So I was talking to my man Jamaal at the tournament today about my core gripes with Persona 4 Arena, and I ran into a common issue I have: I love semantics SO MUCH that I end up with these specific definitions for similar words so I can use them in contrast to each other. But it’s not so easy to load those words for other people so they can understand what I’m trying to say.
So for today’s episode of “opposite synonyms”: “Fair” and “Balanced,” in a sort of theoretical game sense. Generally the word “balanced” is meant in a sort of complete sense, like “you can choose whatever character you like and have a reasonable chance of winning against other characters.” The reason I prefer “fair” for this usage is because in a competitive game the player with superior effort, knowledge, or experience coming into a game should generally be favored. If you want to beat that guy who knows more than you, you’ll have to work for it. I feel that “balanced” implies a more specific context, one in which options metaphorically weighed against each other come out equally. But let’s talk about what it might mean to be “fair” in a very basic sense.
The board game Go only has one “kind” of move. You place a stone of your color (black or white) on an empty space on the board, and then it becomes the other player’s turn. This is kind of a meaningless “balance” assessment compared to fighting games, but it turns out that the player who goes first in Go has a marginal advantage that makes it easier to win the game. In other words, a game of Go is not completely “fair.” There’s a simple score adjustment that’s often used to attempt to correct for this disparity. But I also said, “a game.” Go offers another straightforward solution: simply have the players trade stones and play again.
Needless to say, this wouldn’t be viewed as a sensible option in fighting games, and it certainly isn’t a passable method for determining which player is the best at winning in a given title given the natural constraints of the genre. But at the same time, I don’t believe that the fairness of the game itself is what draws players, or spectators for that matter. Virtua Fighter is commonly considered to be a very fair game, but it’s languished in obscurity in the US forever, while wildly unfair games like Marvel and Third Strike have sat on top of the scene. Individual players may lose heart as they find it harder and harder to win with their preferred character, but clearly not everyone is casting aside games just because some characters (or even a lot) are really, really bad. Fairness in this sense is obviously somewhat subjective, but when you see extremely potent trends like Chun&Yun or Marvel 2’s little flock of enduring top tier teams it’s difficult to dismiss unfairness as just a point of view.
So by “balance” I mean a lot of different concepts related to the options a player has in a given moment in a round, rather than the “big picture” of a whole game beginning from a default state. Stuff like risk versus reward, resource investment, and overall “momentum.” A lot of these aren’t easy to attach value judgments to, because strict systems where coming back is super hard like Marvel 2 aren’t necessarily appropriate for all games and certainly not every player likes them. And a game where options are “too” balanced, with risk and reward heavily normalized, often turns out to just be boring, with exciting moments and creative setups being difficult to come by. (I feel that this is something quite a few of the characters in Blazblue have struggled with.) Even the illusion of balance can be valuable in its own way; I don’t think there are many people at this point who see 3S as a game where low tiers have a good chance of winning, but the game’s nature allows for insane, unbelievable moments nonetheless.
But there I am, lapsing back into “fairness.” The thing is, fairness is still tied closely to balance. If something is really, really unfair, there’s probably a huge imbalance behind it. To finally get around to talking about Persona 4 Arena: the matchup between Kanji and Elizabeth is probably the most strikingly one-sided in the game. And the core issue is Elizabeth’s crouching B attack: a move that’s simply unbalanced (in this specific case, and to a smaller extent in others). Every character’s crouching B is intended as an “anti-air” move; something that punishes the opponent for jumping at you. Elizabeth’s has a large hitbox that goes around about 2/3 of her body and stays on screen for a long time. In addition, it picks her up slightly off the ground, and, like most moves, leads into potentially devastating combos. Essentially, it’s one of her most important keepaway tools, and Kanji is a character with few strong options at a distance.
In other words, he has to get close, and what does he have? His main tools are:
Jumping attacks: B (his chair), C (a large double punch using the persona), and his leaping grab move. Needless to say, as an anti-air the crouching B beats (or clashes, which is basically as good) all of these unless Elizabeth times it very badly. Even if he doesn’t attack the game doesn’t allow him to block the move, so no dice there.
Ground normals. Unfortunately, most of them are too slow to win by virtue of frame data, and once Elizabeth leaves the ground Kanji loses a lot of good combo options, dramatically reducing his reward even if he manages to get a hit.
Throw options. He has a fast command grab, but it doesn’t “beat” crouching B unless he gets really close without Elizabeth noticing. He has a slower, invincible command grab, but while this will cause Elizabeth’s attack to miss the grab will as well, leaving him open for a punish. And he has anti-air command grab options, but while crouching B does lift Elizabeth off the ground, it’s not to a “jump” height at which they’ll catch her. Instead, Kanji will just Get Stuffed.
Finally, there’s his reversal. Generally reversals are intended as a tool for breaking pressure, not beating the other player’s moves when neither has an advantage, but Kanji’s has an interesting property: it automatically “guards” against anything that touches it while it’s active, and then counterattacks. In other words, if Elizabeth tries to use her move it will never trade or win, but instead touch and then cause her to be shocked. But of course, there’s a catch. If Elizabeth jumps or does nothing, she can wait for the guarding period to end and then score a huge combo. The reversal move, on the other hand, doesn’t lead directly into anything, only bouncing her away and preventing her from jumping, walking or running for a few seconds or until she gets another hit. Taking away Elizabeth’s ability to move freely does potentially help, but you still have to make another opportunity, making it a high risk for Kanji with poor reward.
Now, speaking as an Elizabeth player, this matchup isn’t even fun in the slightest, and I’m not saying that to feign empathy for people playing a difficult character. It’s just incredibly uninteresting, but this is also kind of an intentionally ridiculous example. There’s only one other matchup in the game in which one player can force the other to massively overcommit by doing essentially nothing.
But even in matchups which are more or less fair (which is quite a large number of them) I don’t generally enjoy the game’s sense of balance. For one thing, I think the damage dealt by individual moves in P4U is often really high, which the game counteracts by introducing steep scaling very early in combos. I have a >90% win rate in random online matches with Mitsuru in even though I can’t do a single combo longer than 3 hits that doesn’t start with the enemy using a reversal (which, while extremely common, doesn’t at all account for that), while picking Elizabeth tends to put me on the receiving end of 2000-damage special moves and 3000-damage invincible supers quite often. By contrast, individual hits in King of Fighters XIII tend to be pretty weak, but in most cases-at least, ones that don’t involve Ash-it makes for a game where hit confirms and execution feel like they give good rewards proportionally.
The question of whether one is “more balanced” than the other is ultimately kind of meaningless. Either way, I’m dying to things (usually) that I know how to avoid but don’t always do successfully. I’m winning by getting openings whether or not I get the absolute most out of those hits or not. It’s not that I think the Persona developers’ decisions are categorically bad or that people shouldn’t take the game seriously and work to build the community if they really enjoy it, but the end result is that the game feels unhelpful when I lose and unsatisfying when I win, and I’ve started to think I’m just not really up for that when there are so many games I could be trying to learn that I might enjoy more.
Specific games aside, I think it’s much more useful to think about situational “balance” than overall “fairness” when comparing similar games or even characters. Just going “well these characters have a pretty equal chance against each other” doesn’t actually tell you very much about how to play, especially in a mirror match situation. Comparing options against each other is how the game actually advances, as people discover new tricks, setups, and combos, and as an individual player, it’s also the best way to improve your playing style and stop doing things that aren’t very effective. Of course, all this gives way to an even simpler way of looking at things: if you’re having fun, keep playing. And if you’re not, maybe you should try something else.