EQ2: the equipment damage rule

I wanted to comment this for a while, in the last update patch there was a change that created some discussions and complaints. Here it is:

– Upon death, the most expensive item equipped in each slot within 2 minutes before death will take damage. If an item was equipped in more than one slot, the next most expensive item will be damaged in addition to the most expensive item. A single item will not be damaged more than once per death.

To begin with, this explanation is rather twisted and the first reaction from the players was a question mark. What the hell does this mean?

Well, Aggro Me wrote a bit about this rule when it was still on the test server and not in its last reiteration. EQ2 has gone through many revisions of the death penalty and, following a funny and consolidated trend, it moved more and more close to WoW. Right now the death penalty doesn’t differ too much between the two games and even in EQ2 one of the most relevant elements is the fact that when you die your equipment gets damaged and you have to repair it.

Since the two games follow the same rules both also have to deal with the same consequences. In EQ2 the players have available a /slash command to bind to a key that would quickly unequip all your items. This “smart” workaround/exploit was useful because you could press that key when a death was imminent to easily avoid to get the durability hit on your equipment on death and avoid repair costs.

In WoW the players don’t have access to powerful slash commands, but the UI scripting language also allows to create buttons to swap equipment and mirror the exact same exploit. It is interesting now to compare how this problem was addressed in the two games.

In EQ2 the solution went through various reiterations that lead to that rather counterintuitive rule I quoted up there. In fact the first problem is that this workaround to fix the exploit breaks one basic rule: “a player should always be able to understand a change or use a new feature without reading the patch notes”. In this case not only the explanation isn’t that simple to understand, but the new mechanic is based on a timer that is invisible to the player. The two minute rule, plus its precisations, is nowhere “transparent” in the game. This two minute timer isn’t revealed to the player, nor it can be autonomously deduced. The result is quite simple: or you read the patch notes, understand exactly what they mean and remember them, or this mechanic would remain completely obscure and hidden. It is clunky and complicated, not really appropriate for something that should be kept simple and transparent. Intuitive.

How the designers arrived to that conclusion? Here’s the “designers vs players” duel in the form of questions and answers:

Q: The players use a macro to quickly unequip items when death is imminent to avoid repair costs.
A: The designers introduce a 2-minute timer so that every item equipped in that lapse of time would get damaged. Even if unequipped at the time of the death.

Q: The players start to complain because they are penalized when swapping equipment for other reasons, every item equipped within those two minutes would get the durability hit. With this penalty stacking on multiple items.
A: The designers tweak the rule so that only the last item equipped for each slot would get damaged.

Q: The players once again outsmart and exploit the rule bringing with them two complete sets. One is their proper set they should use, the other is a disposable trash set to which they can quickly swap before a death to have it absorb the penalty.
A: The designers tweak the rule so that the “best” item for each slot would get damaged.

And that’s the final rule. There are even cases where you deliberately unequip items to move through risky spots without risking your equipment. This rule doesn’t prevent this, but the players would need to remember to wait an imaginary 2 minute timer to wear off every time. It is simply counterintuitive and artificial. Aren’t there better design solutions?

As I said WoW shares the exact same mechanic and risks the exact same exploit, it’s is interesting to see how Blizzard addressed the same problem. Now the point is that we don’t even need to wait for Blizzard, because Blizzard’s design is extremely simple. It’s logic.

The players unequip items to avoid them to get damaged on death. How we prevent this behaviour?

That’s the starting point, and this is a roleplay game. The more it is consistent, the better. So what’s the simplest answer possible to that problem? It’s obvious: we forbid the player to swap equipment during combat.

See? It wasn’t hard and it even makes sense. It’s extremely hard to imagine a warrior in a full plate who swaps his whole armor during a fight. Preventing this lame equip-swapping behaviour would not only fix the exploit, but also make the game mechanic more consistent, believable and intuitive. If you try to swap a chest piece during combat in WoW you get a message telling you that you can’t do that action at that time. You need to wait to be out of combat, when it makes sense to allow the character to put on a different armor set. Is this brilliant design? No, it’s logic. It’s thinking from “within the game” instead through the artificiality of game design: you cannot swap armor sets at will while you are engaged in combat. It’s not a rule to close an exploit, I would be *surprised* if the opposite would be allowed.

This is not all. If we think to a combat situation there’s still the realistic possibility to swap some of the items. For example it makes sense to swap weapons even if you are engaged in combat. This possibility would be believable. And, in fact, this is once again how WoW behaves: while you cannot swap your armor sets during combat, you can still swap two kinds of items, weapons and trinkets. Which, incidentally, are exactly those two types of items that contemplate the item-swapping as a valid combat strategy that is part of the design of the game. (trinkets don’t even have durability in WoW)

I’m far from praising WoW. What I want to demonstrate is that Blizzard’s design isn’t something complicated and convoluted that comes from the minds of game design gurus. It’s just simple thinking, logic, linear conclusions. Observation. You think to a fantasy game, you imagine these warriors and you are supposed to simulate the game mechanics so that they go close to what you would expect. The problem of the consistence.

The only excuse I can guess on SOE’s side is that they didn’t have available an “in-combat” flag to use directly in the mechanic, forcing them to find another solution. But even in this case I believe it wouldn’t be hard to code something similar starting from what’s already available, like the hate-lists of the mobs (if the players is in aggro, he would be considered in combat).

It looks like SOE has inherited Raph’s “Out Of Character” design. The absurd idea that the game design is completely abstracted (alienated) from the setting and the world you simulate. The level of the mechanics independent from the metaphoric level. The result is a complicated and convoluted ruleset that simply makes no sense and just leads to more and more problems.

Of course I’m writing about a tiny detail here with a negligible impact. But it’s a way to reveal a much broader and dangerous trend. A design apporach that I consider harmful (for these kinds of games).

Off-topic: What happened to Scott Hartsman? I have three guesses:
1- He just stopped posting on the boards because he’s busy planning and scheduling and there’s no major release anytime soon
2- He was moved/promoted/downgraded to a different role or project
3- He left SOE

Hey, you know I’m suspicious.
(now I have the suspect he may go to fill the space left by Raph)

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