EQUIPMENT UPGRADES

def +6, mdef +278215, 50% resistance to tastes-like-orange-tang elemental attacks

  • LockeZ
  • 12/31/2013 07:14 PM
  • 5455 views
Most RPGs give the player increasingly powerful equipment as they go on. This serves two main purposes: it gives the player an immediate concrete goal for power they need to obtain - "get this upgrade" instead of "get as many experience points as you can until you get bored of grinding experience points" - and it gives the player a method by which they can temporarily choose the direction to grow in. They can buy equipment for one character instead of another, or defensive gear instead of agility-boosting gear, giving them a level of control over their party.

Other games might have different types of upgrades instead of, or in addition to, standard equipment. These other upgrades could be runic glyphs, talent points, class upgrades, collecting dozens of party members, spell augmentation, new healing items, better food buffs, or whatever. These tend to mostly serve the same purposes, though they're often given out through very different methods. I'll leave it up to you to decide if your alternate upgrade system is similar enough to equipment for some or all of this article to apply to it. Though the answer is probably yes to at least some of it!


Shin Megami Tensei games let you recruit more powerful demons as the game goes on, which replace equipment as your main source of upgrades. Many of the concepts carry over, especially in the games where you can buy new demons in shops.



How often should you give equipment upgrades out? How strong should they be? How much should they cost? The answers to these questions are linked to each-other, obviously. Weaker upgrades should cost less and be more frequent.
Only you can decide exactly what numbers are appropriate for your game. But here are some guidelines to help you figure that out.


HOW MUCH POWER?
What you want, in general, at the minimum, is for the upgrade to be strong enough that it feels meaningful. How much power is "meaningful" can vary depending on the difficulty of your game - in a harder game, smaller amounts of power matter more, because they can be the difference between life and death instead of just making battles go a little faster. It can also vary depending on the level of randomness in combat - if damage is highly random, small upgrades can be very hard to notice. It also matters how much of the game the player spends in combat, and the number of options available to the player in combat that don't become stronger as you get new equipment; actions like using items, stealing, or inflicting ailments sometimes aren't improved by equipment, and minigames and exploration are almost never affected by equipment, so if the player is doing these things a lot then equipment upgrades need to be bigger to feel like they're worth getting.

At the same time, though, if you overdo the thing about making it strong enough to feel meaningful, then every upgrade will feel (and maybe even literally be) mandatory. This isn't usually what you want, unless you're making an extremely difficult game.


This armor upgrade reduces the damage you take by an impressive 0.8%. It would be an utter waste of money if it didn't also give you an extra materia slot.



Looking at it from another angle, strong equipment upgrades limit the effectiveness of grinding experience points. The player feels less need to gain a bunch of levels before moving on if he or she knows there are easier, faster, or less mind-numbing ways to become more powerful. Powerful upgrades, especially ones that are obtained naturally as the player progresses or that are obtained by merely exploring the game world, can therefore be used to encourage the player to do less repetitive, more enjoyable parts of the game instead of grinding experience points. After all, many players will follow whatever strategy is most effective, even if it's not the most fun - it's your job as the developer to try to make the most effective strategy and most fun strategy be one and the same.

But on the same token, if you overdo it on the powerful upgrades, then level ups will start to feel worthless, which may not be what you want - discouraging people from stopping and grinding for an hour is one thing, but encouraging them to just run from every battle because the rewards suck isn't good either. There's a balance.

Where's the balance? Hopefully you'll know it when you hit it. Playtest your own game, and get other people to test it too and report back to you. Add some hella powerful upgrades and then boost the monsters up to match, and check to see if it feels like you can't live without the upgrades. If you feel like they've become mandatory or become the most important thing in the game, then lower them back down, but if not, keep the game like that. Then as another test, add some harder to get upgrades and some smaller upgrades, and test to see if these minor upgrades feel like they're worth getting. Does the armor actually let you survive longer? Do the weapons actually let you kill enemies in fewer rounds? Does the healing bonus from that staff actually affect how often you have to heal? And if so, is it a big enough difference that you'd rather get it than just wait for the next upgrade? The next upgrade might not be that far away.


HOW LONG?
At the minimum, a piece of equipment should last long enough that it feels like it's worth paying money for. Or, if you obtain it from a different method than buying it from a shop, it should feel like it's worth whatever work you put into it.

If you make the player grind out specific ingredients to obtain a piece of equipment, for example, then you know exactly how much time the player put into obtaining the equipment. You might calculate that an average player is going to get 70% of the ingredients naturally while exploring dungeons and will have to go out of his way to grind the other 30%. You can figure out exactly how many extra battles it'll take, on average.

For gold, it's a little more complex. The player can get gold while working on other things, and can save it up by not purchasing things earlier in the game. The player isn't usually going to feel like "I spent two hours getting all that gold," because he or she was never really actively trying to get gold. The gold just accumulated incidentally while the player did other stuff. This means you have a little more leeway on giving upgrades too soon - the player won't be as bothered that he or she wasted gold on an upgrade that only lasted ten battles, because that gold was kinda sorta free anyway.

But even so, equipment should last for significantly more time than the player spent obtaining it. It feels bad when this doesn't happen, even if the player was getting lots of other stuff while obtaining that gold. This is part of the reason why many games have so many equipment slots per character - if the towns are two hours apart, and the player buys twelve new pieces of armor for his party using the gold he got during those two hours, then each individual piece of armor only cost the player ten minutes of time. But the player will keep using that gear for the next two hours.

When games give out loot in dungeons that is as good as or better than what the player bought twenty minutes ago, it makes the player's earlier purchase feel worthless. A typical way of handling this is to sell upgrades for one equipment slot in a shop, and then give out loot in the dungeon for a different equipment slot. Maybe the town sells helmets and weapons, and the player gets a new shield and a new bracelet in the dungeon.


Or you can give me a new sword for free, two battles after I just bought a new club for the same character. That works too. NO WAIT IT DOESN'T WORK AT ALL IT JUST PISSES ME OFF



There's a maximum amount of time you should put off giving out equipment upgrades too, though. If you wait too long between upgrades, the player will feel like he or she is making no progress, which is a bad feeling. The upgrade will also feel like a very sudden massive boost in power, which will require a similarly massive boost in enemy power, compared to the "normal" rate of progression that the player will be accustomed to. However, these problems can be mitigated by upgrades through other methods besides new equipment.

Waiting too long can also make the equipment upgrade feel mandatory. Instead of a tactical choice the player makes - "Is this worth getting?" - the new item is so much better than the previous item that it is a no-brainer. In an RPG, where you're almost certainly going for sort of a strategic feel, legit choices are better than inevitabilities. The player is always going to have the option to upgrade every single item, or only the effortless ones, or something in between, but if you don't create some tension in the choice, it's not a choice at all; one of the choices is practically inevitable. You have to give each option its own appeal, so the player is actually choosing a plan and not just following the only path that makes sense.


HOW EXPENSIVE?
Whether equipment is worth getting also depends on how much it costs though! If you hand out new equipment for every dungeon, which is just about the most often that you can possibly give out upgrades in most games, it's going to mean that you have to make them really cheap. It's also going to mean that you have to increase the strength of the monsters by a lot every dungeon.

You don't want the player to always be able to easily afford everything, because if they can always get everything, why do you even have money instead of just giving them these upgrades automatically for free? And if you force them grind money to get everything before moving on, they're gonna get annoyed at the mandatory grind. So typically you want them to be forced to choose which items to buy with their limited funds, but then able to do okay with those choices as long as they choose intelligently.


OK, you have limited funds, so you need to carefully choose which-- oh wait no never mind you can just buy everything for everyone, just like every other shop in the game.



If your equipment is obtained by a different method than buying it with gold, most of the above actually still applies. The player still has to work for the gear and probably shouldn't be getting 100% of what's available, for the same reasons, no matter what method he actually has to use to get it, whether that's a crafting system, or an arena, or whatever.

For this reason, giving out 100% of your equipment through treasure chests in a linear game is almost always a pretty bad idea. Treasure chest equipment can be a nice freebie, and is interesting when it helps make up for equipment you may have skipped buying or earning, but it's no longer nice-feeling or interesting if you get everything that way. Limit treasure chests to only covering a small fraction of the player's equipment, and give the rest out another way. Equipment that drops from bosses or drops commonly from normal enemies is basically the same - you're getting it automatically as you play through a mandatory dungeon, so it's not that different from a treasure chest.


SITUATIONAL EQUIPMENT
Some equipment isn't an upgrade at all, but you're still stronger for having gotten it, because it's something you need in specific battles. The most common examples of this in RPG are pieces of armor that make you immune or resistant to a certain element or status effect that's only used by specific enemies, or weapons that give your attacks an element that specific enemies are weak to. Other examples can include equipment that restores HP or MP gradually (only useful in long battles), equipment that restores HP or MP each time you get a kill (not useful against bosses that take a long time to die), equipment with high physical defense and low magical defense or vice-versa, equipment that improves your hitrate with status ailments (only useful against enemies that aren't immune to ailments), weapons that pierce enemy defense (only useful against enemies with very high defense), armor that lets you reflect magic, long range weapons, weapons that always deal critical hits to dragon-type enemies, weapons that can dispel buffs off of enemies, armor that lets your geomancer use grassland-terrain spells even when not on a grassland, and equipment that improves the effects of specific skills which are themselves situational. Along with a few thousand other possibilities.

These pieces of equipment might be upgraded into better versions later in the game, but they don't have to be. They're good no matter what. They're probably pretty close to being equally useful at the beginning of the game and at the end of the game - provided the situations where they're useful occur at the beginning and end of the game.

It's tempting, then, to give out all of these items near the beginning of the game, since there's nothing about them that makes them too good to give out that soon, right? But there are a lot of reasons to wait. For one, that's just really overwhelming to a new player, who doesn't have enough information to decide which ones to get. But 5 or 10 hours into the game that's probably not true any more. Why not make everything available then?


In 2007, I thought it was a good idea to put a shop in my third town that sold all ten of the game's status immunity accessories. I was wrooooooooong.



Consider the role that this situational equipment plays. It's not there just to make the player die if he or she doesn't change equipment before the battle - it's there to add something to the battle. Some element of strategy that wouldn't exist otherwise. RPGs should become more complex over time as the player masters the game's concepts, so you want to spread these out over the entire game if you can, to keep adding complexity gradually.

Be careful not to make situational equipment too powerful. You don't want the equipment to really be necessary to win battles, in most cases, because the player can't change equipment mid-battle. It's kind of bullshit to punish the player for not reading your mind, and it can be extremely difficult to give the player a good enough clue to wear the equipment. It's not impossible, mind you - just hard to do without hitting the player over the head with a wooden sign that says "YE HERO, WEAREST THE FLAME MAIL BEFORE THOU GOEST INTO THE NEXT ROOM."

One school of thought with situational equipment is that there should be subtle cues that lead the player to wear the right gear. A bunch of enemies that cast paralyze will get the player to wear paralyze-proof accessories when it's helpful but not necessary - an intelligent player will then be wearing them already by the time the dungeon's boss uses a paralyze spell that the player can't survive. If you go this route, the more important the equipment is, the more obvious the clue needs to be. Equipment you have almost no chance of winning without probably really does need a giant wooden sign, and should arguably not exist at all. Otherwise it turns into mind-reading bullshit.

Another school of thought is that the player should be planning for every contingency. If you choose not to wear the paralyze-proof accessory, you need to instead bring two party members who can heal paralyze (so that if one gets paralyzed the other can heal him), or bring one party member who can heal paralyze and teach him a passive ability that makes him immune to paralysis, or equip one of your characters with a counterattack that casts a status recovery spell on the entire party if he's paralyzed. You can do any of those, but you'd better do one, and then you'd better also figure out a way to simultaneously not be vulnerable to any other ailment, and a way to avoid instant death attacks, and be able to resist each element when needed, and still have enough damage and healing to win battles. You force the player to figure out a way to build his party so that they can handle any possible situation. This style is usually only suitable for very difficult games, because it creates a steep learning curve and a lot of ways to die. It can also be hard to convey this sometimes - very early in the game you have to make it clear that it's both possible and necessary to prepare for everything. The definition of "everything" can possibly grow as the game goes on, if you add a new ailment around the fifth dungeon or whatever, but it should always feel like "everything."

The third school of thought is that situational equipment should provide a bonus to players who are having trouble. How can you tell if players are having trouble? Well, they died once. And in the process of dying, they saw that the boss uses fire attacks. So now they can try again with fire resist armor. They could have won the first time without the fire resist armor, but they didn't, so now they can try again with it. The situational equipment is basically an easy mode that is unlocked by dying once. With this style, you'll be making sure all your enemies can be killed without ever using the situational gear. It's important the player doesn't feel like he's being punished for not wearing the right equipment - the benefit it gives should be helpful but nowhere close to mandatory. If you're worried your game might be too hard for novices, this could be a good solution.

All three styles of situational equipment have their strong points. And if you can come up with your own idea that's different from those three, try it out. Sadly, too many games do none of the above, instead opting for situational equipment that no one ever uses because the situation never actually shows up in the entire game - or when it does, the player wins without the equipment effortlessly. Or they ruin the player's day by giving them a bullshit game over, not for failing to notice legitimate cues about what to do next, but just for not psychically predicting that the next boss battle would be the first battle in several hours to use instant death attacks. Don't punish players for not being psychic. Don't make worthless equipment that never gets used. Figure out what your equipment's role is, and then build the enemies, the equipment and the player's strategies in a way that makes the equipment actually fill that role.

Posts

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Deckiller
Just a random RMNer once again.
18047
Nice, comprehensive article. Cheers :)
Great read. I never realized just how much thought process goes into the whole equipment side of an RPG – but here it is, plain as donuts!

And yeah, I hate it too when you just purchased an expensive piece of equipment in the last town only to find something three times more useful five minutes later in the next dungeon – P**SES ME THE RIGHT OFF!!!

But that’s the beauty thing about it, there’s no one right way to design and plan what type of equipment the player gets here, or there, or in the future, and that’s the fun part of it. Every piece of equipment that you distribute throughout your game has glaring issues and good points about it as well. And by not putting in a lot of equipment upgrades in a game can also be a bit of downside too, almost kind of forcing the player to grind up in levels a lot more than normal, especially if every single stat increase really counts. So it’s nice to look at how the past, more prominent RPG’s of yesteryear handled it and kind of draw inspiration from that. I mostly appreciate the classics where there’s a ton of equipment upgrades everywhere and anywhere you go, even if it is just a minor stat boost, but I also like games, such as the Star Ocean series, that you can create and even manipulate your own set of equipment through materials and items that you can pick up from combat and the sorts.

I guess the best thing to keep in mind is to just try to make every single piece of equipment feel rewarding and has a practical use even much later on in the game but not make it so that it’s extremely cheap and broken, like the one sword to end all swords, that there still has be that middle ground.
Professor_Q
"Life is a riddle I wish I had the answer for..."
3237
I enjoyed this article, and found it instructive. My current game doesn't do much with equipment, but my next one will certainly benefit from your suggestions!
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