There’s been a whole lot of discussion on the WoW forums over the last couple of months concerning the consistent nerfing of content that has become Blizzard’s design model. The response from Blizzard has been the usual cocktail of logical fallacies, pandering, and outright lies. I understand that not everyone at Blizzard actually believes their own propaganda, but are simply forced to espouse it by their boss. RIFT has adopted a similar model, and it’s likely many other MMOs will join the parade. Businesses follow the money, not good gameplay, and at this time the MMO market believes spoon-feeding content to people will net them the greatest profit. I wanted to take the time to remove money making from the equation and discuss what the perpetual bar-lowering does for that quality of a game; namely, that it hurts it.
I’m actually going to pull a metaphor that Fake-GC used in an attempt to debunk the ‘constant nerfs destroy the quality of content’ argument, because it was such a perfect example of the exact opposite of the point he was trying to make. He said that un-nerfed content is like climbing Everest without survival gear (which makes a poor starting point since that’s just impossible to being with, but I digress). Nerfed content is like climbing Everest with tons of training and survival gear (ie, how everyone who has ever climbed Everest and lived has done it). The point that followed was the you can’t complain that someone that climbed Everest doesn’t deserve recognition just because they were less hardcore about it. This is, of course, a complete strawman. Defeating a hard mode raid at content level, unnerfed, is like climbing Everest. It’s hard, you put a ton of time into preparing for it. You climb many lesser mountains in training. You use every tool available to you, and even then you may not succeed. It is a static goal against which you pitch all of your accumulated skill and training.
Now imagine if Everest got nerfed. 5% height deducted every two weeks, like clockwork. At the end of a few months, Everest is 30% shorter than it used to be. 30% less climbing required, 30% less deadly-thin atmosphere at the top, 30% less frozen rock and ice. Everyone claiming “Hey, I climbed Everest!” would piss the hell out of those that had climbed Everest pre-nerf, as it should. If you climbed 30% nerf Everest and it was super hard, congratulations. Sincerely. That was undoubtedly a huge accomplishment into which you poured all of your efforts. You still didn’t fucking climb Everest. You climbed a lesser mountain. A smaller, less challenging pile of rocks. However great a personal victory it was, it still is not the victory actual scalers of Everest achieved. To equate the two, much less value and reward you the same is an insult to the more accomplished party.
The mistake being made here is that relative accomplishment infinitely trumps absolute accomplishment. Reality is somewhere in the middle. Imagine a highschool basketball team being national champions, along side a NBA team winning the national title. Both have put blood, sweat, and tears into reach the pinnacle of their game, but the latters’ accomplishment was objectively harder. You cheer and congratulate the high-schoolers for their very impressive accomplishment, because they deserve it. You don’t, however, tell them they just won the NBA finals. You let them have their victory, and then you tell them to practice more. So they can move on to college ball, and maybe eventually win the NBA for real.
The reason this kind of thinking degrades the quality of a game is twofold: first, as I hope the above has made abundantly clear, is that it diminishes the accomplishment of those that put the considerable time and effort in to mastering the game and the encounters. (Again, consider how you would feel if you won the gold medal in the 50m dash, and I then won the same gold medal for running 35m.) This is not to say there is no value in simply knowing you accomplished the greater task, but it is certainly cheapened by being commonplace.
The second, and far worse reason, is that it removes the impetus for improvement. If a challenge is going to reduced in difficulty to the point of being trivial, then there is not reason to improve in order to overcome it; just wait a few weeks and you will be rewarded. “Ah-ha!” says ever PR rep ever “But you can turn the buff off! The challenge is still there if you want it, so stop being so butthurt over other people getting it easily. It’s not about them, it’s about you!” WRONG. Again, let me put this to you: at your job, would you rather get a promotion for working 100+ hour weeks, much of it unpaid, kissing tons of ass, studying in your free time, and taking all the worst tasks for yourself, or would you rather wait 6 months and get the same promotion for showing up to work on time? If you chose option A, you are either a liar, completely insane, or both. It is fantastically irrational to choose the harder option when the reward is exactly the same.
This is coming from someone who loves a challenge, who always plays on the hardest mode, who operates best when things are right at the edge of my abilities. Many, many people enjoy needless, arbitrarily challenges. But they enjoy them because they push you to do things that others can or will not. And you expect to be distinguished from those that did not. The drive behind improvement is the reward, tangible or intangible that comes with it. It would be insane to do something for no reason at all. If I could get girls by dropping my pants and belching loudly, I sure as fuck would. No reward for being better = no drive to get better. It’s as simple as that.
TL;DR blanket nerfs are awful because they both invalidate accomplishments and remove any reason to improve.