Sunday, December 20, 2015

Is a Balanced Fighting Game Possible?

I've been playing fighting games for years now. Many years to be more precise. Ever since my 13th birthday when I got "Street Fighter II: Championship Ed." for the Sega Genesis I've been into the genre. To put that into perspective I'm nearing 40 years old now. That is a long time to dedicate to such a hobby. In my years spent with gaming, specifically with fighters (and I've played more than most gamers) I've noticed a trend that has been there pretty much from the start. That trend being the fact that the games in the fighting game genre have never really been balanced. Whether it be the OP (over-powered) bosses, an unbalanced roster, or poorly applied mechanics something has always been unfair for one player or the other.

What makes this so bad is that fighting games are now being marketed as an eSports type of experience. Developers have become so wholly focused on emphasizing the competitive scene that they've lost sight of what makes the genre so great. In doing so they continue to fail to see that their games are still the unbalanced mess that they always were. They don't realize how important it is to balance things out, and don't really seem to care. I think in a way the developers seek out the "show" associated with the fighting game tournament scene more so than they do making the actual fights in said games fun, and fair. Probably for sales purposes. They want their sponsored players to make a 3-ring circus out of the televised competitions for those watching, because a flashy tournament full of special effects, attention getting characters, and hype is seemingly more important than having a proper in-game fight with intense fun filled back & forth action.

Today, while playing Koei Tecmo's "Dead or Alive: Last Round" on the PS4 I saw everything that was wrong with fighting games. I was doing a full Hayabusa playthrough in "Arcade", and was up to the "True Champ" difficulty setting when things became evident. What you have to understand is that there are a handful of things that go on in DOA5LR that mirror a lot of the fighting games out there. Things like the A.I., or CPU opponents that read your button presses, and grapplers that deal obscene amounts of damage while catching your combos midway are commonplace additions. Other issues that are mainstay features in the genre include the mismatched action & reaction speeds of the roster members, and the type of fighting styles used in the games.

In DOA5LR, specifically, the CPU opponents will read your button presses from the start of the match forward. If you don't believe me then spam either the punch, or kick button as the starting timer counts down. Watch as the CPU opponent dodges, grabs, or attacks you in a low to high area that's different from what you are dishing out. You'll see as I did that the CPU opponent will counter that initial attack. This points towards button reading. Why is button reading in a fighting game's offline mode an issue? It's an issue, because it not only shows the laziness of the developer, but it also makes the offline unfair for a player trying to learn the ropes of the game. Instead of implementing some proper AI coding Koei Tecmo has ultimately chosen the easy way out to make CPU opponents that mirror what the player is doing. In doing so it counteracts the point of the arcade mode, and literally has the player fighting against themselves. Thus getting the player nowhere in the way of skill improvement.

When it comes to the character types tied to a roster such as that of "DOA5LR" you'll find that the problem therein lies mainly with the diversity of fighting styles, and the moves associated with said variations. Having a grappler that can do more damage, and more easily so than a basic brawler type of character unbalances the roster indefinitely. The same goes for characters like "Lisa" whose Capoeira  fighting style in DOA5LR gives her a distinct upper hand in a fight. Having a character such as Lisa that dances around wildly, and is hard to read/counter makes for a truly unfair match. Other issues associated with fighting game character designs are evident with characters like DOA5LR's 'Nyotengu' who has wings that enable her to fly, or hover. This in itself offers Nyotengu opportunities that no other character has. Opportunities which can be exploited, but not easily countered by a grounded type of character. The same could be said for "Phase-4", and "Alpha152" who can disappear, and reappear with a forceful, and near unavoidable attack. My point being that if all characters can't do something similar in the way of attacks, and actions like the rest of the roster then the game will be unbalanced, and unfairly so.

This brings me to the point of why I'm pushing the notion that game developers need to strive to make their games balanced. It is important for them to realize for the sake of "At Home" and "Tournament Scene" gamers that fighting games can be balanced, and still be fun. Having a flashy fighting game for the sake of diversity, and show only benefits the few while forsaking the many. Functionality in the way of character application, mechanic presentation, and damage output balancing must be managed wisely. Character design in a fighting game is very important to such a game's success, and to deny that is what leads to most fighting games failing. It is something that doesn't have to vary to a great degree though. When it comes down to character implementation there's no need to create a few easy to use characters that can be exploited to a point that the rest of the more pro level roster is ignored in the online environment. It wastes the game's applied assets, and ultimately turns online players away from the game, because all they are seeing is the same match-ups every time they fight against someone else online.

Aside from that issue there's also no need to make damage output differences between the characters, or to give them distinct advantages through reach or attacks. Making a grappler's grapples do only as much damage as a normal throw, and having said grapples counter enabled would suffice on that end. Heck, making all damage output the same in regards to attacks across the entire roster would be perfect. Have light, medium, and heavy attacks do damage respectfully though. That way the fight is more about applied skill, and less about character exploitation. At the end of the day it must be understood that not making the entire roster inviting, and well balanced ultimately turns players away from the fight, and from the game's competitive offerings. If developers would cut out all the one-sided game design players would be more willing to invest in the game.

Lastly, the online modes in fighting games are extremely important to said games'/series' longevity. To offer an online fighting game experience that is broken by lag, trolling, or cheating will only serve to hurt the games', and the developer's reputation in the fighting game community. Believe it, or not but gamers pay attention to the quality of the online gaming experience as it has become as much of a part of the game as the previous offline only offerings. To place emphasis on the competitive scene via tournament coverage, but to not offer that same exciting experience to the "At Home" gamer on an equally level playing ground via online helps no one. There needs to be a worldwide compatible netcode, and there needs to be in-game grief reporting options available to gamers. Banning included. Without utilizing such applications you might as well quit as a fighting game developer, because you have failed in your creation, and will lose out on sales in the long run.

I'm going to close in saying that I honestly don't think there's hope for the fighting game genre in a marketing environment that is fixated solely on cash intake. It would require a competent game developer with an actual passion, and drive for creating a proper fighting game experience to revitalize the genre, and bring it to it's prime. Sadly the fighting game studios of today show a lack of such design genius, and initiative, and are mainly focused on sales. Well, a lot of them are anyways. To answer the blog title's question though a balanced fighter is possible. It just takes effort on the developer's part, and a motivation to make it so.

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