On Quantity vs. Quality
I love RPGs. But, if there is one thing that most RPGs have in common, it’s that 95% of player equipment is totally… useless. There’s a selling point on the back of the boxes of many RPGs: ‘150 weapons! 70 armor sets! Lots of everything!’ And this is a strange thing, because people always agree that quality beats quantity, and yet we constantly see the opposite when it comes to items in RPGs. In this post, I’m going to elaborate on why this bothers me and what I consider to be more preferable.
The general consensus is that when there are a lot of items, there’s a more or less constant player reward loop that keeps him going. And I disagree with this philosophy; I believe that it detracts from the sense of progression. Let’s say I have a Sword of Awesomeness that deals 15-20 damage, and then I find a Sword of Coolness that deals 17-23 damage. Of course I’ll take the Sword of Coolness – extra damage is always nice. But will I feel rewarded? Will I feel a sense of accomplishment? No.
Now, let’s take for example a game that’s not even a full-fledged RPG – Quest for Glory, a series developed by Sierra which is a mix between classic point & click adventure games and RPGs. In the first game, there are basically only two armor types: leather armor and chainmail armor (which is extremely important for the Fighter class). You start out with leather. Chainmail is available in the store from the very beginning, but it costs 500 silver coins! That means you have to work at the stables for 50 in-game days at the least, receiving 10 coins per day! And that’s if you don’t eat. So, to gain money faster, you need to complete quests, to complete quests you need to defeat monsters – but you can’t, because you’re a crappy Fighter, they kill you easily. Not to mention leather armor is not good in defending against a lot of monsters. So you train with the Sword Master, and then defeat monsters and sell trophies in the Adventure Guild, eventually completing one of the quests… And you finally have enough money to buy Chainmail. The sense of accomplishment is amazing! You feel like you worked hard for this piece of equipment, because you did, and you feel warm and fuzzy inside. You notice the difference too: all those monsters who gave you so much trouble before can barely damage you, so there’s that too.
Another good example is in the first two Gothic games. The armor progression system there is also quite linear… it depends on what side/camp you choose, but in each camp there’s only one way you can go up in quality with armor. Each time you upgrade your equipment, however, feels like a milestone. In Gothic 2, before you can join the Paladin Order you need to become a part of the Town Guard. So you receive a uniform which has crappy stats and you don’t really want to go fight dragons wearing it. But in time, you become a Paladin. As a reward you receive this shiny piece of armor, but your social status changes too. People react to you differently, you’re not a low-life nobody anymore.
Now let’s take Titan Quest… Lots of equipment, no attachment to it whatsoever. We find better armor or weapon every five-ten minutes. And it’s usually better, like, by 1-2%, which is nothing at all! There’s even an option to not show normal items that fall from enemies, only special ones. That’s like deliberately telling to the player, ‘Yeah, 50% of our items are unworthy of your attention, so you can filter them’. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see how the reward loop of such speed is better than a slower-paced ‘every piece of equipment is an accomplishment’.
I know that in my examples I’ve mentioned only linear equipment progression, and that may seem boring. Well, there’s nothing standing in the way of spicing up the items you can have, as long as you don’t overflow the player with lots of fluff and give a reason to use or not use any item. Let’s say, if there is a sword and a spear of approximately the same stat parameters, what’s the reason to have them both in the game? If the sword is super effective against one type of enemies, and the spear is super effective against another, now there’s actually a choice that matters. Or sword has a high defence rating and spear has a high offence rating. These are really simple examples, but it’s surprising how many games don’t have a good enough reason to have different kinds of items. The same first two Gothic games which I’ve praised for their armor progression have this problem with weapons. Sword, knife, club, axe, whatever – doesn’t matter. The only difference is between one-handed and two-handed weapons, and there are a lot of weapons in the game in both categories. Half of them are pointless.
If we have a relatively small amount of items and a clear sense of progression present, as well as a reason to use each and every item in every ‘progression tier’, we can open up space for a more meaningful customization. There are item customizations in a lot of games, but only when there’s a small amount of equipment does that +5% Fire Damage from the rune you inserted really matter and can give you the edge you need.
When it comes to customization, I feel like I should mention the Russian RPG Evil Islands. People who know me may recognize this game as my main inspiration for becoming a Game Designer. It has a really interesting item crafting system, especially for its time. Absolutely every weapon/armor and spell has a blueprint. And you need materials (for weapons and armor) and runes (for spells) to create something out of that blueprint. You can also combine finished equipment with spells to create magic items. A very interesting system. But let me give you the numbers. In the game there are approximately 20 weapon blueprints, 15 armor blueprints, 30 materials, 30 spell blueprints, 15 runes. That’s enough to provide a huge number of possible combinations, but the fact is, half of those blueprints/materials/runes aren’t used by players. At all. Because there’s no reason to. And this is why I feel there should be a smaller amount of items in RPGs, and each piece of equipment has to bear a bigger meaning.
I hope you enjoyed the read. I’ll update my blog with thoughts on games and Game Design, as well as progress on some of the stuff that I’m doing during my free time, so… if you’re interested, keep a look out for updates. Feel free to post in the comments. Do you agree with me or not? If not, then why? I love discussing this stuff and am interested in hearing your opinion. Have a good day!