Fixing BREATH OF THE WILD’s Durability Problem

On March 3rd of 2017, a little game called THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD was released. You may have heard of it. The game was met with extremely positive reviews and has been regarded by some as one of the greatest games ever made.

Well, today I’m going to criticize BREATH OF THE WILD while defending the merits of equipment durability.

It seems I’ve struck a nerve.

If there is one thing to be learned in the past few weeks, it’s that criticizing BREATH OF THE WILD is never a good idea. If there are two things to be learned, it’s that durability systems are the spawn of the devil, and nothing good can ever be salvaged from them.

In case you didn’t know, BREATH OF THE WILD features weapon durability. As you can see, I’m at a bit of an impasse here.

Durability” refers to any game mechanic that tracks an item’s wear and tear over time, making them progressively weaker and eventually breaking as the game goes on. The stated goal of durability is to encourage the player to prepare themselves before battle, to introduce a sense of tension and limited resources, as well as to add additional playstyles revolving around maintaining and improving one’s equipment. In practice, it’s often reviled as an unrealistic, anxiety-inducing countdown that makes the player wince at the sight of combat.

READ: The “Illusion of Choice” Is it always a bad thing?

According to a vocal, growing minority, this is the case for BREATH OF THE WILD. Many weapons break within one or two battles and barring a few exceptions; there is no way to repair your equipment. While some argue that the durability system encourages the player to think strategically and to experiment with multiple weapons, the fact remains that it’s tedious, intrusive, and induces the wrong kind of tension in the player.

So, is BREATH OF THE WILD’s durability system as bad as people claim? How do we fix it? Is durability ever a good thing? Well, let’s take a look!

Why have durability in the first place?

A lot of people think equipment durability has no place in video games, that it’s an unrealistic, uninteresting, and lazy attempt to force survival mechanics down the player’s throat. On some level, I can understand this argument. Why would you want to play a game where your equipment falls apart over time? Where’s the fun in seeing your hard-earned gear break, or spending time at the forge fixing them?

[SKYRIM] Seen here: riveting gameplay.

Equipment durability, when used correctly, can add entirely new dimensions of gameplay. In RPGs, entire playstyles can be built around creating and maintaining your equipment, giving you an edge over your opponent without resorting to brute strength alone. Maintaining your equipment can help balance the in-game economy, giving the player a money or resource sink and increasing the value of the resources in the world. When resources are more valued, the player has an intrinsic motivation to seek them out.

Survival mechanics, in general, exist to create organic stakes for the player. Ideally, it puts you in an immersive head-space where you’re not just going on adventures because the game tells you to. You’re trying to make a living for your character. Equipment durability is a simple, direct way of motivating the player to make money and gather resources, making every battlefield or dungeon-crawl a rewarding experience.

So, with this in mind, Why doesn’t ZELDA’s durability system work? How do we “fix” it?

Get rid of permanently breakable weapons – completely

ZELDA games have always fostered a strong connection between the player and her equipment. The thrill of finding a new weapon or gadget with which to experiment is core to the experience. One of the most jarring results of the durability system is that you never have the opportunity to grow attached to your weapons. You know they’re just going to break before the end of your play session, so why should you care about them at all? How do we repair the relationship between the player and his equipment?

The FALLOUT series is a perfect example of a durability system done well. In NEW VEGAS, for example, most of the gear you find on enemies is in disrepair, which makes sense considering you just beat the shit out of them. Fitting the post-apocalyptic setting, you spend the first few hours of the game scavenging rusty knives and old revolvers. If you ever find a duplicate piece of equipment you can use it to repair your own.

The rarest items are more difficult to repair since it’s harder to find duplicates. As your repair skill improves, you can greatly improve the quality of your gear with fewer duplicates. Eventually, you can repair anything using items that are only vaguely related (say, using a common laser pistol to repair your alien blaster). This system is simple, maintains the pace of the game, and allows the player to feel more powerful as time goes on. Most importantly, this gear never breaks permanently. Whether it’s a steel pipe or a flamethrower if you’ve grown a fondness for your gear you can keep it until the end of the game.

READ: Why do we love simulation games? Let’s take a look!

Having the ability, or the money, to keep your gear fully maintained is an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s something you earn, and you can feel the difference between a rusty assault rifle and a polished one. And since your gear never breaks permanently, you never feel punished for using it. Rather, you feel rewarded when you find an extra 10mm, knowing that you can use it to strengthen your own.

So how do we apply these ideas to ZELDA?

Well, you need to get rid of permanently breakable weapons. Quite frankly, any item beyond a wooden stick should be repairable, using a similar system to FALLOUT. Say Link finds a boomerang in the wild that’s in decent shape and does a normal amount of damage. If he finds another as his starts to break, he can combine the two to fix it. If he finds another, he can repair it even further beyond the state in which he found it, giving him a temporary, yet noticeable advantage. As a result, the player feels rewarded for engaging with the durability mechanic rather than punished for it.

BREATH OF THE WILD already puts focus on crafting activities like cooking and alchemy, why not add smithing to the list? If you can’t find a duplicate weapon to patch together your own, let Link repair his items at the town forge, or create a makeshift forge in the wild.

[BREATH OF THE WILD] It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing we’ve made him do.

Now that the player has time to become attached to his gear, et’s foster that connection. What if you could upgrade your favorite weapons at Shrines? What if your axe could be upgraded with ancient technology of your choosing, imbuing it with flames or magical poison? Imagine seeing your weapons morph before your eyes, slowly growing in power as the player does the same. This would add some extra diversity and reward for completing these mini-dungeons, as well as allowing the player to customize his own playstyle.

This still doesn’t address the speed at which Link’s weapons break. Why even bother repairing your items when they’ll be fully broken by the time you find new ones? This gets at the core of the game’s durability issues, and there’s a pretty simple solution:

Slow down the rate of degradation…by a lot

I mentioned earlier that equipment durability can encourage the player to explore, adventure, and gather resources. If items degrade too quickly, however, this begins works against itself. Suddenly, every potential fight becomes a frustrating countdown as you watch your weapons fall apart with each strike. You may not want to explore that cave or climb that mountain since you know you’ll just be wasting your weapons when you inevitably have to fight whatever’s there. Even without permanently breakable weapons, exploration becomes an exercise in anxiety when your gear is this flimsy.

I should feel excited, thrilled, and intimidated as I enter combat, not anxious over a tedious mechanic that has no bearing on my skill as a player.

So, how do we fix this? We need to slow down the degradation by a huge degree. Your weapons should never break within the span of a single battle. Metallic weapons should last you at least an entire day before needing repair, growing less effective as time goes on. Decreasing damage would encourage the player to maintain their weapons as much as possible, and rewards them with increased damage for keeping them fully repaired. When the player repairs her weapons, she should feel like she got a return on her investment, and the rate of degradation should keep that in mind.

Simply put, degradation should appeal to a sense of realism. Steel swords that break after a few swings add nothing to the balance, atmosphere or immersion of the game. Of course, degradation can never, and should never, be completely realistic, but the player should get the sense that his weapons are made of something other than cardboard.

The Point

Equipment durability is often a brilliant idea applied poorly. I love ZELDA, and I welcome the changes BREATH OF THE WILD has brought to the series, but its durability system left a lot to be desired. It’s frustrating, inhibits player engagement, and devalues the player’s gear. Most importantly, we know durability can be done better. BREATH OF THE WILD is an incredible game, but incredible games are not immune to criticism. Rather, we should look for ways to improve them further in the hopes the developers will set the bar even higher next time around.

Comments 3

  1. This was pretty much the article I was going to write a similar article myself, only I didn’t have a ton of game examples to draw from. Here’s what I’d add.
    The way this system seems to work is (1) there are three tiers of quality, good (shiny), normal (not shiny), badly damaged (red). (2) Durability goes down in value gradually when you use weapons normally. (3) Durability goes down faster if you misuse (sword or spear vs rock) and slower if you use the right tool for the job (hammer vs rocks). Durability goes down not at all if you do sneak attacks, or for certain. (4) Durability goes down by an entire tier, usually, if you slam your weapons on the ground, especially rocky ground. Or power attack against a wall. (5) When your weapons are attacked, it often goes a whole tier, or close to it. (6) When your weapons are blocked, it often goes a lot too.

    Now, as you can see, most of these ideas are fine. Until you get to ideas #5 and #6, under their current implementation. Now, yesterday, I had a silver shortsword that was all snazzy and new looking. It became “badly damaged” in a battle versus the blue goblins armed with WOOD clubs and WOOD shields. Wtf? The durability should be at least roughly based on whether shields or weapons can even break them.

    The second thing is to make “fragments” that drop on the ground, which you can possibly reforge (if they’re metal). Wooden objects just smash up.

    The third thing is while there should be some degrade for bows and maybe magic wands, there should be not the cataclysmic complete break (maybe it loses a bowstring) for any metal bows. And magic weapons could simply depower.

  2. You just haven’t played the game enough. In the end, you’ll never be running out of weapons. All the weapons respawn in every bloodmoon. The durability system is just perfect and original.

    1. This is far from perfect and hardly original, weapon durability is fairly well heeled at this point; BotW’s repair mechanic is tedious and adds nothing of value to the game. Why are blacksmiths incapable of repairing things? Why do enchanted, magic swords break at all? Why add this into a game that is already packed to the brim with timers, gauges, and other limiters?

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