Nerfing gameplay: The art of the knee-jerk reaction

In which Hax presents all of the facts, including his opinions.

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Nerfing gameplay: The art of the knee-jerk reaction

Postby teh_leet_haxor » Mon Dec 15, 2014 7:00 am

In which Hax realises that game developers are much more heavy-handed in balancing co-operative play than versus play, and the reader muses that they ever thought Blizzard was bad at it.

Anyone who has played online co-op games with some degree of persistence has been here - players get attached to their characters, play the game for a good amount of time during which they hone the best possible use of abilities, best 'builds' and gear, then everyone suffers because the top players were judged to be too far above average in performance. It's not always the worst thing ever, especially if it is at least the case that equal skill results in equal performance after the changes are made, just a bit regrettable that it was done by shrinking a skill curve instead of expanding others.

As I have so intentionally foreshadowed, it's hard not to think of Blizzard in this context. They operate some of the most important online games in terms of number of players affected, yet they still managed to push out some recent balance changes for World of Warcraft involving several increases and reductions all over the place before ironically proceeding to admit that they can't balance it properly without data from Warlords of Draenor content which was due to be released that week. They have a delicate balance to maintain; a few tweaks to some classes in an RPG (or even hints or news about tweaks) can topple a virtual economy, and failing to understand the concept of percentages lower than 10 can ruin a tournament (and topple a very real economy given the rise of e-sports), yet they still blurt out broad-brush changes just because a few players have found a way to gain crafting materials too quickly, or found a particularly strong combo for PVP.

So, without further preamble, the current reigning champion for Game Developer with the Jerkiest Knee is... Digital Extremes, following some recent changes to their online free-to-play third-person shooter Warframe. What follows is, as some listeners of Sheep Moon may be expecting, my case study of their mistakes.


Warframe is a game that I'll load up for the sole purpose of unwinding with high amounts of virtual carnage. Some fair advance warning - if you end up trying it as a result of reading this article, be aware that it does not offer much beyond said virtual carnage, and getting to the higher magnitudes of carnage without investing real money requires a lot of time spent causing more modest amounts of carnage.

For some background to lay the foundations for describing exactly how crazy their knee-jerkery was, here are the ingredients:
  • The incident involved one particular enemy faction, the Corpus, the iconic feature of which is their use of robots with energy shields.
  • One of the player characters, named Mag, has an ability which recharges ally shields and causes enemy shields to explode (simultaneously, over a large area).
  • Certain other player characters are able to keep their squad topped-up with energy for such abilities.
  • Warframe has a mission type with control points, named Interception, where each round can be prolonged intentionally by ensuring that neither side controls any points.
  • The Interception spawn mechanics are programmed to ensure that the zone always has a minimum number of enemies.

The basic strategy is probably quite clear already; Mag is obviously designed to be a threat to Corpus targets, and is indeed an extreme threat to clusters of Corpus, since each shield explosion hits all of the others. The Interception mechanics cause more to spawn immediately, and some basic teamwork can keep Mag's energy restored such that she can keep blasting these Corpus robots in a high level Interception mission until thousands are slain within minutes, giving the players far more loot1 per time than the developers would prefer.

While one would be correct to question the validity of a developer's opinion about how much loot per time should be obtainable by skilled or clever players, we'll roll with it for now and suppose that something needs to be done. A few potential solutions may also be quite clear:
  • The most obvious one is to put a diminishing curve on how much loot per time is given as the players reach higher peaks of kills per time. It's not particularly clean or elegant, but it does address the core issue directly, and without interfering with anything else.
  • The Interception spawn rate could be limited, possibly even backed by player progress through the current round; this would also 'fix' the perverse quirk where players have a motivated reason to stall their mission objective. The fact that this can leave the zone with zero enemies is not even a problem - each round gets incrementally tougher, so the players won't be able to keep destroying the enemy outright.

I'll not enumerate every approach possible, but suffice to say that no matter how simple or obvious the above ideas seem, Digital Extremes managed to make every possible change except those which would actually solve their issue. Let's take a look at what they did:
  • Obviously (sarcasm), Mag had to be nerfed, so reduce the damage of Shield Polarize.
  • Reduce the range of Shield Polarize.
  • Change Shield Polarize so it only works on targets that Mag can see. This one was an AMAZING gaffe, as will be revealed soon.
  • Change the layout of that particular Interception zone to move the control points further apart, including placing half of them directly next to enemy spawn locations.
  • Change Interception so that all control points start out as taken by the enemy, and reset to that state after each round.
  • Change Interception so that any control point which isn't 100% taken by players will quickly revert to enemy control.
  • Put a hard cap on the number of loot items than can be on the ground in any zone.

To start with the Interception changes, it's clear that they were trying to limit the enemy spawns by stopping players from prolonging each round. However, take a moment to consider the full chain of events - the developer makes some convoluted changes to the game mechanics, intended to limit the duration of each round, which is intended to limit the number of enemy spawns, which is finally intended to limit the amount of loot. Those changes are therefore thrice-removed from the actual goal.

I don't claim that it's wrong to seek indirect solutions, since the general intellectual process is a good mental exercise and could reveal other merits at little cost, but any sort of designer must stave off the absurdity and maintain a grip on reality. As clever as an indirect solution seems, it must pass a simple 'sanity check' - are these weird mechanics changes, which would cripple every Interception mission in the game, actually any better than just adding some diminishing returns on the amount of loot? The answer is no, of course not, and nor do they even succeed at actually preventing players from prolonging the round. It's certainly harder to do, so perhaps some props for giving a bit of challenge to the veterans who are actually doing it, but one should not be attempting a thrice-removed indirect change without even being able to manage one such link successfully.

The same goes for the cap on dropped loot; they did it because the floors of the Interception spawn rooms would be overflowing with a beautiful veneer of items after Mag was done with them. Again, this change falls short of being a correct solution because it still doesn't prevent the high amount of loot from appearing; it only forces the players to run their loot-gathering circuit more often. Worse still, this was a game-wide change which affects everyone, including players who are running missions with more closely-metered spawn mechanics.

As for the changes to Mag, while reducing her damage and range is a trivial short-sighted reaction of which any developer is capable, the major cock-up occured with adding the line-of-sight requirement. Or rather, adding that requirement in haste, without fully testing it. Line-of-sight as a concept in games is already fragile enough, given that a tiny piece of scenery which was only added for visual effect can block a simple test with a straight line drawn between two points, but the real issue was that, under the new targeting rules, Mag could not 'see' herself. Regardless of whether this was because the attempt to draw a line from Mag to herself caused a division by zero (which would happen, guaranteed), or because the targeting code never tried in the first place, the fact was that Mag was unable to restore her own shields with Shield Polarize. It is at this point I should mention that Mag happens to be one of the three characters available as choices for new players, who aren't yet able to switch to another character2 at will if some short-sighted and untested balance changes are rolled out. How embarrassing, to quote Yoda from some Star Wars spin-off series.

Oh yes - just to top it all off, the veteran players found a new Interception strategy within hours, and Digital Extremes responded by just removing3 the mission they were using to do it. A few players use the game mechanics provided to achieve something beyond what the designers would like, and what followed was change after change, patch after patch which tore up an entire mission type, trashed the primary 'trick' of one of the starting characters with which about a third of new players will be judging the game experience, imposed an arbitrary cap for all players on the amount of loot that can be earned, even legitimately, before it must be collected, and eventually tipped the whole thing out. To the reader, I present the Dance of the Jerky Knee.


So, take note - lateral thinking and desire for elegance are great for spurring you to consider a variety of solutions, but be very sure to compare them against more literal, direct solutions. Also, think backwards as well as forwards - removing the means to do something does not address the motive for doing it, so evaluate the motive and decide if it makes sense up to that point4. Finally, and of particular importance when dealing with emergent gameplay - evaluate the issue itself and decide whether it's actually a problem that needs a solution at all.

1 I'm aware that the resource in question was not technically loot, but it makes for easier description without any practical difference, and the amount of actual loot was also judged to be a problem anyway.
2 Thankfully for myself I'm currently a Nova player, though will use Frost or Rhino when circumstances favour them. I will not forgive their gutting of poor Ember though (sad face, single tear).
3 Because pedantry on the Internet knows no bounds, I am indeed aware that it was replaced as opposed to removed.
4 In this case it does; it's simply that stuff takes time to obtain by design, and the players were trying to optimise that.
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