Competition in video games is a huge deal. It’s progressing to the point that millions upon millions of dollars are involved. That includes deals with Disney, ESPN, and the NBA among other large companies. To that end, developers go to great lengths to build their multiplayer components around serious, professional, and broadcast-friendly competition, and tons of resources are poured into balancing. That includes flying out pro gamers just for multiple rounds of testing and feedback. It also includes making huge adjustments to games, sometimes on the fly, when a big problem arises. There are several, recent examples that demonstrate just how important balance is, what lengths devs will go to in order to preserve it, and also how problems can have an impact on the community as well.
Let’s start with Star Wars. EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II has some issues, as we all know. But it’s not just loot boxes. A certain Emperor Palpatine has been a huge issue for the game’s competitive balance, and the team at DICE has struggled to address the problem. See, Palpatine’s Force Lightning ability is just far too strong. It’s an important part of his character of course, so it has to be in the game. Otherwise, what would he do? He didn’t do anything else in the movies but yell and shoot lightning.
In an attempt to fix the lightning, the team so far only managed to make the problem worse, and Palpatine was straight-up breaking the Star Wars: Battlefront II metagame. So without any indication of a plan or timeline, the villain was just completely removed from the pool of playable characters. The situation was so desperate, for an already struggling game, that the developers had to torpedo content from the game in order to bandage a gaping wound. Sure, the matter will be resolved eventually, but it cannot be understated how drastic of an action that is, considering how violently angry gaming communities can get over removed content.
Similar stuff happens in Fortnite as well. Remember all the fun Twitch videos of people riding rockets around, sniping from them, and all other kinds of shenanigans? That’s not a thing anymore, because the guided missile launcher is out of the game. Being able to control a missile with the properties they have in Fortnite totally broke the already shaky balance of Fortnite, so it had to go. Epic Games is still working out balance kinks, and even plans to put limits on building, something that has long been the core gimmick of Fortnite, even before Battle Royale. The pursuit of balance is dire in that game, as so much money is roped into the rising competitive scene.
Finally, let’s take a look at Mario Tennis Aces. Nintendo wants to be an esports-friendly company, but that’s still in the early stages. Nintendo obviously does things differently, and has been more fun-centric with its competition instead of worrying about money and sponsorships. Regardless, Mario Tennis Aces is yet another competition-friendly game, with intense mechanics that have made people compare it to a fighting game. But unfortunately, before the competitive Mario Tennis scene can even get going, there’s a huge roadblock in the form of Bowser Jr.
Bowser Jr. is just too good. He’s a defensive character that Camelot accidentally forgot to give flaws. He build meter fast, doesn’t lose much speed when he charges shots, and has long reach. He’s similar in style to Waluigi, but Waluigi has some disadvantages that make him a fair character. Because of this, the competitive scene is in turmoil, with tons of people complaining about Bowser Jr. and even refusing to participate in matches against players who use him. Tournament runners are looking into banning the character, and there’s just a whole big thing happening that’s made everyone involved upset.
These are just a few examples from the past year of how crucial keeping a game balanced can be. If games are meant to be enjoyed over a long period of time, with sustainable competitive ecosystems surrounding them, people expect a certain level of polish. If a game can be “solved,” with tournaments having the same results over and over, and specific problems that never get patched or updated, the player base will shrink, and the game will die. Developers know this, and that’s why they’ll go to great lengths to change things that emerge as problematic. If they go ignored, like Bowser Jr. so far, that leads to community in-fighting and dropped games, which is the worst cast scenario.