just how hard of a time he had getting in on his opponents. However, a setup was eventually discovered that allowed him a virtually unavoidable command grab setup that can be looped back into itself.
Another situation similar to T.Hawk’s can be found in Super Smash Bros. Melee and the chain-grabbing Ice Climbers. At one point the pair were considered mid-low tier, and weren’t thought of as competitively viable. Eventually desyncing and wobbling techniques were discovered which completely changed what was possible with the twins. They too are now currently considered to be very strong, and are competitively viable.
If those games came out today, players would have complained about Iceman and gotten him nerfed, or complained about Ice Climbers or T.Hawk and gotten them buffed. Iceman being nerfed prematurely would lower him from unviable to completely unusable, and buffs to T.Hawk or Ice Climbers could have boosted them to being the best in their game.
How to adapt
Though all of that, the hardcore community shows us that it takes a lot of time to discover who is the best in the game. Any character that feels overpowered today may simply be one discovery away from being broken down.
Take for example Injustice 2. That game has just released, and Deadshot has already become the talk of the town. Players are struggling to figure out how to get through his rapid-fire bullets, and often find themselves on the business end of his gun. Some are already complaining about wanting it nerfed, while others are simply finding strategies around it.
Every player is capable of dealing with this Day 1 Deadshot tactic, but if players keep complaining, then NRS may decide to nerf him. Which would mean at some point down the road, Deadshot may struggle or even become completely unviable once his projectile game is fully understood.
This current possibility of developers deciding to balance around player complaints — in this example, NRS and Headshot — can break a game and characters. Developers are trying to give players what they say they want; in that sense, everyone is on the same side. In a perfect world, all the chatter and patches are to help build a better game. But the loudest complaints aren’t necessarily the ones most worthy of consideration. If someone is unwilling to try to adapt and exaggerates his complaints and his character’s weaknesses, there’s a very real chance of that complaint eventually being considered for a patch and leading to a worse game for everyone.
This isn’t a hypothetical situation, either. Just a cursory look around FGC Twitter reveals players throwing out opinions, which particularly gets attention when coming from high-profile players. While it doesn’t happen all the time, these complaints often align with what they simply don’t like fighting against, or what may be in their character’s benefit — a situation that David “UltraDavid” Graham satirized in the post below.
There are bound to be tactics that rise to power in Injustice 2, just like every other game. It’s each player’s responsibility to figure out how to deal with strong tactics, consider the tools available to them, and come up with counter-strategies. Trying to meddle with the balance of the game through complaints shouldn’t be the go to option.
When should players step in?
Now, there are of course things in fighting games that should be patched. Sometimes additions, buffs, or nerfs are needed, and that shouldn’t be discouraged. Not every situation can be overcome by adapting, and in these situations a patch can improve the game experience for all.
Easy examples of characters that could have used nerfs are characters that end up banned in competitive play. Akuma from Super Street Fighter II Turbo is one such character, having tools that many characters can’t deal with. There are also examples like Petshop from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventures: Heritage for the Future, who is banned because he cannot be hit low and is powerful on top of that.
The point is, as a community, fighting game players have proven time and again that nobody can know how the game will turn out down the road. Patches are a powerful tool that can help provide better games, but it’s each player’s responsibility to be careful. No matter what game it is, making problems seem bigger than they are and trying to influence balance changes by constantly complaining can end up hurting the game in the long run.