This post was originally a reply to someone asking about the differences in how the fighting games community and the real-time strategy community perceive the concept of “balance” in a competitive game, and why that would be the case.
My skills and experience lie neither in RTS or fighting games (though I have played both), so I can’t offer any particulars about why balance is regarded differently in their respective communities, but I think it is worth thinking about with more fighting games than just SF4, even if it is the biggest one right now.
I think it might be good to take a look at a couple of fighting games whose tiers are considered to be relatively balanced in two rather different ways. The first is the Virtua Fighter series, a game with a Brood War-like (outside of Korea) reputation, a very difficult game that is considered by its proponents to be more exquisitely refined than any other fighting game out there. According to this, the tier list for the latest iteration, VF5: Final Showdown comes out as the following:
A: Lau, Jacky, Taka, Lion
B: Everyone else
That’s quite close! Even if one character is considered by far the best, no one is considered to have anything close to a “failing grade.” The message from this tier list is indeed “Imbalances exist in this game but it’s close enough that anybody can win with anyone.” Also perhaps important to note is that VF is considered a series where you do not have time to master more than one character because of how complex they can be. This might mean that, like SC2, switching characters/races is considered to be too time-consuming to be worth it.
Let’s look at another game’s tier list: Hokuto no Ken (Fist of the North Star).
S++ : Rei
S+ : Toki – Juda
S : Raoh
A : Kenshiro / Thouther / Shin / Mamiya / Heart
B : Jagi
While there are now 5 ranks instead of 3, rather than call Jagi “D” tier and Rei “S” tier, they give the distinction of having them be “B” and “S++.” The distinction here is that while some characters are good, others are GREAT. The reason why HnK’s tiers are the way they are is that every character in this game has 100% combos and infinites. In any other fighting game, they would be brutally S-rank. However, in HnK, the top characters simply have more 100% combos and more ways to successfully land them. It is considered so imbalanced that it is balanced.
When talking to people who have played both of those games, I find that the main thing they have in common for why they are considered to be as balanced as they are is that all of the characters always have a good amount of options at any point in the fight. There is always more than one way to win. In a fighting game then, a character with consistently few options is always at a distinct disadvantage unless there is something else to greatly counterbalance that.
I think that the key difference between the Real Time Strategy and the Fighting Game, and why in the former the community is quick to say “things are unexplored” and in the latter people are eager to immediately lock in “tier lists,” is how time factors into the strength of your race/character. Consider that, outside of super meter, in SF4 a character’s strengths and weaknesses at 1 second into the match are about the same as in 50 seconds into the match. A character still has the same tools no matter where you place them in time. In SC2 however, time plays an enormous factor. Building your 10th SCV earlier rather than later does different things to the strength of your army. Losing a single SCV early on is much more detrimental than losing a single SCV in the mid or late game. Building particular units at different times affects the strength of a race tremendously, as does attacking with them. Options fluctuate tremendously based on when decisions are made, and an early disadvantage can ripple forward in time. This is often referred to as a “slippery slope,” where once one starts falling behind it becomes tremendously difficult to make it back. All the same though, that disadvantage can be potentially mitigated by a different timing altogether.
So the difference between having a constant, unchanging set of options and one that changes over time based on your own decisions are why I think that “balance” is approached differently by the fighting game community and the RTS community. Fighting game players can look at the tools a character has and determine how they will do at any point in the fight, and from there they can determine tiers and even be comfortable with the idea of imbalance, even early on in the game’s life. RTS players though have to factor in the timing of their decisions affecting the very strength of their army itself (and the ability to sustain that army), and that added variable is what makes the game feel so “unexplored” and difficult to determine the balance of.