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MMOWTF: Nerfronomicon

Weekly MMORPG.com columnist Dan Fortier uses this week's edition of MMOWTF to talk about Nerfing in MMORPGs.

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

"That which is not an exploit may eternal lie and with strange eons, even buffs may die!"

There are aspects of gaming life that are completely transparent until something goes wrong. Server outages and the like remind us that there are tons of processes going on behind the scenes that ensure that we are having fun. Things like game balance are usually hot topics, but the huge pile of clockwork code and databases that are behind all of the perceived and real imbalances we experience are often overlooked. The forces at work in keeping the cosmic balance are often as mysterious as the seemingly uncaring Gods who watch with unblinking morbidity. This work will hopefully illuminate you to the horrors called Nerfs that lurk at the edges of perception and steal our sanity!

To the vast majority of players the solution to balance or game play issues is usually pretty cut and dry (i.e.: Increase drop rate for X item, reduce cooldown timers for Y ability, Change spawn pattern for mob Z, etc), but the root causes behind the imbalance might not be so obvious. All we see is a problem and an obvious solution, but MMOs are based on an extremely complex set of interactions between predictable and fairly random forces. (code and players) The practice of just patching individual issues without at least seeing how it fits into the overall scheme of things is both too common and extremely foolhardy. Our job as players is to have fun, not troubleshoot game play issues and when a simple problem is not fixed with an equally quick and simple solution, things can get ugly and just as many improper or unnecessary changes happen because the players demanded it as are caused by inept programming.

The men behind the curtain (hopefully) have access to literally tons of data on player behavior and game mechanics to sift through in order to diagnose and treat the cause of an imbalance, not just a symptom. Let's consider an example of how a simple problem can have varied causes and far-reaching consequences if improperly fixed:

A player with a Warrior class notices one day while camping a particularly tough spawn that one of the monsters, say a Giant Tooth, is nearly impossible to harm with his melee attacks and does ridiculous amounts of damage to him with every hit, The monster is not named any different, nor does it con a different level compared to the other Giant Teeth in the same spawn area. Along comes another, lower level, Warrior who proceeds to smack around the previously invincible mob then runs off mocking the him "git som better gear u nub!!1"

The player, furious with shame, logs on an alt in the forums and proceeds to rant and rave about how broken the mobs are in such and such zone and how he's going to cancel his sub get everyone else in his two thousand man guild to quit if this doesn't get fixed pronto. Several other players join in with similar experiences with various common elements and it's not long before a moderator or other unpaid ban-stick wielder drops by to offer a non-committal offer to 'look into it' on their behalf (and thereby upping his 4 digit post count in the process) Of course, no one has bothered to submit a ticket with the barest of details to help get the issue resolved or even figure out why it is happening in the first place. Eventually one of the QA guys happens to read the thread while upping his post count on his fanboi alt and decides to take action. After all, when he solves the problem he can take credit for fixing it and get promoted out of the basement!

The QA guy reviews the data for some of the players involved and sees that indeed certain players are inflicting and receiving inappropriate damage when dealing with specific Giant Tooth mobs while others are just having a hard time hurting the monster. He sees that for some reason Fluoride type weapon damage/armor are the culprits and simply modifies the damage for the weapons involved vs Enamel defenses and prepares some patch notes for when it goes live. With the problem solved so quickly he figures he saved himself enough time to power level his Bard up to level 60.

In this case the cause of the issue could have been anything from a bug that improperly spawns much higher level, yet identical looking mobs to a database error in calculating resists. Whatever the actual cause you can bet the issue will pop up again in a related, yet different scenario perhaps when a Fluoride Epic weapon is used to slaughter the Tooth Fairy raid boss without breaking a sweat. Even with all the resources and skills that competent Devs have it's tough work in trying to keep a game balanced properly and still keep us happy...then again they get my money every month so they don't need my pity or undying gratitude.

When dealing with PvP side of things it becomes an even stickier web to walk. The effort it takes to determine what the right solution is to an imbalance issue, is nothing compared to trying to explain to competitive players that the tactic they so cleverly designed is, in fact, an exploit of the intended system. A lot of the time we can feel punished for thinking outside the box if all there going to do is tell us it's not fair later on and nerf it. It's just another reason why more and more games are going away from no-holds-barred PvP and into more rigid and controlled arenas.

Anyway, that's my overly simplistic and opinionated take on the topic so I turn the reins over to you guys...Hit us with that text-bomb you've been powering up for five episodes!


Dan Fortier