Broken Game Mechanics

In some ways, sports fans have great advantages over those of us who are computer gaming nerds. In general, most popular sports were established decades ago at the minimum. The vast majority of the flaws and loopholes in the rules have been corrected and closed, so sports are, in a sense, predictable. (As predictable as anything run by humans, of course.)

Video games, on the other hand, generally don’t last long enough to work out all the problems. Developers may patch the biggest problems, but very few games have a lifespan of a decade plus with active development to improve the game and remove options for play that are game-breaking.

And make no mistake – sometimes code, implemented as designed, is game-breaking. Developers are not gods; they make mistakes, miss implications of their own ideas, and generally screw things up.

As you may have guessed, I’ve been pondering some elements of Star Wars Galaxies.

Before talking about the particular game-breaking issue I have in mind, I suppose I should define “game-breaking”. And to do that, I need to point out that what’s game-breaking in a multiplayer game is not necessarily game-breaking in a single-player game.

Take, for example, KOTOR 2. KOTOR was, first and foremost, a lightsaber game. There is no doubt the devs intended it to be played as a Jedi, swinging a lightsaber to cut down Sith Lords. KOTOR 2, on the other hand, introduced feats and specials to make ranged combat viable – even against lightsaber-wielding enemies. On the balance, the game still favored lightsaber combat over Force combat over ranged combat; however, the game was playable and beatable with any sort of build. Some were certainly more optimized than others, but players had options.

If you carry that paradigm into multiplayer, it fails, especially if it’s player-vs-player multiplayer. As a rule of thumb, you have three types of players: min-max players, who do everything to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths to make their characters as powerful as possible; casual players, who generally choose skills and options they perceive of as “cool” without worrying about overall effectiveness; and players looking for a challenge, who either gimp their characters deliberately or try to pull off feats that the developers intended to be impossible.

When player-vs-player is introduced, you’ve now put your casual players at a great disadvantage. The min-maxers are going to stomp on them, and the challenge players are probably going to be min-maxing too.

With that in mind, in an MMO, I’d define game-breaking as “Skills, items, or game mechanics that render entire player classes moot.”

In Star Wars Galaxies, particularly pre-CU, that mechanic was Armor Piercing.

SWG had some amazingly in-depth systems. The crafting system was insane (and is still something I struggle to completely grasp) in its depth. Space and starship outfitting was almost an art in mass and power management to maximize fighter performance. Entire cities were built and managed by players. Even decorating was almost a profession in itself, due to the options available to players.

But parts of combat were very wrong.

Raph Koster wrote a series of posts on SWG this year, and they’re well worth reading from a game design perspective, so I understand why they got it wrong and things didn’t work. But there are still fans of the old pre-Combat Upgrade SWG that don’t seem to understand how broken several aspects are.

I’m now six hundred words in, and I’ll finally get to the topic I wanted to talk about!

SWG’s damage reduction worked in several ways. If you had the appropriate skill to examine a creature, or if you picked up a piece of armor, there were several sets of stats to look at. Damage reduction from armor was handled by two separate, yet equally important stats: Resistances and Armor Level.

Resistances offered a flat reduction to incoming damage based on the percentage. If the armor had 80% resists to energy, and you attacked with an energy weapon, only 20% of your damage got through on a successful hit. Not rocket science. The proliferation of the best armor in the game, composite, due to overpowered doctor buffs led to many people using stun weapons, since composite’s lowest resistance was always to stun.

Armor Levels for a target could range from 0 to 3. Think of it is unarmed, light armor, medium armor, and heavy armor. (That’s how it was described in game.) Player armor maxed at 1, but creature and NPC armor went all the way up to 3. Armor Piercing on weapons could also range from 0 to 3 (none, light, medium, heavy); player weapons were acquirable at all four levels.

The interaction of those two numbers was catastrophically game-breaking.

When AP was compared to AL, damage penalties and bonuses applied, starting at 25%. AP2 attacks against AL1 meant 25% bonus damage; AP3 attacks against AL1 meant 50% damage bonus.

Flipping that, an AP0 attack against an AL3 creature meant 75% damage reduction…before the flat damage reduction from resists. Attacking a creature with AL3 with your AP0 weapon, and said creature has 80% resists against your damage type? You’re doing 5% of your weapon’s rated damage.

“Get yourself a weapon with higher AP rating!” seems like the obvious answer, right? The problem is that many classes couldn’t get an AP3 weapon. Particularly gimped were Pistols-based builds; no pistol had a ranking higher than AP1. Period.

Entire classes built around weapon types were utterly useless at high-end PvE or PvP. (Yes, some PvPers could pull off pistols at various points, mostly due to bounty hunter’s eyeshot and a Geonosian sonic blaster for stun damage, while maximizing dodge by taking points in fencer. I’m talking casual play here, not min-max. Also, no one could PvE at high end with pistols.)

At the time, the implications weren’t well-understood. It took time for players to understand the mechanics in-depth, and quite often those at the top of the food chain weren’t in a hurry to share that information with others. But years have passed since then; now days, log into a SWG emulator for pre-CU, and what classes are almost everyone playing?

Rifleman: Armor Piercing 3 T-21 blaster rifle.

Swordsman: Armor Piercing 3 blast hammer.

Could something have been done to fix it?

I would argue, from Raph Koster’s posts, that no, nothing could be done about it. Giving all classes an AP3 weapon would be a very stopgap “fix” – it means everyone needs to use their high-end weapon. The way weapon refire rates were calculated meant speeding up lighter weapons wasn’t an option; pistols were already at the 1 attack per second cap, and combat speeds even faster than that simply weren’t an option at the time. (See Raph Koster’s post on the server hardware limitations.) Slowing down the heavy AP weapons would’ve been virtually impossible, again due to how weapon speeds were calculated. (With a full set of skills in a weapon, everyone attacks at or very near speed cap.)

I have no doubt the idea of Armor Piercing/Armor Levels was designed to allow more diversity in weapon choice. Instead, it killed off all but a few viable options for combat.

When designing a mechanic, think long and hard about all the repercussions of it. Also, bring in a min-maxer or three and see if they can figure out a way to exploit it that you haven’t thought of. I guarantee they’ll find something new.

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