Helldivers 2 balancing guru explains why 'Don't Nerf, Only Buff' is a bad idea: 'I believe players are scared of nerfs because it will ruin the fantasy of a weapon, ruin their fun'

helldivers 2 balancing
(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

Helldivers 2 got its first round of balancing today in a patch that buffed a handful of underperforming support weapons and significantly nerfed the Railgun—the one-shot killing machine that's enjoyed the undisputed top slot for the first month of the game.

Leading up to the patch, all eyes were on Arrowhead as vocal corners of the community lobbied for a "Don't nerf, only buff" approach to balancing the co-op PvE shooter, the idea being that a co-op shooter with no PvP doesn't need to nerf certain guns when it can just buff the underpowered ones instead.

Arrowhead explained the reasoning behind today's patch on Discord, but in a separate blog post published later, head of product testing Patrik Lasota expanded on Arrowhead's approach to balancing, gently shutting down the notion that Helldivers 2 shouldn't have nerfs and exploring how players perceive weapons versus what data actually shows. It's a great read for fans, and in this humble journalist's opinion, a masterclass in meeting the audience at eye level to say things they might not want to hear.

"I have since the game released seen many who say 'Don’t Nerf, only Buff' and other similar ideas," Lasota writes. "However as a designer I can tell you this is not a great idea, but I understand where the sentiment comes from."

Lasota is sympathetic to players distrustful of nerfs because he believes they're often done poorly.

"All too often in the games industry the core fantasy, and what makes a weapon feel good and fun, is ignored for the sake of balance. I believe players are scared of nerfs because it will ruin the fantasy of a weapon, ruin their fun," he writes.

"It is extra important to us to tread carefully so that we don’t ruin fantasy and fun when we do nerfs. We hope you, our players, will tell us when we cross that line inadvertently."

On the Railgun

Sticking to the core fantasy of a gun is exactly why the Railgun had to be knocked down a peg, according to Lasota.

All too often in the games industry the core fantasy, and what makes a weapon feel good and fun, is ignored for the sake of balance.

Patrik Lasota, Arrowhead

"The Railgun is really intended to be a high powered anti-tank sniper rifle, requiring both timing with the unsafe fire mode and accuracy with where you hit the enemy," he said. "It was vastly over-performing in how safe it was to use and how convenient it was, not requiring a backpack or assistance to be effective, and not requiring risk to take out even larger armored targets."

To that end, the Railgun can no longer penetrate the heavy armor of Chargers and Bile Titans in its default mode, and it'll only deal max damage on "heads and other weak points."

helldivers 2 balancing

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

On the Laser Cannon

In an interesting inverse to the Railgun's tweaks toward a sharpshooting role, Arrowhead is buffing the Laser Cannon not because of its performance, but because its power doesn't align with what players expect from a huge beam weapon. 

"Our original intent was that the Laser Cannon has the role of a Machine Gun, but with theoretically infinite ammunition," Lasota writes. "However many players were somewhat disappointed by this role, expecting more armor penetration from the large drilling beam that it looks like."

In its previous form, the Laser Cannon was a pretty good option to thin a bug herd without ever needing to reload, but I was surprised when I learned its powerful-looking beam couldn't melt through a Devastator's chromed-up armor. In this case, Arrowhead has decided to "side with the community" and make the Laser Cannon better match "players' expectations and their fantasy." The cannon can now penetrate medium armor and has lower recoil.

Lasota capped off the laser talk with a caveat that, to me, suggests the studio isn't entirely sold on this change yet:

"As this is quite a major change from the original intention of the weapon, please be prepared that it might change again in the future if these changes don’t work out well."

helldivers 2 balancing

(Image credit: Arrowhead Game Studios)

On the Breaker

Lasota also touched on the Breaker, the automatic shotgun that has been widely lauded as the best primary weapon in Helldivers 2 and essential to a meta-approved loadout. Today's patch slightly nerfed the shotgun by shrinking its already svelte magazine and upped its recoil, though Lasota notes that the gun's reputation doesn't entirely line up with the data.

"The Breaker was quickly pinned down as the 'meta' weapon, vastly overperforming other weapons and being the “best” choice for all Helldivers, at least if YouTube is to be believed," he wrote. "When we looked at the Breaker and the data we have on its usage it painted a picture of a well liked weapon that was great at killing chaff and generally had a few more kills than other weapons.

"It was however not necessarily better at making you succeed in a mission, and no real damage nerfs were warranted. The calculated total damage per magazine was quite high compared to other weapons however, and something that could be reigned in, while reinforcing the intended fantasy."

Helldivers 2's first balancing patch, which also added new weather hazards to planets, is live now. Read Lasota's full blog post for more thoughts on the nerfed shield backpack, buffed barrage stratagems, and the flamethrower.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.