The Devil Is in the Details of Action RPGs - Part Three: Downtime

Part 3 of my discussion on Action RPGs looks at what players can do when there isn't any action to be found.

Downtime is an important part of any game and helps with pacing. Games that have constant action, will lead to the player becoming bored. While not having anything happen for hours on end will produce a similar result. When it comes to Action RPGs, downtime serves several purposes.

First is simply a respite from the combat. Most ARPGs feature some kind of town or quest hub that the player starts in on loading a game. By starting in these safe areas, the player doesn't have to worry about being jumped the second they load up and can take time to prepare for action. Options like stores or item repair are usually placed here to keep things centralized.

Another use of save zones is that they are the perfect places for players to take a closer look at their character. In both Demon's and Dark Souls, the game is never paused which makes it impossible to do any kind of inventory management during combat. Speaking about Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, both titles have a different mechanic involving downtime.

In Demon's Souls, the nexus acts as the game's hub and home base. NPCs that offer spells and item storage are situated here. New NPCs will show up here after certain actions are done in the levels of the game. The player can only level up and assign spells in the nexus. What this does is give the player a clear understanding of "home base" and combat or safety and danger.

Contrast to Dark Souls, where the concept of a home base has changed. Since the game is open world instead of level oriented, bonfires spread throughout act as safe points in the game. Stopping at a bonfire will revive all normal enemies in the game and is where the player can change spells and level up.

There is only one area in the game that technically acts as a home-base: firelink shrine, however without spoiling it, the shrine won't remain a home-base for the entire game. Unlike Demon's Souls, item storage is unneeded as only worn equipment will factor into the character's weight limit.

Between the two, I prefer having the centralized location of the Nexus as opposed to checkpoints in the form of bonfires. The reason is that I like having all the downtime options featured in one area as opposed to having to find them in the world. This also has to do with pacing, I'd rather do everything that involves downtime in one area as opposed to having to stop and start while in the world.

Another game that had a different view of downtime was Din's Curse. Unlike most ARPGs, the player is not truly safe while their in town. For those not familiar with the game, the player travels from town to town clearing out the randomized dungeon underneath it. Each dungeon has a boss and while the boss is alive, the game will randomly create problems for the town. Such as a missing food supply, or raids by monsters. Players have to balance between making headway in the dungeon while performing quests to help the town. You don't want to be resting in town, as the longer you're there, means that you're not making progress in the dungeon.

The other aspect of downtime has to do with money sinks. In order for something to have value in a game, there must be a use for it. Currency in most RPGs will always reach a point where the player has more money then they know what to do with. ARPGs in particular with how rarer items sell for more money, reach that point quickly. That's where money sinks come into play: a mechanic whose purpose is to give money a use. Now it's important to make the distinction that buying supplies like health or mana potions are not a part of this. The reason is that they retain a use no matter what point of the game the player is at.

There are two kinds of money sinks: positive and negative. A positive sink is something the player can do to make their character or equipment better. While a negative sink is something used to basically punish the player for messing up. Now before we get to some examples, it's important to note that the two categories are not mutually exclusive as we're about to see.

The most common negative money sink is durability: where equipment will slowly degrade with use. When an item's durability drops below a certain threshold, the item will take a stat penalty. Most often if durability hits zero, the item will lose all or most of its value. Most games that feature durability require the player to return to town to repair (at a cost of course.) Durability also acts as a slap on the wrist for lower skilled players, as the player's equipment usually degrades each time the player dies.

Interestingly enough, durability acts as a scaling money sink, as better gear requires more money to repair. However the problem with durability as the main money sink, is that it's only for less experienced players. Once you've gotten good enough at the game, you will rarely die and durability degrades very slowly through normal use. This reduces the money sink considerably among expert players.

An example of a positive sink is from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Both games allow the player to upgrade their equipment at the blacksmith. Upgrades require a prerequisite amount of materials along with souls. Upgrading a weapon will boost the base attack damage. Players can also add unique upgrades to weapons based on the current upgrade path of the weapon. For example: adding mana recovery or lightning damage.

This is an example of a pure positive sink, as there is no downside to making your weapon better. The only real catch is that you won't know what the upgrade paths are without spending money and resources going down each one (unless you have a guide handy.) Because there is no downside to making your equipment better, the designer placed two caps on the system.

First is that the material to max out an upgrade chain, is very rare and may only spawn once or twice in a play-through. Second is that there is a hard limit on how far you can upgrade pieces of equipment. That means that eventually the scaling effect (which was talked about in part 2,) will be your only source of improving your damage output.

Before we move on it's important to mention that the Souls games don't have the same problem with currency as other ARPGs. Since enemy souls count for both money and experience, there is always a viable use. This area is where I prefer Dark Souls, as leveling up will improve your character's base defenses. Whereas in Demon's Souls, you have to increase specific attributes to improve your defenses.

Some ARPGs and many MMOs feature a crafting system, which acts as a scaling positive money sink. Crafting requires the player to spend money and resources to create equipment or items. Most often there is a way to upgrade the quality level of equipment produced. Some games require the player to spend money for experience, while others just require the player to constantly create items. The players who stick with it to the high levels will usually be rewarded with very powerful crafting formulas.

The more interesting money sinks are both positive and negative. Many ARPGs feature a "gambler" NPC. How it works is that the player can view the type of equipment the gambler has and a price. The price is usually more expensive then buying the same equipment from a shop. The player however won't know the rarity of the item until they bought it. That sword could be an ultra rare weapon, or a piece of crap and you'll never know until you put your money down.

Torchlight featured a different kind of money sink in the form of the enchanter. The enchanter works by being able to enhance any piece of equipment you give him. The enhancement could be a new property on the equipment or added slots. The price for enchanting scales with how many times you use it successfully on the same piece of equipment, and the base level of the item. However there is a catch, there is a chance that the enchanter will wipe all properties off the equipment leaving it with its base stats. That chance also scales up with each successful enchant.

Downtime is a must for any ARPG, allowing players to relax while looking at the other gameplay systems. At this point, the end of the series is up in the air and if anyone has suggestions for topics by all means post. For part 4, I'm going to talk about a certain game that started this examination in the first place.

Josh Bycer

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