(Continued from Part 1)
Part 2: Variety, Viability and Balance
Street Fighter IV is often said to have really good balance between characters. It’s current tier listing shows it isn’t too bad at least as fighting games go – 53 points between top and bottom, 25 characters (2.12 per character). Although HDR’s current tier listing shows the differences there are probably even less – 26.5 points between top and bottom, 16 characters (1.66 per character), however if you remove Dan, SFIV also drops to 1.71. The other point people say is good about SFIV is that it has mostly 6-4 type of matchups rather than really bad ones. However what people fail to notice a lot of the time is the way in which SFIV has achieved a lot of this – by sacrificing variety.
By it’s nature a game where all characters are the same is balanced, and in SFIV the characters have become more homogenized than usual. Firstly the more common subsystems like Focus Attack you add, the more similar the characters will become, but SFIV goes further than this – almost all characters have very similar jumps now, and almost identical throws, with identical ranges (outside of specials). They all have almost identical dashes as well, and guess what, all the characters can still block just the same. So when you emphasise these abilities that all characters can do the same (more on this in Part 3), naturally the characters become more balanced, and that’s why you can feel you always have a chance win, even in a ‘bad’ character matchup (and why it’s only 3-7 on a matchup chart).
But despite this similarity between characters, SFIV still has a another problem with balance. It has too many clearly awful characters – for example Claw, Guile or Dan, who there is really no good reason to use at any level of play, other than for a handicap. At least every weak character in HDR has some reason to play them – either a good matchup, or a unique playstyle not offered elsewhere. In the top levels of play at HDR, almost all the characters do get used for one reason or another. Yet in SFIV it’s a different story, take a look at this. A staggering 70% of the top players use ‘shoto’ based characters (characters derived from Ryu & Ken). Also notable is that the only ‘charge’ character to survive at the top level is Boxer. For me this is the same problem as a game like Marvel Vs Capcom 2. A game might appear to offer lots of variety in terms of number of characters, but if masses of those characters are just at a disadvantage almost all of the time against the clearcut “upper tier” characters, then it’s actually got very low viable variety.
For example if Blozzard added a 4th race to Starcraft that was just like Terrans but all their units don’t do quite as much damage, have I really added any viable variety to the game? Similarly is Dan really adding any variety in Street Fighter IV? Whilst he’s a hilarious diversion and a fun handicap mode (he’s actually my 2nd most played character in Ranked Match in SFIV), in design space terms he’s quite literally a waste of precious resources.
Note that this debate often goes along in Super Turbo vs HD Remix comparisons too. Super Turbo preferring players argue that HDR has “less variety” because it has made the characters slightly more similar in play style. For example Dictator is slightly less about ‘all offense’ and Fei Long is far less about a ‘single lockdown corner trap’, and Old Sagat (being all about ‘full distance zone’) is gone completely! And I’d agree with them on this point. However to me, by making far more characters viable in tournament play, HDR has increased viable variety, which is a far more important concept to me. What viable variety means is a delicate confluence between variety and balance: ie: you are aiming for both! And this is an incredibly hard thing to do. I believe it’s practically impossible in a single iteration of a game, which is why games like Starcraft took many patches to get right, and a game like HDR needed to be made based solely on an older game. Sadly Super Street Fighter IV looks very unlikely to improve things as much as it will just change things around – reading many interviews with developers, despite the odd bit of lip service, it’s just clearly not a design goal of theirs to attempt to have balance and certainly not viable variety. If it happens, it appears it will be by pure accident.
Here’s my viewpoint in a ranking style between some different current fighting games:
Pure Variety (differences in and number of playstyles): 1. MvC2, 2. ST, 3. HDR, 4. SFIV
Pure Balance (closeness of tiers): 1. HDR, 2. SFIV, 3. ST, 4. MvC2
Viable Variety (aka: Both): 1. HDR, 2. ST, 3. SFIV, 4. MvC2
To summarise, I’m explaining here how SFIV manages to have relatively low variety, and relatively low balance at the same time.
To be Continued in Part 3…