Why We Nerf

In his book Play Money, Julian Dibbell observed that the act of grinding for loot carries with it an implied meritocracy: hard work really does pay off, and riches really are the direct result of industriousness. According to Dibbell, this is why so many players so hate the idea of other players cheating by taking shortcuts.

Serious players are less interested in games being fun than they are in games being fair. Playing a Hardcore Diablo 3 character for dozens of hours and then suddenly losing that character forever may seem insane, brutal, wasteful, and bizarre—but in some sick sense, it’s the player’s own damn fault, so it’s fair.

This obsession with fairness, I suspect, is what lies at the heart of nerfing. For those unfamiliar, to nerf is to single out some element of a game that has become too powerful, and to make it less powerful. The word is supposed to bring to mind a broadsword being swaddled in everyone’s favorite Non-Expanding Recreational Foam, and thereby rendered markedly less lethal. One recent example came when, in Diablo 3, increases to characters’ attack speed were deemed too efficient a means of improving those characters’ overall effectiveness. To combat this imbalance, Blizzard nerfed attack speed buffs, much to the chagrin of those who had been using said buffs.

And the recently nerfed had good reason to be disgruntled, didn’t they? Do the Demon Hunters have to suffer just because Monks are underpowered? (There’s a joke about “class warfare” in there somewhere).

Indeed, the logic of nerfing constitutes a tendency toward reducing rather than increasing, a peculiar affection for lowest common denominators. Another Diablo 3 example: there was a brief (and it must be said, not very interesting) quest in Act 2 that allowed players to farm experience points, and thereby level up faster than at any other point in the game. You talked to a dude, killed some monsters, talked to another dude, killed some more monsters, finished the quest, left the session, and booted up a new session at the beginning of the quest you’d just ended. Over and over. Soon, Blizzard effectively nerfed this quest, making it yield fewer experience points.

As the Extra Credits crew has pointed out, the pursuit of efficiency to the detriment of engagement is a well-observed phenomenon. If players “think they can get an edge or take advantage of the system by doing something really boring, they’ll do it, for hours at a time,” which rightly irks designers. Why bother crafting an engaging experience when your audience would rather run around in tiny circles instead?

But it’s interesting that Blizzard chose to nerf the exploit rather than making some other, much more fun, much more meaningful part of the game just as profitable. Wouldn’t that be the better solution? Eliminate an exploit, and people will just go hunting for another one. Stamping out those tedious little oases is a pointless crusade, so it would make more sense to let the exploiters exploit to their hearts’ content, and focus on making the game fun for those players who care about having fun.

Except that exploits just feel wrong. In some subconscious way, they devalue the hours that others have spent leveling by less efficient means. In short, exploits feel unfair because they threaten the sanctity of the game’s playtime-as-merit pecking order. It’s not about disallowing bad behavior (which is impossible) but simply about defining certain behaviors—loudly, clearly, mechanically—as bad.

So nerfing is the fraught, messy work of maintaining fairness above all else, at once a boisterous affirmation of meritocracy and an unseemly reminder that meritocracy never emerges organically. Maintaining any meritocracy requires constant vigilance, nettlesome top-down tinkering, and hard limits on how powerful any one group is ever allowed to become.

Unfairness is the natural state of things—and we’re always looking for ways to correct it without having to acknowledge that we’re doing so.

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