Today I want to talk about something video game-related I’ve been wanting to rant about for a while: upgrades.
Upgrades are a system developers put in many games to make them more interesting. It’s also one of the few game mechanics that is easiest to not completely fuck up their goal (make (or rather keep) the game interesting), yet so often does get fucked up. The most basic example would be the following: You start with a gun that does X damage per shot. At one point in the game, you find another gun that does Y damage per shot, where X<Y. The second gun is an upgrade to the first one. This example is simple, easy to understand, and appears in pretty much every game that involves shooting people with guns. It’s also an example of how it fails at keeping the game interesting: it’s a binary upgrade.
What’s that, you ask? A binary upgrade is an upgrade in a game where no real choice is involved. You take the upgrade as soon as it is available. The upgrade is either ‘off’ (0) or ‘on’ (1) with no real alternatives. Reading a tome that increases your strength with +1 is not a choice. Of course, technically you could choose to not read the tome, but why? There’s no real in-game advantage to you not taking that upgrade. In fact, most games will ramp up the difficulty as the game progresses based on you reading those tomes of +1 strength, or picking up those guns that do Y damage per shot. Not doing so makes the game harder. Of course, some people enjoy putting artificial challenges in their game to overcome, like playing Dragon Age: Origins on nightmare without any party members, and without any equipment. But those people are also crazy. The vast majority of gamers do take every advantage given to them.
But there are other, less obvious examples of binary upgrades. Take Dragon Age: Origins, for example: Besides your active talents, which are your combat abilities and spells, you can also choose from a list of more passive skills. You get one point to put in these per three levels (two if you’re a rogue), and there are several options, including coercion, several crafting skills, combat training and tactics. This list is long enough to look like it makes for an interesting choice, but really it isn’t. There are typically two things you really want as a non-mage: coercion (which does what it says on the tin: lets you either persuade or intimidate NPCs in dialogue to do what you want them to do), and combat training (which unlocks the higher levels of combat talents). Mages don’t need combat training per se, as it isn’t required to unlock higher level spells (instead it reduces the chance of spells failing when hit in combat) so their only real priority is Coercion. Given the fact that every skill only has four levels, and thus only needs four points to reach max, there really isn’t that much choice involved. Quite often, you’ll be able to finish a game with all the skills you wanted, and some spare points to put in something that’s vaguely useful like Tracking. Add to that the fact that crafting is, overall, useless in that game, and that you only really need one party member per type of crafting to put skill points in there to reap the benefits (plus the fact that party members don’t even have the coercion skill -why would they?) and you have a very bland, rather binary upgrade system.
Let us next look to another game by the same creators: Mass Effect 2. ME2 sports examples of both binary and non-binary upgrade systems. The skill system is, funnily enough, both. There is no way you’ll get enough skill points by the end of the game to get all the skills to max level, especially since your character’s level caps at 30. Also, upon reaching max level of a skill, you get to choose between one of two possible upgrades: for example, you can choose to make your incendiary attack hit harder, or hit a larger area (and thus more enemies at once). This is choice. This is good. However, if you know what you’re doing, you’ll pick the useful skills out and leave the others be. As such this system can also be pretty binary. The research system in ME2 is also binary to the core: on your missions you find research projects to upgrade your weapons and armour, and back on your ship, you spend resources to make these upgrades. However, the only real limit here is the amount of resources you’ve gathered, and given the fact that there’s way more resources to gather than you can possibly use, it is possible to research every upgrade in the game. And other than arbitrarily limiting yourself to create a challenge (or the fact that you cannot be arsed to do the mining mini-game), there really isn’t a reason not to.
However, the weapons themselves are inherently non-binary. The first pistol you pick up at the start of the game, however, has a large ammo-capacity, and can be fired rapidly, but doesn’t do all that much damage per shot. Not much later in the game, however, you are given another pistol, which is the exact opposite: low ammo capacity, slower shots, more damage per hit. You can only ever carry one pistol at a time, but depending on your play style, you can decide for yourself which pistol suits you best. And if you feel like it, you can swap them around between missions and enjoy the feel of the other. The same is true for every type of gun in the game, and like that, you can costumize your character’s weapon load to suit your preferences. This is interesting, and allows you to vary up your gameplay as you go.
Rise of the Argonauts does something similar, but takes it to the extreme. Every weapon does the same amount of damage as every other weapon of the same type, and handles completely the same. However, apart from your starting weapons, every weapon has a passive ability that is completely unique, and there is no ‘best’ weapon of any time in the game. There’s a sword that can cause enemies to take bleeding damage, there’s a sword that deals more damage when used from behind, there’s a sword that has a chance to slow down enemies, etc. Which one you use is entirely up to you and how you like to play.
Another good example of non-binary upgrades is Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. Blizzard Entertainment, who utterly failed to make WoW’s talent system in any way non-binary (you can’t take everything, but there’s always a ‘best’ choice, and picking anything else is stupid and, in all honesty, makes you a bad player), did a very good job in Starcraft II’s single-player campaign. During most missions, you will gain access to a new unit, and if you do all the missions, you will be able to have all the units, but that’s not what’s interesting. What is interesting is that you also gain cash for completing these missions, cash you can spend on upgrading those units. Every unit has two upgrades available to it, however, it is impossible to gain enough cash throughout the campaign to purchase every upgrade. You must therefor choose which upgrades to purchase, based on which units you like using best, and thus costumize your army to your playstyle.
Also, during the missions, you pick up research data on the other two races, which translates into research points. For every five points of the same race you’ve collected, you’re able to pick a research option that enhances your entire army in a certain way. However, each time you have a choice of one of two options, and choosing one locks out the other permanently. Again, this lets you tailor your army to your own preferences, and allows you to play the campaign a second time, but has it feel somewhat different.
Finally, I’d like to put forward my own idea for non-binary upgrades. The idea would be for a fantasy RPG. Say, you play a mage-type character, and you start out with a basic ‘fiery hands’ spell, which deals fire damage to enemies in front of you. As you level up, you can upgrade this spell into, say, a fireball spell, which can be thrown at an enemy further away, or you can keep it as a short-ranged spell, but widen the arc, and reach, making it engulf more enemies. Later on, you can upgrade the fireball spell to explode on impact, damaging a group of enemies clumped together, or you can upgrade it to launch, say, five fireballs, hitting up to five enemies who can be more spread out. Likewise, if you went the short-range option, you can widen the arc to encompass the full 360 degrees, damaging everyone around you, or focus your fire into a beam that fires out a certain range, and damages the first thing it hits for as long as the spell is maintained; and which can also be rotated to aim (anyone who has played Magicka knows what I mean). At this point you have upgraded your main fire spell twice, and already you have 4 unique options to choose from. And you can only choose one. I would like to see this system, or a system much like it be used in a game at some point. If it’s done properly, I might just play the shit out of that game.