The Crux With Elemental Systems
Elemental damage and its counterpart elemental resistance have been part of computer role-playing games for ages now and they keep on showing up even though they are actually quite bad design, in my opinion. Today I’ll step through a few different implementations of such systems, point out the issues and see if I can find anything to salvage that we can use to build an elemental system that actually works.
The basis of the systems I’m talking about is a set of classifications for damage dealt by players and/or computer controlled enemies. You’ll often find the classic four elements, earth, water, air, and fire but just as often there are additional ones (which don’t really need to be of elemental nature at all – such as “poison”, “physical”, or “piercing”). These classifications usually determine the type of damage dealt by an attack and either differ in what they are good against or simply have to be defended against differently. An “air” monster might take additional damage from “earth” type attacks or might simply have a high resistance against other “air” attacks (or both).
Games usually give players some form of choice as to which elements to use and which to protect against which, I suppose, is meant to make character customization deeper and more interesting. We’ll see if that’s the case.
The Living Wardrobe
Some games regulate both elemental damage and resistances through equipment that players can use. World of Warcraft offers various sets of resistance gear for example, while Ragnarok Online gives players weapons with different elemental attributes. What such a system invariably leads too is that players collect this gear and carry it around with them in case they need to fight a monster with the appropriate qualities. There is no added gameplay value or even complexity in equipping your nature resistance set for Hydross the Unstable, fire resistance for Leotheras the Blind and physical resistance (armour) for Morogrim Tidewalker. Instead, all that the system does is force players to collect these various sets of gear and to carry them around. The game doesn’t play any differently if you are wearing a different set of resistance gear and it is not remotely difficult to figure out which one to wear.
Now there are some interesting decisions available with resistance gear, but none of them actually involve the elements system at all. There is an interesting balance to strike, for example, between wearing items that boost your resistances and those that boost your damage or health. What kind of resistance that is doesn’t matter at all though.
Ragnarok Online showed another aspect of the issue to me – if you didn’t have all the options available to you (because the elemental weapons were relatively expensive, for example), you were severely limited in the type of monsters you could reasonably fight. My rogue in that game had weapons to fight water monsters very effectively, for example, so I pretty much only hunted in areas with those types of monsters for a very long time. That doesn’t exactly make for exiting gameplay either.
Pick a Path
Some games require you to pick an element and stick with it, so to speak. Especially when elemental damage comes from talent/skill trees or is inherent to specific classes, the player is pretty much asked to pick a color and stick with it. In a late patch, Diablo II introduced a synergy system for character skills that rewarded (and pretty much required) specialization. If you wanted to make a good sorceress utilizing fireball you had to put pretty much every point you had available into improving fireball. That was all fine and dandy unless you came into an area where the monsters were resistant or even immune to fire. The designers’ intention here was clearly to force (or at least encourage) diversification, but the obvious player reaction is to simply avoid those monsters at all costs. Even if they couldn’t though, why would you want to make a system in which players can make characters that are insanely overpowered against most monsters but completely powerless against a select few others? Wouldn’t it be much better to make all of the encounters interesting but manageable?
Elements on Demand
Some games just give the player the ability to switch between various elements as she pleases. Final Fantasy XIII does this beautifully (as in a beautiful example of bad design). Those characters of mine who deal elemental damage pretty much have all elements to choose from at any point in time. Enemy is weak against lightning-based attacks? I’ll use my thunder spell. Immune to fire? Better not use the aptly named “fire” spell. The only challenge in picking the element to choose here is to scan the each type of enemy once so you know how they react to various elements.
I actually think that dynamic switching of elements during fights can be a good thing if done right, though. For the decision of what element to use to be interesting there needs to be a cost associated with said switch. If opponents changed their vulnerabilities throughout the fight, for example (as they do in Mass Effect 2) and it took time (or mana, or energy, or what have you) to switch into a different mode of dealing damage then their might be an interesting on-the-fly choice waiting to be made. Is it worth to switch to fire damage now or will the time lost make up for the gain in damage done anyway?
Make Them Actually Different
In Final Fantasy XIII, the “water” spell is identical to the “fire” spell in pretty much every respect except for the type of damage done. This absolutely doesn’t have to be the case in an elemental system. Fire damage could generally apply damage-over-time effects while frost would freeze enemies and lightning straight up deal damage or something like that. There’s absolutely no need for elemental systems to be stuck in the vulnerability/resistance frame of mind at all, the elements can simply be used to classify actually different types of abilities. Magic the gathering might be a prime example of this. While there are a few cards with colour-specific abilities such as “protection from black”, mostly the colours just have different kinds of cards available to them. Green is full of big monsters and acceleration, while black focuses on destruction and blue on trickery and flying creatures. Here, the elements have actual meaning without being stuck in a “you need X to counter Y” frame of mind.