U34's Weapon Balance Changes

6 months ago

Hey folks, it's MeatShield again. I think this will probably be the last blog post dedicated to U34 (Karl knows I've written a lot of them), and once again it won't be numbers and statistics-based. Think of this post like an "editorial opinion" piece in a newspaper. I've been keeping my ear to the ground in the community, and it seems like the controversy generated by U34 has pretty much died down. I think a big part of why it has mostly dissipated was the two big "communication dumps" from GSG in Hotfix 3 and the blogpost before Hotfix 4. GSG was able to articulate why they added elites, what their goals were, what they wanted Elites to be, and did a bunch of changes based on community feedback. Hotfixes 3 through 5 went a long way in resolving community complaints, and I'm extremely pleased that GSG communicated as much as they did.

One of the sources of complaints that hasn't had any response from GSG yet is the weapon balance changes from U34. They generated heaps of feedback during U34XP, and mountains of feedback after U34 went live. Although there were thousands of individual comments, the vast majority of the complaints fell into three main categories:

  1. "I wish they had buffed the bad options instead of nerfing the good/fun ones"
  2. "GSG only made changes based on pickrate"
  3. Thin Containment Field

I'm writing this blog post in response to those common complaints I've heard about the weapon balance changes, and in defense of the changes that GSG made. These are my opinions, and you're absolutely free to disagree with them.

Buffs, Nerfs, and the Negativity Bias

First, let's start out by defining some terms that I'll be using for this section. I'm going to paraphrase Buff and Nerf from this forum, and copy/paste Negativity Bias from its Wikipedia article.

  • Buff: "increasing the power of a game element"
  • Nerf: "reducing the desirability or effectiveness of a game element"
  • Negativity Bias: "the notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature... ...have a greater effect on one's psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things"

Next, I'm going to go through the weapon balance changes made in U34 so far and organize them into five categories:

Strictly a Nerf 17
Mostly a Nerf 1
Moving power from A to B, or Neutral change 32
Mostly a Buff 11
Strictly a Buff 44

By my count, there were 105 weapon balance changes (excluding Grenades and Equipment). 18 were nerfs, 55 were buffs, and 32 were neutral changes (17.14%, 52.38%, and 30.48% respectively). So, even though over half of the changes were buffs and another quarter were neutral changes, people chose to focus on the minority of changes that were nerfs and only on half of the neutral changes (where the power was taken from, but ignoring where it was moved to). This is where psychology comes in; specifically the aforementioned Negativity Bias. People let the 30% of changes that had a negative effect completely outweigh the 70% of changes that had a positive effect. All over the subreddit, various discord servers, and YouTube videos people have been saying "I wish U34 had more buffs, instead of nerfs". Although it's easily disproved by simply counting the changes, it's obvious that people have been letting how they feel about the changes dictate their opinions. Psychology, man, it gets ya every time.

I'll be honest, I don't get where all that is coming from. From my perspective, U34 was a veritable cornucopia of buffs that has let me try out a new weapon build every mission. I've been dusting off some options that I hadn't equipped in months other than for testing and having a great time theorycrafting new builds! For the most part, the nerfs that were made were necessary, and I think the net result of U34 was a very positive change to balance. There are so many more different weapon builds that are viable and fun to play now, and it feels like we're finally going to break free from the the meta Overclocks that have been stagnating since Update 31. Although no content was actually "added", there are so many new ways to play the game now that it feels like there was a massive content drop.

Beyond the Pickrate Thunderdome

Next up, the complaint that "GSG only made the weapon balance changes based on mod/OC pickrates". Rebuttal: I can name at least three sources of community feedback that I know GSG read and acted upon.

  1. My "Proposed Weapon Balance Changes" document, published in October 2020 and updated in March 2021
  2. The "U33 Weapon Balance Perceptions" community survey that I ran in March 2021 and published the results of
  3. The Balancing Group's "Suggested Changes to Mods/OCs" document, which has been kept on the down-low until now.

Each of those three sources provided a different perspective on the current state of weapon balance. My document (aka "the PDF") provided an attempt to fix mechanical issues and balance mods/OCs based on numerical outputs of my DPS Calculator. Next, the U33 Weapon Balance Perceptions community survey (aka "the Survey") provided an aggregate score of how strong/weak the community perceived each mod/OC to be. Finally, the Balancing Group's Suggested Changes document (aka "the Group Doc") attempted to identify core design issues of weapons, mod tiers, overclock groups, and individual upgrades, as well provide constructive ideas on how to resolve the issues identified. Between those three sources of input, GSG was able to synthesize mathematical balancing, community perceptions, and design flaws/fixes as the foundation of their weapon balance changes. If you'll notice, none of these sources used pickrates as the primary source for what needed to be balanced. I know for a fact that GSG read through all of these input sources multiple times and drew inspiration for many of the changes in U34 from these idea documents.

Although I mentioned it briefly in my blog post about Constructive Community Feedback for U34, but I want to go into more detail about the perception that pickrates are what guides game balance decisions. At its heart, this perception exists because of how pickrates get used in the game balance process. Players will tend to pick the strongest option the most often and the weakest option the least, and as a result pickrates get used as the "canary test". For context, back in the early days of coal mining, miners were at constant risk of dying to lethal gases in the mines. A simple and effective test that they did was to bring a canary (a small bird) with them into the mines. If it passed out, then they knew the air wasn't safe to breathe and would evacuate the mine. In a similar manner, a Mod or Overclock with an extremely high or extremely low pickrate is an indicator that there's a balance issue that needs to be addressed. Sort of a flashing red light saying "look over here, something's wrong". Once a pickrate "canary alarm" goes off, the game designers examine what is or isn't being picked, and try to identify why. Once the root cause is identified, then they can take steps to fix the issue. This is the exact process that the Balancing Group followed -- we started with the pickrates I've compiled in the Karl.gg blog, augmented that data with the Survey results, and then worked through all 302 Mods/OCs across all 16 weapons to identify issues and propose solutions. Our goal was to provide GSG a jumpstart on the process, along with advice from the numerous veteran players in the group on how they might be able to resolve the issue. So, to reiterate: a Mod or Overclock with an extremely high or low pickrate indicates a balance issue that needs to be resolved, which the game developers then identify and try to resolve accordingly. Usually that means changing the offending Mod/OC itself, but sometimes it means changing other options to reduce its synergy. For instance, let's take a look at how GSG handled EPC T5.B "Thin Containment Field"...

TCF: an Impossible Dilemma

Thin Containment Field has been in the game for a long time. I've found reference to it all the way back when its Wiki page was created in December 2018, and its damage has been listed as 240 in the Wiki ever since December 2019. However, ever since the Flying Nightmare nerf, TCF's popularity has skyrocketed. For anyone reading this post in the future, here are all the effects that TCF provided before Update 34:

  • Reduced Heat per Charged Shot from 1.0 to 0.25 (no longer overheated the EPC after using a Charged Shot)
  • Reduced Heat per Regular Shot from 0.13 to 0.104
  • 240 Fire-element Area Damage with no falloff in a 3m Radius (unaffected by other Mods/OCs)
  • Terrain carving in a 3m radius

As a result of those four effects, TCF was literally the best option to pick for every EPC build. If you were just using regular Charged Shots, it let you chain them together quickly without having to wait for the EPC to cool down. Regular Shot builds could use the heat per shot reduction to effectively increase the "magazine size" before overheating. On top of that, you also had the ability to carve as much terrain as a Satchel Charge but at any range. If you can see it, you could mine it. The final cherry on top is that a TCF detonation did 240 Area Damage in a 3m radius, in comparison to a full-damage Overcharger's 135 Area Damage in a 2.4m radius so it was over-doubly as effective in combat.

It's not hard to see why it was so popular among the playerbase; this one upgrade enhanced every single aspect of the weapon for every build, as well as granting extreme utility via ranged terrain carving. As more people learned how to use it effectively, they started teaching other players about it. Like I wrote about in the Feedback post, TCF rewards player skill by letting them exchange EPC ammo for minerals and time saved. By the time U31 rolled around and I started keeping track of its pickrate, it was already sitting at ~60% popularity. During U32 its pickrate rose to ~70% and stayed there for U33 as well. It's also worth noting that the community perceptions of Flying Nightmare and Plasma Burn was that they were weak options independently, but especially when viewed in comparison to the almighty TCF.

However, the flipside of Thin Containment Field becoming so popular was that it started skewing the perceptions of things outside the EPC. Players would regularly say that there was no reason to equip the EPC unless you had TCF equipped ("EPC = TCF"), and in some extreme cases would even say that TCF was the only reason to select Driller as a class. I'm sure those comments were hyperbolic, but I've heard them said anyway. Even people playing other classes developed opinions about TCF. In particular, there started to be a medium-sized group of players who started to actively condemn TCF's effects on gameplay. Their focus was on the Terrain Carving aspect, and how it disrupted the flow of missions in comparison to missions without a Driller/TCF. The mineral veins high up on walls and ceilings used to rely on an Engineer & Scout working together in order to be retrieved, but TCF let a Driller take care of it by themselves.

So, when GSG started working on the weapon balance changes for U34 they had to deal with the TCF Dilemma: this one Mod was so good in every situation it was considered as fundamental to Driller as the Drills that give him his name, a group of players who complain about it warping the gameplay loop around Drillers, and an equal number of players rejecting the complaints as being without merit. Virtually everyone had an opinion about TCF, myself included, and no matter what they did (or didn't do) they would face severe backlash. Reducing the terrain carving radius would upset the most number of players, reducing its damage would upset the high-skill players who were using it for combat, increasing its ammo cost would only penalize non-TCF Charged Shots even further and would be countered by picking up both Ammo cost reduction upgrades, etc etc. On the other hand, doing nothing would infuriate the people who thought it was breaking the game, and set up a precedent of letting overpowered upgrades exist in the game. They had to do something to make it less necessary/appealing, but it looked like a no-win scenario.

For the record, here are the changes that affect Thin Containment Field that were made in U34:

  • EPC global Heat per Charged Shot reduced from 1.0 to 0.4
  • T5.B TCF Heat per Charged Shot multiplier increased from x0.25 to x0.8 (effectively raising the Heat per Charged Shot from 0.25 to 0.32)
  • OC "Heat Pipe" had its x1.5 Heat per Regular Shot penalty replaced by a x2 Heat while Holding a Charged Shot and x2 Heat per Charged Shot
  • Minerals mined via explosions (Satchel Charge, TCF, Fat Boy, etc) now get flung around the room instead of dropped in a neat little pile

Notice that GSG didn't affect the Damage, Falloff, Radius, or Ammo Cost of TCF detonations, nor the Heat per Regular Shot modifier, Regular Shot velocity, or Charged Shot velocity. In fact, of the four changes made that affect Thin Containment Field, only one of them was actually a change to the Mod itself. However, I find the other three changes far more interesting. By making all Charged Shots generate less than 1.0 Heat, it means that you don't have to equip TCF to prevent the EPC from overheating when firing a Charged Shot. This is a massive change that buffs the EPC's other Charged Shot builds like Flying Nightmare, Overcharger, and Persistent Plasma. Secondly, by changing Heat Pipe's penalties it breaks the extreme synergy between it and TCF while still letting it be useful in other builds like Flying Nightmare. Several people think the Heat Pipe nerf went a little too far, but I'm reserving judgement until I've had more time to see how things shake out. Lastly, by making the minerals fling to the other side of the room, they reduced the convenience of using TCF without actually affecting its functionality. It's still certainly possible to collect mineral veins and eggs in the ceiling using TCF detonations, and it does just as much damage, but now you have to chase down the fruits of your labor instead of having them conveniently drop at your feet.

I believe it was genuinely impossible to make all parties happy, but GSG did the best they could. These changes break the TCF & Heat Pipe super-synergy while still letting Heat Pipe be usable for other builds, empower other builds for the weapon by making Charged Shots no longer overheat the weapon, and let TCF players continue using like they had been but with less convenience when mining things. I've talked to a ton of people since U34XP arrived, and for the most part there's a consensus that they're "ok" with the changes. Not necessarily happy, but ok with them. There are still those that claim there shouldn't have been any TCF nerfs, and others who say that it wasn't nerfed hard enough. But at the end of the day, to have two diametrically opposed parties look at the same change and both be mostly ok with it is a huge win for GSG. I'm cautiously optimistic that TCF's pickrate won't be quite so dominant at the end of U34 when I do the next pickrate analysis.

The final paragraph of this section is less about Thin Containment Field itself, but more about the DRG community. GSG's slogan is "Co-op first", and it's astounding how well they made DRG to embody that slogan. Any player can succeed individually in the depths of Hoxxes, but working cooperatively with your teammates is an exponentially more effective strategy. The synergy between equipment, weapons, and infinite revives from other teammates all comes together to make teamplay the best way to play the game. Seeing how much TCF divided the community is extremely troubling to me, and I'm speculating that it worries GSG as well. Near the end of U33, players became so polarized on the issue that I started hearing stories of players being kicked from a lobby for having the opposite opinion as the host. Those stories may be exaggerations, but the truth of the matter is that along the way, TCF stopped being a controversial upgrade and instead became the first true source of division in the playerbase. I don't have an inspirational speech like you hear in Hollywood movies, all I have is an earnest plea to players on both sides of the TCF schism: let's put differences aside and come back together as a community. Just like in-game, we work better together than we do separately. It shouldn't be Driller vs Scout, it ought to be dwarves vs Hoxxes.

That about wraps it up for this post, thanks for reading! I tried to address the three major categories of complaints that I've been seeing about U34's weapon balance changes and provide my perspective and opinion about the matters. I think U34's changes were overall very good, and have opened up a ton of new builds for players to experiment with. The more ways there are to play the game, the longer people will want to keep playing it; variety leads to longevity. I'm looking forward to seeing all the loadouts submitted to Karl in the coming months, and I'm excited to see what people are using in U34!

Rock & Stone