I am basically done with Subterrain. There is plenty of “game” left, but my completion of it is a forgone conclusion made evident by the full accounting of its remaining systems. In other words, it has become formulaic, and that formula has been solved – there are no possible surprises left. Much like many Civilization endgames, it is simply a matter of going through the remaining motions.
And ain’t nobody got time for that.
The whole situation got me thinking about the design of formulaic systems in gaming, and why designers lean on them so heavily. The only explanations I can come up with is either laziness or fear. There is probably a more legit reason out there, but I can’t imagine it, because it almost always makes the underlying game weaker, and why would you do that intentionally?
Let’s use the most common formula as an example: the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I have no particular idea why these elements exist in 99% of RPGs (and even non-RPGs) when the designers ensure that elements bring nothing to the table. Yes, some monsters are stronger against some elements and weaker to others. Congratulations, you have just optimized combat against the entire game’s monster lineup after playing a Nintendo game 20+ years ago. In practice, those elements are really just different colored numbers – they have no gameplay impact beyond exploiting arbitrary weaknesses.
Compare that with the way, say, Divinity: Original Sin plays out. There are still elements, and still strengths/weaknesses based on them, but those elements actually have secondary consequences. Having fire spells create a Damage over Time effects and Lightning stun people is pretty cliche, but there was a tertiary concern with interactions between the elements themselves, e.g. poison clouds exploding with fire, electricity stunning everyone standing in water, etc.
That is good, interesting design.
As I said before, I can only imagine that designers are either lazy or scared when they lean so hard on formulas. “Scared” in this context means potentially introducing an unbalanced aspect to the combat system. For example, Ice damage slowing the target is pretty cliche, but many designers don’t even go to that level because it’s possible that players could cheese certain encounters by slowing and kiting the boss around the room. But imagine a designer who looks at that possibility and then crafts a boss in which that strategy is basically required in order to succeed. That would be great… until you realize that all the other players might not have learned that spell/chosen that class/etc.
I’m not trying to imply that game design is easy, but… c’mon devs. Surprise us once in a while. Maybe don’t have a Fire/Water/Air/Earth Temple unlock mechanisms. Make the spells be something more than different colored damage numbers. Embrace asymmetry when it makes sense. Switch up the formula… until switching it up itself become formulaic. Then do something, anything else.