Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Equipment vs. Accessories

In my last post I condemned the "equipment tax" in RPGs, the situation where most of the wealth acquired by the player is spent on maintaining the status quo, so now it is time for me to praise the exact opposite situation, where most of the wealth acquired by the player is spent on resources that change the status quo, particularly things that give the player new abilities and add new strategies to the game. This kind of situation is relatively rare in RPGs, but it is not unheard of.

To start thing off, I want to say that I have always been incredibly fond of the stereotypical "Accessory" equipment slot seen in many RPGs. Accessories are classically the one kind of equipment that gives you cool things, rather than just add to numbers. Even if it is something as simple as giving a character immunity to a status effect, accessories actually have the potential to change the way you fight battles. What is more, their value tends to be much more even across the length of a game than equipment that exists only to modify math. Even the cheapest status effect immunity accessory found in the first shop in the game can be invaluable at the end if there is an enemy who uses that status effect. Accessories only become more valuable in the rare case where you can equip multiple, allowing you to combine their effects in any number of possible ways, such as with the great Final Fantasy VI "Relic" system.

Usually, the kind of equipment that modifies numbers only becomes interesting when it also has the kind of effect you usually see with accessories. For example, while the equipment in Persona 3 is otherwise a textbook example of the "equipment tax" at work, most items in that game have additional effects that boost evasion against certain elements, improve stats, give resistance to certain elements, or let you add status effects to your attacks, and these side benefits tend to become more common and powerful as you rise in level. The equipment tax effect limits the potential of this system, since ultimately you need to replace items with good effects with items that have higher mathematical power, but it still has some advantages. Even though the mathematical strength of the highest-level items is just one more iteration of a geometric progression, they are none-the-less more interesting because they have new, flashy, and powerful abilities attached to them, such as the ability to inflict every status condition at once or a large bonus to every stat. Some rare weapons even replace their usual physical damage with elemental magic damage. Because these effects are powerful and rare, it makes these weapons feel unique and interesting, even if their stats are nothing special.

Actually, I think just about every really good "ultimate weapon" in RPGs has some effect like those in Persona 3. The Atma/Ultima Weapon from the Final Fantasy series often breaks the normal math and bases damage on level and how injured the wielder is. The Ragnarok and Illumina swords of Final Fantasy VI add all kinds of special properties to attacks in addition to giving large stat boosts and having high attack power in order to secure the "ultimate weapon" position. The ultimate weapons of Final Fantasy VII are unique in having a full set of 8 paired Materia slots, in addition to possessing abilities that modify damage based on HP and MP totals. Even something as simple as the Rainbow's base 70% critical hit rate in Chrono Trigger can mean a lot. It is things like this that make "ultimate weapons" into something more than being merely the last weapons you acquire.

I really think that RPGs would be a lot better off if they simply replace the "iterative mathematical improvement" scheme with something much more valuable, where equipment provides interesting effects rather than large numbers. After all, Final Fantasy X used just that kind of system, and it worked incredibly well in that game. That game has all of the same properties as an "equipment tax" RPG, where new weapons are available at every stop and you progress from weak beginning weapons (those without any properties) to ultimate "Celestial Weapons" (that have incredibly strong abilities), but it works entirely on providing the player with different options and encouraging the player to buy things because he thinks they are worthwhile, not because they are strictly necessary. It is an excellent example of how well that kind of scheme can work, and I think it should be more widely emulated. Certainly, future Final Fantasy games and RPGs in general would be better off following in Final Fantasy X's footsteps, rather than go the path of Final Fantasy XII, with a central character customization system that exists to emphasize the equipment tax rather than actually enable customization.

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