Saturday, August 27, 2011

Featured Feature: Equipment Degredation

So, Bethesda has let slip that Skyrim with NOT feature equipment degradation.That is to say, your crap will never break.
Dovakin eat dragons and shit diamonds.

If you've been paying attention to the game's development, then this really should come as no surprise. Much of the game has been streamlined, simplified, and made all together more elegant. Unlike some, I agree with da Vinci. Simplicity isn't bad and is, in fact, usually a good thing.
You just referred to me as "from Vinci," you hack!

For those who disagree with me on the prevailing trends in the game's design, let me simply say that complexity and depth, while related, are by no means the same concept in game design. True depth is making every simple mechanic have endless applications. See: Old-school games relying on only 1 or 2 buttons, or more contemporary titles like Minecraft or Portal which do 1 revolutionary mechanic that can hold your attention for weeks.
Another Portal &/or Minecraft reference, huh?
Back on topic though, equipment degradation was been a controversial feature before video games were, at all. Simulationist D&D folk loved it for its realism. Killer DMs loved it for its ability to totally castrate parties that may have grown fat and complacent on lucky loot rolls. At the end of the day, however, it generally always resulted in hours of time spent recording damage to various items, or even specific parts of armor, without any obvious net gain in fun at the table.

The problem, which generally carries over to video games, is that though the mechanic may help establish the realism, fatality, or risk of a game, when it actually comes into play the player doesn't think about tone. They think "fuckin A, that sword was expensive. This sucks!"

So, Bethesda, rightly thinking that Oblivion's equipment degradation system could be improved upon, did so by chucking the thing in a lake and replacing it with a weapon improvement system.
Oh yeah, a little "improvement" and that sword'll be as good as new.

And yet, I would have solved the problem in the opposite direction. You see, the key reason weapon degradation pisses players off lies in the fact that the system exists solely to make the game more difficult for them. As soon as you introduce incredibly valuable  items to your game, allowing them to be damaged becomes an unreasonably harsh punishment for your players. Why fight for days through a mile deep tomb for a flaming sword, if it's just going to be shattered within a few fights?

This introduces a second issue as well: any given player will only use 1 weapon for their entire career. In a movie, a protagonist will pick up a chair and break it over an enemy's head or throw in a good kick or pommel strike now in then. In games, when this is available it is always such an inferior choice to your awesome +4 Sword of Spanking as to be rendered a moot concept. Remember in Morrowind, how certain button combos could result in you making blunt attacks with your bladed or pointed weapons? Remember that the game also included an option to turn those off so that you always used the most optimal attack? A shame really.

This carries over into the characters themselves. A given character will essentially always be a super expert at one kind of fighting (ie: 2h swords), and not even bother with any another because they can always assume they will have that type of weapon available to them.

When I run tabletop RPGs, however, things tend to work out a bit more like this:
They tend to start that way as well.

I simply don't make equipment very precious. Devaluing the arms and armor results in a more varied game. Players lose equipment but pick up replacements off of their dead foes. They use their environments in order to spare their gear and, because their weapons aren't exceedingly powerful in the first place, there's nothing wrong with just socking a guy in the jaw once in a while. This also results in far less loot whoring, as the turn over rate prevents a giant bag full of dead men's weapons.

Magical weapons ARE cool of course, and aren't entirely incompatible with this mindset, but think of all the great Sword and Sorcery stories that don't feature them. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser name their weapons, yeah, but they loose them constantly and just re-use the names on new weapons.
Throwing daggers are notoriously difficult to hold on to.
Conan, in the books, doesn't carry around this one awesome sword. Hell, the "Riddle of Steel" is essentially a thesis statement for my argument. Therein lies the big deciding point. If you're going for a more Sword & Sorcery, which I prefer to High Fantasy, or even Dark Fantasy tone devaluing arms pays great dividends. Likewise, a swashbuckling adventure would also benefit from placing emphasis on the man, not the blade.

As Skyrim moved TES to the cold and unforgiving frozen North, and the games were always dark and dangerous worlds I am a bit disappointed to hear that this opportunity was missed.
On the other hand, this shit just got l33t.

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