Fighting games are defined by their characters. The most popular games in the genre are filled with vibrant, unique characters with diverse, interesting playstyles. And when a new player looks upon a flashy character select screen for the first time, the only information they get is visual.
This is why balance is hugely important. Learning a character is a time commitment. So imagine the disappointment when someone picks a character that looks super cool and fits their playstyle, grinds in training mode for hours and hours, only to get pounded because their character can’t keep up. Balance is also important for the longevity of a game. People lost interest Ultra Street Fighter IV as the game got older not just because Street Fighter V was just around the corner, but because Elena was such an oppressively overpowered character that it discouraged people who weren’t Elena players.
But what constitutes balance in a fighting game? The specifics of that question vary greatly from game to game and even from character to character within the same game. In general, one of the most important concepts for a fighting game character is that of tradeoffs.
To simplify this, we can look at the four basic archetypes of fighting game characters: the rushdown, the zoner, the grappler, and the all-rounder. While its true that there are characters that exist outside of these archetypes (like Guilty Gear’s Faust), and that these archetypes are more of a spectrum, for the sake of example we can talk about characters who only fit into one archetype.
Rushdown characters are the epitome of offense. They tend to be fast moving characters who rely on quick moves to start high damage combos, and are able to keep up the pressure with strong mix-ups. Generally, they suffer from low health and poor long-range options. Some characters who exemplify the rushdown playstyle are Cammy from Street Fighter, Chipp from Guilty Gear, and Kyo from The King of Fighters
Zoners are diametrically opposed to rushdown. They excel at pressuring their opponents from a distance, with a mix of strong projectiles, good anti-air attacks, and long ranged normal attacks. Predictably, they are weak up close do to a general lack of ways to escape pressure. A few good examples of pure zoners are Skarlet from Mortal Kombat, Guile from Street Fighter, and Vatista from Under Night In-Birth.
Grapplers are characters that use powerful grabs and hard-hitting normal moves to scare their opponents. They rely on their strong physical presence to force people into uncomfortable situations that work to the advantage of the grappler. The main pitfall of pure grapplers is that they are big and slow, making them easy to hit. Some fighters that display these traits are Zangief from Street Fighter, Iron Tager from BlazBlue, and King from Tekken.
All-rounders exemplify the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none.” They tend to have answers from anywhere on the screen, but don’t get anything special off of landing hits. They are capable of strong offense and defense, but don’t excel at either. Due to their nature, they are generally considered to be beginner friendly, especially because they are adaptable to any playstyle. As a result, they tend to be considered “too honest” and may be easy to learn how to play against. A few great examples are Ryu from Street Fighter, Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat, and Ky Kiske from Guilty Gear.
These archetypes are important because they all have distinct and meaningful tradeoffs, and they are generally applicable to characters from every game. And while not all character fit into the “pure” archetype, they fit into some sort of hybrid of the others. For example, Street Fighter’s Makoto can be considered a rushdown-grappler hybrid. She adopts the strong pressure and fast normals of a rushdown character, and the terrifying grab and hard hits of a grappler. But the key here is tradeoffs: she lacks the fast pressure and mixups of a typical rushdown character, and she has the slow walk speed of a pure grappler, as well as not being able to deal with pressure. This leads to an interesting character with meaningful tradeoffs. She can’t really deal with projectiles and zoning, but when she gets in she packs one hell of a punch.
But what makes a tradeoff meaningful? One really important factor to look at is the distribution of character archetypes. Anyone who’s played Street Fighter III: Third Strike will probably scoff at what I said about Makoto. That’s because while her tradeoffs are meaningful in Ultra Street Fighter IV, they aren’t in Third Strike. Where projectiles and zoners are strong in USF4, the opposite is true for 3S. There are few zoners, and the presence of the parry mechanic makes projectiles especially weak in that game. Therefore, Makoto’s tradeoff is meaningless in that game, and as a result she is one of the strongest characters in the game. The only way to beat her is to exploit her weakness to pressure, but if you let her get to you it becomes a guessing game. Its no wonder she dominates most of the cast as a result. That leads into my next important point, which is matchups.
Matchups are exactly what they sound like: how a given character fairs against the rest of the cast. If we were to use the archetypes from before as a sort of rock-paper-scissors system, rushdown beats zoner, zoner beats grappler, and grappler beats rushdown. All-rounders go 50–50 with all the others. Obviously there’s more nuance to matchups than this, but this does have some legitimacy to it. For example, in Street Fighter V, Zangief loses to zoners like Menat and Dhalsim, but beats rushdown characters like Cammy and Ibuki. But does having these disadvantageous matchups make Zangief a bad character?
The simple answer is no. By nature, games will have characters that generally beat other characters, and that’s okay. In having interesting, varied characters, this is just going to happen. The important thing to strive for with matchups is not necessarily to have a character that goes even with everyone, but to have a character that goes even with many characters, and has a slight advantage or disadvantage against the rest. Dominant matchups should be avoided at all costs. To show what I mean, let’s look at some examples in Street Fighter III: Third Strike
This is the matchup spread for Yun, who is largely considered to be either the second best or best character in the game, according to the SRK wiki. Even if you haven’t played 3S, or fighting games in general, you can tell that Yun is broken. He only goes even with himself and Ken, and beats everyone else. As a rushdown character, Yun should have a disadvantage against Hugo, Alex, and maybe Makoto, but this simply isn’t true. His only tradeoff is his low health, but Yun’s offense is too oppressive, and his extraordinarily good mobility and strong reversal options mitigate this tradeoff completely
This is Ryu’s matchup spread. Though I described him earlier as an all-rounder, due to the nature of 3S it may be more accurate to call him a bit of a zoner. Ignoring the matchups against Twelve and Remy(this isn’t a balance issue with Ryu, Twelve and Remy are just terrible), this is the spread we should strive for. Alex, Hugo, and Q can all be considered grapplers, so they should lose to Ryu, but being in advantage means they can still actually win against him. Same goes for disadvantage: Yun, Yang, and Makoto can all be considered rushdown, so it makes sense that Ryu should lose to them sometimes.
The moral of the story here is that you are never going to achieve a perfect 50–50 balance for every character unless they’re literally clones of one another. So you have to go for the next best thing, which is giving characters options to at least deal with characters that they would normally lose to. A great example of that is Zangief’s Banishing Flat(also known as Green Hand) in Ultra Street Fighter IV. While Zangief generally loses to zoners, Banishing Flat is a move that has projectile invincibility and moves him forward, allowing him to dodge around projectiles. The EX version has full invincibility, allowing him to spend meter to try and get his offense started. As a result, Zangief can actually win sometimes even against zoners, and that’s incredibly important. No one likes feeling like their character is helpless against another.
A Quick Note On Tier Lists
Tier lists can be nice for judging the general balance of a game. Assuming the standard S through F rating of tier lists, the more characters you have in the middle of the list, the better. For example, Guilty Gear Xrd Rev 2 has a few characters who are considered S, a couple B, and the rest A. That makes it a pretty well balanced game. With the lowest tier being B, its safe to say that the characters down there can still compete with the characters in S tier. Conversely, this is what the official Super Smash Bros. 4 tier list looks like:
The fact that this tier list goes down to G TIER speaks for itself. This is a game with clear balance issues, and the difference between a character in S and a character in G means that there’s no way a character that bad can even compete. Other than that, tier lists don’t really provide interesting information from a developer perspective. They tell a very general story, but they don’t capture the whole picture. Matchups are a much better metric for balancing characters.