Thursday, May 4, 2017

+5 Everything Damage

I've been gushing about Pillars of Eternity and Tides of Numenera's improvements on RPG tropes for the past few months but they both drop the ball when it comes to meaningless proliferation of ability and damage types. I complained about this trend in one of my earliest posts here, and four and a half years later I'm seeing no signs of improvement.

Whatever creative potential the Numenera setting's "esoteries" (magic spells) might have in the pen and paper version is utterly lost on TToN. From level 1, my nano was pigeonholed into shooting a basic magic missile spell, which I could switch, at will, to any damage type I please. Later you of course get the "greater magic missile" or "missile storm" spell which is not just any-purpose but all-purpose.
Leaving aside for the moment the issue of trivializing magic by limiting it to moronic pew-pew, there is no point in pretending to include six different damage types in your combat system unless you're actually going to make players choose between them. The same goes for status effects:
While that item from PoE is a rather extreme and unique example (most items protect against a couple of those) that litany of status effects perfectly illustrates the problem. It is not feasible to even attempt to predict which type of effect will be used by enemies, so you end up relying on the "suspend all negative effects" items or priest spell.

Why do game developers so routinely shoot themselves in the foot?

In PvP games featuring different damage types to be defended against by different armor, the number of options is more often than not limited to two: physical and magic, or physical and "energy" if you're in a SF setting, or "soft" and "hard" damage in Planetside, etc. If you get up to four, as in EVE, you already start seeing them routinely combined for offense, and players ignoring specific defenses in favor of all-purpose safety blankets. I'm sure anyone more versed in game theory than myself would readily name various cogitations on the maximum number of choices before not-choosing becomes the best logical choice. The lady or the tiger? Dodgy choice to begin with. When it's "the lady or the tiger or the tiger or the tiger or the other tiger" you end up collapsing in the arena in resignation or trying to jump the wall.

Nevertheless, it is possible to institute a wide array of choices in PvE so long as you give players some means of scouting or planning ahead. The Lord of the Rings Online, before it got dumbed down into insignificance, had quite a few examples of creatures to be countered by specific abilities (minstrel/loremaster undead dazing for example) or weapons made of one of three particular metals. In an MMO, players would know what kind of dungeon they're planning to run and stock up accordingly, a dynamic carried over from tabletop games. If your D&D group's planning to raid the Tomb of the Bloodless Butler on Thursday, you probably know to stock up on holy water and starch-piercing wooden stakes.

In story-based single-player games, however, developers usually opt against letting players scout ahead in favor of suspenseful secrecy and plot twists, which means including any specific damage/ability counters in the game mechanics is either purely cosmetic, or worse, a whole barrel full of red herrings. Do yourselves a favor and stop wasting development time on implementing options which you'll only waste more employee hours homogenizing into irrelevance two patches later when your play-testers throw up their hands in frustration at being blindsided.

Do it right or not at all.

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