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A desire not to shop
by Robert Green on 02/03/14 04:12:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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

 

Over the Christmas break I had the good fortune to have time to play through a number of excellent games that had been building up in my queue (including Bioshock Infinite, Guacamelee, and the latest Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell) and it occurred to me that most of them have one feature in common - they all have in-game stores - and now that I’ve been thinking about it, I’m not really sure why this is such a popular idea. For clarity, I’m not talking about in-app purchases here, just games like the ones above that have a virtual currency component. I’ll be picking on Bioshock Infinite a lot, though I should stress that I did enjoy my time in Columbia. I’m also talking primarily about action games, if my examples above didn’t make that clear. Visiting stores for character customisation and stat boosting may be important to the Skyrim experience, but in Bioshock Infinite, it’s importance is such that if you read the game description on their website and view all the official screenshots, you wouldn’t even know it was in there.

 

I should probably also note that this whole blog might seem a little petty. This isn’t a huge issue plaguing videogames, but I think it’s important to analyse anything that seems to be taken for granted, even if it’s fairly minor.
 

The game of shopping
 

Perhaps this is simply a result of my obsessive compulsive mindset, but I have a love/hate relationship with shopping. My miserly nature means that I like to research my purchases, I can wait for good deals, and I want to know that I’m getting the best value for my money. Shopping in a videogame rarely delivers any of that, and it often boils down to a case of “guess which of these things you’ll want in the challenges you have yet to encounter”. It's all the worst parts of real-life shopping, including the challenge of finding and saving the money, without the best parts. I don’t pretend to speak for anyone else but myself here, but I find shopping in most games to be at best a waste of time and at worst a somewhat stressful experience.
 

The stressful
 

The worst in-game store experiences can be detrimental to a game, because they put the player in the position of having to guess which purchases will be more useful, or more fun, and to weigh up which of those is more important, whilst simultaneously distracting them from the core game. In the case of something like Bioshock Infinite, the player is asked which weapons and vigors they want to upgrade, which both forces them to ponder the aforementioned issues, and encourages them to stick with a limited selection throughout the game. The end result was that I used two weapons and two vigors for the majority of the game, because I had upgraded those ones, so anything else seemed inefficient. Is that what the designers had in mind?
 

The time-wasting
 

Not only does Infinite’s design discourage you from using everything at your disposal, the need to buy these upgrades means that in a game where you can otherwise find most of the supplies you need as you progress through the world, you’re encouraged to slowly traverse every room, searching every single box, drawer and trashcan for coins, in addition to individually searching every single dead body, making the game as much a first-person looter as it is a first-person shooter. If someone were to propose a game based primarily around searching an environment and the corpses in it for coins so that you can afford your next upgrade, I doubt many of you would be lining up to preorder it. In addition, while most parts of the game (the story, locations, weapons, vigors, enemies) all change and evolve over the course of the game, this process of collecting and spending coins remains exactly the same from start to end - there's no depth to it, no challenge, just work. This coin-hunting exercise is entirely optional of course, but because these upgrades improve your combat abilities, you’d be volunteering to play a harder game if you chose to ignore it.
 

The confusing
 

This may be more of a side-note than a serious complaint, but the in-game stores in many of these titles also seem completely illogical. For example, why are there vending machines all over Columbia for vigors, when I seem to be the only one in the world using them? Why are there vending machines that upgrade guns, and why do the upgrades I make to one rifle also magically apply to any other rifle I find? In other games it seems just as strange. Why do I get money for beating up undead minions in Guacamelee, and how do I learn new wrestling moves by spending money at a save point? Why does Sam Fisher need me to collect money, based on whether I perform certain optional mission objectives, to unlock gadgets he already had in previous games? Apparently he’s the best hope America has of stopping a terrorist network, but he needs to pay for his own stealth pants? Is this a comment on military spending?
 

When I really think about it, in all of these games I’ve played recently, only in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag does the economy even seem to make sense in context, in that an 18th century pirate would be collecting money from his endeavours and spending it on weapons and ships. Much like Bioshock though, looting every corpse still seems far more like work than fun.
 

The unnecessary
 

All of this might be justifiable if it were necessary, but I would contend that even that isn’t true. Let me give a simple example. Back in the early days of the Tony Hawk franchise, each skater had a combination of skill points in various attributes (speed, spin, balance, etc). By completing goals, you’d earn more of these skill points that you could assign to any category you chose. While these points may not initially seem like a form of currency, they are earned through gameplay, then spent on upgrades, so they serve the same purpose. In 2002 Z-Axis and Acclaim released Aggressive Inline, one of the better challengers to the Tony Hawk crown. Among the many innovations this game brought to the genre, it automated the character upgrade system. Instead of passing challenges, earning points and spending them, the game had the radical idea of “improve by doing”. For example, if you spent enough time skating at your maximum speed, your speed stat improved. Spend enough time doing spinning tricks and your spin stat improved, and so on. This has a number of advantages:
 

  • It makes perfect sense in context - you get better at something by practicing it.

  • It forces you to actually do all the things at your disposal - you can’t magically get better at handplants without ever doing one.

  • It removes the need to frequently visit a menu screen to make decisions that are largely unrelated to the core gameplay.
     

I realise this last one might a little controversial. While I subscribe to Sid Meier’s view that a game is a series of interesting decisions, we should remember that not all decisions are interesting, and not all decisions add to the core gameplay of a particular title. Especially in a game where your goal is ultimately to max out all those stats, simply choosing the order in which you do that isn’t key to the experience in any meaningful way.

 

If multiple play-styles isn’t that important, then I think a game designer should have enough confidence in their craft to say “at this point in the game the player gets X” and build what they think is the optimal experience. And if having the game support multiple play-styles is important, then consider instead how the game might adapt to the player. Splinter Cell Blacklist provides a good demonstration of how this might work - the game already tracks your progress along 3 different play-styles, and most of the items in the game are specifically suited to one of these. Simply connecting the unlocks to the data already being tracked could make the whole process automatic. Less shopping, more spying.
 

A hypothetical
 

It would be completely ridiculous for me to suggest that I could design a better game than Bioshock Infinite. But since I’ve come this far, I’ll give it a shot anyway and you can use the comments to tell me why I’m wrong.
 

Imagine the same game (hopefully you’ve played it by now, it’s pretty amazing), but with the following changes:
 

  • All coins and vending machines removed.

  • Vigors aren’t upgraded individually, but rather through a global meter that represents Booker’s inherent ability to use them, which is increased by, you guessed it, successfully using them.

  • New weapons are introduced and weapons get upgrades as you progress through the world. These could even be semi-random on each gun you pick up.

  • All items are dropped in combat, preferably picked up on contact rather than having to interact with every single corpse.
     

I think this would make the experience quite different. Exploration would primarily be about finding more about the world/story, rather than looting, both saving time and that awkward feeling of being a petty thief. The incentive to stick with a few select weapons and vigors would be reduced, making the gameplay more diverse. The game would be faster-paced and more focussed on the story and core gameplay ideas, with fewer systems that don’t make any sense in context. In my mind, this seems like a better game, but I’m curious whether you, the reader, agree.
 

Another example
 

Stores introduce customisation and resource management aspects, but not every game benefits from these things. Guacamelee is an interesting example because, as a Metroid-style game, most of the upgrades you receive during the game are given to you at specific points in the world, rather than being available in the store. Additionally, the generic health/stamina upgrades that you can buy in the store are also found in the world, as a reward for finding secret passages/rooms. I’m confident that you could play through the entire game without ever visiting the store screen at all, and the only thing that you’d be missing would be some minor stat boosts, costume variants and some optional throws that would probably make more sense if the luchador coach in town taught them to you anyway. Looking at it this way, the concept of a store seems like a fallback place for the upgrades that they didn’t find a way to integrate into the world.
 

Conclusion
 

And that’s how I feel about stores in most of these games - they’re largely unnecessary. You can usually give the player new abilities through the natural progression of the game. You can customise the player by levelling up their skills or gear based on what they choose to do in the game. I don’t see a lot of good reasons to stop the player dozens of times throughout the game to make purchasing decisions in a game where in-depth character customisation isn’t a selling point. Perhaps this is simply a side-effect of wanting to reward every little action the player takes, as if they’d lack any desire to beat the game unless every step along the way earns them some coins? Or perhaps this is about developers wanting to put RPG elements into every single game, irrespective of whether the particular game needs it?


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Comments


Timothy Cutts
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I think the problem is definitely the idea that RPGs are popular, so aspects of them should be put into other genres. The problem with that, though, is that it's, would you believe, risky. It's kind of ironic, since more AAA studios blend RPG elements with other genres than indie studios do and AAA is pretty much based entirely around not taking risks... The games industry is confusing... unnecessarily so...

As for that Bioshock Infinite redesign, I personally wouldn't play it. It sounds alright at first glance, but, thinking about it more, it actually sounds like Borderlands, minus the vendors, with plasmids added in... which would be cool, especially since I love Borderlands, but it's not Bioshock. I play Bioshock games because I like the creepy atmosphere, the bio/diesel punk aesthetics, the slight hint of RPG that's just concentrated enough to work well in a purely single-player environment, as well as, obviously, plasmids. Infinite lacks the first two aspects and the vigors feel like they've just tacked plasmids onto the end so that it matches the franchise. All of those things make it quite clearly NOT Bioshock. Taking away the vague RPG elements makes it even less so...

Robert Green
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Vigors were always just tacked on, which is why they're all over Columbia, yet no one else uses them.
I'm not sure what you mean by the Borderlands comparison though - Borderlands is definitely "shooter RPG" and my intention was to remove what RPG elements there are in Bioshock, precisely because they aren't deep enough to feel like I was role-playing in a meaningful way.

Timothy Cutts
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In hindsight, it was a bad comparison, but it was the first thing that came to my head upon reading it. The modded weapons, the fact that items drop straight to the ground and are (mostly) picked up on contact. I did say "minus the vendors", which would drastically change the way Borderlands feels, since it IS and RPG. More to the point, though, it was meant to illustrate just how different Infinite would be with those design changes. The more important point that I was trying to make is that, if you take away the RPG aspects of Infinite, it would be even less like Bioshock than it already is.

The biggest problem I find with Infinite is the lack of depth, not in the design, but in the story. The original Bioshock games were essentially psychological thrillers, mixed with a touch of horror and a lot of action. Infinite was all action an no real substance. I've found that any game with RPG elements can only get away with them if the story is meaningful. Role-play can't exist without story, so for it to have depth and meaning, the story needs to be deep and meaningful as well...

Robert Green
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I think the story might have suffered from the same problems as the gameplay - too many different aspects, not covered in enough depth. Perhaps if they'd picked a couple of the aspects (nationalism, racism, class-warfare, parallel universes, etc) and focussed more on those?

Luis Guimaraes
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Originally Bioshock was supposed to have many roamers mutated by the excessive and prolonged use of plasmids. Late in the game you start to get a small hint of where the game was supposed to go, with a few splicers having deformed faces and hands. The plasmids were planned as part of the lore and contributors to many of the problems that lead to the fall of Rapture.

Christian Nutt
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It's an interesting topic. I've lately been thinking about it in the context of Hideki Kamiya's games (Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta, Wonderful 101.) He's not at all afraid to but SUBSTANTIALLY useful, even essential mechanics behind a shop-barrier and giving only the vaguest hint about their utility (you can usually try them out before you buy, but it's not always clear what's most important or effective.)

It's been quite awhile since Bayonetta 1, but I do recall that there was a mechanic (can't recall which one it was) that my friend said "completely changed the game" and was "necessary" but which I never purchased -- he'd told me this after I beat it. Obviously, it's not literally necessary and this may be a matter of opinion, but it illustrates my point.

But another point: I loved earning the upgrades, and actually, in Bayonetta, traveling back to older levels to grind for money was actually great fun, because I'd retry older content and see how much I'd progressed as a player skill-wise since I first tackled it, and also experience what the new character growth options I selected did in old situations.

That said, Bayonetta is a very special case, because it's highly skill-based and extremely customizable.

BSI as far as I could tell would be drastically improved by removing shopping since the looting is just uttterly, utterly dreadful, but I didn't play it long enough to see too much whether shopping/upgrades adds anything to the game.

Robert Green
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One game I was looking to discuss in some fashion was the new zelda. The way I understand it, you can now rent or buy all of the items from an early point in the game, and this was really well received. Having not played it though, I'm curious as to whether or not the store is the important part here, or simply having the ability to tackle the dungeons in any order? Is the process of earning money enjoyable, or just mindless slashing at weeds and smashing pots? Would the game be worse if you were just given all those items?

Christian Nutt
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I think what makes it interesting (early on, during renting) is that you lose and have to re-rent the items when you die.

There are two things you may be conflating here.

- The interest of nonlinearity afforded by this method of letting players rent/buy any item.
- The interest afforded directly by shopping mechanics.

Both are interesting.

Earning rupees (cash) is also more enjoyable. That's because there's not really a cash grind in the game. There are cash-enriching minigames, and other ways to smartly earn cash, or you can just be patient and pick it up. Plus, the intrinsic mechanics are so polished and nice that smashing pots and killing simple enemies and slashing grass is basically fun.

Plus it's quick. It would be a slog in a modern 3D Zelda game, but this isn't one.

Ricky Bankemper
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I was taking back by the shop actually. I felt it ruined the enjoyment of progression that comes with Zelda titles.

Since you normally obtain the rented items through dungeon progression, it almost felt as if I was cheating at first. However, the items are not as useful outside their themed dungeon (dungeons with lots of puzzles involving a specific rented item). I found myself missing the power that use to come with items such as the Hookshot and other items throughout the world.

Having to re-rent the items has never felt like an issue as hearts are abundant.

I have 3 dungeons left, so maybe my assessment is rushed. However, so far I am feeling a less satisfied.

I think the game benefited more from the required play sessions being extremely short. Being a handheld, you can play the new zelda in 10 minute increments are feel accomplished.

Nathan Mates
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I'd say that most RTSs are basically item shops in disguise. You have to build/buy items to get more items. Even if you had them last level.

Riley Dirksen
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I used to think that upgrading skills as you performed them sounded like a great idea, until I spent 5 straight hours sprinting and jumping in Oblivion. I didn't WANT to do it but I had to, you know, to max out my athleticism.

I then decided that even though it isn't realistic, it is way better to be able to pick locks not because I practiced picking locks, but because I killed a bunch of orcs.

Robert Green
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Having quit playing Oblivion after a few hours, I think this is more representative of the moment-to-moment gameplay of Oblivion just not being that fun by itself. In the examples I gave (Aggressive Inline and Splinter Cell), it's assumed both that you'd want to be doing those things (because that's what you buy the game for) and that you're likely to be doing plenty of them in the course of normal gameplay. If either of them had ever required you to repeat an action for a long period of time just for the purposes of levelling up, that'd be bad game design in any scenario.
Having said that, I was mainly talking about action games in this piece, whereas stores and character customisation are much more of an integral part of RPG's, and the people who enjoy them are usually seen to be after that kind of experience.

Adam Bishop
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I like this article a lot and found that I ran into precisely the same issue as the author did when I played Bioshock Infinite: I chose a small number of vigors and weapons to invest in early on and stuck with them throughout the entire game because the investment I had already put into them made the prospect of switching seem like a risky time sink.

In general I do agree that the tendency for virtually every game to now have some kind of internal currency and upgrade system to be unnecessary. Developers have recognised that players like seeing numbers go up and enjoy the feeling of having "earned" a new ability or item or whatever, but the problem for me is that in most games these seem tacked on and don't actually enhance the gameplay in any meaningful way.

Robert Marney
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I think the reason the shop feels out of place in newer Bioshock games is that the in-game economy no longer runs primarily on money. In Bioshock Infinite, you can't spend your money on consumables, or on skipping minigames, or on unlocking a high-level item or stat boost ahead of time, all of which are common features of action games with in-game currencies. Because the upgrades are so expensive, but the reward for buying them is so variable, the player is encouraged to decrease the variety of their play style in order to maximize value, and to scour the environment for collectibles. For a game like Bioshock, these go directly against the main generators of fun in the game. A skill tree / level up system would be more suited here.

Eric Harris
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I like this article. i think in game shops as Robert describes, are a form of lazy game design. I think a game focused on player skill and discovery is better game design than an in game shop. Another reason, is an appeal to casual players. They might not like to spend time running around trying to find the "secret weapon". So they just run to the in game store ad buy it.

Micah Lapping-Carr
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Along the lines of "design a game with no shop", I thought Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast did a nice job. Instead of letting you pick when you could upgrade your various abilities (Force Push, Force Jump, etc.), they were upgraded for you. At the beginning of each level, you would get a brief description of your new power(s), and the level often had some component that required you to use that power to continue, and more specifically that level of the power (e.g. once you got Force Jump lvl 3, there was a platforming section of the level that had much higher platforms than you had previously encountered). It was a nice interplay between game and level design.

Andreas Ahlborn
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As with any game mechanic, there is no such thing as a fool-proof recipe how to implement certain elements. You found good examples were ingame-shops seem more like a bad idea.

But there are dozens of counter examples that show, that when ingame "shops" are done right they really improve the overall quality of games. There is the Nexus in Demon Souls which functions as a shopping center for the whole world, and it is imo a very important part of connecting the overall mythology of the game, it glues the whole world together in a natural way, so to speak.

The DeadSpace Trilogy -especially the first iteration- has imo one of the best shop-designs i came across.
Normally a shop is a kind of Safezone, while you are shopping you have this confidence that nothing will disturb your "shopping" spree,[SPOILERALERT: but DeadSpace challenges this "unspoken" truth and gave me one of the best JumpScares of my whole gamer career].

So to generalize that shops generally are "lazy design decision" (as mentioned in the comments) comes across as unfounded bias, in a similar way, if somebody would claim that the satement "that Ďgame overí is a state of failure for the game designer" from gamasutras favorite game author should be applied to any game.

Robert Green
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I'm not sure I agree with the Dead Space setup. I think that suffered from many of the same problems as Bioshock Infinite, in that choosing between minor upgrades to weapons wasn't something I found enjoyable, and it encouraged me to stick with the weapons I'd already upgraded rather than experiment with all of them. I never finished Dead Space though, so perhaps it improved later in the game. I will say that they did do a better job of integrating it into the world rather than just being a menu screen.

Miroslav Martinovic
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"It would be completely ridiculous for me to suggest that I could design a better game than Bioshock Infinite."

I disagree, as in my opinion, BI is pretty weak, mechanically.

"Imagine the same game (hopefully youíve played it by now, itís pretty amazing), but with the following changes:"

I disagree again, the game itself is pretty boring, but the world it happens in is amazing, and the story is stellar. Still doesn't change that the game itself gets very dull very fast.

"The game would be faster-paced and more focussed on the story and core gameplay ideas"

no, thank you. the game was already too "fast-paced", with not nearly enough proper downtime, with its downtimes poorly spaced. Combined with the fact that it had too few core mechanics that were not interesting enough, this made its pacing pretty hectic, but dull. Removing even the "improper downtimes" (the coin collecting, basically) would make the issue even worse. In my mind, the game you are describing would be even bigger disappointment than the one BI is now.

However, I agree with your criticisms, I just don't think the solutions you suggest would improve anything in the overall picture.

"Perhaps this is simply a side-effect of wanting to reward every little action the player takes, as if theyíd lack any desire to beat the game unless every step along the way earns them some coins?"

Yes.

"Or perhaps this is about developers wanting to put RPG elements into every single game, irrespective of whether the particular game needs it?"

More like "thinking they need to put RPG elements into every single game, because they fear that not having any player-controlled progression system would significantly decrease their revenue. I've heard several (more mainstream) LPers who do "first impressions", or just video reviews complain repeatedly about games having no skill/equipment progression, even if it wasn't really needed or would not make sense at all, from story as well as mechanics standpoint.

Robert Green
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"no, thank you. the game was already too "fast-paced", with not nearly enough proper downtime, with its downtimes poorly spaced."

That's a good point Miroslav, and I can see what you're saying that the bad downtime needs to be replaced with good downtime rather than removed. I think it's interesting that some of the sections in BI where you aren't involved in combat, like the first half-hour or so, are still very enjoyable and well done. More sections like that (perhaps exposing some more of the backstory that's tucked away in audiologs) would probably benefit the game overall.

Dave Bleja
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I agree with a lot of what you said about Bioshock Infinite, and Iíd love to see an end to tedious looting (and binge eating of garbage you find in trashcans!).

Overall, I find shopping quite enjoyable in games. I think most people do. It caters to our gathering instinct, our desire for status symbols, and our enjoyment of quick rewards. It also gives us the opportunity to eagerly save up for something desirable and expensive, which - once we've reached our goal - is a nice feeling both in real life and in games.

Though it sounds like maybe more games should go away from the simplistic fixed price model, and instead have something more akin to a free market economy in them, with competitive pricing, wholesale vs retail, and even periodic sales. That would possibly please the bargain hunters like you (and me - sometimes I wonder if I donít get a bigger thrill from Steam sales than from the games themselves!)


But I have a problem with this statement, regarding your proposed system:

"The incentive to stick with a few select weapons and vigors would be reduced, making the gameplay more diverse"


I canít see how it could be true. In fact, I think itíd largely have the exact opposite effect. As I see it, thereíd be are a number of potential problems with this approach:

(a) If I know that the only way to get a levelled-up weapon or vigor is to use it a lot, then the last thing Iím going to do is experiment and use a wide variety of weapons, as thatíd be a recipe for becoming a jack of all trades and master of none. Instead, Iíd be pressured to pick one or two and use them as much as possible, to level them up as quickly as possible

(b) Maxxing out a weapon or vigor would be bittersweet. Instead of being happy that I now have an uber-weapon, Iíd be conscious of the fact that every time I use it Iím Ďwasting upgrade pointsí that might have gone towards upgrading something else.

(c) It'd be entirely possible for a player to reach the end of the game with a single maxxed out pistol, and every single other weapon and vigor at the lowest level. This would cause serious game design problems. Either that player would come up against prohibitively difficult sections later in the game, or else the designers would have to dumb down and homogenise the entire game so much that the whole thing was easily completable with a pistol (or a shotgun, or a fire vigor, etc.)


(d) Oblivion used the sort of system you describe, but it produced some glaring game design faults and was eventually scrapped in Skyrim. For one, many players were jumping like kangaroos absolutely everywhere they went, because it increased their jumping stat. In other words, the system encouraged compulsive grinding that was to the detriment of immersion and the intended gameplay experience.

(e) Once Iíve spent hours upgrading one weapon, Iíll be so heavily invested in it that Iíll feel Ďlocked iní. Why would I throw that hard work away just to switch to another weapon that will be weak for several more hours of use?


So, I believe your system would actually take away from the gameplay by encouraging mindless grinding, locking players early on into one or two upgrade paths, and making the use of a max level weapon feel like a waste rather than a triumph.

So I don't think you have the solution, but I do agree with at least some of your assessment of the problems.

Robert Green
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"If I know that the only way to get a levelled-up weapon or vigor is to use it a lot, then the last thing Iím going to do is experiment and use a wide variety of weapons"

I think perhaps I may have confused you there. What I was suggesting for the vigors is that they would be tied to a single 'vigor ability' meter, and hence all vigors would be upgraded at the same time. This is what I was suggesting would decrease the motivation to just stick with a couple of them.
For the weapons, I'm proposing that you aren't responsible for upgrading them, and instead they'd become more powerful as you progressed through the world (maybe due to the escalating violence in the world). As such, if you've been carrying a gun for a while, you'd actually be encouraged to throw it aside and pick up a new one, because it might be more powerful than the one you had, even if it was the same type. Perhaps Booker should even drop a gun as soon as it runs out of ammo, and automatically grab the next gun he comes across.


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