Game Design: The Relationship Between Weapon And Wielder

Mmm… so many swords.

So I finally got around to playing Infinity Blade. And I love it, but there’s something about it that really irks me. It irked me enough to get me writing this essay.

Infinity Blade‘s equipment runs on a mastery system. When you win a battle, all the gear you’re wearing gains experience. individually. After a piece of equipment gains a set number of experience points, it is considered “mastered.” Once you master something, you gain a skill point which you can use to increase your base stats.

The thing is, mastering your equipment doesn’t actually do anything with the equipment. It stays the same. You don’t get any kind of boost when you’re wearing something you’ve mastered. IB2‘s mastery system actually incentivizes you to wear your equipment only long enough to “master” it. After you get that skill point, you throw away your previous gear and get some new things to wear, so you can gain more skill points.

Call me crazy, but I feel like that goes against the concept of “mastery.” When you’ve mastered something, you’re better with it than with anything else. It feels natural to you, and you can use it naturally. If I spent ten thousand hours swinging a sword, I would gain mastery with that sword, and if I picked up a spear instead I would look like an idiot, because of how accustomed I got to the sword. Mastery over something means you prefer it and are proficient at it.

Why should I care, though? Infinity Blade is all about growth and evolution, so it makes sense that players shouldn’t be attached to a particular weapon or other equipment. Sure, I feel sad when I have to throw away a really cool-looking sword, but putting aesthetics aside why should it matter? What’s wrong with throwing away your weapon when you find a better one?

It’s because the relationship between weapon and wielder is an important but also a very overlooked topic in game design. All games can be broken down into a list of tools that the player can use. These tools can give each player a personalized way to experience the game, but only if a strong relationship is established between the tool and the player. Between the weapon and the wielder.

But before we can go there, we need a little bit of philosophy first.

The Philosophy Of Weapons

Are legal arguments weapons? Phoenix Wright apparently thinks so.

What exactly is a weapon? It’s easy enough to point at things and say “that’s a weapon.” An energy sword in Halo is a weapon. A Cael Hammer in Bastion is a weapon. The Infinity Blade in Infinity Blade is a weapon. We can define a weapon as something that wielder uses to defend himself from or initiate an attack on something else… right?

But that definition includes a lot of things we don’t usually think of as weapons. A lawyer can use a piece of evidence as an attack against a guilty criminal. A devout Christian can use his faith as a defense against temptation. A student can use an online course as an attack against his lack of knowledge. Should pieces of evidence, faith, and online courses be considered weapons? Under my definition, yes: the idea of a weapon must be considered not only as a physical form, but also as a psychological one.

And psychologically, a lot of human interactions can be broken down into attack/defense relationships. If I look at your hat in disgust, I am attacking you and your taste in headwear. You must counter with some kind of defense, such as by thinking  “He just doesn’t understand how marvelous my hat is.” As humans, we use weapons every day, initiating attacks on others or defending in response. It’s just a difference of scale: a judging look might leave you feeling offended, whereas a gunfight might leave you dead. But in either case, there is still an attack/defense relationship happening.

Weapons are already so deeply rooted in human psychology: it follows that weapons themselves are indicative of human psychology. An individual’s personality can be shown through the weapon he prefers. If I am hungry, what weapon will I use to launch an attack on my hunger? If I go out to a restaurant, will I stick with my usual choice, showing a fondness of the familiar? Will I go to a new place, showing a desire to try new things? Or will I just stay home and cook, showing frugality?

Of course, this isn’t exactly applicable in real life combat situations: war is more about efficiency than about flaunting your personality. If an AK-47 is better at winning battles than a flintlock rifle, then every soldier is getting an AK-47 no matter how much they like their flintlocks. But that’s weapons in reality, and the beauty of video games is that they are not bounded by reality. When we use weapons in games, we’re able to find new ways to understand ourselves through the choices we make. Robbie Cooper’s project “Alter Ego” juxtaposes photographs of MMO players with their online avatars, accentuating the connection between the character and its player: or under my interpretation, the weapon and its wielder.

The connection between weapon and wielder yields valuable insight into personality through preference. But what exactly is that connection? Are we supposed to just say that big strong people like big strong weapons? No: the connection is more nuanced than that, and needs to be considered accordingly. What image is associated with a weapon, what personality types are attracted to this image, and why? A classification system is needed to plot out these relationships. I have one such system: I call it the Five Pillars of Combat Design Theory.

The Five Pillars of Combat Design Theory

My theory is that weapons can be classified under one or more of these “pillars,” which represents a trait and all of the associations connected to that trait. The five pillars are power, defense, speed, combo, and range.

Power is intimidation. A powerful weapon exerts a high threat level, and the threat of the weapon is used as part of the weapon itself. As a power wielder, you want your enemies to enter your threat range, so you can overwhelm them with your power. Against a power wielder, you need to be conscious of how large that threat range is and that you are not within it.

Many horror games use intimidation and threat influence to make the player feel weak and scared: or in other words, to undermine the player’s power level. Horror games aren’t very horrifying if you’re playing as a macho man with two shotguns who blasts every enemy that comes his way. On that same note, the typical shoot-em-up FPS game also prioritizes combat through power, just in the opposite way that a horror game does.

Defense is confidence (1). It’s when you know you’re in the midst of danger, but you also know that you’re ready to deal with that danger. This creates a game of the attacker trying to catch the defender off guard, and the defender never letting his guard up. On one hand the defender needs the confidence to deal with enemy attacks, but on the other hand the defender also needs a way to undermine the confidence of their enemies in order to create an opening.

Why do so many tower defense games have an option to speed up the action? Because it feeds into your sense of confidence: my defensive formation is so good that I don’t even need to manage it mid-combat, I can just sit back and watch the enemies die. Likewise, why do so many tower defense games have enemies that can fly above your towers? Flying enemies are a way to pull you out of your confidence and remind you to be vigilant about your defense.

Speed is trickery. Being faster than someone else isn’t just a simple comparison of who covers more distance: using speed effectively is about understanding how you can use it against your opponent. A person’s mental speed (moment-to-moment appraisal and decisions to act) needs to be fast in order for that person to take advantage of in-game speed.

Professional players of real-time strategy games are often compared in terms of APM (actions per minute), which measures how quickly they can deliver orders to the many units and structures under their control. Often, great players are skilled at micromanagement, which is the ability to minutely control the actions of a specific unit or group of units, which plays into the speed factor considering how many actions are required when using micromanagement. It’s said that concentration is a resource in RTS games, and victory lies in managing one’s own concentration while undermining the enemy’s. Doing this requires a strong mastery of speed: not only physical dexterity speed, but also mental decision-making speed.

Combo is relentlessness. In fact, combo is essentially a more combat-focused way of seeing flow. The aspect of combat that involves each player’s personal style and how they interact is a question of combo. A combo-oriented approach is about disorienting the enemy’s rhythm and maintaining your own to dictate the course of battle.

Many competitive casual games such as PvP Tetris variants follow this concept: since these games originated as single-player experiences, players were already used to maintaining their own pace. However, in order to make that type of gameplay competitive, designers added elements such as adding more blocks to an enemy’s side in a Tetris game. Even though the players are not fighting each other directly, the combo aspect is still a prevalent part of combat design.

Range is awareness (2). With range, you’re able to strike foes without retribution, so it’s in your best interest to make sure you can keep doing that. Distance, cover, and terrain are all aspects that a combatant needs to keep track of. The more that a ranged combatant is aware of their surroundings and how they can use them to maintain a range advantage in battle, the better. Having strong range is about being able to pressure your enemies wherever they are.

Classic-style MOBA games are largely about interactions with range. Just like with RTS games, having vision and knowing what your enemies are planning is a key to victory, but the way vision works in MOBA games focuses on each individual character in play. Should a team group up together, sacrificing map vision in exchange for a concentrated force? Or should they spread out over a wider area to pressure multiple points at once? Even putting that aside, full-scale fights in MOBA games still boil down to a triangle of frontline tanks protecting backline supports from close range assassins, where each role’s impact on the battle relates to either their personal range or their ability to support/undermine other people’s ranges.

Guess how many pillars are in MtG? I have always thought of white as defense, blue as speed, black as range, red as power, and green as combo.

Now that we’ve identified five ways combat can be applied in game design, we can look at mechanics in competitive games and analyze them based on how they relate to the five pillars of power, defense, speed, combo, and range.

Rocket launchers in first person shooter games? High power obviously, because that’s the image associated with rocket launchers: they blow things up. Practically no defensive value (except in situational cases) since a rocket used against a rushing attacker is liable to kill the original user anyway.  Low speed, considering that nearly all other types of bullets travel instantly (and honestly, rocket launchers and quick stealthy assassins never went well together). Low combo, because rocket launchers are meant to be used in niche cases (siege, anti-vehicle) rather than in conjunction with other weapons. High range, especially considering that rockets inflict splash damage, so a projectile could be fired at the ground near a corner and kill an enemy hiding behind that corner. In summary: high power, low defense, low speed, low combo, high range.

Counterspells in Magic: The Gathering? No power whatsoever, because it doesn’t do anything directly to your enemy. Insanely high defense, because a counterspell can completely negate an enemy’s action. High speed, because they are instants which can be cast at any time in the game (even during the opponent’s turn).  No combo value (outside of niche cases, which are inevitable considering it’s MTG) because a player needs to intentionally hold back in order to have enough mana to play a counterspell on the enemy’s turn. High range, because almost all actions an enemy can take can be countered. In summary: no power, high defense, high speed, no combo, high range.

Knights in chess? Medium power, but they don’t have the same intimidation that rooks or queens have. Medium defense depending on which stage the match is in, but generally they’re able to find some way to reinforce other pieces. Low speed, compared to pieces like rooks or bishops that can move across the board at will. Massive combo potential, because it can attack in multiple directions at once. Medium range, because even though they can attack enemies behind cover, they don’t have as much area coverage as rooks or bishops. In summary: medium power, medium defense, low speed, high combo, medium range.

What Weapons Can Accomplish

Just look at that name. +15 Adjusted Valor Braid Tassel Twin Spears. Why would you do that to a weapon?

Weapons can be used to explore so many different aspects of human personality. Every weapon can have a unique combination of the five pillars to give the wielder a new experience that truly channels the essence of not only the mechanic being used, but also that wielder’s own self. Games are truly an introspective medium, and combat mechanics have so much potential to illustrate introspection through the relationship between two combatants.

But if they have so much potential, why do so many games ignore it? Games like Infinity Blade only differentiate weapons through numbers. This weapon does 10 more damage than that weapon, but wait, here’s a weapon that does 20 more damage than that previous one you were just holding! Considering all the ways that design can be used to personify weapons that we just looked at, isn’t it a waste to just slap a new number onto a weapon and call it a day?

If you want to make weapon X better than weapon Y, there are so many approaches you can use that don’t just involve increasing the damage that X does. You could focus on power and make it briefly stun enemies when you land a hit with it, conveying a sense of overwhelming strength. You could focus on defense and have it interrupt enemy attacks while it’s attacking, making it suitable for counterattacks. You could focus on speed and have the weapon deal more damage against enemies with their backs turned, so the wielder needs to trick enemies in order to maximize damage. You could focus on combo and increase the weapon’s damage with each successive strike, incentivizing players to find a rhythm and force it against their enemies. You could focus on range and give the weapon a longer reach, so that players can kite their enemies.

All weapons are meant to do damage. All forms of combat are about doing more damage to your enemy than they do to you. The primary question lies in how each combatant approaches the task of doing damage to their enemy, and that is where game design can either excel or fail. Simply having weapon X do more damage than weapon Y doesn’t enhance how either weapon is used. They’re both wielded the same way, it’s just that one does the job faster than the other. Weapon X is strictly better than weapon Y in all scenarios.

And that’s exactly what the problem is: having an option that is superior in all scenarios makes for bad game design. Why would you ever pick weapon Y over weapon X, if weapon X is always stronger? That’s the paradox that most RPG games fall into, so they end up needing level restrictions (you can only equip weapon X if you are a high enough level), or making the stronger weapon harder to find, or making the stronger weapon cost more, or giving the stronger weapon limited durability (3). But none of that actually changes how the weapon is wielded in combat. None of that generates a uniquely designed experience that makes players feel different when they pick up that weapon.

Contrast Final Fantasy VII to Final Fantasy XIII. In FF7, the protagonist Cloud Strife starts the game wielding an absurdly large blade called the Buster Sword. Later, it’s revealed that the Buster Sword is a precious memento to him: it was wielded by his idol and best friend, Zach Fair. Cloud had been trying to take on the exact same personality as Zach Fair as a defense mechanism to cope with his death. He became cocky and proud because that’s what Zach was like, even though he had actually been a shy and withdrawn person. Despite all of this, the Buster Sword is the weakest sword in the game, since it’s Cloud’s starting weapon. Considering how meaningful the Buster Sword was to Cloud, it’s ridiculous that the game incentivizes you to unequip it as soon as you can buy a better sword.

On the other hand, weapons in FF13 are all designed with different focuses. Lightning’s starting weapon, the Blazefire Saber, has no passive ability and increases her physical and magical damage by an average amount. However, the interesting part is that all of Lightning’s other weapons are balanced around the Blazefire Saber. The Axis Blade has significantly lower stats, but allows her to attack faster. The Gladius has higher physical damage but lower magical, whereas the Edged Carbine is the opposite. No weapon is simply stronger than another one: maybe you’ll want to equip the Gladius if you’re in an area where many enemies are resistant to magic, for example. It’s entirely possible to clear through the whole game with only the Blazefire Saber.

And then… you get stuff like this. Please let the Buster Sword rest already.

Competitive combat has always and needs to always focus on the people playing the game. Victory over another person is a process that needs to come from that person’s inherent style versus the other person’s inherent style in order for it to feel like a satisfying victory. That’s why combat design needs to be a way to enhance people’s individual preferences, rather than just being a question of whose attack statistic is higher.

If we come back to Infinity Blade, this is the inherent problem in how it treated its weapons. Combat design is capable of so many things: it can make you feel like a psychopathic anarchist, or a cold and calculating sniper, or an untouchable transcendent. The five pillars of power, defense, speed, combo, and range can be used in so many different ways to create so many different kinds of experiences. With all that potential, why would you relegate weapons to simple linear statistics?

Infinity Blade 2 did make strides away from the first game’s combat design philosophy. In IB2, you can pick between a sword and shield, a two-handed heavy weapon, or dual swords. Each of them plays differently, which is nice because it allows players to find their own preferred fighting style. But they end up having the same problem as the linear system in the original game. It’s still a question of finding stronger weapons and selling your previous ones, but now you have three different categories of weapons to upgrade.

Wielders need to have connections with their weapons. A truly engaging combat experience needs to be a battle of personality, an attempt to assert one person’s will over another’s. In order to create such an experience, the current philosophy of weapons needs to go. Instead of thinking of weapons in terms of pure numbers, we need to think of how these weapons relate to the five pillars of power, defense, speed, combo, and range.


(1) The short story “The Mirror” from the Elder Scrolls series always haunts me when I think about defense:

(2) More on range:

(3) Some of these might impact the decision to use the weapon or not. But then it becomes a mana system paradox: Which is still bad.

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