The Weapon Upgrade System: A Discussion

Right, so I’ve been thinking on this issue for a while now and I decided to compile my thoughts into a post so other people can ignore read them. Yes it’s about Pandemonium’s internal system dynamics, but I promise to keep it high level.

It also doubles as a Design with a Grain of Salt post.

The Weapon Upgrade System

To put it briefly, in Pandemonium, the player can upgrade their weapons and armor using Adamantite. Adamantite is found in the environment and can be purchased in some cases.

Upgrading a weapon gives it a suffix, such as Fencer’s Raiment (+1), and increases its statistics. Every piece of equipment has a different upgrade path.

(The Forge UI hasn’t been overhauled yet, 100 bonus points for the first person to spot the obvious bug!)

What it does to the game

Being able to find items in the world that you can use to improve your existing inventory produces a few obvious effects.

  1. The player wants to seek out every treasure chest because more adamantite is always useful.
  2. Cash is always useful. You’ll never really have too much since every character needs to upgrade their equipment.
  3. There are fewer pieces of equipment to be found, and equipment is never discarded since no one weapon is really “better” than another when upgraded.

However, as I was developing this system I found a major downside to it that I had not considered. Highly upgraded equipment discourages the player from experimenting or specializing.

If I made a piece of equipment that has excellent fire resistance, but it’s found later in the game, no player would ever actually use it because by the time they found it, all their existing equipment is at +5. This piece of equipment gives fire resistance but unless the enemies in one area are exclusively dealing fire damage, the overall better stats of a +5 piece of equipment outweigh the increased resistance. The best case scenario would be a player upgrading the fire resistance item, using it for one area, and then putting it aside until they find another area where enemies deal fire damage which may not even exist in the game.

In games like Final Fantasy, your party is constantly finding new weapons and armor. There are even Optimize options on the equipment screen which instantly equip whatever has the best overall stats. This is something I wanted to avoid because it’s one of those situations where the player doesn’t get to make an interesting choice. If a piece of equipment has better stats, equip it. Duh. You don’t need to choose what to upgrade, you just need to choose to hit the Optimize button periodically.

Final Fantasy 6, GBA Version. Mash that Optimize button!

So I want to encourage experimentation and interesting player choices at the same time. How the hell do I do that? Well, I need to make things more flexible.

Possible Solution A: Recycling

This one I’ve given some thought to. Essentially it allows the player to “Recycle” an item, decreasing it back down to its (+0) state and removing all bonuses, as well as refunding all adamantite and cash that went into it.

If you want to experiment, you can take your +5 gear and downgrade it all back to its base properties, then upgrade something else. If it doesn’t work out, downgrade that gear and get all your +5 back. You don’t even need to make a new save, because there’s no real loss to doing this.

A possible lemma to this solution is that perhaps we don’t refund 100% of the cost. Some games like to do this, but as far as I’m concerned that’s just there to make the player grind for longer. If I want to experiment but it will cost me 3000 Platina to do so because that’s how much I’ll lose for recycling, then that’s 3000 Platina I need to grind (or just make a new save file and reload). So while this is a possibility, I don’t view it as a good one.

Benefits: Allows experimentation and flexibility with the equipment. Internally, Pandemonium is set up for this, as the upgrade table can just be run in reverse.

Downsides: Adds complexity to the game. Recycling is a system I need to explain to the player, and some players may skip over it just because it’s extra complexity.

Possible Solution B: Per-Slot Upgrading

Another possibility is that each character could upgrade their equipment slots instead of upgrading the equipment in that slot. Yes, that sounds insane, but from a game-mechanics standpoint it’s perfectly valid.

What this would mean is that Florentina would upgrade her weapon slot to +1, and then any piece of equipment she puts there is a +1 regardless of what it is. Swap the Hunting Knife for the Butterfly Knife, and it instantly becomes a +1.

This has a different problem in that it makes equipment sharing more difficult. If a character is upgraded and not the equipment, then characters can’t swap equipment between them. Pandemonium only has a few pieces of universal equipment in Chapter 1, but it becomes more prevalent as the game goes on. All characters have unique weapons, but armor is divided into Light, Medium, and Heavy, while Accessories and Combat-Items are much more flexible. In Chapter 6 the player can build their own party composition, so swapping equipment around becomes much more important.

Naturally, the solution to that problem is Recycling character slot upgrades, which puts us right back to Solution A but in a more convoluted fashion.

Plus, this is really weird lore-wise. I can understand making a weapon better, but somehow dusting Mei’s wrists with adamantite makes her better with her sword? How? There’s already a mechanic which makes characters stronger, it’s called Level-ups!

Benefits: Allows experimentation within a character’s equipment range.

Downsides: Discourages experimentation between characters. Weird to explain from a lore-perspective and probably convoluted to tutorialize.

Possible Solution C: Remove the upgrade system

Easiest to implement mechanically, I just remove the upgrade system and go with the Final Fantasy system. Obviously falls victim to the sunk cost fallacy since I’ve already designed and built the system and scrapping it causes me to lose all that work. (Also, if you followed that link, I do not endorse Kahneman’s evolutionary psychology hypothesis for the fallacy’s origins. That’s just flat out bad science.)

Benefits: It’s really easy. I just remove all vendors capable of forging and remove or repurpose Adamantite. Players who have it in their save file can be compensated the next time they load it. Very simple to understand, doesn’t require tutorials.

Downsides: I’d have to add a lot more equipment items to replace Adamantite. Probably need to add an Optimize button to the equipment screen.

Possible Solution D: Go Full Ham on the upgrade system

Rather than allowing multiple pieces of equipment, the player only ever gets one piece (Ex: Mei’s Rusty Katana and Work Clothes) and doesn’t find new ones. Instead, all equipment changes are done via the upgrade system.

The upgrade system no longer needs to be done in shops and no longer costs money. Instead it may look something like this awful prototype image:

The whole hog is a whole different flavour

In this system, you can add or remove upgrades at any time by inserting/removing Adamantite from the slots. I would have an indicator on each upgrade as to how much it costs of each Adamantite type. Each upgrade can be undone and will return all of the Adamantite used, and this can be done in the field (or possibly at save points) for free.

Once again, this system is complex as all get out, and would require some explanation for the player. I’d also have to change a great deal of how the equipment is handled internally, so there’d be a lot of coding involved.

It’d also be a pain in the neck to balance properly, but that’s a trial-and-error thing.

There is also no particular reason why I could not allow multiple pieces of equipment, but it would mean I would need to create upgrade charts for a lot of items. This would allow some items, like Fencer’s Raiment, to have a lot more offensive options in their upgrade chart than something like Light Leather Vest.

Benefits: Allows for a lot of interesting choices and allows experimentation and specialization in the field.

Downisdes: A lot of coding work on my end (probably. I’m very clever.) and very complex. Would likely require a detailed set of instructions available in the game for confused players. Would require a new UI with attendant control mapping charts.

A Plea

So, that’s the state of the system and how I see it. Now, if you’ve read this far, the congratulations because you’re literate or you skipped to the end and I admire your guts for admitting it. But also, you must have some thoughts on what I should do. Want to tell me what to do?

Go to this forum and hurl your ideas at my head. Whatever we wind up deciding on, it probably won’t make it into Prototype 5-2, but will probably make it into 5-3 or Chapter 5’s full release.

Oh, and here’s the obligatory link to my patreon. I’ve been told I need to post this at the end of every blog post because that improves engagement or something.