perfectly spherical

Game Design In Theory

Shake It Up

☰ Table of Content

You think you have it all figured out.

Your build is perfect. It’s got armor-piercing DPS, it has a tank with killer lifesteal and the ability to stop enemy casters with mana theft, and it has a healer who can groupcast!

And then you run into a guy who smacks your DPS character in the face with a slice of cake. A slice of cake that turns them into a ghost. What do you do now?

You shake it up, that’s what.

Build theory is fun! It’s something I actually greatly enjoy. But the thing about build theory is that, like a free market, it is eternally chasing something which it should never, ever get to have: the perfect build.

The goal of build theorizing is to create an optimized build that counters as many situations as possible, doing maximum damage while minimizing risk. And if you ever manage to create a build that counters every situation you run into, you have solved the entire game–which is bad because that means there’s no more builds to theorize about. If you are ever able to create the perfect build, you remove the part that you were having fun with.

Naturally, some games have come up with ways to deal with this.

Bravely Second, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Eat Cake

Minor spoilers for Bravely Second, but there’s some wild bosses in that game, and–because it’s a traditionally-structured RPG, where bossfights mostly happen in order–you run into those bosses right when you need to.

Bravely Second, like its predecessor Bravely Default (and the sequel, Bravely Default 2) has an intricate and fascinating character build system. Not only can any character be any class at any time, they can also equip a “subclass” to gain a second set of special actions in addition to the first, and they can also equip up to 5 points of passive abilities that they unlock by ranking up in each class. You can do things like create lifesteal/mana-steal tanks using the Valkyrie’s Spirit Shield ability and the Thief’s, well, stealing abilities. You can combine the Summoner with the Witch and reshape powerful summon spells into everything from multi-hit spells to walls. You can combine the Marksman’s armor-piercing Harpoon buff with any number of other attack buffs.

And then you run into a boss who can afflict your party with Ghost, an effect that makes characters unable to attack but still able to cast spells, and suddenly your armor-piercing sniper isn’t looking so hot. The deeper you get into Bravely Second, the more insane bosses get, with powers that challenge you to come up with a build that works around them.

By doing this, Bravely Second creates the antidote to the ultimate build. As long as you have to worry about getting slapped in the face with a new kind of bossfight–one that invalidates your current build–you are pushed to think about how your build can be changed, how to specialize in new ways. This keeps the builds coming.

You get a similar effect out of most Shin Megami Tensei games, for a different reason–instead of giving you a bunch of particularly strange status effects or mechanics, SMT just throws bosses at you that are resistant or even outright immune to damage types.

It’s often said that the first time you face a boss in Shin Megami Tensei is less of an attempt and more of a recon mission–because you’re gonna have to dramatically rework your team of demons to defeat each boss. You might’ve done part of the bonus dungeon in SMT: Strange Journey, and gotten Zeus out of it, but even Zeus isn’t gonna do very well against a demon that heals when it takes lightning damage. It helps that, because of how SMT games are designed, you can almost always recreate a boss’s build.

What if you don’t know where the player’s going first?

This all works just fine for traditionally-structured RPGs where the devs know which bosses the player can fight at any given time, but what about roguelikes, or even just games where you can pick dungeons at your leisure?

Minecraft Dungeons is one such example. It’s a Diablo-like. It’s actually pretty good!

And it has an entirely equipment-based build system. Your active abilities, your passive abilities, your melee and ranged attacks–all of these are determined entirely by what you equip, and where you spend Enchantment Points on that equipment. The only constant is that you have a healing potion on a long cooldown, and that can be affected by some of your passive effects.

Thing is, you’re always gonna have a tendency to cling to what you’re familiar with. I love this build that lets me dodge-roll twice a second and fire a trio of arrows every time I do! But I have all this other equipment, equipment with bigger numbers, which would require me to change how I fight. And instead of agonizing over this, I have a solution.

Early in Minecraft Dungeons, you unlock the Blacksmith. And the Blacksmith can upgrade your items–but you have to play out a set of levels without those items, start to finish, to finish upgrading them. You get your Enchantment Points back from the item when you commit it to upgrading. You still get the exact same equipment back, with bigger numbers, but in the meantime you’ll have to make do with something else–which means you have to experiment, because a good synergy is even more powerful than the big numbers. You aren’t gonna have your old build for a while, and you just freed up a bunch of Enchantment Points, so you might as well try that one weird thing that just might work…

By temporarily taking away your favorite equipment as part of the upgrade process, Minecraft Dungeons gives you an excuse to play around with new equipment, without cheapening the resource investment in choosing how to build that equipment and without pissing you off.

Durability. Ugh.

As much as everyone hates durability systems–and I understand why, and I want to fix it–there’s actually a point to them sometimes. Beyond mere resource costs, durability on equipment can give you one final reason to change your build: The items you were relying on are broken now.

Breath of the Wild’s durability system has often been maligned because it feels like weapons simply break too quickly. Part of this is that there’s no durability meter beyond “almost broken”, so nobody feels confident gauging how much they have left. However, it does give you an incentive to carry plenty of weapons–and to pick up any weird, interesting, or powerful-looking weapons you find along the way, since you don’t know when your best sword will break.

Sadly, this falls flat in some areas, because some weapons are just hard to use under BotW’s mechanics (the throwing spear, for instance). However, a properly-tuned durability system–in a game where there are many options–would encourage players to use those other options.

Minecraft is a bad example. (Yes, this is a Minecraft post now.) Minecraft tries to force you to build new items, using increasing repair costs–and, eventually, denying you the ability to repair at all. This also ties into the enchantment system; more enchantments = higher repair costs.

There’s just one problem: Minecraft has very few meaningful options. The optimal build for swords looks exactly the same every time: Sharpness V, Unbreaking V, possibly Mending if you can get it. Knockback is okay but lowers your DPS. Fire Aspect is bad because enemies on fire will set you on fire. None of the specialized damage enchantments are worth it because they don’t do enough damage against their specific enemy types to be better than Sharpness; swords are the only option because a Sharpness V diamond sword does more damage than an axe per swing with higher attack speed.

Mending is kind of admitting defeat in this regard. Mending sidesteps the repair cost problem by sacrificing XP gain to repair your sword. It takes a system that was designed to force you to spend resources eventually, and removes the need to spend resources. With the addition of Mending, the devs basically admitted that the durability system sucks.

I’ll have to write another blogpost later about how to fix durability.

Update: 2021-11-02

<< Endgame Content (MLHRWM part 4) All the Gold, And the Guns >>