Game design analysis of how various games use “tool” items to customize the player character and manage resources.
What is a “Tool” Item?
In this article, I am defining a tool as an acquirable item that provides the player with a new, non-combat ability to get past obstacles. For example a picklock might allow the player to open doors, a grappling hook may let them climb to new heights, or an oxygen mask stay longer underwater.
Tool = Ability [-] Obstacle
Note I am specifically excluding combat tools, such as weapons or shields, as I want to focus on tools that open up new paths or avoid obstacles (including guards, so Stealth tools are in). I am also not counting abilities acquired purely via upgrading stats in a traditional RPG fashion. However, I am still including tonics in Bioshock, as they function more like items.
Role Models: Deus Ex, Thief, Dishonored, Zelda, Metroid, Bioshock
Dimensions of Tools
Looking at a variety of games, I propose the following characteristics of a tool:
- Acquisition – how the tool is acquired by the player
- Given – the tool is automatically given to the player at some point (i.e. Thief’s lockpics)
- Findable – it can be found somewhere in the world (i.e. Metroid, Zelda, Deus Ex)
- Exclusive Choice – it can be chosen at the exclusion of others (i.e. Deus Ex AUG upgrades)
- Purchasable – it can be purchased via some currency (i.e. Bioshock, Dishonored)
- Permanence – how long does the tool stay with the player
- Unlimited – can be used indefinitely (i.e. Thief’s lockpicks, Metroid)
- Disposable – can only be used a finite amount of times and needs to be re-acquired (i.e. Deus Ex Multitools)
- Fuel-based – can be used indefinitely but requires some fuel or ammo to use (i.e. Bioshock’s tonics, Deus Ex AUGs)
- Upgradability – can the tool be changed or improved?
- Static – always stays the same (i.e. Zelda, Metroid)
- Upgradable (by finding) – can be upgraded by finding a newer version, or some other resources (i.e. Bioshock tonics, Deus Ex AUGs)
- Upgradable (by currency) – can be upgraded by spending some currency (i.e. Dishonored)
Here’s a few examples:
Deus Ex multitools = Findable + Disposable + Static
Deus Ex AUGs = Findable + Fueled + Upgradable (by currency)
Dishonored Powers = Purchasable by currency + Fueled + Upgradable
Thief Rope or Moss arrows = Findable/Purchasable + Disposable + static
Metroid powers = Findable + Unlimited + Static
Of course, games can mix multiple characteristics in a single dimensions – some of Bioshock’s tonics are Given (like the first few forced on the player) while others Findable (non-essential).
The most complex case I can think of are Deus Ex AUGs – not only are they Findable, Exclusive Choice Resource that requires Fuel, but they can also be upgraded via a whole different resource. Crazy!
Character Customization via Tools
Tools provide the most basic method of character building. Tool availability, permanence and upgradability defines how flexible and meaningful player choices are, and how polarized their character becomes.
For instance, Metroid has linear character building with no customization due to the dimensions of its tools – you get the tools at almost exact points in each playthrough and cannot upgrade them after. With exception of weapons, for all intents and purposes, the “character building” always progresses the same way. Conversely, Deus Ex AUGs are far more customizable and polarized – they force you to choose between two options which have critical implications for the rest of the game.
An interesting case is Thief arrows – you can purchase them on each stage, in varying amounts, giving you a lot of freedom and a blank slate before each mission. Bioshock allows for similar hot-swappability of the tonics, but limits the resources for upgrading them.
Furthermore, tool dimensions also influence how much experimentation the player is allowed. The question posed is “do I get to test each tool in some basic form before committing to one?”
In Deus Ex, once an augmentation choice is made, an opportunity is lost – you will never know what you missed out on. Ergo, you can’t really “experiment.”
On the other hand, Thief gives you at least one of each type of arrow at some point so you get to play around and experiment with them before deciding which ones you want to fork your hard-earned (well, stolen) cash on.
We can see a middle-ground approach in Bioshock, giving you almost every tonic in its basic form and letting you decide which to upgrade. Another way of achieving that is seen in Dishonored, – player doesn’t start with every ability, but they can earn enough currency throughout the game to acquire each one in its basic form.
Tools as Resources
In my definition, a resource is an item or currency/fuel you find, receive, or purchase, which has a limited supply, and is disposable. So anything from generic ammo, to batteries in Deus Ex, or Bioshock’s potions.
Now things get interesting when a tool becomes a resource – it introduces an element of management and exploration discussed below. Such was the case for multitools in Deus Ex or rope/moss arrows in Thief.
Conversely, most Zelda tools (like a grappling hook or a shield) are not a resource – there is exactly one of each in the world and they don’t require management. Bombs are one exception, however, as they are disposable and findable throughout the world.
Resource Management and Exploration
When tools act as, or rely on, resources, they increases the depth of gameplay – abilities are constantly “obtained” and “lost” back and forth depending on how you play and what choices you make.
Again, Deus Ex multitools and lockpicks, Thief’s arrows, or Zelda’s Bombs are a great example – they both enable and are a reward for exploration.
Conversely, Metroid’s tools or Zelda’s grappling hook enable exploration but do not “encourage” it by themselves – you must find them to advance the story, so you aren’t technically “exploring”, just playing the predefined design path.
Difficulties in Balancing Items
It is tricky to design and balance tools properly. It’s hard to account and validate each choice. Such was the case of the swimming upgrades or aqualungs in Deus Ex, which had so few use cases they were a waste. Conversely, you can also overpower a tool by over-designing – a maxed out blink in Dishonored will let you accomplish every single objective extremely efficiently, making the other tools seem useless, if not downright too risky.
Further, when tools are or depend on resources, it becomes difficult to balance their amount as well, especially considering varying player skills and aptitude for random exploration. An experienced Thief player will end a mission with over-abundance of arrows. A novice may be barely scraping by. Different difficulty levels help alleviate this somewhat, but the desing problem still exists for each setting.
Curious about my own indie game that spawned this feature? Check out my DevBlog, currently working on a Slavic-Steampunk game of sneaking and investigation onboard a damaged Zeppelin, uncovering the secrets of its passengers.