Podcast #9: Nerfing

We’re back and sounding better than ever! Join game designers Tyler Bielman, Skaff Elias and Richard Garfield for an in-depth exploration of “nerfing.” When is something “broken?”  Which is more important, power level or player perception? And what is the secret of the “magic spreadsheet?” It’s a hard-hitting episode about a soft-sounding practice when Games with Garfield takes on the nerf.

LINKS: Corey Macourek new media design | Giant | Chicken Blood Soup | Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer | Arcane Legions| Ultima Online | George Mikan | Wham! | Carcassonne | Cosmic Encounter | Magic: The Gathering | MTG Pro Tour | Moxes, Black Lotus & “Power Nine” | Wall of Wood | Rush (Zergling) | Zendikar “treasures” | Rochester draft | Netrunner | World of Warcraft

EMAIL: info@threedonkeys.com

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8 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Okay… so… I’m a spreadsheet guy. The reason is I want my first round of play test to capture the feel of the game, and gross imbalance can be fixating. So, getting the cards, spells, units, etc. in the right ballpark has made early testing more productive, I think. I do keep the spread sheets updated though as the games develop. Makes a nice outside look (something that isn’t experiential or emotionally colored).

    I will throw one other log on the fire. I’ve been nerfed in my MMO of choice plenty of times, but I do remember actually being extremely okay with it once or twice. I was way over damage-per-second for what my gear level should be… and I was topping the guild meters… but I knew it was essentially mechanic exploits and it felt like cheating.

    But I was unabashed in my character build. I guess when you play “against the computer” play groups are less likely to shun-nerf you for being overpowered… so if the imba is there, people are likely to take it without reservation.

  2. KeySam,

    After listening to almost all your podcasts and hearing you guys talk about noone listening to them i just wanted to say, great podcast and keep up the work.
    In addition i wanted to say/ask, that i think in computer games nerving often gets by people without even knowing. Lets say in starcraft, you could nerf the Zerg by making their pool cost 300 Minerals instead of 250. Or you could increase the time it takes to build 1 zergling or the pool or both. You could also decrease the speed of the zerg drones(forgot their name) mining by a little. Which will help you balance the game without people actually knowing(if you dont go over the top). So my questions is did you guys actually know of nerving something without the customer even noticing?
    And since i guess you guys feel like i am the only listener to the show i might as well ask you to make a show with a wishtopic of myself:
    Staring from the Scratch.

    Id realy like to hear about the process from the Idea to an actuall game, you guys go through.

    Sorry if my english isnt great, i am not a native speaker.

    KeySam

  3. Lol, this is one of my favorite blogs. Keep up the good work.

  4. I thought I’d responded to this already. Apparently not.

    I feel like you could do half a dozen podcasts on balancing and nerfing, easily. I found the point very interesting about paying attention to the play, not the underlying power.

    However, given a large enough environment and a sufficient span of time, surely the underlying stats come through. I can easily think of examples from MMORPGs where a new player comes in, sees choices, and picks on flavor. And then all the experienced players know what a noob they are because dragons are teh suck.

    That can’t be a good experience, being made to feel inadequate because of a choice you felt didn’t matter. Nor is it appealing (well, perhaps to some) to feel you must research before any decision. And a selection that players don’t want might as well not be there.

    Another thing I’ve found, which isn’t immediately apparent, is that balance isn’t important just for PvP. Instinctively it seems like if players don’t face off, they won’t care. (And certainly that is the most direct test of it.) But even in a cooperative / beat-the-house scenario, a reasonable balance is important. Content has to be tailored and if two options that should be comparable simply aren’t, then the same negative result will arise.

    Because of this, I came reluctantly to the conclusion that, at least in some circumstances, player choices have to be channeled to avoid self-nerfing.

    Take a generic MMO, and lets say we allow a high variance in how much damage a DPS class can do. Put the character creation in the hands of a Timmy and a Spike (to use WotC terms). With a high variance, you could have two characters where one deals 10 times more damage than the other.

    Not only is this nearly ipmossible for setting challenging content, but what happens when those two players go seek teams? Spike doesn’t need teammates, he can do 5 people’s jobs by himself. Timmy finds that everyone is mad at him, because he’s not capable of doing the job they recruited him for. Both are bad experiences for the group.

    So although I love the idea of giving players meaningful choices, I’m wary of just how much damage they can do to themselves. And thus we need to nerf the self-nerf.

  5. DragonMind,

    You put a new view on the term I know as nerf.
    I thought, because I onlty heard about it in this way
    that nerfing was something done to a game(or a part of the game), that was negative in the eyes of the players, looking on the game mechanics.

    Great podcast content
    ranging from boardgames
    to PC games, about nerfing.

    Like KeySam I too have request about a podcast subject:
    How do you really get into
    this, I mean if you got a
    great idea for a game, might
    even got a prototype,
    how do you get from there to actual publishing the game.
    It’s a question I haven’t found anything about at all,
    would be great as I am in
    this specific situation, more or less.

  6. Tyler,

    Hey everyone, thanks for the kind words and insightful comments.

    Amarsir- You are completely correct that a lot more time could (and should) be devoted to nerfing and balance. However for this podcast we elected to talk specifically about nerfing and actually not much at all about balancing. They are assuredly related, but we wanted to talk about the process and psychology of changing someone’s toys once they have bought them. Game balance will certainly be a topic in the future.

    KeySam & Dragonmind – Thanks for the suggestions. Believe it or not, we frequently struggle to come up with topics so your help is appreciated.

    The next two podcasts have already been recorded (one is an interview with a Top Man in Magic: The Gathering, the other is about Leveling)

    Thanks for listening!

    Tyler

  7. Mellowcow,

    There can only be one Top Man! http://megaman.wikia.com/wiki/Top_Man
    Sorry for the off comment but I couldn’t keep it to myself.
    Anyway, an interesting example of nerfing can be seen in the game Guild Wars, a game which names Magic and other TCGs as an inspiration for its skill system. Basically there are hundreds of skills to choose from but you can only have eight at a time called a build, similar to cards and a deck. With each expansion they added new continents, quests, and skills. But once they stopped releasing titles, the dominating PvP/PvE builds became stagnant. That’s when they chose to split skills so that the same skill differed in PvP from PvE. Short after, skills were getting nerfed, changed, pushed on a weekly basis. I understand that they did it to keep the game fresh, but for me, as a more casual PvE player, it was an absolute nightmare. Builds didn’t work as intended in a matter of days and it was a major factor in driving me away from this otherwise very cool game.

  8. Mellowcow,

    This is not directly related to this episode but whenever I see the title of this blog I’m always reminded of the video by Ron Vitale how he played with Mr. Garfield in ’94. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELZXQin-dQQ
    Too bad he discontinued his podcast at themagicsock.com but once in a while he still shows up online and we play a round. :3

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