August 18, 2012 Leave a comment
Every online gamer has been there. Your favorite character, class, item, skill, or strategy is now less useful. The game developers just posted the change log for the latest patch, and something you liked was just nerfed. You might be confused or frustrated (“Why would they do that?”). You might even be upset (“Now my <blank> is worthless!”). Why do players react so strongly to these sorts of changes, and why do developers continue to make them? To begin answering this, we must start, as usual, with the basics.
What is a “nerf?” Aside from being a fairly goofy word, the answer depends on who you ask. A designer will likely give a strict definition: “a change to something that makes it less powerful or useful than before.” A player will give a simpler response: “Anything that isn’t a buff.”
Alright then, what is a “buff?” A buff is a change that makes something clearly better than it was before. In the realm of games, this generally means numbers going up. Damage, range, rate of fire, movement speed, etc. To the typical player, if numbers went up, it was a buff. If numbers didn’t go up, it was a nerf. This sounds reasonable, but is slightly flawed. For example, a designer may intend to make a lateral change, a change not intended to strictly increase or decrease the power of, say, a weapon in the game. Many times this involves numbers being shifted around but as we’ve now established, if numbers didn’t go up, many players will view the change as a nerf.
But why is this a problem? Well, nerfs just feel bad. They’re not very fun. A big part of many games is power fantasy; players like the feeling of being stronger than everything around them, and nerfs get in the way of this enjoyment. Thus, a clear understanding of why nerfs are a necessary tool can ease the sting of something you like becoming less powerful. Clear communication on the reasons and intent behind individual changes can do wonders, but this may not explain why nerfs in general are necessary.
I believe there are 4 main reasons a developer might (and indeed, must) nerf aspects of a game over time:
- Power creep
- Skill creep
- Overpowered elements have a greater effect than underpowered ones
- Constantly buffing is not sustainable
Time for some subheadings to explain these in more detail!
Power creep is the general increase in power of game content over time. Typically, new game content is stronger to compel players to seek it out or use it, and over time this can cause imbalances within the game.
Power creep is almost certainly the core reason for most nerfs. Unfortunately, power creep is almost inevitable in any game that undergoes regular content updates. In order to remain a compelling experience, the game must sate the needs of the players and to allow them to feel some form of progression. Often this will alter the original balance structure of the game. If stats were designed around a maximum of 100, and the new maximum is 150, suddenly that much Strength on a character becomes too much. Now Strength, or items that increase Strength, or skills that scale with Strength, may need to be nerfed.
Developers may try to avoid power creep by only providing new options that individually are equal in power to current content, but they must take care not to provide options that, when mixed in creative ways, become overpowered. The style of the game may make this more difficult. For example, it is easier to make tradeoffs between guns in a shooter, but is more difficult in a progression-oriented MMORPG where players expect new items to be better. Another way to combat the problem may be to very carefully add content that scales smoothly on as many fronts as possible. If damage roughly doubles, health may need to do the same. This is exceptionally difficult to pull off in practice, however, so often the only way to stop runaway increases in power are to bring things back down with some good ol’ nerfs.
So let’s say the game manages power creep perfectly. Fantastic. Maybe the game doesn’t even need content updates because it’s just THAT compelling (Good luck finding a game like this, by the way. They’re exceedingly rare nowadays). The game will still suffer from skill creep.
Skill creep is the natural occurrence of players getting better at a game over time. Players will learn map layouts perfectly, settle into better strategies, collect the strongest gear in the game, explore every option, and get better than the developers at the game. Obviously this is completely unavoidable, and is often overlooked as a reason to nerf by both players and developers. If the game is popular enough and the players are dedicated enough (note: they are ALWAYS dedicated enough), they will play the game far more than the developers and through sheer numbers discover things never found in testing. This can lead to the game being played at a skill level the designers may not have anticipated.
Even if the designers were prepared, in a player vs player setting players will find good strategies, then counter-strategies, then counter-counter-strategies, and so on. At a certain point this cycle may present a tactic that cannot [easily] be countered. In this case, the best solution is often to nerf said tactic. In a single-player or cooperative setting, players may reach a level of mastery that eschews the desired difficulty of the game, but this is often easier to deal with by buffing the opposition instead of nerfing the player since buffs, even when contrary to the player, simply feel better.
Developers must take care, though, as there will always be an extremely large discrepancy between the best players of their game and the average player (unless the game is a very challenging or so-called “hardcore” experience). Making changes that will only affect the top-tier players can have unexpected (sometimes devastating) implications for the average or below-average player.
Overpowered vs Underpowered
Now that the primary ways a game’s balance can change are out-of-the-way, it’s thought experiment time!
Let’s say we have a PvP game with 6 classes. Now let’s say there are 4 perfectly balanced classes (It’s a hypothetical, we can make up ridiculous scenarios if we want!), one overpowered class, and one underpowered class. We’ll assume the game reached this state organically, without any balance changes to the game since launch. Here, balanced indicates that the strength of the class is exactly where the designers intended, and when compared to each other they are roughly equal.
Players of the underpowered class will be unhappy and demand buffs, but the underpowered class will only negatively affect those that play that class. Now, other players may feel slightly bad if the class is so underpowered that it is no longer any challenge, but in general they won’t care all that much. Left alone long enough, the players of the class will probably switch classes (or stop playing altogether), but the game in general will move on, albeit in a lessened state.
On the other hand, the overpowered class degrades the experience for everyone except for those playing it. It causes the players of the class to feel superficially powerful but, depending on how large the balance discrepancy, it causes everyone else in the game to feel helpless. If it’s *really* bad, it can cause many players to consider quitting the game, which is a terrible state for everyone.
Thus, when faced with a mix of underpowered, balanced, and overpowered aspects of a game, it is nearly always a better use of time to focus on nerfing the overpowered aspect first, then shifting efforts towards anything underpowered. In cases where there isn’t enough development time to do both at once, it is possible that when we nerf the overpowered class, another previously balanced classes takes its place. If this happens cyclically, the underpowered class may remain underpowered for a significant amount of time while developers deal with the other classes. I believe these scenarios lead to player assumptions that a game “always nerfs” when it is just a part of the organic power struggle within games.
So we’ve established that nerfs are not very fun. But players like fun! And designers like providing fun! So instead of nerfing our overpowered class, let’s buff the balanced classes a bit, and the underpowered class a bit more. Great! Everyone’s stronger than they were originally intended, but people are enjoying the feeling of power.
But over time, one class will eventually fall behind the others. Not because of any changes to the class, but because of new content and skill creep. We can buff again, but eventually we will always find that a class starts to fall behind (or gets ahead) over time. If we buff all the classes to meet the strongest class, we eventually reach a state where every class is simply too strong to provide any kind of challenge. In PvP, everyone dies in seconds (or instantly). In regular gameplay, nothing is a challenge anymore. Now we have a major problem.
Feeling a little overpowered is fun. Killing everything instantly is fun for about an hour. It is always better for the game’s longevity to meter out power increases and keep them under relatively tight control. These power increases will happen, one way or another, through new content or skill creep. As balance starts to settle, under and overpowered aspects of the game will rear their heads, and then the wonderful nerfs begin! As long as designers habitually explain their changes and avoid over-nerfing (a game can’t constantly nerf for the same reasons it cannot constantly buff), it will help players to feel better about the changes.