Balance in Fighting Games: How the Tekken World Champion Lost to a Bad Character

Walker Jesse looks into balance in fighting games and how a bad character influenced a Tekken eSports tournament

The process of balancing a fighting game is a hell of a thing. Very rarely do people set out to make an insane nightmare simulator where one character is an angry god, made for the sole purpose of tormenting a rotating cast of victims.

The idea is to find a way to make every character viable while maintaining the fun aspects of the game because at the end of the day, the fun parts of fighting games are doing crazy stuff to whoever you’re playing against. Fighting games have been around for a very long time and for a while, simply existed as they did on release. However, in 2017, things have changed. These games are played online and in tournaments, and fan bases can be extremely vocal so naturally, there is more than one way to skin the balance cat.

The first that comes to mind is to slash burn and rebuild. Many developers take the approach of nerfing or buffing characters in a never-ending series of bull and bear markets, looking at results from both casual and tournament play and making constant tweaks as they see fit.

While I don’t intend to say this is the wrong way to do things, it does present a very obvious flaw: the harder you try and find a golden ratio in a cast of constantly moving parts, the more you risk losing what makes a character special. Take something like the first Injustice. Deathstroke had these really oppressive guns that could knock people back, and from day one people were up in arms. So Deathstroke was nerfed. Mind you he was not made unplayable and I have no interest in playing armchair game developer, but the cool thing about Deathstroke was that he could fire a hail of bullets on people and knock them around. Taking that away from him makes him more manageable to play against, but in doing so there is a loss of personality.

This brings me to another method of balance in fighting games. The not so obvious solution to a problem like Deathstroke is to not balance the cast around each other tit for tat as the metagame develops, but to instead create a universal system of mechanics and sort out the characters as they appear problematic. A good example would be a game like Vampire Savior.

In this game, we have seen every single character except for Victor win a tournament at some point at high-level play and even then good Victors still have the tools to be scary. This is because Vampire Savior is a game that has mechanics in place that are applicable to every single character. Guard cancels, push blocks, air blocks, tech rolls, brief invulnerability available in the form of the Dark Force command, pursuit attacks and more. These allow characters who are less fortunate than the top tiers to gain footing despite their flaws.

To further demonstrate the brilliance of Vampire Savior, the mummy Anakaris (who is widely considered one of the worst characters in the game) is missing a good chunk of these aforementioned defensive options that the majority of the cast has, yet players like MightyMar in America and Chikyuu in Japan not only compete at top levels in the game but also win. It is balance through these universal mechanics for the majority of the cast, in conjunction with insanely solid fighting game fundamentals in the case of Anakaris, that lets Vampire Savior shine as a surprisingly well-balanced game. Tekken 7 also chooses this route, and the Mastercup 9 is the proof.

Mastercup is the largest Tekken tournament in Japan. A team-based event where five players band together and fight other five player groups with one life per person, and when you’re out you pass it off to the next guy until one team is left standing. With over 190 teams and 1,000 players at Mastercup 9, it was no surprise that some heavy hitters from Korea came down to play. Some background information for anyone who may not know is that the Koreans are historically the best Tekken players. While there have been a few upsets from a handful of Japanese players in the past, the Koreans are well established as the dominant Tekken scene. In fact, none other than Qudans was at Mastercup 9 with Kkokkoma, LowHigh, Hao and BPlus rounding out his team. While all of these men are world class Korean Tekken legends, Qudans is especially noteworthy.

A legacy player who no one expected to come back and perform as he had after his wrist injury, Qudans showed up in a big way when he won the TWFighter 2017 major over JDCR, the EVO 2017 Tekken 7 tournament winner and favorite to win the largest tournament of the year, the Tekken World Tour. You can imagine the surprise when Qudans then went on to win the Tekken World Tour over Saint, the other favorite to win. To add another ripple in Qudans Rocky story, he not only beat JDCR but beat JDCR with Devil Jin. The reason this is so significant is two-fold: number one, JDCR has been unstoppable this year. Both JDCR and Saint are sponsored by Echo Fox, and attend tons of tournaments between the two of them.

It isn’t uncommon in the slightest to see and Echo Fox v Echo Fox grand finals between Saint and JDCR when they’re at the same tournament. Both Saint and JDCR were the favorites to win the World Tour, and the fact that Qudans swooped in and beat both of them at two separate majors including the World Tour is insane. The second reason is that Tekken 7 tournaments have predominantly taken place on the PlayStation 4 at the majority of events, whereas in Korea and Japan they mostly take place on arcade cabinets.

The game has 8 frames of lag on the PlayStation 4 as compared to the arcade, which is no big deal to the average player but makes all the difference in the world at top level competition. Due to this input lag, JDCR dropped his mainstay character, Heihachi Mishima, claiming that the precise button inputs and impeccable execution required to play any of the Mishima characters (Heihachi, Devil Jin and Kazuya) at high-level play was impossible on the PlayStation. So not only did Qudans knock JDCR into the losers bracket at TWFighter 2017 major and then beat him again in grand finals, but he beat him again in losers finals at the Tekken World Tour and then went on to win the whole thing over Saint all with Devil Jin, a character JDCR has said is too difficult to play anywhere but on an arcade cabinet.

Qudans singlehandedly flipped the script on what people thought was capable in Tekken 7 which everyone had assumed was just the Echo Fox boys game and unfriendly to high execution players, and then Qudans and his team of absolute killer Korean players were all wiped out by one Gigas player at Mastercup 9.

In Tekken 7, Gigas is considered one of the worst characters in the game. A new addition to the roster, he is seen as too one dimensional and too slow to really get off any of his big damage. Tekken is a game where movement is king, and Gigas is not a movement monster. People want to say that the loss of Qudans and his team was a fluke, due to Mastercup 9 being team based so after one match a team member is eliminated and you have to bring in another guy, which prevents the players from really learning their opponent.

While I think there is validity to this, it doesn’t diminish the genius of what happened. The Gigas player in question, Chahan (also known as Master Salmon at EVO,) did not just beat one member of Qudans team. He beat the entire team, including the Tekken World Tour champion and Echo Fox Slayer Qudans, with what is considered one of the worst characters in the game. And he did it all by himself, with only one other member of Chahan’s team playing and promptly losing.

The level of skill in question cannot be denied, but nor can the balance of the game in question. Chahan wasn’t just playing good Gigas, but playing good Tekken. Chahan was able to properly apply Tekken’s universal movement system even with a movement challenged character like Gigas, coupled with reading his opponents flawlessly and having good old-fashioned fighting game fundamentals, he was able to achieve something truly spectacular. Tekken 7 is a game where even if a character is suboptimal, you can still be rewarded for playing well.

In the hands of truly excellent players, any character can shine due to a system designed to give an equal playing field as best it can. I wouldn’t want to see these characters constantly in a state of flux where the developers are trying to see how they can have them coexist because you can’t. Big changes made would take away the core aspects of the characters. Dragunov and Devil Jin can be real assholes to play against but if the game wasn’t as well made as it is they and a select few others would be the only ones who got to be assholes.

Thankfully that is not the case. Tekken 7 is made in such a way that every character has nasty stuff they can drop on their opponent, even someone like poor Gigas. While Gigas does need buffs and characters on the such as Dragunov definitely need some healthy retuning, the fact that they all have access to the same fantastic universal systems makes even the most imposing matchups possible to overcome. The best thing about fighting games is using your cheap stuff on each other, and to remove that is to remove the heart of what makes fighting games fun.

Tekken 7 is not a perfect game, or even as balanced as something like Vampire Savior, but certainly, if a Gigas player is taking games off of some of the greatest Korean players of all time there is hope for the rest of us.

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