Letting Go of Special Powder

2 weeks ago

Hey everybody, MS here. Like I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, this Blog isn't dead, I'm just busy. Today I had a stroke of inspiration and the time to write it up, so I thought I'd whip up this short post.

Lately, I've been reading and participating in a lot of discussions regarding Scout. His playstyles, his loadouts, his role within the team, balance issues, etc. To no surprise, this has prompted me to do a lot of thinking about Scout. One of the things that really stands out to me is Jury-Rigged Boomstick's Clean Overclock "Special Powder", and I want to talk about it a little bit today.

DISCLAIMER: this majority of this blog post is going to be my subjective opinions and interpretations, rather than an objective presentation of raw data. I could be wrong, I might not have considered something, or you might just disagree with me. That's totally fine -- with all of my work I want to encourage healthy and constructive discussion to arrive at the best answer. If you want to discuss this post, feel free to head over to the DRG Community Tools discord server and we can talk about it there.


Part 1: Context

What does Special Powder do?

At its core, Special Powder does surprisingly little. It's a Clean Overclock, so there's no penalty to equipping it on the Boomstick. On the other hand, it doesn't boost the combat performance in any way, either. The whole of its effect is this: when your feet aren't touching the ground and you fire the Boomstick, it instantly adds velocity to your Scout in the opposite direction that your gun is pointing (instant acceleration). My tests from a long time ago indicated it was 13 m/sec, but the most recent gamefiles indicate it's 10 m/sec. I'll need to retest that. The point being: shoot gun, go fly.

How much do people talk about it?

Before we get into the "P"-word stuff, I first want to take a second to remind everyone how I view pickrates. In a vacuum, pickrates alone are not a good basis to indicate which things to buff or nerf. However, I see pickrates as "the canary in the coal mine". If there's a healthy distribution of choices throughout the classes, weapons, mods, and overclocks thereof, then it means the game balance is in a healthy state. On the other hand, if there's a lot of places where Option A is picked twice as often as Option B, that means someone should take a look at why that choice is being made. Sometimes it's as simple as "A is numerically twice as strong as B", but more often there's an underlying issue with the choice itself, or the weapon the choice is being made on, or how Option B doesn't contribute to winning the game, or some other reason. To me, pickrates are indicators that there's a balance or design issue somewhere that should be addressed, even if the thing with super-high or super-low pickrate isn't the issue itself. That's why I value pickrates' information -- not to just say "this is picked a lot, nerf it" or "this isn't picked enough, buff it" -- but to instead give me a concrete place to start investigating what's imbalanced.

The next thing worth bringing up is how Karl.gg pickrates are different than in-game usage pickrates. Karl.gg is a website used by the DRG community to easily share their recommended loadouts with their friends or strangers. It's a hub for people to say "if I were to use this thing, here's how I would build a loadout for it." When GSG releases new content for DRG, naturally the community talks about it more than the old content. That leads to more loadouts being submitted to aid in discussion, which in turn means that whatever the most recent change or addition was will naturally have more loadouts using it. In summary: Karl.gg pickrates don't measure how often something gets used in-game, but rather how much the community talks about a class, weapon, mod, Overclock, etc.

Now, with both of those things said, I want to show you the data that Karl.gg has been tracking since U31 for Special Powder:

Special Powder pickrates from U31-U37
Update # Pickrate %
U31 35.09%
U32 43.75%
U33 41.41%
U34 53.05%
U35 49.23%
U36 46.45%
U37 37.8%

Because there are six Overclocks to choose from, one would expect "ideal" pickrates to hover around the 16.67% range, maybe [13.33%, 20%] for a 20% variance. Seeing Special Powder being talked about at least twice as often as average would expect (double of average pickrate) for the whole time Karl.gg has been around is a strong indicator that something on the Boomstick is imbalanced, and it's showing up on Special Powder (instead of the other 5 Overclocks). So, let's dive into a thought experiment about what the underlying imbalance might be.

Part 2: Thoughts and Observations

It's really fun

There's not a lot to dive into on this point. Having Special Powder on Scout, combined with Grappling Hook (and potentially Hoverclock), creates a fun, fast-paced, frenetic, hyper-mobile gameplay experience. See somewhere 100m away you want to be? 2 shots and a Grapple to get there. Fast RoF is a massive singular jump, fast Reload is lots of single jumps chained together. It's another "panic button" that you can use to get away from an immediate threat like an Exploder. Falling from a great height and your Grappling Hook is still recharging? Problem solved, all it costs is one ammo.

In summary: Special Powder provides a massive amount of Utility without sacrificing any Combat ability. The only potential downside is that shots spent blast-jumping around are shots not used to kill enemies.

What effects does Special Powder have on Scout loadouts?

Boomstick

First, foremost, and most obviously: picking Special Powder means not picking Jumbo Shells, Stuffed Shells, Compact Shells, Shaped Shells, or Double Barrel. Jumbo and Stuffed Shells both give more damage per shot, Compact Shells gives more ammo, and Shaped Shells greatly increases the Boomstick's effective range (if you want to use it that way). Double Barrel has its own issues.

Primaries

There are two interactions with M1000 OC "Hoverclock".

  • If you were reliant on it to cancel fall damage instead of the perk Hoverboots, Special Powder provides an opportunity for you to switch up your loadout to use a different primary or different Overclock on M1000 because it can take over the fall-damage-cancel role.
  • On the flipside, there's some really cool synergy from having Grappling Hook, Special Powder, and Hoverclock all simultaneously. There are multiple videos of players playing "the floor is lava" and going entire minutes without touching the ground using this loadout, while still being able to get some interspersed kills.

Beyond Hoverclock, though, Special Powder doesn't have much effect on what you choose as your Primary Weapon.

Secondaries

Another "duh" statement, but by picking Boomstick to get Special Powder, it implicitly locks you out of equipping the Zhukovs or the Crossbow as your Secondary Weapon (along with all of the cool stuff they can do).

Perks

Just the very nature of having the Boomstick equipped (regardless of Overclock), people often pick Born Ready for its passive reload. The other perk to consider is Hoverboots. Generally recommended for Scouts in particular, as they're most often the ones who fall from great heights, but by having Special Powder to reduce your fall velocity it can effectively cancel all fall damage with just one or two shots for most heights.

What effects does Special Powder have on Scout playstyles?

This next section comes from both my own personal experience playing the game, as well as how I've seen other people play with Special Powder and how they talk about it online.

I think it makes Scouts complacent. Hear me out:

  • Rather than using Flares to light up the cave and be aware of your surroundings and incoming enemies, Special Powder just lets you react at a moment's notice and get away from danger. Situational awareness stops being as much of a priority if nothing can really be a threat to you.
  • Rather than getting better at movement techniques, and landing on top of mineral veins or other narrow ledges, it just becoms a situation of "oh I fell? Special Powder to cancel fall damage, then try again right away". While the perk Hoverboots or M1000 Hoverclock could both be used in place of Special Powder for the fall-damage cancel, wouldn't it make more sense to improve to the point where you fall less frequently, almost never? Having the safety net of Special Powder on at all times disincentivizes improving at movement techniques and using Grappling Hook.
  • Rather than taking advantage of the infinite use, point-and-click Grappling Hook to get from A to D (skipping B and C), Special Powder can be used to traverse the same distance just a little faster but it consumes Boomstick's ammo (from an already shallow ammo pool if you don't take ammo upgrades). This also means not utilizing the great damage per shot and waveclear of Boomstick to its full potential.

I am willing to admit that I'm guilty of all three of these things. When U36 came out and I started running Crossbow to get a feel for it, I couldn't believe how bad I was at the game all of a sudden. Lots of deaths to easily-preventable fall damage, enemies that I let sneak up on me in a dark cave, and enemies that I wasn't able to kite just by running on the ground because I had lost the habit of using Grappling Hook during combat. I was using Special Powder as a crutch, and it showed.

This is not an accusation that "all Scouts use Special Powder as a crutch" -- I speak only for myself. I grew complacent because of Special Powder. However, lots of discussion I've read online revolving around Special Powder is advertising how useful it is to remedy all of those situations (panic escape, fast movement, fall damage cancel), so I suspect that I might not be alone in that regard. I leave it to the reader to judge themself if Special Powder has made them complacent, too.

Is there anything actually imbalanced about Special Powder itself?

After a lot of thought, I think my answer is "no". It has a massive "opportunity cost" in terms of power, both denying Jumbo Shells as well as the entirety of Zhukovs and Crossbow. It implicitly reduces the combat power of your Secondary by the nature of using ammo to move around or save yourself from fall damage, and skews you towards a high-ammo build instead of a good damage build. Even with all that, it's still a viable build because the base Boomstick (no OC) has a really strong build path that only gets amplified by the OCs.

I know that this isn't a ground-breaking revelation -- many people have already come to this conclusion and said these exact points to me during discussions about Boomstick/Special Powder. I wanted to make sure to include this section to lend my voice to support what people have already been saying.

If anything, I would suggest that the imbalance is the baseline Boomstick, in particular T4.A's +3 Blowthroughs. By providing a massive damage per shot baseline, it's easy to pick one damage mod and one ammo mod and have a great weapon. The other Overclocks are just stat changes that overall improve how well baseline Boomstick does its job, in particular Jumbo Shells. (well, Double Barrel...). By adding Blowthroughs to the weapon, it allows you to either get up close and hit one target really hard while hitting a bunch of stuff behind it too, or stand at a distance and distribute the pellets throughout an entire wave. T5.C White Phosphorous Shells is an excellent way to amplify that waveclear, as written about by Gaming Existence here.

Would nerfing Special Powder actually fix the imbalance problem?

A year ago, my answer would have been "yes, nerf it". My suggestion was to change Special Powder to be a Balanced Overclock, and add a x0.35 Blastwave Damage penalty onto the weapon. That would make it so that even by taking T4.C for 40 damage, it wouldn't hit the Glyphid Swarmer breakpoint (only 14 out of 14.4 needed), making Special Powder very weak to a specific enemy type. My reasoning at the time was that this would take away one of the free functionalities of Boomstick (default 20 damage kills Swarmers with no upgrades), and effectively force the Scout to blast-jump to teammates to deal with the Swarmers.

The goal of that nerf suggestion was to surgically make Special Powder weaker in one situation, which would also encourage them to use more ammo to blast jump to teammates, implicitly making its opportunity cost higher as well. It wouldn't reduce the mobility of the jump itself (what people really love it for). Additionally, by changing it to Balanced with such a niche penalty, I had hoped that it would ply into the psychology of the playerbase and encourage them to re-evaluate whether they use Special Powder because it's good, or because it made the game easier for them.

However, when I brought this suggestion up during the recent U37XP discussion on the official DRG discord server, several people pointed out that there isn't anything wrong with Special Powder itself. That would have just been a "nerf for a nerf's own sake", and somewhat a knee-jerk reaction to the pickrates instead of actually considering the underlying issue. They were right, so I changed my mind. At the time of writing this post, I've been convinced that nerfing Special Powder isn't the right solution. Instead, I think there should be more thought put into the baseline Boomstick (especially T4.A), as well as changing the other Clean OCs. Compact Shells, Stuffed Shells, and especially Double Barrel don't enhance the baseline weapon enough to justify picking them over Special Powder. SP has the same combat effectiveness but with a lot more Utility. Jumbo Shells is a big enough stat change, and Shaped Shells does something interesting. People don't really seem to like what Shaped Shells does, but from a design standpoint I really like it. Once the other Cleans are more interesting and more competitive, then Special Powder will hopefully be less of the "default choice".

Another idea I had to encourage people to equip Special Powder less frequently was to write up this blog post, detailing what I've been thinking about recently, my own experience with SP, and finally a call to action at the end.

Part 3: Conclusion

So, finally we get to why I decided to write up this blog post today. You probably read the title of the post, "Letting Go of Special Powder", so you probably already know what I'm about to recommend.

Going forward, I'm going to challenge myself to play Scout without Special Powder (at the very least, less than 10% of the time). My own motivations are as follows:

  • By using Special Powder as a crutch, my skill at playing Scout has plateau'd. Letting go of Special Powder will force me to improve, as well as open up a higher skill ceiling using other options in my Secondary slot.
  • By using Special Powder so much, I've been locking myself out of experimenting with over 2/3 of Scout's possible loadouts. Letting go of Special Powder will let me try more new builds, find new favorite upgrades and combinations, and make playing Scout feel fresh.

For years now, I've been championing build diversity in DRG. "Large build diversity leads to game longevity", "New loadout every mission", etc. Special Powder is one of the last things I have to let go of in order to open myself up to the totality of how DRG can be played.

If you've read through this whole thing, and recognize a lot of my own issues with Special Powder in your own gameplay, I'd recommend that you try letting go of Special Powder too. It doesn't have to be permanent, but maybe for 2-4 weeks just play Scout using any Secondary build except SP. Experiment wildly, see what cool combos you can try out, find a new favorite! Special Powder will still be there when you finish, but hopefully you'll have improved as a Scout to the point where you notice that you need SP less. Who knows? Maybe letting go of Special Powder is all we need to improve Scout's overall balance.


Thanks for reading the blog post! I still have other blog post ideas kicking around in my head, but this one was short enough to get done in an afternoon. As a reward for reading all the way to the end, you get to be among the first people to see this announcement publicly: DPS Calculator v1.2.0 is currently being developed! I'll still need a couple more weeks to finish it (due to my 40 hr/week day job), but my hope is to deliver it sometime between American Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Rock & Stone!

-MeatShield