Finally got around to reading the Smash Bros. article, it was a really interesting read. It got me thinking about something though, and since I don't really read up much on a lot of the nitty gritty of games development I figure you might be the right person to ask this; how exactly do game companies go about evaluating what it is that people want from the games they plan to produce?
Honest answer? A lot of times they don't. Most games spring up from a design pitch or idea and it's up to the game designers and the production team to ensure the end result is something that will be fun and engaging to the players. With sequels, the work normally is to re-capture the same sense as the original while exploring new mechanics, or in the case of Nintendo new possibilities that take advantage of new hardware. It's a common dev line to say they are keeping an eye on the community and listening to feedback, but not every company is exactly transparent enough to the point where we can say if they actually are or aren't. "Listening to the community" could, for all we know, just mean looking at strictly japanese tweets, for example.
This is in general, of course. Some companies are better than others at community interactions, but even then in game design one of the warnings is to not listen to your fans too much. You know, since you can never please everybody.
Also, I'd be interested to know in what direction the lack of balance tilts in the most recent Smash Bros. (either on the side of most of the roster being too poor to be competitively capable, or on the side of a small cluster of characters with broken abilities). I only have very limited, vicarious knowledge of the balance of Melee, but even I've heard of the trope of "Fox v Fox, Final Destination" or whatever. Is Melee more balanced than 3D Smash U, and if so in what regard? How was the balance of Wii U Smash handled post-release, especially with regards to the DLC characters which seem to, superficially, follow your suggestion of drip-feeding more characters (although obviously not for free, and obviously the comparison is still not 1-for-1 even if price considerations are removed)?
Honestly? It's practically impossible for me to determine "how balanced" something like smash is. The reason I respect these devs a lot while at the same time blasting how much content there is lies in the fact it feels like an impossibility to balance smash in every regard, and yet… if you pick up Smash 4 or Melee, almost every character feels fun in one context or another.
The main thing to remember is that for us balance in design is strictly competitive, but for the designers it's also a matter of considering every other way people play the game. If a character is not fun in a 1v1 omega stage scenario, it's always entirely possible that that character was NOT meant to be specifically great at that scenario but improves with stages with more movement options. We may not think of multiple players or team scenarios or items, but designers have to do this. It's why Palutena has a weak default moveset compared to her custom moves: because she was supposed to be a lesson to the player on using custom moves. This sucks when you think of what competitive players actually use as rulesets, but that's not what Sakurai and co. get paid to do. To them the kid playing this game during a sleepover is just as important as the two dudes fighting for thousands of dollars on a stage.
It feels miraculous to me that despite this we can still have something like competitive smash. It speaks volumes to why this is a great game.
Regarding patches, I honestly barely remember much outside of the "nerf Greninja" meme, where Sakurai kept inexplicably nerfing greninja, probably due to strong use of the character in Japan. The main major shake up I do recall is the introductions of Cloud and Bayonetta who were super strong upon introduction, and it became common to see Bayonettas everywhere in competitive. Whether the meta game adjusted or not I have no idea, and I do wonder about the logic of one of the last character being a super strong one that you can't react to after production ends. It's why I feel like a drip-feed works better than DLC for fighters... DLC means you have to SELL a character, which means making them desirable in one way or another, that way usually being making the character obviously strong. With drip-feed content like Arms and Splatoon the marketing doesn't need to revolve on how powerful x character is and why you should all buy it, but can instead focus on changes the character brings to the meta that everyone gets to participate in by default.
I suppose what I'm trying to get a better idea of is why Nintendo might not feasibly, if they were so inclined, do both. Create a game with a sprawling roster and reasonably well-defined mechanics, and then tune any major weaknesses revealed in mass distribution post-launch (perhaps facilitating their ability to do so by dropping a lot of the side mode and single player stuff which, while interesting (and a lot of the reason I played the earlier games) doesn't seem, at least to me, like something that would tilt more people towards buying Smash with its inclusion -or tilt people away from buying it because of its absence).
I do think a lot of people need single player content from Smash Brothers, just by default of the logic that not everyone can have a couch full of people to play with. Despite the industry disagreeing with me, I think single player content will never stop being important, and instead can be a great tool to teach game lessons to the player in scenarios that might avoid early game frustration and dropping the game.
FighterZ is an interesting case for me when it comes to this. The game is mechanically fun for newer players, but if you do not wish to partake in online multiplayer the game is brutal. The story mode is extremely long and repetitive and, while it teaches you different characters, it concludes with a finale that only tests your capabilities with ONE specific character. Meanwhile, the arcade mode is a breeze UNTIL you get to the final, super strong fight where the enemies are mechanically buffed to resist and overcome things that would work in a competitive scenario.
It's a great fighter that nevertheless had players like me drop it almost instantly because what it offers outside of online is almost non-existent. Fighting games in particular always have to think of how to retain individual players who are intimidated by competition, and in that sense Smash has done an excellent job… I just personally hope that in the future it is more related to in-game skill and less focused on that wall of misery maxter mentioned.
My confusion in this regard is where my lack of knowledge of the game development process really reveals itself to be honest. I vaguely understand the idea of budgetary and manpower constraints leading to circumstances where a broader focus (in this case creating an excessive number of characters) necessarily causes depth to be sacrificed in some areas. But then it seems like considerations of novel or intricate mechanics is dependent on creative resources, which seem like the sort of thing you couldn't really solve by throwing more people at the process (or at least it seems like you couldn't). It doesn't sound like Smash is lacking for people to make sure the mechanics, as the developers envision them to work, are tuned to a satisfying level of polish. But then it's also fairly well known that Sakurai worked himself ridiculously hard making Melee, which I assume is related to perfecting and fine-tuning how well it functioned as a game. So is the idea that playing it safe with the mechanics side of things allows them to dedicate more resources to bloating the roster as it were, with a more creative approach necessitating cut backs they don't want to make in the character numbers? From my uninformed view it seems like it should be easier to add more characters to an established base list given the mechanics are pretty constant and a lot of the repeat characters seem to have fairly similar movesets to their previous iterations. Especially if they stick to being unadventurous with the mechanics. But then obviously these games take a while to make so maybe my assumptions (that they don't mess much with the mechanics and that repeat characters are easy to design for a new game) are just wrong? Maybe too much time is wasted on the BS Sakurai-bloat?
Sorry again if this comes across as meandering or obtuse, but the idea that Nintendo, if they wanted a more balanced game with broader appeal, or e-sports appeal or what have you, would likely to need to trim the roster suggests that Nintendo either can't or won't be able to achieve that goal without the associated cost of reducing characters. The possibility that they just don't want to isn't really conducive to discussion (at least amongst those not deeply informed about Nintendo's corporate culture and so on -it might very well make for an interesting conversation between analysts debating about their competing forecasts for Nintendo's creative direction or something), so I'm interested in trying to understand why you think they can't.
The main thing about why any mechanical addition to the game costs money is that things do not exist in a bubble. It is impossible for any designer, regardless of how great they are, to know exactly the ramifications a character addition will have on the game. Good ones will have an idea of what it might cause, but when you consider that millions of people out there all play games differently, it's impossible to foresee how accurate things will actually turn out. You cannot just toss in a character and figure "well, let's focus on this new character and leave the old ones untouched", because what will happen at that point is that you overlook or miss design issues or glitches or w.e. else that could arise when those two characters interact. It can also happen that you finish perfecting a character, but then after 9 more characters you look back at the first one you did and realize, fuck, this guy is now completely underpowered and unequipped to deal with what we introduced.
This is why a character addition to smash involves hours upon hours of testing and revision, something that's extremely expensive whether you have an in-house testing team working full-time or are contracting from another company to house testers, full-time for weeks on end. This also involves hours upon hours of work for developers and programmers that need to be around to fix high-priority bugs that occur during testing and that may in turn delay further testing by blocking testers from specific content. Every time content gets added to the game we are talking about weeks of multiple full-time employees that have to sit down, test, bug, regress bugs, fix issues, etc., before the game can be released to market.
This is why a mechanically simpler smash, achieved by sticking to an essential roster instead of over 50 characters, cuts down on several hours of work and as such reduces the cost considerably.
Now, the decision for Nintendo is far hairier than that, because particularly with the last Smash more characters meant more opportunities to market other titles. People buy Nintendo games because of the character being in Smash. So since we don't want to reduce conversation to Nintendo not wanting to do something that would make Smash more approachable developmentally, we can instead look at how easy it is for Nintendo to stick to the same thing they've been doing and make bucketloads of money. Sure, I can hypothesize how my suggestions would also save money in return, while potentially pleasing a competitive base for the game, but that's a hypothetical compared to the certain marketable dream boat that Smash 4 certainly was. Amiibo alone weren't a success because the idea was beloved by people… it was a success because of Smash. With that in mind it's hard to blame Nintendo for burdening poor Sakurai with a million characters that each entail greater sales for their series, much like it's hard to blame them for selling cardboard when people are lining up to buy it.