EDIT: There was a section in the original article that said “Brawl had four staff members dedicated to deciding the game’s balance…” This was in reference to the playtesting team for Brawl, which only had four people, but was worded poorly and gave off the impression that only four staff members had a hand in balancing Brawl, which is not true (we don’t know how many people were involved). This error was since been rectified. Our apologies!
Sakurai On: Balancing Smash
Note: Some parts of the quotes were emphasized by us. For the full context, check out the interviews/columns.
Super Smash Bros. was Masahiro Sakurai’s response to what the hardcore-exclusive fighting game genre had become, specifically in the late 90’s, when the first game in the series would release. The game introduced specials that could be performed with simple inputs, streamlined controls, as well as a dynamic ring-out system instead of one based on life bars. Items, stage transformations, gimmicks and the implementation of various modes of play over the series’ lifetime have contributed to the mass appeal of the Smash Bros. franchise.
Sakurai wanted a game where players could brush off losses, and be able to say, “that was fun!” even if they didn’t win. As such, the games are designed in a way that the most skilled player may not always win;
“…I am trying to make winning and losing “haphazard.” I won’t go into the specifics here, but I try to make it so that if you’re good at competing, you won’t be able to use the same pattern or strategy to win against a player consistently. The rate of “accidents” is high, and overall it’s easy to inject variance into the progression of the game and results. I think it would great to be able to simply laugh and move on to the next game regardless of whether you won or lost.” —Winning and Losing, April 25th, 2003
This sentiment was repeated in 2015 in an interview with Dengeki, where he also emphasized the importance of avoiding a strong sense of loss and any negative feelings that might accompany it:
“…Smash was created with the concept of a game where you play against your friends, but it’s a loose and rough experience…Also, by expressing a character’s defeat by dynamically launching them off-screen, we avoid the experience of your character being beaten and falling to the ground, that sort of thing.—Dengeki Nintendo, February 2015
Despite this, there is a certain approach to balancing that Sakurai has taken in every game. The latest game, Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS, even saw regular balance updates and an expanded in-house playtesting team. Let’s take a moment to look at Sakurai’s comments relating to character balance throughout the years.
Sakurai wants the game to be fun, first and foremost. He doesn’t believe in balancing the game if it decreases the “fun factor”. Of course, this is a given for any fighting game, not just one that incorporates “haphazardness” such as Smash.
Sakurai has also stated that he must balance Smash across a wide variety of playstyles and modes. He considers not only 1v1, but all kinds of match ups with a variety of playstyles and a variable amount of players:
“There are moves that are completely useless in a 1v1 battle, but in a four-player free-for-all those moves might prove quite useful. Therefore, if I played only one kind of battle, the game would feel very slanted towards a particular style of play.” —The Act of Balancing, June 11, 2015
Sakurai doesn’t want to have balanced characters if it means that characters become homogenized (whether you believe that’s a one-or-the-other proposition is, of course, up to debate). Having characters that stand out in a certain way, and having characters that feel unique and possess individuality, is more important than balance.
Smash is inherently different than most other fighting games. Not only is it a ‘platform fighter,’ but the game can be played with up to eight people with the presence of items ranging from high to never. Sakurai has stated that it’s up to players to pick and choose what they like and play the game the way they want. However, as a game designer, Sakurai has to consider all of his audiences. When speaking about things that gamers may feel are unneeded, Sakurai has stated:
“Even Smash Bros. is one big ball of bonus features, jam packed with unnecessary content. “I don’t need this; I don’t need that, either,” some may say. To take an extreme point of view, everything aside from Free-for-All Mode is technically “unnecessary”: all the items, all the Final Smashes, all the stages aside from Final Destination. But if you were to take all of those extra features away, all you would be left with is a bare-bones, niche-market game.” –Don’t Need This, Don’t Need That, August 7th, 2015
Even though Sakurai believes Smash is a party game first and foremost, he has generally increased his focused on balancing (or delegated it to a team) with every iteration.
“During development of Super Smash Bros. and Super Smash Bros. Melee, I balanced the game personally. For the third game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, we monitored a team of four people, looking at their records against each other, for example, and adjusted from there. This time, we’re monitoring a team of 12 people…”—Famitsu Interview from E3 2014
In Smash 64, Sakurai essentially decided the game’s balance by himself. While the debug team may have offered some suggestions, Sakurai had the final say in regards to balance. After the game’s release, Sakurai created the Smash Dojo, a site where he outlined many of the hidden advanced techniques in the game. In the foreword to the site, Sakurai wrote:
“It seems there are many people who have a narrow or prejudiced view when they haven’t played the game (or have barely touched it).
And, despite the fact that I left the gates to the game wide open, I do think that playing the game and not noticing these hidden elements is a bit of a shame.
So, I thought that what I should do after releasing this game was to make it possible for people who need it to learn information, find new ways to play, or understand techniques, and so I made this website.” —News Flash!! Smash Bros. Dojo Foreword
In Smash 64 and Melee, Sakurai was keen on providing the hidden depth for those advanced players. Soma has broken down Sakurai’s approach to Smash 64 and Melee, which are a must-read to understanding Sakurai’s approach to game design and balancing. Sakurai even outlined advanced techniques in Melee on the game’s official Japanese website (admittedly, no one would call these techniques “advanced” today).
Sakurai hasn’t really said much else in regards to how Smash 64 or Melee were balanced, other than some fairly minor and vague statements. For instance, he’s mentioned that Kirby was weakened in Melee after being told that he was too strong in 64, and the trophy descriptions for many of the characters in Melee allude to their strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, there’s also the fact that Melee went through an actual balance patch: PAL. Released five months after the NTSC release, nearly every character underwent some form of balancing. The PAL version of game nerfs nearly every top tier in the game. Fox, Falco, Sheik, and Ganondorf were almost indisputably nerfed. Falcon’s weak knee is nerfed but gets easier gentlemans, Marth received a slight decrease in aerial mobility and weight and lost his d-air spike, but gained the (almost surely unintentional) quality of being knocked by shine, which makes waveshine upsmash impossible. In essence, a significant portion of the high tier characters in the game
received effective nerfs. There are other changes too, minor weight buffs for Kirby and Bowser, Link losing a semi-spike off of his grounded up-B, and Yoshi getting damage and weight buffs, but the point is clear: Melee was definitely tweaked with some degree of competitive balance in mind.
After Melee, Sakurai would leave HAL, but later agreed to create Brawl (After Iwata had already revealed that Smash was coming to the Wii). For Brawl, he decided to take the casual audience more seriously, which severely altered the way Sakurai approached balancing.
With the Wii, Nintendo and Sakurai saw the rise of the casual audience. The increased number of new players (a demographic that Sakurai has taken into consideration with all of his games), and the Wii Remote itself prompted Sakurai to slow down the game’s speed and remove some advanced techniques.
“Question: Why is the game speed different from “Melee?”
Sakurai: I wanted to make it easier to play is number one, but another one of the reasons is because you use the Wii Remote to play.
Host: The Wii Remote.
Sakurai: Basically, you’re using a controller with a D-pad to play, and I figured that wouldn’t be able to withstand the speed of Melee.
Host: I see. You don’t have a control stick, after all.
Sakurai: Also, one of the things I felt when reflecting on Melee was that while a higher speed game is definitely exhilarating and fun, it makes the gap between beginners and higher level players too large, and you can’t really enjoy carefree, leisurely aerial battles. On the contrary, you might say it makes the game rough, but it does shrink the breadth** of the game a little. So this time, I made the speed slower, but on that point I think it would best to think of “Brawl” and “Melee” separately, and enjoy them each in their own way.”
TL Note: **Sakurai has used this phrase in other places, and generally in those cases he means more “the variety of ways you can play.”—Nintendo Dream, September 2008 edition
As mentioned before, Brawl was balanced using data from a playtesting team that was comprised of four people. Because of the Wii hardware limitations, patches and DLC were not possible for the third entry into the series. Speaking with IGN, Sakurai stated:
“There are no characters that can be unlocked via connecting to WiiConnect24 or interacting in that fashion. And I may be mistaken here, but the Wii doesn’t have a hard drive — it’s a disc-based system — so I don’t think we’ll be doing that, I don’t think it’s going to happen.” —GDC 2008: Sakurai on Super Smash Bros. Brawl
In the same interview, Sakurai also discussed why he didn’t implement leaderboards in Brawl:
“Masahiro Sakurai: Well, I’m sure that people hitting ranks one through 10, were there such a ranking system, would be incredibly pleased with it and having a lot of fun. But, you know, it’s not fun for everybody involved per se if such a system were to exist. I was asked this time around to try and get Wi-Fi into the game and so certainly we’ve managed to get wireless battles so you can play with people in other places. But it’s really a game in my mind that has been designed to be played with a smaller group of people — be that a group of friends or within your house a group of family members — competing in the small circles and not really worrying about winning and losing so much as the process that gets you there. That is where the fun should hopefully be for a lot of people. It can also be kind of trying and painful for some people who want to be at the top and think that they’re really good at Smash and they look at their online ranking and they’re the one-hundred-thousandth best Smash Bros. player — those are some of the reasons I’ve decided not to go with leader boards.” —GDC 2008: Sakurai on Super Smash Bros. Brawl
The approach to balance in Brawl was different because Sakurai had a different goal in mind when creating the game. With Brawl, Sakurai wanted to emphasize on “freestyle fighting”.
“Sakurai: This time, instead of focusing on “battle = to burn**,” I wanted to the game to focus on having an image of being able to fight freely, play freely, so I changed it up a little. Although in keeping with the previous theme, “Smash Dojo!!” initially had a fire motif as well. But I asked them “please make it a sky,” and so it changed.”
TL Notes: **He uses the verb “to burn,” but in Japanese that has another meaning, which means “to get passionate about something,” or basically “to get fired up.” —Nintendo Dream, September 2008
Smash for Wii U/3DS:
One of the core ideas of Smash for Wii U/3DS is that it would be a mix of Sakurai’s approach to Brawl and Melee. This is actually reflected in the game’s logo, and on the Final Destination stage. Red represents the fiery passion and Blue represents the freestyle battles. This is what Sakurai had to say about the core design of Smash for Wii U/3DS in an interview with Polygon:
“To paint in broad strokes, Melee is for the maniac, the veteran player, while Brawl is for a newer, more casual gamer, as far as the speed goes,” Sakurai explained. “Melee, of course, is super fast, and the people who are used to that game love that gameplay. But it may be a barrier for folks who found it a little imposing. Brawl was designed to be more approachable and accessible by folks who might [used to be playing] Wii Fit or Wii Play.”
“Now, with the new Smash Bros., we’re thinking the positioning will be really right in the middle.” –Polygon: New Super Smash Bros. removes tripping; game speed between Brawl and Melee
Smash for Wii U/3DS also represents a big change to the way Sakurai has approached balancing. The first is that Sakurai enlisted the help of Bandai-Namco, partly due to the their experience making the Tekken games.
“ND: These games were produced together with Bandai Namco Games, how did this happen to be?
MS: When we created Kid Icarus 3DS we assembled people from several places, but we experienced problems and had some regrets with that. I had to do interviews and other HR-duties, which amounts to a lot of time and work. Obviously, everyone has different levels of experience and different ways of working, so bringing everything together was difficult. To solve this problem we thought it would be better to have one single company work for us, so we choose to work with Bandai Namco Games who produce Tekken and other games. When thinking about a Japanese company that can make a large-scale fighting-game, there was only this one company. It would be quite difficult for other companies I think.” —Nintendo Dream interview, translation by Garou on NeoGaf.
Sakurai also watched and spoke at several Smash tournaments. He participated in Chokaigi, three times — including a tournament featuring top players from Japan and the West. While he doesn’t necessarily agree with the way Smash was being played at those tournaments, he’s happy that players can enjoy it in their own way.
“Recently, there was a tournament featuring the top Japanese and American players. In 1v1s, the natural tendency is to use low risk moves to gradually deal damage to the opponent. Smash attacks rarely came out, and the matches were prone to becoming long, drawn out affairs. When considering the variety of ways Smash can be played I think this is a shame, but the winner was certainly decided by skill.
Just as surely, people who play the game this way enjoy it from the bottom of their hearts, and make many friends playing this way. Because the game accommodates a wide variety of playstyles, it’s only natural that it captivates so many people in a variety of ways.” —The Act of Balancing, June 11, 2015
Sakurai introduced a leaderboard system, but in reverse order. With the Global Smash Power, the higher the number, the better the player was ranked. This was done on purpose to combat that problems that Sakurai saw with a normal ranking system.
Lastly, Sakurai increased the number of people in balancing, and took suggestions. He was also less involved with balancing when compared to other games.
“Sakurai: I’ve checked the results from online matches, but I left all the finer details and research to the monitoring team, so I didn’t really go out of my way to watch things that closely.” —Nintendo Dream, April 2016 edition.
Sakurai balances Smash across a wide variety of playstyles, for many different kinds of players. When balancing the game he has to consider the many ways Smash can be enjoyed. His thoughts may be best summarized by the following tidbits from the April 2016 edition of Nintendo Dream:
“I think it’s hard for a lot of people to understand. For the people who only play For Glory 1v1, that’s the extent of their world; they might not understand the reason why other communities exist. At the same time, if Smash were to develop into a pure one-on-one fighting game in which only the strong survive, the people who play Smash just to have a good time would all disappear before you know it.” —Nintendo Dream, April 2016 edition.
The game doesn’t have the same sense of chance as poker or mahjong, but it also doesn’t do anything special to give the losing player a leg up. Rather, even if a skill difference exists between players, Smash is a game everyone can enjoy together, and I think that type of experience is both rare and extremely important. That’s why I aimed to create something fun where four players can fight one another simultaneously, something that wouldn’t limit the kinds of people playing.
Recently, the Smash director briefly discussed Smash as an Esport in his Famitsu Column:
Q: Recently, Smash has risen in popularity as an eSport. What do you think of the fact that Melee is as popular as Smash 4?
A: First off, it makes me very happy. They’re both games I made, after all. And I’m also surprised. Because it means that the players really understood the concept behind that game correctly. The one where skills gaps become very apparent, the one that’s highly competitive is Melee. But I want to avoid a design where stronger players utterly dominate weaker ones. We should make it so that new players can have fun as well. I’ve touched upon this idea in previous columns.
If you want to enjoy the strategy or competitiveness in playing against another person, then maybe normal fighting games are more suited for you. –Readers Response #46, March 24, 2016
To end this lengthy writeup, I’ll leave you guys with the following quote:
At the end of the day, I’m aiming for intermediately-skilled players to be able to properly enjoy the game. Fundamentally, my goal with Smash has been to create an “enjoyable party game”. If you want to enjoy thrilling tactical gameplay, you might be better suited for other 2D fighting games. —The Act of Balancing, June 11, 2015
Soma’s miscellaneous notes:
- Sakurai rarely ever talks about how strong individual characters are. He did, however, say that Zero Suit Samus was a character that was “hard to get first with.” She’s currently 9th on the latest edition of the Brawl Back Room tier list.
- He also said that Fox was the most middle-of-the-pack character in terms of results when it came to Brawl’s online play.
- There have been some nerfs that coincidentally happened to certain characters after Sakurai’s presence at tourneys (Zero with Captain Falcon and Diddy, Abadango with Metaknight), but it’s unclear whether Sakurai seeing those characters in play at the tournament actually influenced balancing decisions.
The research was compiled by Soma and PushDustIn for Source Gaming. Special thanks to all of the translators on Source Gaming for helping us make this information available to you guys, and to the article staff for their suggestions! Check out the staff list here.
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