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The Power of Change: Part Two
by Richard Vaught on 08/01/11 11:24:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Whew.. I wasn't expecting to see the response I got from my first blog, but I admit it was encouraging, and I appreciate any and all who took the time to read it, much less reply. I just wanted to note before I get started that these are my opinions, nothing more, and they are based off the last 25 years of game playing experience and my own attempts and research into game design and the direction that I would like to see games moving towards. 

Dynamic Equipment Design 

In the introduction blog to this series I rather jokingly made reference to rose and violet +90 sword of rat slaying. However, the remark was only partially a joke. Anyone who has spent any time looking around the games today can see how focused on gear, and more specifically stat gear, that games have become.

In the early days of MMOs, I recall playing the beta version of Everquest, when the best gear readily available was made by the players. I remember how grateful I was when I kind soul gave my level five Dark Elf Shadowknight a set of banded plate mail that allowed me to slice through the snakes, wolves, lions, and orcs, like they were made of playdough. I also remember how proud of my first bone bladed claymore I was. However, as much as I enjoyed earning those rare drops, they never once compared with the pride I felt when I personally created my first high level player crafted weapon. On future characters, I would often refuse to sell loot to vendors, instead cleaning out my bags doing trade skills and mastering them a few points at a time. I remember how depressing it was when SOE took over the game and introduced an item into the TUTORIAL that gave +5 to every stat for about 15 minutes worth of playing. 

Like much of my focus on change in game design, the concept of dynamic equipment creation by players is all about creating a personal investment on the part of the player. There has to be a meaningful connection between player and object in order for the player to get the most out of the experience. Not only that, but the rarer the object, the greater the source of pride. I read an article on Gamasutra(regarding selling rare items in microtransactions) that cited a study showing that people feel more attached to something that they feel is the original, and that it becomes a source of pride for them. How can we as game designers use this to our advantage? How can we build connections between players and equipment that are not based solely on statistics?

Several games have tried to address this in various ways:

  • Time Investment(Time=Money)
  • Bragging Rights(A really difficult quest or Boss drop)
  • Rarity
  • Statistical Modifiers(combat multipliers/affects)
  • Some Combination of the above
However, there always reaches a point where everyone who wants one has one, and then it is no longer a novelty and people are off in search of the next best thing. So even though  a connection is made, it is extraordinarily transiant and fleeting. What issues are their with these methods?

  • All items are identical copies, from identical bosses, from identical raids, identical quests, identical accomplishments.
  • Players lose equity in the item as rarity diminishes in terms of both their tangible investment and emotional/mental investment. This also nullifies bragging rights as more players accomplish the same thing you did.
  • Statistical modifiers often get out of control leading to a wildly unbalanced game as players reach the level cap and the highest tiered gear, making all lower level content relatively worthless as a  player experience. This means that the game developers lose financial equity in their game the longer players play.

 What is missing from all of these methods? What can we design into our games to combat the bloat? In a word, personality.

What's in a Name? 

When we start talking about personality and identity, one of the key points is simply the name. When asked, "Who are you?", most of us would without hesitation answer with our name. It is part of our identity. While our name is not truly who we are, it is something that is so integral to our personality that if someone were to call us something other than our name or a nickname that we identified with, we probably would not even realize they were talking to us. 

This sense of identity also applies to items in game. As database schemas have become more complex, is there any valid reason that item names should not be, at least in part, random or semi-random? What does it cost in terms of development? All of the game data for that item is going to be stored in the database or in the game object itself anyway, and the program is not likely to call the object by the name the player reads, so why not let the player have the one and only item named "Fluffy Wabbit Swaying Axe of Metalic Dooooom"... the player will not care that it is the same old battle axe with a measely +5% atk vs. wabbits. It is theirs. It is unique. Its special. All others are just imitators because this ax, my ax, is the only ax called the "Fluffy Wabbit Swaying Axe of Metalic Dooooom."

To stat, or not to stat...
For those that have played games recently, you have most probably noticed the +90 to this, +180 to that type stats on weapons and armor. To my mind, gear like that is trying to balance a bunny on a seasaw by dropping a freight train on the other side. You might create the first bunny astronaut, but you will not make a balanced game. Not only that, as mentioned previously, you introduce what I affectionatly refer to as stat whores, the people who don't care about anything except having the best stats. While this is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, it has some definite draw backs.

  • Scalability - A weapon system like this quickly makes killing high end creature content a trivial matter as new expansions are released. A prime example is in EQI where players can solo gods. (Does that mean the players are gods..... some of them seem to think so!)
  • Content Destruction - This type of system quickly makes area, equipment and creature content obsolete as they will not be able to provide enough challenge or reward for the players' time investment. This is a net loss for the developer that requires constant deliver of new content to keep players challenged and interested if there is any plan at all to try and further the profit margins.
  • Player Retention - This type of system either leads to a contived binding system or countless twinked characters running around. One way kills the in world economy, the other kills the content faster than it was designed for, potentially lowering the retention rate and duration from what was targeted as old players get disgusted at seeing 'newbs' burn through the levels so quickly, new players feel bored so they don't stay, players feel like you are cheating by not letting them sell their gear(especially when you are dangling the next shiny right in front of them that they can not afford), or players still do not really understand how to make the most effective use of their characters because all of the carefully structured learning curve you created for them has been bypassed. 
  • Economy - This type of system has a negative impact on the player economy(assuming you do not use the binding system) as more players reaching the end game flood the market with high end gear thus reducing the marketability of your low and mid-game content. 
These are not problems that designers are unaware of. In fact, several games have tried, with varying degrees of success, to deal with these issues. EQ introduced the idea of equipment that gains experience(I don't think they originated the idea, but it is one of the first graphical MMO examples that comes to mind.) The problem they encountered is that they introduced it to late into the development, after the overall game balance had already been irrevocably skewed, and they introduced as a high-end game function which did nothing to eliminate the fact that nearly all of their low-to-mid-game content was not worth playing because of existing balance issues. They also had the weapons bind to players, which to my way of thinking is another no-no and a sign of a inherent balance issue.

One of the best examples I have seen came from the PSP game Phantom Brave. While the other mechanics in the games system may have been lacking, the way they handled item and character progression was innovative and refreshing. Not only could you level up items to unlock their hidden potential(creating a vested interest of time in the item), you could also combine items to create items that possessed some, or most, of the attributes of the consumed piece of equipment, but then you no longer had that piece available to use. This was good in that it forced a player to make strategic choices, created a since of loss when your favorite piece of equipment was broken(however temporarily), and made the player think twice before dumping something at the vendor, while providing an back up drain to remove excess items. Not only that, but the level of the item alone wasn't enough to make it useful. Each character had a skill set that determined how effective they were at using particular types of items, the amount of mana they had available to use the skills the items allowed, and there were normally trade offs involving speed as well. Player characters were also able to merge with items to increase their stats and/or gain new innate abilities and elemental attributes.

While this type of  system is certainly not appropriate for every game, I think there is a lot that can be learned by studying it and seeing what root elements can be applied. So, without further ado, here are a list few elements regarding stat items that I feel could be better addressed:

**Yes, I am aware that numerous games have done some of these. I still feel that could be more thoroughly addressed in upcoming games.**

  • Stat Dynamics - I think a break from static weapon statistics is in order in general, and, unless your theme allows for items to become stronger as they are used, should reflect a characters ability to use the item effectively. This can take the form of inherrent item properties that open up as the item/player is upgraded, the discovery of unknown abilities, merging item properties, or imbuing a item with new properties/abilities. 
  • Allow the weapon to have base statistics, but link any additional upgrades directly to the player. If the player wields that specific item, the player gets those specific bonuses, if another player wields the item, they do not. This removes the need for binding the equipment altogether.
  • Provide multiple ways to discard stat items, and give adequate rewards to the player for doing so. There is nothing worse than selling what used to be a near priceless artifact for a minute fraction of what the value was. Depreciation is NOT a fun mechanic. This applies regardless of whether you are using a binding system or not. There should be more than one way to get rid of your old stat gear. Rip it apart for components, merge it, upgrade it, sacrifice it to the gods, give it to the city armory, donate to the local polo club, something. 
  • Items that give base stat enhancements should be RARE. That way they retain their value. Higher damage/defence, longer range, faster reload times, fine. Those are just weapon specs but the +90 Sword of Rat Slaying should be used on the rat that designed it.
  • Weapon categories should MATTER!! Given that a staff, a sword, a hammer, a gun, a wand, a dagger, and a grenade all have the same base damage, the simple virtue of their being a different TYPE of weapon should make a significant impact not just on how they are used, but one who they are used against. Somehow stabbing the zombie with the dagger or clubbing it with the staff instead of splattering its head all over the wall with a shotgun just seems like I am asking to be lunch.
  • Conversely, armor categories should MATTER as well. A kevlar vest won't protect you from a bashing weapon(don't believe me, go get hit in the chest with a sledge hammer while wearing one....that crap hurts) because they are designed to stop high velocity piercing weapons. 
Just to name a few..

Player Creation 

Player created content can be a scary thing. I'm almost certain that anyone who has ever played a game where players could create content could tell at least one horror story. However, freedom of expression is becoming a major drawing point for games. Players want to be able to feel that they have contributed in some small part to making their game world, and they want their character to be unique in their game world(quite possibly because it is so dang difficult to be unique in the real world). This also has the added benefit of bringing another group of players into your game.

I am not suggesting that a lot of resources be dedicated to creating fancy gimicks for the players, but rather, let the other kids play with your toys. Many game developers will create editors to work with their game engine during the development of the game. So allow the players limited access to your editors and let them get to work. Heck, build a truncated version of your editors into the game itself as part of the crafting engine. Let the player have some control over basics like the shape, color, and design elements of the kit that they are crafting. (I will talk about crafting items in another post as it is deserving of its own topic.) Give the players a connection to their creations. Give them another way to say, "This is my item. There is no other item like it. It is special because I made it special. This item represents a part of me." I think you will find that many players will forgo better spec'd items in favor of unique items, particularly if they are created by the players themselves. This is especially true when considering loss aversion. 

In the end, a game is not just a game, it's a relationship. This is particularly true when you are designing a game with the intent that a player will spend anywhere between 30 hours to 6 months playing your game. The more meaningful connections you can create, the more likely you are to keep the player coming back.  Create a game that the players can make their own, and you have created a game that will grow and thrive long after you remove your hand from it and let it walk on its own.

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Misha Icaev
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Game is Competition.

In that sense unique gear is actually "odd". It is unique 1st time, May be so 2nd time and it's ODD from 3rd time onward.

That is why identical feat (quest, boss, raid) should have identical reward. So far best solution for this is score for performance (skill or/and creativity). That way killing Diablo becomes competition where each move either give or take points to(from) your score - and in the end you get 2nd place because someone did it better. This way over-powered sets could be fairly penalized in performance competition, saving value of mid-low level gear.

Darren Tomlyn
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As far as gear is concerned - it really depends on the type of game. The problem we have at this time, is with companies/games trying to balance out the use of BOTH character AND gear capability and trying to make them equal.

This leads to far too many problems with both balance AND capability for the players too.

'RPG's' whether MMO or not, should be CHARACTER based. All gear should simply enable more of the written story in relation to the characters. The more of the story that gets replaced by the story told in the equipment/gear found/bought (loot), the less of game it becomes - (and the more of a competition it is).

(This is what happened with Diablo 2, has happened to World of Warcraft, and (by the sounds of it), will happen to Diablo 3 too, to give some examples).

Games are about people competing in a structured environment by WRITING their OWN stories - the equipment/gear they need can also be part of that, even using the story told (loot) to enable such a thing. (Don't like the weapon you found? Fine - smelt it down and use the ingredients to make one you want).

Now, how you want the system to work, depends on the mechanics of the game - is it about the basic capability of the game, with the players skill making the difference?

This would mean that the capability of all equipment would need to be balanced with each other at all times, leaving the players skill in using it to make the difference, and therefore matter.

Is it about basic capability with additional different, but balanced, capability earned (width)? (Which may also allow the players skill to matter).

This is a development of that above, but with the development of gameplay and capability over time.

Or is it about the ongoing development of capability as the game progresses (depth)?

The balance here matters at each stage of progress, and therefore needs to have far more involvement in such regulation. The more areas that need to be so regulated, the more difficult it is to balance. The one ingredient that most of these types of game have, that EVERYTHING in the written, (and some told), stories, can, (and should), be balanced to and by, is course the/a characters level. There is then no reason why keeping any equipment balanced with such a level cannot be then be part of the written story itself. Most of the imbalance in these games comes from a disconnect between the characters level, the characters capability due to their level, and the equipment they use. If they're ALL part of the written story, and the game is designed well, this would be far less of a problem.

Richard Vaught
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Darren: "Games are about people competing in a structured environment by WRITING their OWN stories - the equipment/gear they need can also be part of that, even using the story told (loot) to enable such a thing. (Don't like the weapon you found? Fine - smelt it down and use the ingredients to make one you want)."

Agreed, which is why I promote the maximum amount of player agency possible. The second part of your comment also touches slightly on creating additional drains for loot within the game that encourage player agency which I commented on in my original post.

Darren: "Now, how you want the system to work, depends on the mechanics of the game - is it about the basic capability of the game, with the players skill making the difference?"

I am not so certain that these two questions are so different. The basic capability of any game should be to allow the skills of the player to directly impact the world. I think in this case it is a question of degree. Do you want more creative control over the world, or are you willing to relinquish some of that control to the player, and if so, how much?

As far as your questions concerning width and depth, they too are not mutually exclusive. You can design a balanced set of assets that is also tiered to allow for progression while at the same time not using trivial or contrived dividers. For example, requiring a particular strength score, instead of a level, in order to get the maximum effective use out of a heavy piece of equipment provides a set of balances. Any player could put it on, but players who did not possess the requisite skill in sufficient measure would not be able to use it to its potential.

A good example can be seen by thinking of a broadsword. The weapon itself, if you have ever had the opportunity to hold one, is not extraordinarily heavy, but it does have considerable weight, and what's more, the balance of that weight seems slightly awkward. While I personally have enough physical strength to pick it up and swing it, my strength(stat), speed(stat), and control(skill) are not enough that I would be able to wield it effectively in a combat. I might manage some lucky strikes, but they would only be lucky strikes, not aimed, skilled attacks with the maximum possible affect. None of these are impacted by any nebulous 'level' requirement. It is a simple deficiency on my part.

If we don't need a nebulous idea like 'Levels' to determine skill usage, as I've just shown, then the question becomes what do we need them for at all, as anything can be reduced to a skill or stat.

More to come on that in future posts though :) Thanks for the feedback

Darren Tomlyn
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It's obvious you haven't quite recognised everything that I'm talking about, and how it's all related, unfortunately. This is all something I've been working on and thinking about for a long time, and, because of my findings, I now see and understand how everything fits together at all levels - (including the 'big picture' - which few people are able to get atm due to the problems with the language).

I recommend you read my blog for some of the foundations, though it's a little incomplete - (I'll be filling in some gaps when I've finished the next post on art).

Perhaps I could have explained more precisely - all the time I've spent on this has probably led to me making too many assumptions about my audience - if that's the case, then sorry.

Richard: "I am not so certain that these two questions are so different. The basic capability of any game should be to allow the skills of the player to directly impact the world. I think in this case it is a question of degree. Do you want more creative control over the world, or are you willing to relinquish some of that control to the player, and if so, how much?"

No - it's not about the degree, but HOW. There are three methods here that need to be decided that affect HOW the game itself functions in a manner related to what we're talking about:

Player skill.

Character skill


All of what I was talking about is how the basic game needs to function in order to either promote the player OR character skill in regards to the basic written story of the game within the settings you're talking about, and how that impacts the mechanics of any gear/equipment that is needed to be used. I could go into FAR more detail about all this, but I'm planning on doing all that later in my blog anyway...

As regards to character attributes - these are also levels, just implemented in a different way - there are many different ways of describing a characters level, and relating any equipment (and other capabilities) to them... The term level does not just mean one overall statistic governing everything, though such a thing can still prove useful.

All character capability in regards to depth, needs to be regulated through levels in whatever manner, otherwise balance would be impossible. Of course, it is possible to use width as depth too - (gaining additional balanced capability over time, instead of developing what is already present).

Richard Vaught
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I was referring specifically to 'Levels' in the generic sense of player achieves X number of experience points and suddenly many if not all of their stats/skills increase collectively. This is also applied to capping a particular skill/stat in relation to such a global level.

I do realize that all stats/skills are a level in a sense, but it is the difference in defining a singular ability/skill of a character's versus defining the character as a whole. Defining singular characteristics promotes uniqueness and flexibility, defining overarching levels promotes conformity to an idea and a feeling of determinism.

Darren Tomlyn
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I know - but the difference for this discussion doesn't matter - all methods exist to achieve the same aims in regulating the players capability in relation to the rest of the game over time as the game is played - including the equipment used.

Yes, there are many ways in which such a system can be applied, but they exist to fulfil the same objective in regards to the nature of this discussion.

What the differences you mention are TRULY about are:

Using a characters level to:

Regulate what the player does/can do for themselves.

Regulate what the game does/can do (to and for the player).

ONLY the former has any place in defining a game. If a player has no choice or power OVER what is being regulated, then it is not part of the written story and has no place in defining the game - it is merely something that happens TO the player. This is the problem with the way gear/equipment works in games atm - (especially Blizzard's games) - they are not part of the written story and so are not part of the 'game' itself.


Imagine that after every fight in a beat'em'up, the player gets given an extra move they can use - they gain a level.

If the player has no choice about what move they can gain, then it remains just a beat'em'up with extra rewards along the way.

If the player has a choice about what moves they can gain after each fight they win, then it becomes more than just a beat'em'up, because the written story itself has now changed.

This then leads to the problem we have at this time with the term 'Role-playing Game' being used for two reasons that are not compatible, and has always caused problems.

What you're talking about is a more fine-grained difference that doesn't matter for the discussion at hand.

At the end of the day, either:

A) the player can use a variety of equipment they find at any time if they so choose (Width). (Best for games reliant on player skill)

B) the player can use any equipment after a set amount of time played/level gained. (Width as depth - can be used for player or character skill - (esp. PvP)).

C) the player can only use certain equipment depending on what choices they made while playing the game over time. (Depth).

What I said before relates to this. The individual methods of achieving such uses doesn't really matter - yet. (We're talking about the equipment more than the player/character).

Now, of course, the methods can vary according the equipment itself, of course - it can also gain the property of development too, (either told or written). This would be compatible with both B&C above, but would best work with C.

There are two types of written development, only one of which is discrete and can therefore have any additional impact on the written story.

Many games (such as the original Dungeon Siege/Morrowind etc.) relate the development of the character to the basic gameplay itself (and so has no part in defining the written story beyond such gameplay), whereas others (most D&D type games) do not - they separate the character development from the basic gameplay with an additional layer of abstraction, and so it DOES change the games definition. (Currently as an RPG, but as I said, it's problematic).

There is no reason why equipment cannot also be affected the same way.

(Equipment and gear, usually has no part in defining a game, since it is usually a story that is told, not written - it's the written story it is used for that matters - but then, that's the same for any piece of equipment that is defined/labelled by it's use/function - (including games themselves)- except when the equipment/gear defines what type of story can be written with it - as a medium).