Mar 9, 2015

Why Most Elemental Damage And Status Effect Systems Are Pointless

This primarily applies to RPGs (Western ones, I've never really played a JRPG, it's possible they implement it way better, I wouldn't know).

The idea itself isn't bad in theory, but somehow whenever I see a game use it, the system serves no practical purpose.

Really, this issue is better examined on a case-by-case basis, this isn't very easily generalized into one quick and dirty list of Do's and Don'ts. But this has been bothering me for a while, and I don't have it in me to write a separate post for each game I've played that has a problem from this list, so you can consider the following text a rant.

Just so everyone is on the same page: by "Elemental damage systems" I mean games having multiple damage categories and corresponding resistances: Physical/Fire/Water/Air/Earth being a typical example, but they can take different forms (Physical/Fire/Ice, multiple types of Physical and so on).
And by status effects I mainly mean Dots (Damage over time effects) you apply to enemies, like your typical Bleed/Poison "-x hp/sec for y seconds" kinda abilities. Got it? Good.

Those are meant to add variety and depth to the game, but the differences between the damage types almost always end up being pretty much cosmetic. What could drive the player's choice of upgrades and tactics just becomes irrelevant in the decision making.

The way I see it, those systems tend to feature one or several of the following problems:
1) Most enemies in the game deal physical damage. Your typical combat encounter will have mostly melee guys (physical), some ranged guys (also physical) and maybe one or two mages.
2) Enemies that do deal non-standard, non-physical damage don't stick to one damage type in particular. You can't invest in resistance to a particular damage type because you can't predict which one you'll need, and you usually need all of them. In the previous example, even if the mages attack you with huge nukes to compensate for all the mooks that use brute force, you're still better off investing in physical armor above all else, because the mages will use multiple spells with different damage types. Even if each mage in the dungeon specializes in one type of spell, the dungeon will inevitably have mages of different specialty for each encounter.
3) Enemies that are based around a non-standard damage type by their nature, such as dragons, air/water/fire elementals, acidic goos and so on, almost always deal as much physical damage as their special damage, if not more. 

All of the above has to do with trying to game resistances to incoming damage. When it comes to deciding which damage type to inflict you run into this:
4) Only physical resistance is clearly balanced and signposted. You'll have bulky enemies wearing heavy armor (obviously resistant to physical) and skinny enemies in light armor or clothes, and that lets you know how they will respond to physical damage. So what about the other types? This is where we run into problems: how do you intuitively represent a creature's weakness to, say, Fire? Common sense would dictate that virtually all animals should have low resistance to Fire, but games often deviate from common sense to preserve balance (as well they should, but that means you can't use common sense to figure these things out). Is a rat weak against Wind? Is it more or less susceptible to wind than a horse or a giant centipede? And what about esoteric damage types like 'Psi' or 'Magic', or fantastical nonsense creatures like wyverns or lizardmen...

All of the above applies to status effects too, if they can actually be countered with a specific resistance value. For the most part, effects like "Stun" are just too easily resisted for fear of making them overpowered, enemies that use them on you are few and far between and if you do happen to encounter an enemy that's particularly weak to being stunned, you'll usually have no way of knowing that short of trying Stun on every enemy you fight. And Dots are functionally the same as regular attacks: you can apply Bleed with -5 hp/sec for 5 seconds, or you can just cast a fireball that will do 25 damage. If it's all the same, why have a different attack type at all (aside from trying to pretend there's more choice in the game than there really is). There might be some slight difference in DPS or mana usage, but the tradeoff between using direct damage and a Dot is usually too insignificant to invoke real choice and justify adding such bloat to the game.

After all that, the best course of action for the player is to disregard the whole differentiated damage system and just stack physical armor and physical damage whenever possible, with all others being secondary to that. And the choice between the others is a matter of whim more than strategy. And that's okay I suppose, it doesn't make a game terrible, but... why confuse players with this fake non-choice, why even go through the trouble of adding it in if you're not going to do anything with it?

My ideal damage system forces you to think and agonize about the skill and gear choices you make during play. It rewards preparation for your adventuring expeditions, it makes you adapt. It also punishes mistakes, which may be why so many games adopt a mockery of it instead of the real deal (or maybe it's that whole games-are-very-hard-to-design thing, I guess).

So how do you make a damage/resistance system that doesn't suck? To avoid making this post needlessly overlong and dense than it already is I'll just say "Do the opposite of the above", but for the sake of completeness I might examine how it was done properly and succefuly in Divinity: Original Sin in another post.

No comments: