I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about balance patches for competitive games. This won’t be an in-depth discussion, but just some general ideas I’ve had in my head lately. This article was spurred on by the second balance patch that was released for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds on the morning of February 1st, 2012.

Lei-Lei — I can haz buff?

Balance patches are great. For some games, they’re necessary as content gets released. Yu-Gi-Oh! handles hundreds of new cards getting introduced into the game with a new limited list every six months, for example. Some games perform very large patches with fanfare and buildup to them. Some games perform very stealthy ninja patches, only touching some necessary parts of the games with maybe a balance change or two thrown in. The necessary part about balance changes, though, for very popular tournament-supported competitive games is the availability of patch notes. Patch notes are extremely important. They inform the players not only about the obvious changes to the game, but also of the intentions of the development team with regards to any changes that were made. The game’s production staff gets a very rare chance to put forward a case to their audience by discussing why characters or mechanics were changed in certain ways.

Probably the best delivery of content change complete with staff justification was the console release of The King of Fighters XIII. When releasing notes for entire groups of characters, Producer Yamamoto would give a very brief run-down of how the changes would affect a character and, in general, how the change supports the notion of how the character is designed to be played. Here are a few exerpts from the console release notes:

Regarding Clark Still

He’s a throw character so we’ve buffed his throws. With moves like his light Super Argentina Backbreaker, his front step, and being able to do a super cancel from a 1-frame throw, he should be able to fight like a real thrower.

Regarding Benimaru Nikaido

We’ve balanced him so that even the attacks that weren’t being used in the arcades would be of use. The EX Collider and EX Raijinken should especially come to more use since the opponent can be hit afterwards. The EX air Raijinken should be fun to place around for an attack string. His Neomax has no invincibility but it comes out a lot faster, so it might be fun to think of ways in using it.

Regarding K’

Although there are several nerfs, it is possible to score extra damage using air Minute Spike and the special hit properties on chain drive which was not possible in the arcade. You’ll be able to make up for the nerfs by jumping on chances to aggressively score additional damage. Worthy of special mention – EX Second Shoot has been changed. It was often used to zone, but can now be used to gain the initiative from long distance.

I picked these three specific examples to go over the three general types of changes: buffs, balances, and nerfs. Changing a game isn’t always about buffing a character or nerfing a character. It’s about making the game more playable, more competitive, or just more fun.

Let’s look at Clark, who got some extremely healthy buffs, even if you can’t tell just from the exerpt from the producer. Yamamoto said it straight–this character is a throw character and his throws probably need to be better. The throws were then strengthened to gently guide the player to employ more throws by simple means of practicality, making the character more throw-centric. This is what I call a quiet change; a facet of the character was changed just enough so that the player will adjust their style of play simply because there are options, maybe not new ones, but adjusted ones, that make using certain types of techniques easier or more practical. With that, the way the character is played (in general) is modified without too much noise. If a playstyle that was previously used is still favored by some players, it may still be intact enough to use (and to keep things interesting), but overall, players will gravitate toward the most practical use of a character’s newly adjusted strength.

Let’s examine Benimaru now. Benimaru experienced what is simply known as balance. Some characters have a million moves and most times, players will find the one or two that they like or that are the most useful or abusable and the rest don’t see the light of day. What the KoFXIII team did with Benimaru, whose moves tend to kind of blend together in an amorphous blob for those of us who do not play him actively, was to look at the moves that just weren’t being used. Instead of flat-out making them do more damage or giving them bigger hitboxes, they took the time to ask the question, “How can we make this move more useful?” In truth, the player doesn’t have to use every move all the time–changes like these, though, are intended to give a character more depth, more of a unique sense of itself, and to expand the player’s toolset. Yamamoto’s very polite suggestion at the end, to “please think of new ways is using” Benimaru‘s adjusted Neomax (which is akin to a finishing move), is also indicative of the fact that the team intends for players to get creative with it and to come up with cool, interesting, and effective ways of using that new change.

Finally, let’s take a look at K’. Notorious for being in a league of his own in the arcade version of KoFXIII, K’ received what his supporters would like to call a “rework,” but to many objective observers it seems like a gallon-and-a-half of nerfs. K’, even to the novice KoF eye, is a rushdown character. Plain and simple. Now, the character had to be adjusted overall due to his dominance in the game’s previous version, but the team also wanted to keep the character relevant and competitive. The character got nerfed, but then got adjustments that focus on his intended playstyle…described here as “jumping on chances to aggressively score additional damage.” The raw aggression of the character is brough to light in his adjustments–a character like this should have no need (or capability, to be honest) to zone out opponents. Instead of trying to completely remove that aspect from the character, the team said, “How can we change this to fit more in line with this character’s style?” The result is taking a move used to zone and keep people out and then changing that move to allow the character to do what he does best–get aggressive, get in your face, and get damage.

Producer Ryota Niitsuma and his team at Capcom have been quite silent about their changes to UMvC3. The first patch, which was advertised as strictly a bug-fixing endeavor, has been cracked wide open by the playerbase and found to contain many stealth buffs and nerfs, one of which was coming down the grapevine for a while (R.I.P. Phoenix Wright). To be honest, there may be many more changes that came about as a result of the patch that the community still is unaware of. Capcom has stated for multiple games that the reason they either do not release patch notes or do not release full patch notes is because they want the players to discover the changes themselves. The point is a valid one; it forces the players to go digging…for some players, it’s a very long dig with nothing at the end of the tunnel they make. For others, they find only shame and resentment in the dirt. For a few, they find contentment and joy. Regardless, the point is valid, but it is an easy one to disagree with.

If I buy a laptop for myself, as a consumer, there are certain things I expect from this product. I expect this laptop to function properly and to come equipped with certain capabilities. What I do with the laptop is my own business, but it should function as I expect when I buy it. Now, what I do with it is up to me; I could use it for e-mail, search the Internet for pornography, or open up a multi-million dollar eBusiness. Those things are my decision to make. With that said, how would you react to your Notepad application suddenly not working? Maybe Paint just disappeared one day. Internet Explorer? Gone. With no warning, programs you had just stopped working or are acting buggy. In a similar fashion, as players, we can play character with any array of techniques available (although most will either go for easy or effective techniques), but when ninja patches are released without any notes, developers are giving up their major chance to make their case to the community. Even if their note said, “Well, I made the game, so I’m changing these certain things,” that would at least be a form of communication. No notes means endless scavenging for things we may not ever be able to confirm as a change.

Mr. Wright — Take that!

Example: Even though Producer Niitsuma tweeted that the patch contained no balance changes, speculation is high that Phoenix Wright received a slight buff to make up for the nerf to his Turnabout Mode (which was also a silent nerf even though the community was leaked the information beforehand). Apparently, Phoenix Wright now outputs X-Factor level 3 damage in any level of X-Factor while in Turnabout Mode. Situational, but still a buff no matter how you look at it. Am I compaining about buffs? Not necessarily. The real question is this: Is this buff actually something new? Even as a Phoenix Wright player, I can count on half a hand the amount of times I’ve looked at his X-Factor damage, much less in training mode, and much much less in Turnabout Mode as well. The thing is, we have no way of knowing if he got that buff in this patch OR if he got it in the previous patch, as both came with no release notes.

“Well, either way, he has this ability, so the ends justify the means,” some may say. It’s a valid point. Niitsuma not telling us about Chris‘ Flamethrower buff or Hulk‘s Gamma Tornado nerf didn’t make them NOT happen…they’re still there and players are dealing with them. I guess this is just that human variable, where little or no communication combined with an aspect of unknown change sends off a particular vibe that gives a distant, cold, non-caring feeling to the consumer. In turn, the consumer may feel overly defensive and find a need to complain. Either way, I guess there are good ways to do these kinds of things and…other ways.