Yesterday was a fascinating day for studying the Smash 4 community. We witnessed some of our best and worst moments all at once. In the wake of an intense match we saw raw emotion come out, fans desperately searching for answers, for something to blame. In the end, that all fell back on the recurring problem of our game: Bayonetta.
For those unaware, let me set the stage for yesterday’s events. Grand finals of Dreamhack Atlanta saw CLG VoiD on the winner’s side facing MVG’s Salem. Salem was coming hot off of his EVO victory the week before, and VoiD was in position to finally win his first S-tier event. VoiD quickly went up 2-0 in the first set before Salem came all the way back with a reverse 3-0 to reset the bracket. The second set was a hard fought battle, but ultimately Salem grabbed the win with a low-percent combo off the top. Immediately folks took to Twitter on all sides. Some proclaiming the time was long past due to eliminate the scourge of Bayonetta from our game, some demanding credit for Salem’s victory, others lamenting our incessant need to react to everything with calls for a ban. As is always the case in these situations, there were interesting points and silly tweets on all sides, but no resolution. Today, I want to take a calm, systematic approach to discussing the problem without emotion or reactionary evidence. Let’s actually figure out what to do about The Bayonetta Problem.
Smash 4 Broke
First, we need to understand a fundamental truth when discussing any issues in Smash 4–the game is broken. From a competitive standpoint this is the most broken game currently played as an active esport. Let me explain what I mean:
First, the game was not designed with competition in mind. There are really only four stages (Smashville, FD, Battlefield, Town and City) without significant gimmicks or mechanical problems. Even then there are glitches and the problems with stretcher platforms. Many characters have broken hitboxes or have moves that do not function properly. There are three characters that don’t even have access to their full moveset in most tournaments. Most importantly, the game is not actively supported or balanced around competition and never will be.
So, whenever you discuss a problem with Smash 4, you must first acknowledge that the game as a whole is a problem. This should not be an esport, it frankly has no business being a competitive game. However, there’s enough love and passion in the community, and no other games that offer a suitable replacement, so players try to make it work the best they can. There is no way to “fix” competitive Smash 4 because it is broken on a fundamental level. If you want to play a well-structured competitive game, you need to play something that is not Smash 4.
Feels vs Data
So, we understand that the game is fundamentally broken. We’ll never see another balance patch for Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo Wii U. Once we accept this fact, we can start to approach real solutions to the problems with our game. However, there’s still a massive problem–we are run by our hearts.
There is no dev team studying this game. No one is collecting data from For Glory on win percentages. There’s nobody to address bug reports. We cannot properly gather the volume of data needed to properly balance a video game. As a result, most changes to the game start as emotional reactions and don’t go any further. We call for a ledge-grab limit after one popular player gets frustratingly defeated by a camping playstyle. We demand bans on stages based on a few clips of bugs on Twitter. We radically change our opinion on characters based on how the best players in the world perform with those characters. We think like spectators rather than a competition committee.
When approaching a problem with our game, we have to change the way we think. We need to look at the raw numbers. If you want Lylat banned, collect data. How many tournament matches have been affected by its glitches? Are these glitches reproduce-able? Are they exploitable? How do they function? If you want Lylat to stay, you need to argue your case with the exact same data. We have to stop reacting to how we feel, and start really studying our game with the intent of optimizing its competitive structure.
The True Bayonetta Problem
Right now, we do not have the data to even remotely discuss a character ban. Regardless of what side of that argument you fall on, there simply is not enough data yet to make a ruling. Even so, I can already settle the matter once and for all, referring back to the last section. Here’s the core issue: Bayonetta just feels bad.
Smash 4 is a weird, broken game. It is the slowest-moving fighting game played actively today. In general the game is settled by amassing enough rage to catch your opponent with your best aerial normal for a kill. many characters have low-percent combos and interesting kill setups, but at the core the game is about trading single hits back and forth. In her core design, Bayonetta doesn’t fit how Smash 4 is played. At any level of rage, her kills mostly come from extended, multi-hit combos. To anyone who finds Smash 4 boring, Bayo is an exciting change of pace. However, to people who love the game, to spectators who follow the game extensively, she just feels wrong to watch. Sure Meta Knight and Zero Suit Samus have ladder combos, sure DK and Bowser have grab setups that kill off the top, but all of those characters work within the established norms of the game. They have to setup their kills in ways that any experienced spectator can understand. When someone dies from Boost Kick or Ding Dong, you understand why. You generally know what the opponent could have done to avoid the situation. Watching a top level Bayonetta, it often just feels wrong. She doesn’t appear to have specific rage windows, or need a specific platform layout. It seems like she can just start a combo from anything, and at any moment the stock could end.
Now, all the Bayonetta players reading this are frantically typing their rebuttals. It takes a ton of excecutional skill to play this way. You have to read DI to get those combos to come out. Let me be clear–I am not discounting the intense practice and skill required to execute Bayo play at a high level. I’m not even arguing that she is too powerful at this point. What I’m attempting to do is help the community realize that, most often, they are reacting based on what they see and feel rather than the actual data of the sport.
The National Football League recently found itself making a seeing, feeling change. As the problem with concussions continued to grow, the league felt it needed to change something. As a reactionary move to the mounting complaints about the safety of their game, they banned hard hits. It really wasn’t more clear than that. There was some jargon about what constituted a hard hit, but in reality the calls were left to the referee’s discretion, and anything that looked “bad” got called.
However, this ruling actually did nothing to address the real problem. Often the hits that are the most dangerous to a player’s brain are the rudimentary, “safe” tackles you see on every routine play. By eliminating “hard” hits, the league officials had made the game look better to concerned parties, but had done absolutely nothing to change the rate at which players were getting concussions. They hadn’t really stopped to look at the data and make a rule change that actually addressed a problem with their game in the best way possible.
A ban on Bayonetta represents much of the same issues. As I said before, we flat out do NOT have enough data to determine that the character is actually a degenerative problem on par with Brawl’s Meta Knight. You cannot at this time present data that supports that claim. You may be able to begin to collect it and build a case, but you don’t have those results today to present before a Smash governing body (which doesn’t exist but really probably should at this point).
Further, a Bayonetta ban represents a number of problematic unintended consequences. A hasty character ban would effectively remove a large number of players from competition for a period of time. Players like Lima, Captain Zack, and Salem have dedicated themselves to mastering this character. Most Bayo players don’t have a secondary prepared (not that they need one) that can compete on the same level. For players like Zack and Salem you would be putting their professional contracts in jeopardy. We could see a number of players leave the game forever because their character was completely removed.
Further, bans aren’t really a thing in most games. Obviously other games get balance patches to fix problems, but even when a character is legitimately overpowered, players still have to learn to deal with that meta. They have to react, find counter strategies, and adapt their way of playing the game. If Mario simply cannot beat Bayonetta, that doesn’t automatically mean she should be banned, but it may mean that Ally has to develop a Bayo-specific counterpick. We already see this constantly in Melee. Every top player has developed a Fox to deal with Hungrybox, but no one is (seriously) calling for a ban on Jigglypuff.
If we ban Bayonetta, we also dramatically hurt the game’s spectator appeal to casual observers. Most of the reaction from people tuning into EVO was about how cool Bayonetta looked. People liked her combos, the danger of her kill threat. It took DC constantly discussing our hatred of the character for the rest of the panel on the Jumpoff to react negatively to her. Bayonetta brings so many unique things to competitive Smash, the entertainment product would be objectively worse without her (to people outside the community who don’t already hate her).
So, ultimately, right now we need to calm down and begin exploring the problem from an objective standpoint. Are character-specific secondaries a problem for the game? Does Bayonetta create a degenerative metagame, using Brawl Meta Knight as a known standard? Are view numbers negatively affected by Bayonetta in the grand finals? Does Bayonetta have an overly irregular win percentage in For Glory, or in bracket? These are the questions that have to be definitively answered before a ban could ever be realistically discussed.
Hopefully we all acknowledge that there will be no more patches to Smash 4. No developer is ever going to nerf Bayonetta. However, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks based on my own observances that Bayonetta is indeed a bit overpowered. But only just a bit.
She simply has, like, one too many tools. When explaining it to my wife I said it this way: if all the top tier characters in Smash 4 have 8 tools, she has 9. No balance designer would ever remove the character, but they would tweak her. What if, after collecting the proper data, we nerfed Bayonetta? What if instead of banning the character, we banned Bat Within? Or we banned the stupid guns attached to her aerials? Instead of trying to remove one of the ways that a lot of people enjoy this game, what if we just toned it down at the competitive level? Is that a viable solution? I don’t know, but I think it’s another avenue that isn’t being properly explored yet.