Why the nerfs to Destiny 2's most popular exotic and pinnacle weapons hurt so much

The Whisper of the Worm is a sniper rifle made of dark, glittering energy. If you've jumped into any of Destiny 2's co-op activities you've probably seen its silhouette appear in players' hands during boss encounters. It has an amazing perk: three consecutive critical hits will refill the magazine without draining your reserves. If you’re good enough to land all your shots, these bullets apparating from the ether mean you can fire it into a boss' skull for ever. 

Combined with Whisper's obnoxious damage output, it's become one of the games go-to exotic heavy weapons. But it's not an easy item to earn. You need to race through a challenging secret mission that features a lengthy jumping puzzle, several rooms full of wall-to-wall enemies, and a battle with three tough bosses. All of this must be completed to a 20-minute time limit. With that done you gain access to the community’s go-to DPS monster, a gun that murders gods.

On June 4, Bungie is going to squash Whisper with an asteroid-sized nerf.

After the balance update, Whisper will no longer pull ammo from thin air, after which it won't even be the best exotic sniper in the game. And it's not just Whisper getting the treatment. A recent Bungie blog post outlined a series of changes that amount to a cull of the most ubiquitous exotic weapons and armour pieces. 

That news came a week after an announcement that the brutally hard-to-get PvP hand cannons Luna’s Howl and Not Forgotten are being reworked to make them less dominant in Crucible. These weapons represent dozens of hours of investment per player, and armour pieces like Phoenix Protocol are vital for the Season of the Drifter’s Reckoning mode. Many players are furious. Balance changes are always going to happen in service games trying to offer ongoing challenge, but this round of changes has felt particularly harsh.

"Is it better to have experienced these overpowered things and then lost them or not experienced them at all would be my question to the community” says Datto, a seasoned raid racer, streamer, known for being one of the more rational voices in the Destiny community. In a video responding to the nerfs Datto discusses how exotic weapon power creep has grown to match players' natural urge to always want to feel strong in every activity.

"The pain partly comes from the fact that some people, not everyone, just really enjoy using really powerful weapons and want the easiest possible path to the most amount of loot that they can get in the shortest amount of time. Nerfing these weapons gets in the way of that dream."

In the blog explaining the rationale for the nerfs, Bungie says its first choice is to buff underused weapons, "but if we continue to push every weapon up higher and higher, it will be impossible to maintain challenging experiences." For this reason streamer and PvP expert Fallout Plays agrees that the nerfs are necessary, but points to some mixed communication on Bungie's part as one of the reasons for the community's disappointment. A year ago Bungie released a video about the 'Go Fast' update, which embraced the idea of Destiny 2 as a power fantasy where imbalance contributes to the game's 'space magic' personality.

"Bungie commented about how they were 'bringing everything else up' to match the hotness of certain weapons and armor pieces," says Fallout. “‘Don't Sand the Coolness Down’ was a direct quote from (now gone) developer Josh Hamrick that stuck with me for a while.

"I understand that if a weapon or armor piece is being used 99 percent of the time, it certainly does need to be examined, but with some guns, ie: Whisper of the Worm—taking away the potential of infinite ammo for accurate players definitely does seem like 'Sanding the Coolness Down.'"

Whisper of the Worm contains the soul of a hive god, who is also presumably now pissed about the nerf.

Whisper of the Worm contains the soul of a hive god, who is also presumably now pissed about the nerf.

The way nerfs are communicated can affect the way nerfs are received. Bungie has done a good job of flagging the changes ahead of time, but back-to-back nerf blogs contained no info on potential buffs to other under-used exotic weapons that players have argued need to be brought into contention. (Community managers have since said this will be coming, and the latest TWaB highlighted some updates to fusions and swords, and exotics like Sturm and Drang.) The initial nerf announcements served as a double dose of bad medicine and no sugar. Until this week there has been little concrete news about what exactly is going to be in the Season of Opulence, which means players have had weeks to dwell on the nerfs alone. I've felt it too. Whenever I Nova Bomb a mob and instantly get my super back I think "enjoy it while it lasts".

In loot we trust

THE BEST REACTION

Datto gives his thoughts on power creep and the latest nerfs in this 16 minute video.

Slayerage goes through the nerf TWaB post point by point.

The Destiny Community Podcast lament the changes in usual good-natured fashion on Episode 136—The One About The Nerfs.

Regular nerfs also undermine the perceived value of an exotic or pinnacle weapon, and can have a dampening effect on future grind. Why embark on an epic chase for the next pinnacle competitive crucible hand cannon after seeing what happened to Luna's and Not Forgotten in the Season of the Drifter?

"A lot of people went through a small slice of hell to add those guns to their personal collections," says Fallout Plays. "You go through the slog of dealing with a less-than-ideal P2P matchmaking system against an onslaught of extremely rough Crucible matches—probably for several weekends—cross the finish line and receive the Holy Grail of PvP weapon rewards... only for the game devs to turn around later and say "oh yeah, this is too much, we've gotta tone down your reward a bit."

Datto says "I think people are also upset that it seems to happen on such a regular basis: insanely strong weapon is released, Bungie allows people to enjoy it for as long as they can, then brings it down so they can maybe make something else that's exciting and I think people think that Bungie just doesn't listen to them."

"[A] very common argument I see is "no one asked for this, why aren't you listening to us" and that's just not how the relationship between player and dev works 100 percent of the time."

That a gun can change so drastically overnight is a reminder that these beautifully designed guns are a bundle of values that exist on a distant server. Thankfully we're a long way from the days when essential exotics like Gjallarhorn were only available as RNG drops, but tough exotic quests, season-long pinnacle triumphs, and a magic loot chalice, create a clear transaction: spend 50 hours, get Luna's Howl. So it hurts when that exchange is undermined.

Sudden, sharp rebalances also hurt Bungie's worldbuilding. A jokey post on Reddit imagined in-universe reasons for so many major exotics getting squashed. It touches on a serious point. "My biggest problem with a nerf of a gun like Whisper is in the lore/background of the gun itself," writes Vulnox on Reddit. "It’s an issue I constantly see with Bungie. They add lore to their items, and the lore behind Whisper is that it's almost the sword logic perfected, it's a god worm in a rifle."

Anger, bargaining, acceptance

Over time consensus has begun to grow that some of the changes are sensible. Most agree that exotic armour is just in a bad place generally. Even with the nerfs armour pieces that regenerate super are always, always good. The Skull of Dire Ahamkhara's infinite supers were never going to last—and might have completely broken the upcoming Menagerie 6-player activity. As a workaround for the nerfs, a few players have asked for more complicated encounters that might let everyone keep their powerful weapons, but use them in more interesting ways to bypass puzzle bosses. 

Part of the problem is that Destiny has several identities. To raiders it's an awesome challenging co-op combat puzzle game, but to players doing a few strikes after work it's an uncomplicated way to unwind without worrying too much about jumping puzzles and boss phases.

"More mechanics isn't always the answer," says Datto. "If I had a nickel for every time someone told me "people still don't know how to throw the ball in The Corrupted strike," I'd be retired. Now imagine every activity in the game needing these kinds of mechanics just to circumvent people's ability to infinitely kill and control adds and infinitely deal damage to bosses. People just wanna shoot aliens in the head with guns, they don't want mechanics in every single thing they do."

What can Bungie do instead? What does a great exotic item look like? It's easy to get into armchair designer territory after a bunch of harsh nerfs has been announced, but Datto picks out a few highly specialised exotics that have worked in the past, like the Helm of Saint-14, which had specific uses in Destiny 1 endgame activities. "It was used as a way to protect yourself when things got overwhelming, it was defensive, not offensive and that's a key difference. It just gave you a reprieve from the madness, it didn't stop it completely in its tracks."

The nerfs will hurt, but in the long term Fallout Plays takes a philosophical approach. "Players will spend some time moaning, which is to be expected, but immediately after, everyone's going to be on the hunt for the new best option. 

"It's the circle-of-life, sandbox edition; we all want to identify that great new weapon which will rise up above its peers and become the new ruler of the meta. It usually doesn't take the community very long to find the new go-to." 

The hunt begins when the Season of Opulence launches on June 4.