Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Equipment Entrophy

A glass holding water to the midway it half empty or half full?  If you think the former you might be an optimistic by nature, while if you feel the latter then perhaps you are a pessimist.  A similar system can be applied to how people react to mechanics in games.  The collector (the type of player who wants to gather up everything) doesn't like inventory limits.  The methodical, cautious player hates having to depend on a checkpoint system.  Then, there is the powermonger who cannot stand having a finite wellspring of strength from which to draw upon.

This is where durability and weapons come into the picture.  When you think about it, having a sword that can only be swung so many times isn't all that strange.  After all, guns in video games almost always have limited supplies of ammunition.  Once exhausted the firearm becomes (nearly) useless.  So what is the issue with melee weaponry?  Well...there's a key difference here in that you can find and grab more ammo for a gun easy enough in most games, but reconstituting a sword is usually not such a simple process.  Sometimes this kind of repair work can be done in the field.  In Betrayal at Krondor players could apply whetstones to blades, oil to bow strings, and hammers to armor in order to maintain their gear.  However, it was inevitably a losing battle.  Because of diminishing returns, weapons and armor would eventually break requiring replacement or expensive refurbishment by an NPC vendor.  Adding to the headache, repair items had a limited number of uses as well.  The Souls series utilized similar mechanics with weapons and other equipment becoming worn out from combat.  Here too items could be used to rejuvenate battle-damaged gear, or a cost could be paid at certain locations for a full restoration.  Sadly, these kinds of maintenance mechanics in games tend to subtract from the overall experience, rather than add anything meaningful to it.  The same can be said for how they are implemented in most survival crafting games.  I think Factorio is a great game, but having to periodically make a new pickaxe because the old one broke from wear and tear is a pointless nuisance.  Some would argue that it's more realistic, but I'm not so sure...

I can't say I'm an expert on metallurgy, but when it comes to iron there two basic ways to go; high carbon cast iron (which is hard and brittle), or low carbon wrought iron (which is softer and more resilient).  Obviously, neither has a clear-cut advantage, which is why skilled weaponsmiths try to combine the best of both types of metal.  Take your average katana, for example, the edge is hard iron to make it cut better, but the backing is soft to make it so the blade is less likely to break.  Steel is obviously the ideal metal, but it's fairly labour intensive to make and the knowledge of how to do so wasn't widespread until after the end of the Middle Ages.  Hence, blades tended to chip and dull over time.  In video game terms though this sounds like swords should have a base damage rating with a renewable "sharpness" damage bonus that slowly goes down as the weapon sees use.  Instead, most systems have weapons remain perfectly fine until some arbitrary numerical value hits zero at which point they suddenly become useless.  It's a bit silly, but that's not to say medieval weapons never suffered from sudden catastrophic failures.

Corrosion, microscopic cracks as well as impurities or imperfections could (and frequently did) lead to a broken blade.  During the Dark Ages it happened so often weapon design was informed by it.  A good example is the viking era sword which is easy to identify by its rather flat looking point.  This might seem like an odd choice considering it reduces the effectiveness of stabbing attacks, but the reason for it is a thicker tip is a lot less likely to get snapped off in combat.  In fact, there are a number of special defensive weapons such as parrying daggers, jitte, and sai that are specifically meant to catch an opponent's blade with the intention of breaking it or removing it from the wielder's grasp.  Completely accidental breaks were also common.  It's easy to imagine a scenario in which a sword gets stuck in something then bent at a weird angle.  The most often referenced incidence I've seen in historical accounts though is blades being broken over helmets.  It makes sense considering mail and leather absorb impacts to a degree while helmets were usually solid pieces of metal that deflect or outright stopped incoming attacks.  By the time plate armor became widely worn on the battlefield though most weaponry had gone the direction of oversized needles and can openers (rather than long-edged weaponry).  So, let's try to apply some of this to video games.

If we use the recently released Breath of the Wild as a template you'd need a system that accounts for quality, condition and type of weapon as well as the hardness of the point of impact.  Degradation and the risk of a broken blade depend on these variables each time the player hits something.  In other words, Link should be able to slice up a bunch of unarmored Bokoblins mostly trouble-free, but by the same token is taking a big risk hacking away at a Stone Talus.  As is, I think the weapons in this iteration of Zelda are deliberately incredibly fragile in order to encourage players to use everything they can get their hands on.  It's not a bad mechanic, but it would probably be more at home in a side-scrolling brawler than an action RPG.  

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