Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

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 Core

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.

  • I like elemental systems somewhat.
    Changing weapons depending on the monster is an ok concept i think. A guild effort to equip your tanks with resistance gear was also nice. So with the wardrobe I can live if it is special and I do not have to change gear for every mob. That could also be interesting if there is a small punishment and you have to think if changing gear makes sense or not like you said in the elemental on demand part.
    In the D2 example I think the reasoning was to enforce group play more. A specialized char was just better with a group around him that made up for the weaknesses. I quite like that concept. Ofc its against the bring the class not the player crap where we all play the same unified dpstankhealer but i still like it.
    Elements on demand could also be fun. even though frostbold and firebold might be the same as far as pressing a button goes it might still trigger different other things and change your playstyle which would be really nice.
    So alltogether the idea of elements or as in ragnarok where monsters also had sizes and races can add quite a lot of fun to a game. I played ragnarok for the big numbers anyway and having that set of equipment for a region was quite satisfying 😉

  • Wait, did you just say that pokemon was bad design?

  • I’m a fan of the *notion* of elemental properties. That said, I do like the notion of making each of them function differently beyond the simple resistance/weakness properties. Fire being a DoT, Water slowing, that sort of thing… it’s all a good way to give elements an identity. I’d also note that noncombat uses of elemental magic would be helpful in this regard as well.

    I’m decidedly not a fan of the D2 application, but I do think that the freedom inherent in the FF model is wise. Pushing it a bit into the choice/risk of switching elements and elemental flavor differences seems to be a good idea to me.

    Chrono Trigger’s Magus fight was another interesting use of an enemy that switches elements midfight. It was pretty basic, but it did make players pay attention. I call that a Good Thing.
    Tesh´s last blog post ..Print Screen

  • Guild Wars? How about that. I usually went all physical, as many necromancer hexes only worked with physical damage.

  • @Spinks: Yes.

    @Longasc: Guild Wars is one of the few MMOs I’ve never touched. How does the system work there?

    @Tesh: Oh I agree that elements are cool in general, I just don’t like how trivial their implementation usually is. FF XIII has monsters that switch their vulnerabilities as well – alas the fight system pre-picks the correct spells for you to use anyway. My character will shoot fire as long as the enemy is vulnerable to fire and then automatically switch the element (at no cost whatsoever) when the enemy does. Pretty lame ^^

  • scrusi, GW has a really complex and intricate combat/skill system, it was originally meant to be a pvp centric game (but became more and more pve oriented), after all.

    http://wiki.guildwars.com/wiki/Elementalist
    For PvE: “Ice” monsters often don’t burn or are either very vulnerable to fire or immune. Plant monsters are vulnerable to all fire based attacks etc.

    For PvE & PvP: The Elementalist class focuses on 4 schools of magic. Fire is AoE damage and DoTs, Air is huge spike damage, improves run speed and useful for blinding enemies, Earth improves armor/resistence/HP and has armor ignoring damage types and snares. Water finally is the utility magic and focuses on snares and holds.

    Players can wear different armor sets, on Fire Island it is a good idea to have some fire resistance, for instance. There are a lot more ways how you can customize your armor stats/bonuses, though.

    Weapons can be modified to become “elemental” damage type weapons, fire, ice, earth, water etc.. Each element can trigger hexes that react to this type of damage. For Necromancers, it is mostly “cold” damage and “physical” damage.

    E.g. a warrior swinging his “fiery” axe in circle (Cyclone Axe) can ignite mobs hexed with “Mark of Rodgort”, which causes them to burn if the hex gets triggered through fire damage.

    Mesmers are a special kind of mage, they focus on illusion and mind-bending tricks.

    Monks have different healing spells and the “smiting” line that works very well against undead.

    I recommend the great official and player run Guild Wars Wiki. I heard it is a bit hard for newcomers to get into the game nowadays, but i can still recommend this game. I played it actively for years, it is/was a wonderful experience. 🙂

    http://wiki.guildwars.com/wiki/Main_Page