How should developers handle balancing in fighting games?
Prior to first release, it’s almost impossible to put out something balanced. The best you can do is playtest internally with skilled players. Try to set a baseline level of power on the character that is felt to be the one most representative of the spirit of the game, like Ryu in Street Fighter 2. Sirlin has a number of good balance related articles:
http://sirlingames.squarespace.com/articles/street-fighter-hd-remix-design-overview.html (it’s interesting to also read each individual character’s page)
Beyond that, it’s about identifying which characters are the most or least powerful. This is tricky, because frequently you’ll find that noobs determine one thing is overpowered that isn’t really overpowered, like Ike in Brawl, Little Mac in Smash 4, all sorts of things. Having a bunch of experienced players try to make up a tier list from playing the game a lot with different characters is as good a start as you can get, then beyond that to focus on each individual matchup and why one character wins over the other, altering the characters so they will fight evenly in that matchup without screwing up the rest, like a gordian knot. On the flip side, they will all be a bit biased by their choice in character and try to influence you to do things that help their character. Probably. Pro players have a conflicting motivation from the game designer, they want to win more frequently.
Another key thing that I see a lot is, when an unintended exploit or something comes up, what most frequently happens is it gets nerfed into the ground, or removed outright. What I’d like to see more of is trying to preserve that type of thing, but make it fit into the ecosystem. The key thing to emphasize is that all the parts of the character have a use for something and they all get used, and they’re all distinct from one another. On a larger level, all the characters should be good at something, and they should all be used, and they should all be distinct from one another.
An easy way to balance is to homogenize the characters by nerfing their strengths. The battle in balance is to create diversity. If you have a bunch of totally radically different characters, then one of them is likely to beat most of the others, so low diversity overall. Your job is to ensure that all the characters and all the options are being used, but it’s also to ensure that they all are distinct and unique. If something is underutilized, you need to give it more utility, or nerf the things that block its utility.
Project M and Guilty Gear are perhaps the two most successful examples of balance I’ve seen yet, with Project M currently having all the characters viable except Olimar and Ice Climbers, and those only inviable because of some minor faults, and very open about it.