Death of Thousand Cuts, Part III: Your Dongle Is Bent
by Sam Witt
May 23, 2001
So far, in my discussion of ways to make the players suffer and love it I've covered rest, food, and drink. In this week's episode, I'll be discussing that most beloved category of necessity: gear.
Players love gear for their characters, be it a Hackmaster +12 or a tiny music box that plays intricate melodies. In my time as a gamer, I have seen players spend fortunes that it took years to accumulate for something as simple as a unique pipe with smoking emotes. Players, as a general rule, will go to ridiculous lengths to gather gear for their characters, because they love having gimmicks and widgets for their alternate persona.
Which is why it's so much fun, as a designer, to devise ways to take gear from the characters, to shatter swords and sunder shields, to unleash magnetic storms that wipe out the programming of robots. Is that mean, sadistic, just plain evil? Well, it depends.
Objects in a game have value based on two things: their amusement factor, and their rarity. The afore-mentioned pipe (which I might add had seventeen unique emotes and emitted object smoke-rings that could be played with) was every bit as valuable to players as a mallet that shook the earth and shot burning magma at monsters. The key is, they were both very rare (unique in that game world) and did cool stuff. One could actually improve the performance of the character within the game world, but was actually less valuable because it was not nearly as entertaining.
Both rarity and amusement factor of objects should be carefully governed by game designers, and just to cover their tails, all game designers should implement as many methods for destroying objects as they have for introducing them. Failure to do so will, over time, devalue the objects that are introduced into the game, as bundles of rare objects begin to stack up in bank vaults and character homes.
So, all gear should degrade with use. All of it. Everything from a simple club to a sophisticated holographic tutor should gradually fall apart as it is used. Players will learn to love and respect their goodies, both because they are made more rare by their eventual decay, and because the smart designer has implemented skills to offset this item degradation.
In a game where things fall apart, there must be some way to either repair them, or create entirely new items - preferably both. In keeping with my theme of using misfortune to provide opportunity for characters, I'm heavily in favor of items that degraded steadily and need a fair amount of maintenance to keep in good order. In my opinion, characters should probably spend the majority of one out of every five or so gaming sessions getting their gear checked out and up to snuff.
A robust item repair and/or creation system not only helps to build community within the game, but also makes it easier for players to swallow when something VERY BAD happens to a favored piece of gear. There might be some grousing when the MegaPartiCannon of Doom breaks down, but at least you know that a skillful technician can get it up and running again, even if that means they need to build you a (costly) replacement.
Perhaps the most important element of a good damage/destruction system is that it de-emphasizes gear in favor of character. You can scarcely define your character by his submachine gun if it's going to be replaced in the next few weeks. Gathering gear may still be important, but the character is at center stage with little danger of being outshone by his new and fancy energy harness.
And that's it for this week, next week I talk about the cruelest cut of all: Disfiguring injuries.