Frailty, Thy Name is Weapon
by Words and Chaos
Snap your fingers, snap your gorget.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released recently. One of its more controversial ideas was the weapon durability system. Predictably, Nintendo overstated the wear and tear of weaponry and armour by laughable amounts in an attempt to hoist the system onto people. They managed to implement the system in such a way as to turn it into a tedium inducing cycle of busywork, as opposed to an element of risk management. There are too many developers, especially in these days of bar filling “survival” games, who seem to mistake dull routine for gameplay. We’ve traded old-school MMO grind for survivalist grind. Instead of collecting ten bear arses, we’re collecting ten twigs. How did we get here? There’s space for all sorts of ideas in game mechanics, and experimentation should be encouraged by the consumer, but only so long as the mechanics compliment the gameplay. Unfortunately, the average weapon durability system doesn’t. It’s yet another percentage meter to keep track of, rather than a dynamic part of the underlying mechanics that can change the direction of an encounter or player priorities. There are ways that weapon durability can actually improve a game, but they have to be thought of in terms of complimentary gameplay, not in terms of vacuous time sinks.
Weapon durability gives you more room to be uncomfortable. You can use that discomfort to balance out the problem of unchecked power creep. The potential for weapons to break mid-fight causes you to reassess not only current circumstances, but also your approach to each subsequent encounter with more caution or forethought. It encourages preparation and back up equipment. Alternatively, it can switch the flow of the fight and force the player to change their play style on the fly. Suddenly a fight you were winning turns against you and you have to either fall back on a secondary weapon and press on at a disadvantage, or run.
When I say ‘run’ I mean actually run as a means of escape and get to somewhere safe. If you only have to tab into a menu, click a new item and auto equip/switch, in the style of Skyrim, then you’re doing it wrong. Pulling a claymore out of your underpants should take a little bit of time, come with an animation, and open you up to an attack when you’re being careless, if you’re going for that kind of system. The same goes for consumable items: Scarfing a bottle of potion or eating a leg of lamb should happen in game time not in a menu. It’s cheesy and exploitable. If you’re trying to emphasize danger and survival, then you’re not allowed to teleport things into player’s hands and stomachs. With all that said, weapon breaking can’t be forced into every fight. It can’t happen every other fight or third fight and so on. Weapons and armour are there to take blows, so unless you’re trying to fend off a sledgehammer with an ornamental rapier, there’s no reason why your defences should shatter every three seconds. It doesn’t help or add to the gameplay and it’s utterly counter-intuitive to what is often laughably referred to as “realism.”
Dwarf Fortress added weapon and armour durability mechanics relatively recently. It is one example of durability mechanics done right. It really did change the game. Post update, industries really mean something. Let’s say you produce ten sets of top tier equipment for your soldiers in fortress mode. If you know that they’re all there for eternity then that takes away any incentive to care about producing more equipment any further than trade. In a game where production is a large chunk of the core cycle, it’s important to keep it relevant beyond turning everything into a gold equivalent.
With weapon and armour damage, you’ve got to think about how much you’re selling versus how much you’re holding in reserve for invasions and re-equipping soldiers. In adventure mode it made castles more important. You have a reason to keep an eye out for them now, as a way to resupply and replace equipment. Previously, you could just walk into any old castle and find a highly effective weapon and armour set right off the bat, which would give you an advantage that would never end. As a result you’d never really hesitate before getting into a fight with a giant penguin. You’d just grab the steel knitting needle and off you went. With item durability in place, blindly wandering into a goblin fortress or necromancer tower isn’t the best idea when you know that eventually your armour is going to buckle under the blows of a hundred enemies. The armour protects you, as it should, but you’re not a god. And you never should be.
While Dwarf Fortress also suffers the same fragility problems that crop up in most durability systems, it gets away with it because the AI plays by the same rules that you do. That’s the other thing that weapon durability systems often lack: they don’t apply to other parts of the world. Just you. So you don’t get ever get to be the guy who breaks the weapon and then chases down the enemy. This is another reason people get so frustrated with these mechanics: There should be two edges to this blade; you should have the opportunity to do something cool but instead the mechanics can only ever hinder you in particular. If you’re going to have a rule then apply it to everything.
Blood Omen II had weapon durability mechanics and it was another instance where I found that it added to the game. In an otherwise mediocre adventure, made better by some satisfying voice acting and an unwillingness to sacrifice character for genre cliché, the weapon breaking did add a slight depth to the formulaic combat system. Because my big looted sword could only take a certain amount of punishment and would break after I repeatedly blocked attacks, I approached each fight with a bit of forethought. If I was just tackling a grunt, I’d use my hands or focus on dodging, but if I ran into something more substantial or faster, I would switch to the weapon, preferring the raw damage output over a considered parry and counter. When I didn’t have a weapon and came up against one of the tougher enemies, the absence was noticeable.
It’s good to put the protagonist in trouble. Otherwise what’s the point in them? When the game is structured around a linear narrative, regardless of the size of the corridor, then we already anticipate the end: Kill the boss and triumph. In the case of Zelda, we all know it ends up with the Master Sword anyway. But we’ve already played with the Master Sword for 16 games. We get it: It’s the bog-standard heroic phallus. Get out of the way. It’s just more interesting to be using, or have the choice to use, all the other weapons and armour. If we’re aware of the destination then the journey needs some hooks.
Of course there are those who will rail against mechanics like this. I wonder if that’s simply a backlash against games outside of a specific niche, daring to offer some danger. This isn’t some semi-covert, ‘git gud’ elitist braying. A game shouldn’t have to hold your hand in order to engage you. In recent years there has been a period where gaming has dug itself into a power fantasy hole, and then refused to climb out of it. More recently there has been a push back against that, fuelled by successful games that understand the concept of difficulty as a part of an experience, rather than just cheap difficulty for the sake of difficulty – think Diablo III’s launch and the abysmal gear-check hurdle grind difficulty setting ‘Inferno’. A better understanding and experience of mechanics and expanded technical and AI capabilities have increased our ability to develop game difficulty that feels natural, not just cheesy and frustrating like Mario Kart’s rubber-band AI. As technology grows, we’re in a great place to capitalise on this. Now that we can take advantage of increased processing power and memory, we can build interesting physics and AI systems. Developers no longer need to rely on just upping the amount of damage taken or implementing dull damage-sponge enemies.
Dark Souls is, as ever, the obvious one: You’re very rarely out of danger, every enemy can always hurt you, and becoming careless can be death; but the games don’t exclude you from being very powerful. Killing Floor II doesn’t increase its difficulty simply by giving its monsters more health it gives them more abilities. That’s a fairly obvious but fantastic way of increasing difficulty. Instead of just increasing the amount of spent bullets, the player has to adapt to increasingly varied and less predictable behaviours. XCOM 2, while renowned for its RNG, isn’t a game of chance. A certain part of the core gameplay loop is the negation of RNG and swinging the odds in your favour. That’s arguably just a part of any tactical process, but it doesn’t detract from the danger or success of the game’s systems. You prioritise enemies based on their abilities, you choose your attacks based on your circumstance, you take advantage of the procedural terrain to negate the effectiveness of the aliens. While I have some reservations about certain mechanics, I have at no point felt that everything boiled down to chance. Every move you make is dictated by your situation at the time.
Getting back to the point: There’s an edge to knowing that your weaponry can break alongside a refreshing forced change in pace and play style. Switching from one defence to the next based on what you have to hand is more frantic and compelling. Forcing a player to run if they underestimate their enemy or overestimate their own abilities keeps the player from becoming complacent. Jim Sterling argued that forced variability of play style is no real choice. While I get where he’s coming from, unless you’re getting nothing but very specific items, then you should theoretically be able to stick to a broad play style – quick and nimble, heavy and hard hitting, etc.
Of course, if it’s balanced poorly, the mechanic becomes nothing but a frustration. If a weapon snaps like a twig at the first sign of impact then that’s a problem. If a piece of armour is rendered useless in three hits, that’s a problem. In general, we build our expectations roughly comparative to the ones that we might have of reality. That means that we don’t expect hardwearing combat equipment to feel anything but. If it doesn’t, then all sense of significance goes out the window. Put simply: If your player is holding a weapon then it should feel like a weapon. Revelatory, I know.
Take the survival horror genre, for instance. It’s a genre that is built around making the player vulnerable. To that effect it either doesn’t give you a weapon of any kind, or downplays the effectiveness and availability of protective measures. That’s not a license to equip the player with a Styrofoam crowbar. If you want to leave an impression then you make the crowbar feel like a crowbar. Weighty and impactful: The kind of thing that would put a large man on the ground without a problem. It’s something that the player can latch onto, it’s a point of reference, and it’s a measurement by which they understand the rules of the world. And then you give the player an antagonist that doesn’t care.
I’m just adapting writing functions here. It’s more or less the same idea, just on an interactive level. For instance, you can emphasise the sense of danger by giving your player human opponents to start off with. It’s something they instantly recognise and understand. That gives them the idea that they have control and thus some power. Then you introduce something that is outside of their frame of reference and doesn’t obey the rules that they’re used to. That takes control away from them. Suddenly they’re vulnerable. As an aside, that doesn’t mean take away the rules – there should always be rules, even if the player, or the reader, doesn’t explicitly know them. The reaction isn’t to discard the crowbar as useless; the reaction is to cling tighter to it. It’s all they’ve got – it becomes more a talisman of hope than a means of survival. So you’ve taken the danger into a psychological space and given them something to anchor themselves with. Then you take that thing away. Better yet, you destroy it. When you take an item away from a player they will hold out hope to find it again. They’ve got something to latch onto and they’re not going to give it up. They will expect to find that crowbar later on. That’s their safe place. If you break the crowbar then it’s useless. It’s gone. It’s not coming back.
The problem with overly short gear durability is that players aren’t given an incentive to use items, nor an opportunity to get attached to them. Attachments are meaningful if you have the ability to lose them. If gear durability is too low then players don’t use what you give them even if they pick it up. They will use items against bosses and that’s more or less it. If they’re doing that then you’ve failed. You should take all the items and replace them with a stick of dynamite. All you’ve done is set up a wall and given the player some explosives. Items should alter the way you approach a scenario, they should lend themselves to a play style. If, for example, your weapons are just short lived high damage objects, then they lose their identity. They become an amorphous, but easy, way of dealing large amounts of damage to a miscellaneous barrier in the shortest possible timeframe. Nobody likes health sponges because all they take to beat is the repetitive mashing of a button. That’s what your bosses become and your items are just ways to reduce the amount of time you have to mash a button for.
That’s not a gameplay mechanic: It’s a means of reducing the risk of RSI.
In this era of day one DLC and hotfix patches, adjusting the balance of item durability isn’t beyond possibility. It’s not impossible for features and mechanics that start out as a tiresome negative to become an immersive addition with the right tweaks.
Weapon durability systems should, at their core, be a means of depriving a player of a comfort zone. While this may seem to go against design philosophy, it shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand as an impediment to fun. It simply depends on whether the mechanics interact with, and add to, other features of the game. There’s a good reason to keep your player off-balance and put them in uncomfortable situations: It keeps them alert and engaged with the game. If you give your players a very powerful item and they know that it has a limited number of uses, its inherent value goes up so long as it isn’t restricted too severely. Go too far with restrictions or overspecialise and your item value goes down. If you have unlimited access to a very powerful item then the value of everything goes down, because if there’s no chance of loss then there’s no diminishing of a player’s ability to dominate all circumstances or remain invulnerable. As a result the power is endless and, in a counter-intuitive twist, stops having meaning.
Where games can fall down is simply to overemphasise durability to the point where it is not a mechanic so much as it is a chore. If you are constantly worrying about item damage after every single use, then the system is not adding anything to the experience. There’s a significant balancing act to systems like this, pacing the availability of items, encouraging their use, differentiation, etc. Jim Sterling accurately called out the endless supply of banal bar filling that pervades survival games in his ‘Babysitting the Survivor’ episode of the Jimquisition. All too often developers seem to approach item durability in this manner; viewing potentially novel mechanics as simply another bar to keep topped up, when they should be doing anything but.
Weapon and armour durability can be an effective tool in creating an immersive experience so long as developers have the guts to take things away, and work item durability in as a complimentary system rather than an endless source of arbitrary busywork. It can keep the variety and the danger in combat regardless of player advancement, and thus keep the player from becoming complacent. As a result you keep the tension, and you can potentially wind up with some incredibly memorable emergent gameplay moments and stories. This is the strength of item durability, and by extension, a willingness to take things away from the player. As long as it can be implemented effectively, it should be encouraged. You have to be willing to both give and take away. That’s a rule for writing and it’s a rule for games, too.