The Unbalanced Design of Super Smash Brothers
November 18, 2014
Common sense dictates that video games should be balanced. Of course they should be! Why wouldn't they? Well, it turns out there are actually some pretty cool things that can happen when a game isn't balanced.
Part Two and Part Three for your reading pleasure.
First, a disclaimer. This post is not reflective of any game I have worked on, am working on, or will work on. At all. I am a mere programmer and hold zero influence over design.
Honestly I just really like Smash Brothers and want to share some cool things about how it's evolved over time. At least I think they're cool. And I hope you do to!
Intro to Smash
When it comes to Smash Brothers it's really two games in one. The first is a wild and crazy party game. Four characters squeeze into a tiny arena filled with wacky environmental hazards and random item drops. It's what most people know and love.
The second game exists just under the surface. It's a hardcore competive 1v1 2.5d fighting game from the same bloodline as Street Fighter. Players disable all items and play only on simple, hazard-free maps. This post exclusively refers to 1v1 competitive play.
If there's any one thing gamers can agree on it's that they all love to argue on the internet. When it comes to games with lots of characters that means ranking them from best to worst and putting the list on the internet. This list is often done as a ‘tier list'.
For Smash Brothers there is an invite-only message board that holds discussions and holds member votes to create a list. Then, after enough time has passed, they do it again. There have been 11 tier lists released over the past 12 years for Super Smash Brothers Melee (GameCube).
What makes SSBM an interesting case study is that it's a console game which has never been patched. There have been no balance changes or fixes. However, even though the game hasn't changed since launching in 2001, the player perception of balance has. Significantly.
The interactive chart below is a lot to chew on. It's dense with data. Don't worry, I'll break it down into more bite sized chunk in a bit.
What you are seeing all 26 characters from SSBM ranked 1–26 over twelve years. (Note: Refresh page if you can't see it. If any webdev knows how to fix please e-mail me.)
Super Smash Brothers Melee (2002–2014)
Move your mouse over a line. It should highlight while other lines fade out. Tapping on mobile should also work.
Anything jump out at you? Notice any rising stars? Any busts? Play with it for a moment and see if anything catches your eye.
Diamonds in the Rough
This is my favorite part of this post. It's why I'm even writing it to begin with. Take a look at these characters. All of them started low and rose over time.
Peach. The first list is actually from one year after launch. So after people had been playing for a full year she was #9. A mere two months later she spiked to #4 and never fell below #6.
Ice Climbers. For whatever reason it took almost half a decade for the Ice Climbers to be discovered. They actually went down for five years before they surged high and fast.
Captain Falcon. For three years no one truly understood Captain Falcon. Once he moved up he stayed there for the duration.
Jigglypuff. My favorite. The pink pokemon had a dismal ranking of #17 after the first year. Her rise began after a few years and peaked at a shocking #3 in year 8. It's an inspirational tale that brings a tear to my eye.
Donkey Kong. A low tier character for years and years before making a respectable climb.
Mew Two. My second favorite tale. An absolute basement dweller for almost, well, forever. Considered the absolute worst character in the game on two separate occassions. After 6 years of misery his ranking grew as high as #17.
What's the Point
Alright. You get it. Rankings change over time. Not surprising. What's the big deal?
These discoveries didn't just take a little time. It wasn't days or weeks or even months. It took years to be discovered. In the internet age, gamers flip their shit if a given character is considered overpowered or underpowered after a single week. Meanwhile, in Smash Brothers it took half a decade for game changing depth to be found in Ice Climbers.
I think a large part of what enables this depth to be found in Smash Brothers is that the game isn't balanced. It's not a small roster of perfectly tuned characters. It's a big game with lots of characters that creates a huge and unexplored problem space. It's up to the players to explore the nooks and crannies and see what treasures they can find. I find that incredibly exciting and compelling.
League of Legends
It's kind of funny. I've been wanting to write this post for over a year. And while writing, League of Legends (LoL) had a discovery. It turns out Zilean has been amazing all along no one realized it! He went from completely unused competitively to being picked or banned in a whopping 96% of tournament matches. In the World Finals he was banned every single match. That's absolutely bonkers!
Riot changes LoL all the time. Characters are regularly buffed. The nerfhammer is swung with reckless abandon. Ability sets are completely redesigned. The meta is meticulously influenced between seasons. I just can't help but wonder how the game would evolve if it was left alone like Smash. What would it look like after five or ten years? What amazing team comps would be found? What metas would develop? We'll never know, and that makes me a little sad.
If you've made it this far then you've read what I really wanted you to read. I'm satisfied. Thank you! If you've found this post interesting so far then keep reading. I've got a few more juicy bits you may enjoy.
Low Tier Only
Back in my school days we played a lot of SSBM. Something fun was that everyone would have a high tier “main” character they'd play and also a low tier character. On occassion we'd play tournaments that was low tier only. It was unbelieavably fun! Possibly even the most fun I ever had playing the game. Certainly my fondest memories.
I suspect this may be the reason Mew Two had a late rise. As the worst character in the game he was actually quite popular with top players. What could be more soul crushing than to be beaten by Mew Two?
I'd love to play League of Legends low tier only. Can you imagine a tournament where the 40 most used champions are all off limits? It'd be so fun!
I spent a lot of time working on the charts for this post. I knew I wanted them to be interactive so I learned d3.js to make it happen. I've also put that code on GitHub and commented it as fully as I know how. My next post may be a “Getting Started with d3.js” guide.
If you're a numbers nut, like yours truly, then here are some more fun breakdowns.
Hall of Fame
Good at the start and still good at the end.
I like that Sheik was a unanimous #1 for four years before she finally dropped a few spots.
Just as flat as the hall of famers, but lower on the list.
What do Ryan Leaf, Greg Oden, and Mario all have in common? They're huge busts that failed to meet expectations! These characters all started with promise but ended up as let downs.
Luigi and Yoshi both had upticks at the end, but for eleven years it was downhill. That makes em busts in my book!
These folk just went all over the place. Poor Pikachu.
Power Rankings: Brawl
Here are the power rankings for Super Smash Brothers Brawl (Wii). There are a lot more characters so there is a lot of data here.
For now I'm going to leave this as is without further comment. If people like this post I'll do a follow-up with some analysis on the Brawl chart.
Tier List vs Power Rankings
Clever readers may have noticed something. I started talking about tier lists, but then shifted over to power rankings. There's not a single tier to be seen in this entire post!
Right you are. There are tiers and they are interesting and I have failed to actually show them. The reason is quite simple. I've yet to find a way to turn into a pretty, easy to read chart. Tiers are complicated. There's lots of them. They change in number. They change in size. They even change in name. Putting it all together well has proven quite difficult. If I can ever figure out how to do it well I'll make a new post to show it off.
Super Smash Brothers is super fun. I think part of it's magic comes from not trying to be balanced. I won't argue that having an unbalanced game is a good idea, but it does have some interesting side effects that are cool to follow.