On fighting games: Balance is theory, tiers aren’t facts

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Fighting game balance, like the quality of a videogame, is one of those things that people desperately want to assess with some quantifiable form of measurement. Just as some gamers turn to Metacritic the second a game is released to find out how much better or worse it is than some other game, some gamers are quick to cite tier lists to prove that a particular fighting game character is “better” than some other fighting game character or that some games are more balanced overall than others.

That’s faulty thinking. At best, tiers can give people a general idea of what characters have been statistically most effective amongst professional or near-professional fighting game competitors. Beyond that, they aren’t really good for much. If someone wants to figure out how “good” a fighting game character is, they’d be better off looking at how much damage the character in question can withstand, how powerful their moves are, the various uses of specials, supers, and normals, etc. Even that doesn’t compare to the very best way to decide which characters are most effective: personal experience.

But back to the point: you tier-worshiping stat huggers need to reevaluate your thinking.

Hugo (U.S. super bottom tier) vs. Chun-Li (U.S. super top tier)

This whole article started as a comment in Dtoid’s Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition review, where I said that 3rd Strike is the most balanced game in the Street Fighter series. As you probably guessed, I was using the word “balance” in a much broader sense than tourney-focused fighting game fans would. Personally, I think that’s the only way to talk about balance, especially in a review that’s written for both fighting game fans and fighting game virgins alike. Generally, balance refers to how much worth each character has in relation to one another. In terms or variety, design, and play style, I think that 3rd Strike has the most balanced cast in the series, which I think applies to everyone, regardless of your level of experience with the series in particular or fighting games in general.

That’s my opinion based on personal experience of watching others play the game and playing it myself since it was first released over ten years ago. If someone else has a different opinion than I do (on this or any topic), I’m more than happy to hear about it. That said, when someone’s opinion comes from a source other than their own experience (charts, graphs, the opinions of others, etc), I tend to lose interest really fast.

That’s why I’m so sad that many in the fighting game community rely on tier charts or tournament results to tell them what to think. Tier lists aren’t the results of scientifically gathered data, and tourney results aren’t “clean data.” There is little to no causality to be determined from tournament results — there are too many variables involved. Any facts that someone may try to glean from a tourney result or tier chart are bound to be mired and muddied by (amongst other things) the overall psychology and sociology of fighting game culture. That’s why character tiers are so often country-specific. Different cultures lead to different approaches towards games, and different approaches towards a fighting game leads to different characters becoming popular, mastered, and “top tier.”

Japanese players Kuroda and Hayao using Q (U.S. bottom tier) to beat American players Ricky Ortiz (Ken, U.S. top tier) and Justin Wong (Chun-Li, U.S. super top tier)

Fighting game fans, have you ever noticed how once someone plays really well with one character, that others in the scene either start playing with that character or a one that is thought to be the antidote to that character, especially in high risk and/or heavy punishment games like MvC2 or 3rd Strike? Did you ever think about how the competitive fighting game community consists of a relatively small group of people who only have each other to talk to and learn from? That’s the kind of “inbred” culture that leads to characters’ becoming “top tier.” It happens with almost every fighting game; the smaller and more insulated the particular fighting game community, the greater the discrepancy between the top and bottom tiers.

This kind of thing happens in sports all the time. For a few years in the baseball world (and forgive me if I’m remembering this wrong, because I could really give a crap about baseball), every big league team was focusing on knuckleballs. One big pitcher struck out some amazing hitters with a series of well timed knuckleballs, then all of a sudden, everyone in sports radio and the baseball enthusiasts press was saying “knuckleballs win games,” “they should trade their old guy for a quality knuckleballer,” and so forth.

Now, does that mean that knuckleballs are suddenly that amazing, that for all those years that professional baseball had existed, no one noticed that knuckleballs were the best until now? Of course not. It’s the relationship between culture and practice that caused knuckleballs to gain this inflated sense of worth. Buying into the idea that anything is that amazing usually leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. If knuckleballs are considered “the best,” batters will be more intimidated by a quality knuckleballer and therefore more likely to mess up against a knuckleballer. If everyone thinks that knuckleballs are so effective, then that’s what they’re going to practice, making the average pitcher much better at knuckleballing in general. If the best players are using knuckleballs most of the time, then the majority of the best pitches that season will be knuckleballs, no questions asked. That all leads to knuckleballs appearing to be intrinsically better than other pitches, which will continue to keep players, coaches, and fans focused on them, further contributing to the culture-wide infatuation with the pitch, and so on.

Yun (U.S. super top tier) vs. Yun (U.S. super top tier), a common match-up in U.S. tourneys

I hope I don’t sound like an anti-knuckleball fanboy, because it’s not like that at all. Knuckleballs are sometimes the best option for a situation, given a particular pitcher pitted against a particular batter. This is something that every baseball player knows in their rational mind, but for anyone who’s ever followed politics, the economy, the entertainment world, or any culture-wide phenomena, rationality often gives out to insecurity, mob mentality, Emperor’s New Clothes-style cowardice, and other psychological factors. Eventually, due to new ideas to the world of Major League Baseball introduced by new blood (coaches, hitters, and pitchers), the knuckleball fad will come to an end, followed by a new fad in the pipeline. Last time I spoke to a baseball-loving person, I think I heard that stealing bases is the “new thing” that everyone’s talking about. In a couple of years, it will probably be bunts.

Swap the word “knuckleball” for “Chun-Li/Yun” and “baseball” for “American 3rd Strike players,” and you’ll hopefully have a good idea about why I don’t value tiers and other ways to mathematically calculate fighting game balance. The big difference between baseball and 3rd Strike is that the competitive 3rd Strike scene is too small for people to notice that trends and fads fade in and out as rapidly as they do in American baseball. 3rd Strike is one of the least popular Street Fighter games, coming into being just as the arcade scene was dying out. As such, it has arguably the most “inbred” community out of all Street Fighter titles (at least in America). It’s different in Japan, where the 3rd Strike community is much more diverse. Sadly, Americans often ignore the Japanese 3rd Strike scene, which is a shame though also quite strange, seeing as a lot of Japanese players are really good (a seen in some of the videos in this post).

Now, I’m not saying that tiers and balance calculations are totally worthless. It’s especially important to find out if a fighting game has infinites or other techniques that completely break the game. When some characters possess abilities that can cause them to almost instantly win a match with minimal strategy, I think it’s fair to say that the game is beyond “imbalanced” and has entered the realm of “broken.” I think 3rd Strike is balanced because it has enough effective universal “normals” (parry, air parry, super jump, overhead, etc.) to allow every character to theoretically deal with anything that comes their way. The only thing that could ever hold a 3rd Strike player back is their level of skill.

I’m also not saying that tiers and other balance calculations couldn’t be better. It would be amazing if someone calculated a tier that cross-correlated data collected online regarding specific characters and the level of experience of the player using them, how often they block, how many combos they successfully complete, and so on. That would do a lot to make tiers and balance analysis more scientifically valid, as well as make guys like David Sirlin (who admirably tried, and arguably failed, to re-balance Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo with HD Remix) a lot happier. Sadly, when it comes to Street Fighter in general, I’m sure that those stats would probably only show us what we already know. Regardless of what Street Fighter game you’re playing or any other variables (age, level of experience, play style, etc.), I’ve learned that the average Street Fighter player always chooses Ken, and the always follows the flow chart as closely as possible. I’m guessing that at a least 50% of all my matches in SSF4, 3rd Strike, and SSF2T:HD have been against Ken, who is constantly throwing out Shoryukens. Screw complaining about Yun and Chun in 3rd Strike, let’s retire Ken from the Street Fighter series entirely. Dude needs a vacation anyway.

Italian tournament match featuring Sean (U.S. super bottom tier) and Ken (U.S. top tier), with Sean winning the first two out of three rounds, but… God dammit, Ken…

That’s the thing, though. It’s common knowledge that a smart competitive player doesn’t just stick with Ken because he’s proven to be so effective for so many players. A smart player avoids that kind of “inbred” thinking. A smart player constantly checks out what gamers from other countries are doing and never strays too from “the lab,” always ready to devise new techniques to counter commonly used moves and strategies. A smart player takes tiers for what their worth, as a look at some trends present amongst the top players surveyed from that particular game, but doesn’t live by that information. They aren’t going to quit using a character that they feel an affinity for just because that character is “low tier,” just like a good actor isn’t going to turn down a script they relate to just because its subject matter isn’t necessarily known to make money, or like a Jujitsu expert isn’t going to drop their style just because kick boxers have been winning a lot of matches lately. Like any artist, a real athlete sticks with the tools they feel they understand the most, and spends their time and energy attempting to utilize those tools to the fullest. Competitive fighting game players should be no different.

As for me, I’m more concerned about the analysis of videogames and gamer culture in general. That’s why I’m frustrated with gamers who value tiers, balance charts, and the opinions of “experts” more than their own opinions. When gamers, or any group for that matter, fail en masse to think for themselves, it always leads bad things. Cultural leaders are important, but never are they so important that their perspectives are more important than your own.

Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for professional-level gamers, but just because they know a game from a competitive perspective doesn’t mean they understand what it will be like for you or I to experience the game. Just because Daigo or Justin Wong (or Jim Sterling) might have said that 3rd Strike is unbalanced or that Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 is too easy (or that you’re favorite game only deserves a 4.5), that doesn’t mean their opinion is more important than yours. If anything, you might be more quick to discount Justin Wong’s opinion, as he can only see the world of Street Fighter through the eyes of Justin Wong. He can’t possibly imagine what it’s like to experience Street Fighter through the eyes of mere mortals like us. He hasn’t been a mere mortal for most of his Street Fighter-playing life, assuming he ever was one at all.

Hugo (U.S. super bottom tier) vs. Chun-Li (U.S. super top tier), again

OK, tl;dr time — tiers and balance calculations are fun, and they’re better than nothing when it comes to providing us with some frame of reference in terms of what various fighting game characters are worth. The downside is, when taken as gospel, tiers and balance calculations can hold back the growth of certain fighting games, 3rd Strike being one of them. If more gamers, professional or otherwise, made fewer decisions based on what they think they know about a fighting game’s preexisting tiers, and more from what they they want to to learn about the game by experiencing it for themselves, the world of fighting games would be a better place.

I hope that happens now that 3rd Strike is online. With new blood comes the potential for new ideas and techniques, gameplay concepts unhindered by static patterns of the past. Of course, that may not happen. 3rd Strike going online may go on to prove what we’ve always known (and what these videos prove), that Hugo is “top tier” and that it’s impossible to win with Chun-Li.

Either way, I can’t wait to see how the fight for 3rd Strike‘s future, as well as the future of all fighting games, will unfold. Just rememeber that it’s you, the players, not charts and stats, that will go on to determine how that future unfolds.

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Jonathan Holmes
Destructoid Contributor - Jonathan Holmes has been a media star since the Road Rules days, and spends his time covering oddities and indies for Destructoid, with over a decade of industry experience "Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes