Yes, yes we all love upgrades, and why not? They make everything better, what’s not to like?

Well let me get out my cane and bag of Werther’s Originals and pose these questions instead:

Why should I upgrade? What’s wrong with what I have now?

I think the concept of an upgrade system is fine actually, if you want something better or just want more options, it will get you that. The problem is that a lot of games tend to screw up this formula. There are two fairly common methods in particular I despise.

The less egregious one is to make the upgrades necessary to progress. This is a strange one to explain because I actually have no problem with requirements to progress usually, I think the difference is in the matter it’s presented to the player. With a traditional requirement it becomes fairly clear in one way or another, “you need this to advance.” With an upgrade system, let me go back to the appeal first:

if you want something better or just want more options

Once you make something necessary, it’s no longer an option. The problem with having required upgrades is that it shouldn’t be considered in the same realm as purely optional upgrades. All it does is frustrate players, if they don’t know they need whatever item they’ll just keep trying and failing through no fault of their own.

It’s fine if a player fails because they screwed up, but they should never face a situation where it’s impossible to succeed1. If there’s a requirement, TELL THE PLAYER. It doesn’t even need to be completely obvious, but ultimately if something is required the player has to figure it out and get it somehow. Anything from clever level design to lead them in a way to get them to upgrade, hints about it, whatever.

Wow I guess I made that screwup sound pretty bad, but still, I don’t even consider it the worst! First, back to my own quote about upgrade systems again:

if you want something better or just want more options

And the old timey favorite:

Why should I upgrade? What’s wrong with what I have now?

The standard method of convincing the player to upgrade is usually a simple two part solution. One is to make the upgrade better than what they have, and the other, when starting out, is to have the player be weak to amplify the difference. The thing with the latter is that there’s a fine line between weak and outright sucky.

If that line is crossed the game tends to start horribly and gasp, it’s not fun. Like the fine line between weak and sucky, there is one between hard and unfair. When the line is crossed into sucky, it tends to be unfair as well. At that point it ties back into the whole required upgrade debacle. You have to upgrade just to not suck.

So why the hell do I love RE4? “It has upgrades out the ass!” you say.

Whaddya buyin?

The easiest explanation I can come up with is that you can basically say this to the merchant:

And you’ll still be fine! Well ok it’ll probably get hard as hell, but it’s straddling the fine lines on the right side of the fence. Leon and his handgun is enough for quite a bit2, various guns can be found laying out along the way, ammo and random other stuff can be picked up. You’re always in a position to succeed regardless of the upgrade situation. That doesn’t mean easy, it just means you always have a chance3.

If you ever do want to look into the upgrades, you may find that your current equipment is actually good enough for you. Or you might find something that kicks even more ass, or just something that looks cooler4. You’re not gimped from the start, and while the upgrades are nice, if you don’t want them, no problem.

And it had tank controls. R.I.P.5 my friend.

  1. I’m not referring to something like falling into a pit and leaving them to die or anything, the player got into that situation themselves. I’m talking about letting players into a level even though they have no shot because they are missing requirements to pass.
  2. Seriously…although maybe you might want to upgrade in that case.
  3. Hey if you need to shoot the shackles off Ashley from 100 feet away and you didn’t want the sniper rifle that’s your own damn fault. Maybe you should’ve picked up the one it had laying out for you.
  4. And damn RE4 had awesome gun reload animations, I demand to play in style.
  5. Mikami announced tank is gone for Vanquish, I trust him on the decision though. He made tank controls, RE4, and PN03.

Followup post: More upgrade rage