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Victor Wachter: Inside the Nerf

Columns By Victor Wachter on October 27, 2009

Inside the Nerf

If you play a multi-player game for any length of time, you'll inevitably run into the nerf. In my career working in games, I've helped nerf spells, guns, robots and super powers.

As people play together, they are always taking account of how they compare to their fellow players and begin to note which play styles are the most efficient. As a result, they generally do one of two things: They either adjust their own style to include the optimal mechanics or they decide that certain mechanics are too powerful to be allowed and seek to make their feedback known.

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Sometimes, developers act on that feedback and swing the nerfbat. The magnitude of a nerf varies. Sometimes, it's a simple adjustment of damage tables, changing the effectiveness of certain mechanics, which pretty much every game does on a regular basis. Sometimes, it's a complete overhaul of certain classes, such as the EverQuest Monk or EVE’s medium spaceship changes. Sometimes, it will be a complete gameplay overhaul, such as Ultima Online's Trammel.

Calling for a nerf will generate some of the most impassioned and divided discussions in a gaming community. One side is frustrated at their struggle to compete with unbalanced game mechanics. Meanwhile, the other side is replying with a litany of reasons why their mechanic isn't overpowered. They point to situations where a more specialized mechanic makes their own ability less effective and generally seek to protect their game as they play it.

Players will occasionally make the argument that, "The devs play faction X, so of course they won't change it." This statement makes a couple of assumptions about developers that aren't really accurate.

  1. The assumption that the devs are as hardcore into playing the game as the players are. A lot of devs don't play much of their game outside of work. They bring a ton of creativity and passion to creating the game and spend all day thinking about it, but the last thing that many of them want to do when they get home is log back into work.
  2. The assumption that devs are well-organized and all play together. Outside of official playtests, most devs I know don't play their own game together. I've been at companies where there is a secret developers' guild, but it's usually pretty casual and not organized in the way that a player guild is. When devs do play games together, they're more likely to play a tabletop RPG or miniatures game, or Rock Band or Soul Calibur.

When feedback starts coming in, you get different responses from designers. They want to take pride in the work that they do and they don't want their game to be the subject of controversy on the game blogs. So when they make decisions, it's not in to further some agenda or vendetta. It's to keep their jobs and feel good about it.


Beware the Nerf Bat

At least that's how it is for the reasonable ones.

Some designers read the forums religiously and are committed to acting on feedback, no questions asked. While commitment to the customer is an admirable trait, it can also be a path to sloppy thinking and snap decisions. The other side of the coin is the designer who is quick to discredit the community and looks for any crack in the argument to exploit. He points to players doing dumb things and claims that the ones who feel the mechanic is imbalanced simply don't know how to play.

The first stop when considering a nerf is usually the balance spreadsheet. Its formulas will guide you through a number of quantitative scenarios like time to kill or ability X vs. ability Y. It might tell the story of a mathematically perfect game, but it can't capture intangible elements such as terrain, latency and the infinite number of variables that may come from other players. You could call it a bible, but it is more appropriately considered a work of man with all the flaws that engenders.

When developers start talking nerfs, Sales and Marketing types, who are concerned with the game's public perception, will raise the question, "Do we have to nerf, or can we buff something else." While it's valid to ask to look at the problem in multiple ways, a nerf in buff's clothing can be dangerous. People are talking about a mechanic, and that's usually what needs to be addressed. Addressing the issue by fiddling with another mechanic could be opening Pandora's box.

Announcing the upcoming nerf is the tricky part. You're making an announcement that will be welcome to some players and the worst news of the day to others. There's no easy way to do this, but there are a dozen ways to make it harder.

Some developers choose to keep it secret until the patch hits. In some (but not all) cases, there's logic to the stealth nerf, such as when it might have some long term effects on gameplay or the virtual economy. Announcing the nerf ahead of time risks inviting a rush of players to take advantage of flawed mechanics so that they can still have the rewards in the future. It may be a sound and well-reasoned decision, but it will take a negative toll on the developer's relationship with his players and trust will be lost.

The difference in language between players and developers can also make the nerf more painful than it needs to be. The City of Heroes team once announced that it was done adjusting powers. So when changes to power enhancements were made, players felt misled by doublespeak. Nobody necessarily lied, but the developers made the mistake of assuming that that they saw the game and its systems through the same lens as players.


Also, beware the Nerf Cat.

Even if it is announced frankly and transparently, the nerf is going to be a communication problem. There's no avoiding the fact that some people will be angry with a change to the status quo. Suddenly, new faces will emerge in the community, claiming to represent the silent majority. A developer has to be careful here and can't let himself be swayed by the sudden influx of opinion. This isn't really the silent majority, but an interested segment of the silent majority. The majority is still silent.

But we can't trivialize the concept of the silent majority. They do exist, and they are represented by subscription levels and a game's revenue. Every design decision is also a business decision and a nerf gone awry can have a profound impact on your game's business, as the Star Wars Galaxies team learned when they released the NGE (which is a combination of so many nerf pitfalls, I don't even know where to start talking about that one).

So, with all of these pitfalls, what's a game developer to do? It sounds simple and trite, but they should do what they think is best. Not arbitrarily, of course, as there is an entire population of gamers whose virtual future depends on the decision that they make, as well as a business whose well-being is dependent on those gamers' happiness. But ultimately, it comes down to the developer to make the decision that will best level the playing field while alienating as few of their customers as possible.

Sounds easy, right?