A few days ago, Nintendo dropped a new trailer for the upcoming Breath of the Wild sequel (here). I haven't watched it myself, so I'm not sure if something in the trailer triggered what followed, or if it was just a matter of planetary alignment, but in any case, it did happen: weapon degradation discourse on twitter. Obviously I joined in because I can never shut the fuck up.
I don't like it! And well... who cares, right? It's just a game system. But strangely, whenever this particular topic is brought up, there's a whole range of people who will proclaim that they do like it, and that not liking it is an unequivocal demonstration of one's incapability to grasp the subtleties of game design.
(To anyone reading this who tweeted something along the lines of ‘weapon degradation is good actually and if you can't see why you're a chump’: I get it. it's twitter. what are you gonna do, post a nuanced take?)
Anyway, because it's a system that can seem frustrating on the surface, it's only natural for anyone whose identity is founded in part on ‘thinking about stuff’ to dismiss that first layer and assume the opposite must be true, and in one fell swoop, to also dismiss differing opinions. So for the sake of this discussion let's go ahead and acknowledge that a multitude of actually thought-out opinions can coexist, opposite of each other but on equal levels.
I'll go back to that in a bit, but first let's chat about the actual design problem at hand!
How can my shield breaking be good?
- it enables fluctuations of pace and power balance as the player goes from a wooden stick to a massive halberd, then back to a stick;
- it encourages experimentation, since players can't get too attached to a single weapon;
- it creates another reward for exploration and engagement with monsters (a Lynel's sword is now not only intimidating, it's also alluring);
- it promotes the use of Rune powers (cryonis, bomb, etc) and environmental hazards whenever possible;
- also it's funny when you chuck a legendary sword at a goblin and it explodes.
Also, and quite notably, it really fits the overall theme and tone of the game! This is something that's rarely brought up but it's super true. Everything is falling apart in that version of Hyrule, it only makes sense that the weapons are as well.
But Robin I thought you said you didn't like it?
I don't! Because all four points above are actually highly dependant on the player's personality and approach to play.
For me, weapon degradability often:
- prevents fluctuations in power balance as I stash powerful weapons away for later encounters (which may never come);
- discourages experimentation by telling me I shouldn't mess around with powerful weapons when I'm not in a critical situation;
- suggests I should avoid exploration, because it might leave me stranded with no useful weapon or decrease their durability on optional encounters;
- entirely negates the weapon throwing mechanic – why would I ever do that when weapons are a finite resource?
(Note that the point about Runes and enviromental hazards holds up.)
People often say that degradability forces players to engage with the game's combat when they would otherwise stick to the safest, most optimal option throughout the game. That is true for some players. I naturally have a tendency to explore a game's world and possibility space, but this system takes that away from me. Without it, I would have swapped weapons all the time, wandered freely off the main path, juggled with the tools offered to me – a two-way relationship between me and the designers.
The very fact that a system exists creates a strange anxiety that would otherwise not burden my playstyle— a sort of quantum irk where I am simultaneously annoyed that I can't just switch weapons with no consequence and that my inventory has become an unmanageable mess.
You're just not engaging with the game on its terms!
First of all, how dare you.
I'm only half-kidding! Seriously— of course I try to ~engage with the games I play on their terms~, I wouldn't have made a career out of game design if I didn't love trying to understand how and why games do things the way they do them. That response would be pertinent if I claimed that the game should let me, idk, auto-snap to covers and peak out to shoot arrows like I was holding an SMG.
Of course I knew the obvious reasons why weapon degradation is there, and I tried to adapt my playstyle to that. And, to be fair, I did wander and explore (how could you not), and I did chuck a good amount of legendary swords at goblins. But in doing these things, I often felt like I was specifically ignoring the game's terms, because I'm a designer, and it's hard for me to turn off that layer of processing when I'm playing a game. The game was telling me to play safe and to hoard weapons, but I knew that would lead to a worse experience, so I played my way and tried to ignore the UI warning me that my stuff was about to break and all the blinking red icons in the weapon switcher. Like, the feedbacks aren't casually nudging the player to relax and try new stuff! They convey danger! So yeah, I did adapt my playstyle to what I knew would be most enjoyable, but it's not like I met the game half-way. I pulled it there against its will.
So... weapon degradation is bad...?
No. Weapon degradation is good, actually, and if you can't see why you're a chump. Just kidding you're not a chump I love you and I'm gonna explain the actual point of this blog post now.
A design solution like weapon degradability can never be a perfectly good thing; there are no universally good solutions in design. A design exists to create a certain experience, given a certain context; in this case, the intended experience is probably a more carefree playstyle, and the context – and this is crucial – is that the game's target audience is comprised of a majority of players who need this push to experiment within the game's possibility space.
For more casual players, the fact that weapons can break means they will be surprised when it happens to them, when they might even have considered switching otherwise. For completionists, it might force them to adjust their instincts and to not see weapons as trophies to amass, but as contextual tools. For hoarders, the abundance of weapons (which is a corollary to the degradation system) means they can freely use them, safe in the knowledge trhat more copies shouldn't be too hard to find.
For people who have a particular mix of attributes like ‘naturally inclined to play creatively’ and ‘negatively affected by extrinsic motivators’, the system is a disaster, as it quite efficiently prevents them from experiencing the game the intended way, when they would have without it. But we have to assume the designers at Nintendo thought about that, considered the proportion of the audience it represented, the available resources for the game's development, and probably a number of additional factors, and ultimately decided: sorry robin. sucks to be u bud.
I would rather it didn't suck to be me tho
I find that a lot of discussions we have on this here internet about things like game systems are framed in the following way: “is it good?” The end. Either it's good, or it shouldn't exist. And it's such a shame that we don't go further!
Weapon degradability achieves certain things, but could it maybe achieve those things in different ways? Could BotW encourage players – all players – to enjoy the wild breadth (sorry about that one) of options it offers, without leaving anyone out? Do we truly only have enough imagination to compare a feature to its absence, and not envision ways in which it could be better?
That's what I mean whenever I say I don't like weapon degradation in most games: it's not so much that it should be removed, but rather that it's a poor way to achieve the intended goal, or that it's executed in a way that fails to reach its potential. What about weapons that are contextually more useful (against certain types of enemies, for instance), or with a power that recharges over time, or that can be repaired by merchants... these things exist in the game already, and – to me at least – they beautifully complemented the rest of the design, although I think it would have been even better if they had been applied to the worst weapons rather than the best. What about powerful weapons that get rusty over time, whether you use them or not? Weapons that are restricted to certain areas? That transform into other tools after being used a lot, rather than breaking? What about designs that encourage the player to experience the game the best way via positive reinforcement, rather than punition?
The core point of this lengthy ramble is this: designs serve specific purposes within specific contexts, and reducing them to binaries is counterproductive. And we can't know what the purpose or the context of a system like weapon degradability even is! So we really ought to be welcoming of the multitude of experiences it enabled, rather than trying to identify the one good take.
And, similarly, talking about designs through a binary lens – do they make the game better or worse – is limiting and reductive. These topics are so dense and so deep and so multidimensional! There is so much to explore!
So let's thrive to be open to all of this and to let it expand our thinking.