Overview:

For decades now, the players of online games have known the crushing stress of object nerfing. Here's what it is, why it happens (and must happen), and how game admins and developers can make rebalancing feel less stressful and frustrating for players.

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There is a word in gaming for the sudden transmutation of something strong—a sword, a gun, a shield—into something much less so. The item has been nerfed. A nerfed weapon does less damage. The protection of nerfed armor diminishes.

Gamers obviously tend to like it when their things are made more powerful, and they don’t tend to like it at all when things are made less so—even when those things are wildly imbalanced. Excessive nerfing can lead to an erosion of trust in the playerbase. It hits at the heart of our sense of fairness. And perhaps more than anything else, gamers want games to be fair. Or skewed in their favor, that will also do.

THE NERFENING: A dreaded period of rebalancing that always seems to end in nerfing

Many years ago, I staffed online multiplayer games called MUDs. These operate much like World of Warcraft (WoW), only everything happens through text.

Very early on, MUD administrators on one game I staffed noticed a trend they began calling “object inflation.” It meant that newer objects were much better than older ones of that same level. A new level 50 shield offered way more protection than an older level 50 shield. And the next builder to create a level 50 shield made their shield even better than the previously-released one.

Ideally, admins wanted all level 50 shields to be about the same in terms of protection. Maybe one added in, say, protection from fire attacks, while another provided more protection from undead attacks. But overall, no level 50 shield should be hugely better than another to the point that level 50 players wanted it above and beyond any other shield.

So when this MUD’s admins announced that we planned to rebalance the object database, players understood what was coming. We would not be bringing old objects up to the newest objects’ stats, but instead bringing older objects up and newer objects down to try to reflect a happy medium.

Since nobody was using any other level 50 shield by then but the newest, best one, that meant a nerfing loomed on the horizon. And nobody in the playerbase liked that.

Nerfing: A brief history of an old gaming term

One of the earliest MMORPGs around, Ultimate Online (UO), launched in 1997. And oh boy, it was a mess. Even by modern standards, when “day one patches” are just expected and unremarkable, it sounds like it was a mess.

The development team had no clue how to get all its moving parts operating in a coherent, consistent way. Every account I’ve ever read of the game’s early days makes it sound like it was constantly correcting, overcorrecting, and then wildly over-overcorrecting back again. I’ve got no clue how players put up with all that shifting ground under their feet, but they did.

At one point, players discovered that swords had become the most powerful weapons in the game. As a result, everyone began using swords. When the devs found out, they weakened swords, of course, to bring them more in line with other weapons in UO. But they went a bit too far.

In response, players complained that they now felt like they were hitting each other with flimsy Nerf-branded toy swords made of foam. UO swords had been nerfed.

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An elegant weapon for a more civilized age. Oh wait. That’s lightsabers. Nope. Sentiment still stands.

If you were hoping that the term came from the iconic Star Wars insult “nerf herder,” I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings.

Usually, nerfing is a big surprise to players. If you saw that classic 1997 Disney movie Hercules, you probably remember that scene in which the hero loses his sword. While his mentor yells at him to find it, he tries to grab it out of the water. Finally, his hand latches onto something. He flourishes what he finds, ready to do battle—only to discover that he’s latched onto a fish, not a sword.

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That right there is the nerf moment. That weapon used to be a great sword. Now, it’s a fish. And suddenly, it’s just as useful as a fish. One might as well just “use your head” instead.

(And if you were wondering, the opposite of nerfing is buffing. For some reason, rebalancing tends to result in nerfing way more often than buffing.)

Player response to nerfing: hoarding “old gear”

Nobody expected players to be thrilled about the nerfing of the best gear, of course. But on my MUD, we didn’t expect them to figure out how to get around it.

Our codebase stored objects in a database as a prototype. (Mobiles, which are anything from monsters to town guards, operated the same way.) Any time an object was loaded into the game from its prototype, it became an instance. Instances were largely disconnected from their prototypes. Any high-level admin could rewrite instances’ descriptions on the fly. Those descriptions remained on the object till it was deleted somehow. Mostly, that meant being on the ground for some reason when the MUD rebooted, since our code didn’t remember room states at the time.

(I used to have fun with restringing descs on stuff. Once, I heard that players were attacking and killing player-owned pets in the game. So I loaded the hardest non-aggressive mobile in the database and restrung it to look exactly like a pet kitten. Then, I parked it in the game’s main inn where almost everyone quit out and entered the game. It took about ten seconds for some jerkweed to attack it—and about a half-second to die. I kept that up for a few days. After a few messy object lessons along those lines, jerkweeds soon stopped attacking players’ pets.)

In the case of objects, though, an already-loaded instance retained its stats from the prototype. Nothing could change those stats, not even the top admin. So nerfing only affected instances loaded after that database change.

This meant that players hoarded “old gear” in droves. When I added an extremely difficult area to our MUD, and characters died in it, all their gear landed on the ground. So groups had to go fetch that stuff before the MUD rebooted for any reason. If it crashed, or if an admin rebooted it to add code or fixes, then the player lost all that gear forever.

But that approach doesn’t work in the case of nerfing MMORPG stuff

When MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games) first debuted, I immediately noticed that they’d simply taken the flaws that early MUDs had had and put them in graphic form. Though I didn’t know it at the time, imbalanced object instances were one of those flaws in at least some games, like Anarchy Online. But it seems that MMO devs did eventually fix that one. Nowadays, when MMORPG admins nerf stuff, it seems to affect all currently-loaded instances, not just newly-loaded ones.

And players hate nerfing now just as much as they did 30 years ago in MUDs.

At the end of July, news came out that WoW was nerfing the max flying speed of one particular dragon. This dragon, called a dracthyr, is a new player race. It enjoyed a racial bonus: a considerable boost to its flying speed. Originally, this boost amounted to it flying 930% faster than ground speed. Normally, flying could get 410% faster, so dracthyr players could really zip along! With the nerfing, dracthyr will only reach 640% speed. Only.

GameRant‘s writers understand the necessity of this nerfing:

From a balance perspective, World of Warcraft’s decision to nerf the dracthyr top flying speed makes sense. It gave the new race an unfair speed advantage in older areas–albeit on a cooldown–which could cause problems, especially for rare spawns and limited-time events. Soar can also still reach speeds faster than normal flying, so it shouldn’t cripple the fun players have with the ability.

However, dracthyr players are still understandably upset about the nerf.

GameRant

The players who are upset feel that the limits imposed on this top-speed flying ability make it more than fair in its original 930%-faster state.

Watching one’s work get downgraded through nerfing is never fun

Around this same time, another MMO, Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), recently nerfed an extremely powerful artifact called the Oakensoul Ring (or Oakenring, as it’s been popularly nicknamed). It’d only been out a month or so by then.

This ring restricted players to one weapon instead of being able to swap between two on the fly. In return for that serious restriction, it granted users a very lengthy list of super-powerful benefits. Very quickly, many players adopted it as an absolute must-have.

In the nerfing, devs reduced a bunch of those benefits from “major” to “minor” states. It’s still an extremely powerful object, yes. However, it’s not the must-have that it once was. I use it on one of my characters. I like it, but certainly not enough to put it on all of my characters.

It’s worth noting that when it first got released, a number of players, including me, expected it to be nerfed. It was just too much.

I expect much the same thing to happen to gear sets that are just over-the-top powerful, like one set that rendered tanks nigh-unkillable in PvP (player-vs-player) fights. (Tanks are the point person in a group. They stand in front of the bad guys and take all the damage.) After I heard what was going on in their PvP sector, I fully expected ESO’s devs to downgrade that set, and it looks like they toned its power down a bit. Interestingly, though, I didn’t hear any player outcry over that nerfing.

Player reactions to nerfing reflect feelings about fairness

Reactions to nerfing have always swung wildly between extremes. Some players recognize that game balance requires steady tweaking. Others really bristle at seeing these changes affect stuff they worked hard to get.

For example, the Oakering mentioned above is a top-level mythic artifact. For dedicated players, its acquisition involves many hours of work. Nobody else can do any of this work for them, either.

So I can easily understand how nerfing can feel really unfair to these players. Niceties like game balance vie against the very real disappointment players feel when something they worked hard to get gets weakened. And in the case of players who decided to buy downloadable content (DLC) precisely because of the original Oakenring, or those WoW players who might have done the same to gain access to the dracthyr player race, they have even more cause to feel that the game’s owners took advantage of them. The timing in both cases sounds downright cringeworthy.

We can contrast those situations to that tank set I mentioned. In terms of effort, it requires nowhere near the time and energy needed to assemble the Oakenring. In fact, you can just buy it with ingame currency from other players. And its nerfing wasn’t nearly as extensive. Even then, the set really only applies to an uncommon type of character (the tank) in one less-popular part of the game (PvP fights). So perhaps its nerfing hurt way less.

How game admins and devs can make nerfing hurt less

Psychologists have long studied how people perceive fairness in the business world. In 2011, a gaming blogger, Jamie Madigan, applied their findings to gaming. He found that some key areas define gamers’ reactions to nerfing:

  • Feeling like one has a voice in the decision. When gamers feel powerless, like they’re being handed this change they neither asked for nor wanted, they feel harder-done-by.
  • Sensing consistency in decisions. If gamers feel that rebalancing has no rhyme or reason, but depends more on what seem like developers’ whims, and it overcorrects too much and too often, it frustrates and angers them more.
  • Transparency. If gamers can’t even tell what the rationale was for rebalancing, they won’t understand its necessity.
  • Freedom from bias. If gamers feel that changes always hit their class the hardest, they may begin thinking that the developers just don’t like that class. That can be demoralizing.
  • Having a way to appeal decisions they don’t like. Even if it’s just protesting nerfing on an official forum, players want to feel like they have some recourse to appeal changes. They want to know that they can at least communicate their opinions to the game’s developers. In a big way, I suspect that aggrieved feedback over that tank set led to its (slight) nerfing.

Of course, this list depends on admins to be capable of offering that stuff to players. Some very clearly aren’t, for various reasons.

Change: The always-there gravity issue in everything

Looking back over my years in online game administration, I can easily see how my fellow admins and I maybe didn’t always handle rebalancing as well as we could have.

And that’s okay. We’re always learning how to do things better—hopefully, anyway!

Rebalancing in games will always be with us. It must be. Just as we must course-correct and change strategies in every other part of our lives, game admins will always need to do that in the games they run. Online games in particular have countless components that all interact in unpredictable ways sometimes, requiring many bouts of careful fine-tuning and balancing.

Still, it’s good to know that there are ways to help ensure that rebalancing will be more comfortable and stress-free for the game’s playerbase. There will always be some players who don’t like any proposed changes. Those players resent all changes to their game, no matter how easy and comfortable admins try to make that process, no matter how necessary those changes are. But that’s no reason to ignore the “soft skills” side of game administration.

If developers and admins present a clear, easy-to-understand argument regarding why rebalancing must happen, and they give players some kind of input to the process, I think most gamers are mature enough to understand and accept such a presentation. It’s just a shame that so few game developers do that.

Back in my day, we didn’t do much of that because we didn’t know any better.

Thirty years on, you’d think developers would have learned.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...