Monday, April 28, 2014

Titanite or Tediumite? An Argument for a Purely Stat Based Equipment System in the Souls Series

Going back to the Dark Souls PvP scene, I've found the decision to include a weapon/armor upgrade system perplexing. From my perspective, it only achieves three things. 1) It limits one's weapon options by adding tedium to the PvP process, 2) it creates an artificial gap between players who have time/desire to grind out gear and players who don't, and 3) it results in unfair inequities between player builds. What is truly frustrating about these things is that they are totally unnecessary. They could all be fixed by a simple adjustment: make equipment upgrades a purely stat based process.

First, let me explain the problems as I see them.  As things stand in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, fully upgraded equipment is a requirement for competitive PvP. If your weapons and armor are not leveled to the highest degree, you will be at a distinct disadvantage against the majority of opponents you come up against. This means that to have a chance, you will have to collect a large number of items (called titanite) to bring your equipment up to par, a tedious process that will mainly involve grinding enemies in certain areas of the game.

This is especially infuriating given the large number of weapons potentially available to the player. In Dark Souls 2, for example, in theory the player has many weapon types to chose from and experiment with. But in practice, the player will have to focus on only one or two of these in order to consolidate upgrade materials. The other weapons are left collecting dust as a result because without upgrading they remain vastly inferior.

Some will object here and say, "Don't expect the game to cater to casual players." The thing is, the equipment upgrade process isn't about skill, but the willingness to sink large amounts of time into a repetitive process of killing the same enemies over and over again.

This brings me to my second point. The upgrade system creates a gap between players who have fully upgraded equipment and those that don't, and what that gap essentially represents is not a difference in skill but a difference in time devoted to repetitive play. The division here is not between hardcore players and casual ones, but between players willing to engage in hours of mind-numbing gameplay and those who demand that gameplay always be engaging. The former is not something that should ever be encouraged in game design.

Finally, the current weapon upgrading system enables all sorts of loop holes through the checks and balances built into the game. Soul level, and now soul memory in Dark Souls 2, is used to match players evenly with each other. Weapon upgrading can evade this kind of check, especially when you get people "muling," i.e., gifting low level players powerfully upgraded items. It also brings imbalance to the game by allowing magic based characters to wield extremely powerful melee weapons that in theory should only be available to players who have invested in melee stats.

A switch to a purely stat based equipment system would fix all of these issues in one fell swoop. In this system, the strength of a weapon would be determined entirely by the stats it scales with. For example, a greatsword's damage output would depend entirely on a player's strength stat, or some combination of strength and dexterity. The particulars aren't important. What is key is that there is no upgrading of one's equipment independently of upgrading one's character stats.

Consider the impact this would have on the issues I raise above. The tedium of weapon upgrading would be eliminated. By simply leveling the appropriate stats, your equipment will grow with you, becoming stronger as you become stronger. The process is far more elegant, as leveling up is a natural part of the game, while titanite collecting is more an artificial graft/side-quest.

All the weapons you collected would now be viable so long as you invest in the stats that they scale with. Thus, the available range of weapon options would be dramatically widened for players, introducing more variety and more strategy to more players.

Players would no longer be divided into those willing to grind and those who don't. Instead, skill along with effective stat management would become the deciding factor of PvP encounters. It's the players' builds that should be pitted against each other, not their equipment upgrades.

Finally, muling would be rendered a moot point. It won't matter if some experienced player gives a low level player a powerful weapon, because the weapon won't be effective unless its user invests in the stats that it scales with, thus increasing their soul level and soul memory appropriately.

Indeed, this solution is so simple and so effective, it truly perplexes me that From has not already implemented it. The only reasons I can think of for them not doing it are 1) it hasn't occurred to them, or, and more likely, 2) they are worried that certain elements of the fan base would react negatively to it.

Why? From might be concerned that certain "hardcore" gamers thrive on the idea that by investing hundreds of hours into a game they will get a guaranteed competitive advantage over other players. I emphasize guaranteed because this advantage is not about accruing skill but about accruing goods. The difference is this: gaining skill cannot be guaranteed. One can simply remain bad at a game, no matter how long one plays it, if he/she doen't grasp certain fundamentals. Goods, however, will be gained no matter how smart or talented the player is. So what we're really talking about here is a desire for a structural advantage over other players, i.e., one built into the system itself rather than being dependent upon the talent of the player.

I'm very interested to hear others' thoughts on this. What do you think about this stat based system? Am I missing something? Let me know in the comments below.


  1. Weapon scaling is already in the game. What you're suggesting isn't anything new at least with Weapons.

    The way matchmaking works, I don't think it's possible to twink in Dark Souls 2.

    Your argument against the tedium applies for other games too especially Pokemon. Pokemon is much more tedious than Dark Souls when it comes to setting up for competitive play. Progression is addictive, and having an optimized setup for competitive play is a reward in itself. I agree that the grind is unnecessary, but in my opinion, it's not all that bad.

    1. Yes, stat scaling is already in the game, but it's mixed with the titanite upgrade path. I'm arguing for system of stat scaling only without titanite upgrading. In my view, this would eliminate the unnecessary grind of acquiring titanite while still preserving the importance of leveling up and character building.

      Twinking is still possible in Dark Souls 2 because someone could potentially gift you a fully upgraded weapon. As long as you have the min stats for it, you could wield it. If the damage output only increased with your stats, this wouldn't work anymore.

      Finally, saying other games have just as bad or even worse grinding elements doesn't justify it being in Dark Souls.

    2. You mean eliminate the progression mechanic of upgrading weapons and the feel of some customization? Feels like streamlining that could take away some of the experience. Like I said, it's unnecessary grind for competitive play, but it's not all that bad - being rewarded for your time and dedication is all part of the Dark Souls experience.

      As far as I know, characters with high Soul Memory can't summon or be summoned by a low level character. I imagine that the higher level character would earn too many souls on the way to get that +10 weapon for a low level character.

  2. Sounds good, but we would still need infusion based upgrades. For customization.

    1. The infusion upgrades are good in my mind because they are 1) simple in that they require one item, and, more importantly, 2) a meaningful choice for the player. What I mean on this second point is that, unlike going from +1 to +10 with a weapon, infusion doesn't simply make a weapon better or worse but rather gives it different properties. Infusion is a meaningful player choice in that whether one does it or not depends on his/her particular strategies and tactics. Making a weapon +10 isn't meaningful in this sense because there is no cons to it. All the titanite part of the upgrade system does is add a tedious level of grinding to gear usage.