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How NetherRealm Studios changed the methodology of balancing fighting games
by Zoran Cunningham on 11/09/13 06:52:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

For years, competitive fighting game players have competed in games and had no choice but to accept balance issues and flaws until a new version was released. That was the way of it. This was due in large part to their arcade and console platforms which, until recently, lacked the capability of dynamic patching and updating. It was a far cry from PC mainstays in the MOBA, RTS and FPS genres that had the luxury of instantaneous balance and patch updates via a network connection.

Even when current generation consoles allowed developers to patch their games over online networks many fighting game devs, especially those based in Japan, stuck to the old way of doing things preferring instead to release fully boxed annual updates to their games in an attempt to actually turn a profit by selling the updated version at retail. This can be attributed in large part to the extensive cost and certification process of patching console software. Exactly how arduous is this process for console devs?

In an interview with Hookshot, Double Fine's legendary director Tim Schafer noted that his games sometimes cost up to $40K to patch and update on PS3 and Xbox 360. This actively pushed many small developers away from consoles while affecting the frequency and methodology that big companies would employ in regards to patching and updating their games. Even large companies were reluctant to fix known issues as they came up in a timely manner, preferring instead to release large patches less often to avoid costly fees and the constant hassle of a multi-step certification process. Add to that the development costs and QA testing to actually create the patch and it's a major investment for any developer.

Despite these challenges, NetherRealm Studios (NRS), developers of 2011's highly successful Mortal Kombat and this year's smash hit Injustice: Gods Among Us, stepped in and changed the landscape of fighting games on consoles. No studio in the fighting game community has become more prolific in how they patch and balance their games. With Injustice, NRS has paved the way for how fighting games will likely be developed and updated for years to come.

The need to balance and maintain healthy and fair competition in fighting games is largely due to the the global competitive scenes that form around them. Ensuring that a game is well balanced and tournament viable is often what dictates the lifespan and success of a fighting game. A poorly balanced game will not only be rejected by the community, but it makes for a terrible viewing experience on tournament streams.  

NRS built Injustice from the ground up to be easily patched and balanced, going so far as adjusting the manner in which they program certain elements of the game by allowing quick hot-fixes rather than large patches. Galloping Ghost Arcade's very own Steve "16 Bit" Brownback is considered one of the most accomplished players in the Mortal Kombat and Injustice community and also happens to provide QA for NRS, giving him particular insight into the process of balancing and updating Injustice.

“NRS cleverly put in a lot of these tweak variables where they could simply adjust the values of certain things like damage values or the number of loops a character like Zatanna might do on a special move” he explains. “These things can easily be addressed in a hotfix by adjusting the number value since new lines of code don't have to be written and added.”

An example of this can be seen with the most recent Injustice hotfix. It was quick, clean, and painless and speaks volumes to the developer's ingenuity. The fighting game community itself has responded in a big way. The current version of Injustice is so good that it could very well be the last patch the game will ever see. The recent Youmacon Championships saw eleven different characters used in the Top 8. It's a stunning example of character variety that few fighting games can achieve and it points to the strides NRS has made in its approach to balancing the game. 

“NRS is at the forefront of patching fighting games” Brownback tells me with absolute confidence.  “They're doing what League of Legends and Starcraft do on the PC. NRS is not afraid to patch the game on a more frequent basis if they feel it's necessary and that's very different to how things have been done for years.”

It stands to reason that NRS would employ groundbreaking development techniques in order to help manage the cost of making their games among the best on the market. Yet there are still times when things aren't so easily hotfixable for NRS and those tend to present interesting situations. “When Zod released as a new DLC character there was a known issue with his special trait and there have been other cases where the community will find something like an infinite combo and NRS is well aware of the issue, scramble to get a patch ready, but have to wait weeks to get the patch out to players because of certification,” Brownback laments.

Despite their cavalier attitude toward updating, NRS is very careful not to be too overzealous or reactionary when it comes to patching, especially when it comes to character balance. “Early on in the game's lifespan there were definitely people in the community who were worried that NRS might start overly patching Injustice, but when players saw how effective and responsible NRS was being with the patches, they suddenly couldn't wait for more,” Brownback admits.

That initial trepidation was partly due to the history, or lack, of fluid updates for fighting games. NRS was truly breaking the mold. With Injustice, the community grew to anticipate upcoming patches and balance changes. The biggest problem suddenly became the waiting period until a new patch hit.  Mario “m2dave” Sako, a top Injustice player out of Cleveland points to one such instance:

“There was a case with patch 1.0.6 where NRS announced the update three weeks before it came out and competitive players honestly felt like there was no point in playing the game until the new patch became available. It was so bad they didn't even practice or hang out and play together because they knew the patch would significantly affect the way certain match-ups are played. Once the patch came out though, everybody was excited and started playing again.”

“Fighting game developers walk this fine line with patching, because if they start patching too soon after the release there might not be enough information to determine what balance changes have to be made. There has to be some time between patches to let top level players feel out a game and let the scene develop to make sure there are no overreactions,” Sako elaborates.

Making lower-tier characters tournament viable is inevitably the goal of every update, with the end result being as close to a balanced game as possible. “Bane was a character who received particular attention in the latest patch and now this previously unviable character is being played in tournaments by top players from coast to coast. That little bit of love from the developer for unique characters just makes the game that much more interesting,” says Brownback.

Developers have long since admitted to balancing from the top down, focusing primarily on the highest level of competition. For games that have active tournament competition this is doubly true. So long as the game is stable and bug-free, casual players understand and appreciate the mechanics and aesthetics of the game, but it's the pro gamers who end up tapping the absolute most out of the product. The ultimate goal of balancing is to ensure no single character or small group of characters outclass the rest and that no characters are unplayable or unviable in tournament.

“There are some situations where players will definitely complain about a recent patch, especially if they play a top-tier character they feel may no longer dominate. Most of the time the reality is that other characters have simply been rebalanced in a way that their character no longer outclasses half the roster. As long as the update actually improves the game, I don't think players mind in the end," Sako affirms.

The reception of Injustice among top level players has been nothing short of tremendous and many cities now host and livestream weekly tournaments dedicated solely to the game. Among the most popular is Atlanta Kombat, home of some of the best players in the country including Brant Mccaskill, famously known by his handle Pig of the Hut. "Atlanta Kombat is proof that NRS has found a winning formula with Injustice. So many top players from other games have taken up Injustice and the constant refinement by NRS will keep those players interested for the long haul," Mccaskill believes. 

One of the most prolific players in the Mortal Kombat and Injustice community, Mccaskill also hosts Kryptonite Council, an incredibly popular podcast focusing exclusively on NRS games. "It's amazing to think we have entire episodes dedicated to Injustice patch discussions and balance updates. We have tens of thousands of listeners who tune in to hear about match up changes, tier-lists, and player rivalries within the community," Mccaskill tells me.

The competitive community is one of the most important elements for a fighting game. In a world where live tournaments on the local, regional, and national level are streamed on TwitchTV and uploaded to YouTube on an almost daily basis, these dedicated players are the flag-bearers for their respective games. The hype they bring to each event is a perpetual marketing campaign for the game long after its initial release. This symbiotic relationship between the community and developer is now common among fighting games and the quality of tournament streams is what viewers of all kinds often base part of their interest in the game on.

There's no denying that the numerous patches to address balance updates are nothing short of a love-letter from NRS to it's fans. Consistently pouring money into balancing and updating a game long after its release to appease the player community is about the most any developer could possibly do. "We're only six months into the release of Injustice and it's already balanced to a point where the best players can't decide who the top five characters are, let alone the bottom five. It's that well balanced,” Mccaskill confirms.

This week's release of Injustice: Gods Among Us Ultimate Edition is special in that it not only bundles every bit of DLC and extra content ever released for the game, it is a culmination of all the balance patches that have made it one of the most exciting fighting games around.

Injustice changed the face of fighting games. Communities are no longer bound by yearly updates and major re-releases of games,” Brownback affirms. Should console policies eventually come to mirror that of an open PC environment then gaming will never be the same. "If developers can suddenly patch and update their games freely on console, NRS will definitely take advantage of that," Mccaskill follows.

As for the players? “Player attitudes are absolutely going to change if patches can hit in three days instead of three weeks. It's going to be huge,” Sako admits. That's something all fans can hopefully look forward to one day. In the meantime, NRS will likely continue to pioneer the fighting game genre no matter what the future may bring.


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Comments


Cary Chichester
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NRS is definitely doing great things with Injustice updates, however part of me hopes that this practice is not the accepted norm for future fighting games. I can't say there's anything wrong with it, however the traditionalist in me has come to appreciate how the community evolves around a game that doesn't get balance patches. When a new fighter is released, there are always knee-jerk reactions as to which character is the most overpowered. In Injustice's case that was Deathstroke, and I shared that sentiment (particularly on the Ferris Aircraft stage). While forums filled with "Deathstroke OP" topics for a few days, I moved past my initial problems with him when I picked up other characters and learned how to use the tools they had to get past a heavy zoner like Deathstroke (though I think I will still hate Ferris Aircraft). For that reason I would have preferred not seeing him nerfed so relatively quickly and instead would have liked to have seen tournaments where upset characters beat the "OP" one. I wasn't still playing when Scorpion was released, but I think I would have felt the same way.

Around the release of Super Street Figher IV: Arcade Edition when players were complaining about how dominant Yun was, Yoshinori Ono said that imbalance was a good thing (I'm paraphrasing) and that having characters that seemed strong would make matches more interesting, which I thought was just crazy. At Evo that year he apologized for the game's imbalance and making Yun so strong, but then ironically enough just minutes later Daigo played Yun and got perfected by Poongko playing Seth. This was easily the best SF match of the night, and proved that Ono's comment about strong characters making matches interesting was valid, because the interesting part is that they seem strong until players learn how to beat them.

What I'm getting at is that when these games are released, they will have been playtested by designers who by then have had months of experience mastering the game. After it's released, the general public will not have those skills yet and multiplayer stats will probably be all over the place. In a game like Street Fighter, tier lists will change all the time throughout a year when the characters haven't changed at all, the only change is the skills of the players who over time learn new techniques as they slowly master the game's system. You lose that with constant patches, where players don't get a chance to fully learn a system before it's changed. I feel that when a game is patched a lot, the balance feels more like it's determined by the developers, and for a game that doesn't get patched, the balance feels more like it's determined by the players. I hope that last sentence makes sense, because it did in my head.


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