The Art of Balance: Nerfs and Buffs (Part 2)

Symmetry and Asymmetry (Part 1)

Nerfs and Buffs (Part 2)

Is Moderation Good or Bad? (Part 3)

Scriptural Evidences (Part 4)

Conclusions (Part 5)

Nerfs, Buffs, Additions, and Subtractions

The previous statements assume that the developers know what to fix, and how to fix it. That’s where things turn dicey quite quickly. What steps do you take to make things right? Will changing this aspect make something far more powerful in the process? What steps will turn the game into something more fun and more competitive for all options at the same time? As an ideal, you’d hope the whole game would fix, but it often appears like the shuffling of the card deck in poker: it’s the same cards, but you get a different hand, and sometimes that hand wins and sometimes it loses. You never know what’s going to happen!

In the video game community, we call these two styles of balancing “buffs” and “nerfs”. The former refers to passive effects granted via “buffing” spelling, and this means to make something better. “Nerfs” means to reduce the power of something substantially – meaning to turn it into something very much like a NERF product. Either approach seems to be used in exclusion to the other (at least in the grand scale), but both present new issues when enacted.

I mention this specifically due to Blizzard Entertainment. As an avid player of World of WarCraft (currently unsubscribed, but certainly willing for a new expansion to come out soon), I see the nerf bat swung early and often when it comes to my class in particular. For whatever reason, they can never balance Warrior damage for player vs. player combat, and the initial expansion patch turns them into incredible burst damage powerhouses. Want to charge a Mage and instantly kill them? It’ll work in those few, precious days before they hotfix them, that’s for sure. Inevitably, they take that power away from me.

I remember long ago when I played a Druid: Feral suddenly became viable with the release of The Burning Crusade, and I took the opportunity to play a master of shapeshifting. Bear form, supposedly a tank, could really out-DPS every other class, and even present a formidable challenge in PvP. More than once, I came out the victor due to the new Ravage ability, and enjoyed my glorious month of total dominance. Then came the nerf bat, and all was lost.

But Blizzard does not seem to realize what nerfing does: it makes other deficient strategies more powerful. Nerfs become indirect buffs to other classes just by virtue of the precarious scales; to weigh one thing down means the other will tilt upward. So do caster classes suddenly turn into powerhouses again, and…they don’t get nerfed, for whatever reason. Warrior and Druid became rather gimped and worthless for PvP, relegated to PvE roles once again, and that cycle continues again and again. Of course, they keep stating they want to fix the class imbalance, but they often create new problems in its stead.


Same thing goes for Hearthstone: they nerf some cards, and that deck build collapses while other ones turn dominant. You really can’t control the meta-game of any competitive environment just by weaknening cards because the relative strength of slightly weaker cards turns them into a dominant threat without the counters they once had. Just play upper level Hearthstone and see if you don’t encounter a billion Warlocks playing the exact same Zoolock deck over, and over, and over again. It turns into a game of efficiency where, really, the strategy just turns to playing whatever is in your hand. It turned this way due to nerfing Priest control decks and Hunter Mid-range, and now no one can control the ZOO. And it takes them months to fix this!

Nerfs look good in theory, but often fail in practice due to a lack of focus on the real problem. Buffs, on the other hand, seem rarely tried in most balancing games, and that’s strange to me. Why not escalate the power of every strategy to make the dominant optimal plays a little less frightening? Isn’t this the suggestion you see in most forums around the Internet? That line of thought probably arise from personal devotion to whatever got nerfed in the first place. Why not just make my character more powerful while keeping the more powerful characters the same?

Honestly, I move into conjecture here, but I theorize it’s because they don’t want to make anything too powerful actively for fear of breaking the game. If it arises naturally as players document all the variations and optimal efficiencies they can muster, that’s part of the experience. However, for a developer to take too much of an active part in determing what’s powerful might just spoil it for everyone. I can only think of one instance where this happened off the top of my head: Yun and Yang in Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition. Yoshinori Ono literally declared that he would create a top tier that everyone would want to beat, just like the old days! True to his word, they dominated the early stages of the game to the point where most players didn’t see a need to pick anyone else. You can imagine the whining and the boredom that arose!

People complained, and the nerfs came, and the vortex began to dominate. So, while vortex play obviously wasn’t intended, at least it was far more interesting than watching two guys playing Yang, Yun, or some combination thereof over and over again. In a cast of fourty or so characters, that’s probably a good thing.

You’ll notice that my examples come primarily from asymmetric games, and mostly they’re more prone to these issues than most. A nerf or a buff in an FPS merely means decreasing the power of whatever weapon across the board for everyone. That move instantly negates the problem in most cases, and fact that every player holds the same tools means that it can never truly unbalance the game. Asymmetric games, on the other hand, could cause a massive rift that might make the game completely horrible to play at upper levels. That’s what makes them so precarious to balance. I’m hard pressed to say any developer mastered how to nerf or buff at the right time, if it is possible at all!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.