Though they are accustomed to fighting off dragons and giants in World of Warcraft, or superpowered villains in Champions Online, or shapeshifting aliens in Star Trek Online, there is perhaps nothing MMORPG players fear more than the dreaded nerf. It usually doesn’t take very long after patch notes are released for a major game update for someone (perhaps several someones) to take to the official forums for the game and begin complaining about nerfs to their favorite character class or weapon or game mechanic. So what exactly is a nerf?
A nerf (taking its name from the brand of soft toys that usually don’t result in injuries among kids playing with them) is simply a change to a game (MMORPG or otherwise) that reduces the effectiveness of some part of the game. Though there are several reasons a game’s developers may choose to implement such a change, balancing the game is usually the cause. This is often seen when developers nerf character powers or abilities. Sometimes a particular game mechanic will be abused by players (such as unintended rapid experience gain in the City of Heroes Mission Architect system) and developers will nerf that game mechanic.
On the opposite end of the game development spectrum is the buff, an improvement to some game element. In large game updates, there are almost always both buffs and nerfs to various character classes or systems.
The term nerf apparently originated in Ultima Online, one of the first MMORPGs. According to a post on UO lead designer Raph Koster’s website, the game’s developers had reduced the effectiveness of swords in melee combat. Players then complained that it was like their characters were using Nerf-brand swords.