City of Heroes – Mass nerfage makes everyone giddy!

(coverage also on Ethic’s blog and an old-style rant here)

A thread on Q23 grabbed my attention. I don’t play CoH and I know nothing about it but I remember one awful screwup a few months ago when the players were raging about a balance nerf with the devs justifying it with data completely wrong, just to discover that there was a gross bug on the test server that falsified the whole work they were doing. With the result of making the devs look like idiots since they couldn’t even notice how the characters on the test server were behaving completely differently from those on the live servers. Something that resembled closely to the “hunter bug” that hit Word of Warcraft in June. Again with the players having to scream in order to draw the attention of the devs and finally have the possibility to *explain them* how the game actually works.

In this case the problem seems different. At first I thought it was just a communication problem, my comment was:


When you go for a big change like this you don’t just post: we are going to do “x”. Instead you explain precisely the reasons that brought to the change, what are the goals, what are the trade offs, why the designers felt the need to go in that direction and so on.

Only *after* those premises you can obtain an useful discussion instead of 250 pages of screaming players.

From what I’ve read people just do not understand why the change was made.


Then I digged further in the official thread and I found enough details to understand what was going on, despite I never played the game. In the thread on Q23 EFLannum makes intelligent considerations about the implications of this new screwup and I further commented along those lines:

EFLannum:
What I was trying to get at was whether or not they actually broke the combat system or simply made levelling slower. The number I used wasn’t really important whether it be 3 times or 1000 times. In the first case they would be looking at a difficult fix whereas in the second case there are a lot of things they could do to provide some “grind relief” if they were of a mind to do so. Sometimes the difference between a good game system and a bad game system is simply a matter of scale and nothing inherently wrong with the system itself.

Speaking about the “system”, I’ve read some more about the changes and it could even finish in a *huge boost* instead of a huge nerf (if they so choose).

From what I understand each character has six slots where you can drop various enhancements. Before this patch you could drop six same enhancements to have a maximized effect. While after the patch they are trying to force the players to use different types of enhancements at the same time (they aren’t nerfing the skills, they are trying to force the players to spec differently).

We still don’t know why they want the players to move in that direction but they could still recalibrate the powers on the previous system. So that 3 same enhancements after the patch could correspond to the six enhancements available before.

This would also add tactics and versatility because then the player could choose to use the diversification for a major advantage or still keep focusing on just one enhancement to even go *past* the limit set before the patch (hence the boost instead of the nerf).

It seems again a poorly executed transition more than bad design.


Going a little deeper in this problem I can figure out what exactly went wrong, because, lets make things clear, this is *surely* a big screwup, and not a required nerf to make the game better. So lets start from the simpler points, taken from the dev notes and move onward:

Q: What if I don’t have more than 2 SO’s of any one type in my powers already?

A: Then you have nothing to worry about, your character will function exactly as they did previous to this feature being added.

This means that this changes will affect only the characters who use more than two same-type enhancement. If this happens they’ll have diminished returns on those powers.

From this perspective the upcoming change could have two possible goals:
1- Nerf highly focused characters (which is what the players are ranting about)
2- Encourage them to differentiate their powers instead of focusing the enhancements

Since I don’t know directly the game I cannot know the actual reasons why they would go toward the second path but it could be because they want to add some diversification between the characters and have more equilibrate and strategic builds that could make both the PvE and the upcoming PvP more interesting. So a positive goal to strive for. It’s also sort of silly to push this massive change with the nerf as the only purpose since it would be way easier to tweak the single powers instead of redefine the whole system, so the first path doesn’t hold.

Now, as I wrote above, the nerf is NOWHERE implicit in the change. If the devs only want to diversificate the builds this can be done in different ways and completely detached from the effectiveness of the powers. This is why they could recalibrate the powers so that using three same-type enhancement post-patch could correspond to the same bonus of six same-type enhancements before the patch. This not only would retain the current balance in the game that the players don’t want to be touched, but it would also offer a slight boost (if the devs so choose) so that the the slots that are left could be used to *further* enhance the powers, adding more same-types enhancement and incurring in the diminished return penalty (to not make them too overpowered compared to how they were before the patch), or to diversificate them and avoid the diminished returns to fully benefit from each slot (adding variation and a degree of tactics to the class development).

This is why I say that the system they are applying is nowhere tied to the actual effectiveness of the powers. That’s not how the design works. The effectiveness of the single powers is just arbitrary and can be tweaked anytime (this is why I say that if the goal was to nerf the players there could have been more efficient and direct ways to do it).

So, if we leave the effectiveness of the powers out of the discussion we can see how the proposed system is actually going in a positive direction: add more depth and varation in the class development. The goal works, the players would never rant against this because it would be felt as positive, as it, in fact, is. So what went wrong? Why there was a so massive and unanimous negative reaction?

I think I know the answer, again in the dev notes:

All the Issue 4 and 5 balance adjustments were done with this system in place internally here at Cryptic. All playtests, QA checks, difficulty adjustments and balances have been done with Enhancement Diversification in mind since March 2005.

See, I assume that “Issue 4 and 5” are patches *already released on the live servers*. Which basically means:
“We are sorry. It’s from March that you play with overpowered classes while we were tweaking things on the background in view of this last change. You have enjoyed the game on “easy mode” for seven months, now it’s time to bring the game back in line.”

Well, I think it’s kind of obvious that you cannot feed this to the players and expect them to react politely. Come on…

The design may be not bad, but the execution was surely awful. It even goes beyond of my definition of “what a nerf is”.

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