Amateur Hour is an occasional series where I, a complete game design amateur, discuss game design. Hopefully I don't embarrass myself.
Weapon durability in Breath of the Wild. Now there's a contentious issue if ever I've seen one. It's seemingly impossible to have a discussion about the game without spending quite a bit of time going over how frequently your weapons break and subsequently debating how this affects the quality of the game. For some it encourages you to mix up your style and keeps the combat feeling fresh and unpredictable. For others it's the worst thing since canned bread. I personally fall in the middle, where I appreciate the concept but malign the execution. It can certainly be improved, and doing so wouldn't be very difficult.
I understand what the development team was going for with the durability system: BotW takes clear inspiration from the modern trend of survival games, which often require you to scrounge for equipment that is prone to breaking down and is in constant need of repair or replacement. The Hyrule we adventure through this time around isn't a kingdom in its prime fighting off an impending invasion, or a kingdom which has only recently fallen; this is a Hyrule where Ganon won a full century prior to the start of the game, and most of the weapons you find are either antiques from that fallen age or nothing more than sticks strapped to rocks some dumb monster threw together. With the art of weapon making largely lost in Hyrule and most of the available arms being either ancient and degraded or poorly made, it is sensible that your weapons would shatter with intensive use. Link, and by extension the player, is forced to improvise and adapt to a situation based on what they acquire in the field.
I understand the intent of the development team, but I also understand where the detractors are coming from when they decry the durability system. Weapons can break at the worst moments, there's no reliable way to acquire weapons of a specific power level, there's no indication of how much durability a weapon has left until it's about to break, you can be forced to rely on weapon types you don't like or are inappropriate for the situation at hand, and you wind up letting your most powerful weapons lie around unused for fear that they will break before you really need them (call this the Elixir Effect). I don't buy the argument that it's unrealistic, as real swords apparently broke quite often, to the point where Link's weapons are actually unrealistic in the sense that they last too long. But the idea of eating five durians in one sitting and then punching a lizard man in the face isn't realistic either. If anything, we should be chiding weapon durability for being realistic, as this game is a fantasy of the sort where you can eat fifteen pounds of stinking fruit in one go and then suckerpunch a lizard man for his various organs. In that light it's downright silly that your weapons irreparably fracture at all.
"How do you fix the durability system?" is a question which could rightfully be answered with "Scrap it entirely," but that's boring. I did find fun in BotW's durability system for a time, and I'm of the subjective opinion that it can be salvaged by adding a bit of player agency into the mix. To fix the durability system, players should ultimately be allowed to circumvent it entirely.
Part of the fun of a game is working around the limitations its rule sets place upon you, and figuring out how to make those systems work for you so that you may progress further into the game. How far can you jump? How much ammo can you carry? Can you parry at the right time? Succeeding with these limitations in place is rewarding and grants a feeling of accomplishment. But overcoming and ignoring these limitations can be among the most fun a player can have, provided the player has earned the right to ignore them.
To illustrate my point I'd like to go on a lengthy digression. I'm going to discuss Final Fantasy VII for a while, but trust me, I'll tie it back into BotW. If you're familiar with materia, feel free to skip ahead to the image of Cloud winning a chocobo race. Otherwise, strap in.
Consider the materia system from Final Fantasy VII. For the uninitiated, materia are physical objects the characters of that game carry which impart upon them all the various abilities available in the game (save the basic Attack and Item commands). They must be slotted into a character's weapon or armor in order to be utilized. So to cast a fire spell the character would need to slot in a Fire materia, to use the "steal" command they would need a Steal materia, etc. Most materia come with both positive and negative side effects when equipped, generally lowering physical attributes (health, strength, vitality) while raising caster-oriented attributes (mana, intelligence, spirit). Finally, materia come in five varieties: Magic (colored green), which allows for offensive and restorative spells to be cast; Command (yellow), which allows for special abilities such as Steal and Sense to be used in combat; Summon (red), which calls up powerful monsters in battle; Support (blue), which functions only when paired with another materia and modifies that materia in some way; and Independent (pink), which provides a constant passive bonus or effect of some variety.
The first limitation placed on the player is the fact that materia are physical items which can only be held by one character at a time. If Cloud is holding your lone Restore materia, Barrett is unable to utilize the magic it makes available. By the end of the game you can buy most Magic, Support, and Independent materia, providing you with enough stock to furnish your party however you wish. But in the opening hours the materia available for purchase are prohibitively expensive and limited in variety, leaving you largely dependent on the what can be found lying around throughout the world. All the most powerful materia (including all Summon materia) can only be found at specific points throughout the story, meaning they are of inherently limited availability. With your supply so limited, you need to choose who will hold what.
Just how much materia a character can hold at a given time is the next limiter put in place, and is dependent upon the number slots, and the type of slots, available between their weapon and armor. Equipment can have between zero and eight slots (up to sixteen slots total), and those slots can be linked or unlinked; linked slots are more advantageous, as the materia in one slot can be paired up with a Support materia placed in the other, to provide a corresponding effect. You are provided with just a few slots in the start of the game, which isn't much of an issue because your supply of materia is likewise limited. Your collection of materia will soon outpace the number of materia slots available, which very quickly forces you to make decisions about which materia to equip, in addition to who will hold it. Many materia will need to fall by the wayside, as you simply don't have enough room to bring them all with you into combat.
It would be unwise to bring all your materia even if that were an option, as stacking those of the Magic and Summon variety onto a single character would be deleterious. Those two varieties of materia decrease health and physical attack power by stacking percentages, and slotting in too many materia with one character will lead to an appreciable decrease in their survivability. More powerful materia have more significant effects, ranging from a decrease of 2% from equipping the most basic materia, to a decrease of 10% when equipping the likes of Knights of the Round (the final Summon materia). These detrimental effects can be offset by specific Independent materia, but that requires space which may not be available to the character.
With these limitations in place the materia system becomes a balancing act, as you consider a character's health and attack, how much they can currently equip, and what materia to bring along and what to leave behind. These limitations are compounded once you begin to find Independent and Support materia capable of providing unique interactions when equipped in conjunction with other specific materia. That's not even getting into the occasional exchange between equipment power and slots (some weapons or armor are very potent but have few or no slots, or provide for zero materia growth).
That is, It is a balancing act until you reach the end of the game. Then the developers let you go nuts.
There is a series of quests on the second disc which, if you succeed at them, reward you with key items called "Huge Materia." They are literally really, really big materia of the blue, red, yellow and green variety. The only function of the blue huge materia is to give you a new summon if you have two particular summons which precede it; the other three are what let you go nuts and circumvent nearly all the limitations of the materia system.
As you win battles you gain ability points (AP) in addition to experience points. AP are experience for your materia, and as the materia you have equipped acquire AP they eventually gain a level and become more powerful. If a piece of materia reaches max level it is labeled as "MASTERED" and produces a new, first level version of itself. If you master every materia of the Magic, Command or Summon variety (with a few exceptions among the Command materia) and examine the huge materia corresponding to that variety's color, you have the option of combining them all into one piece of Master materia. A Master materia contains all of the spells or abilities associated with its particular type: Master Magic contains every magic spell; Master Summon contains every summon; and Master Command contains (nearly, it's weird) every command, all grouped into one piece. They don't contain any of the stat bonuses those materia confer, but they don't lower any stats either. Suddenly you can equip every major spell and ability in the game by using only three slots, without suffering any of the detrimental effects of loading a character up. This leaves you with up to thirteen open slots to play around with. The system of limitations you've been playing around since the start of the game suddenly gets tossed out the window. But you have to earn it.
Mastering materia takes time. A lot of time. Without going out of your way to specifically earn AP, a piece of materia equipped since the beginning of the game might be mastered as you approach the end of the second disc, approximately twenty hours of gameplay for a first-time player. Those early materia require the smallest quantity of AP to master, with the most powerful (the aforementioned Knights of the Round) needing orders of magnitude more. There are specific enemies you can fight right at the end of the game which provide a boatload of AP, and particular weapons you can equip which increase the amount of AP a piece of material equipped in that weapon receives by a factor of two or even three, but even the with the most efficient methods you're looking at an investment of some hours to master all your Magic and Command materia, and even more to master all your Summon materia. That's just for a single set of Master material too, so if you want a full party to be equipped with them you'll be repeating the process three times over (twice if you defeat Emerald Weapon, but that's getting a little inside baseball).
Mater materia absolutely trivialize a game which already isn't terribly difficult to begin with, but at that point you're in victory lap mode. You've reached the end of the game while playing by its rules, and now it's giving you the option of throwing out the rulebook right at the very end. There's no challenge that you can't handle, so why not go ridiculous with it and turn our party into demigods? If you could cheat in Master materia at the start of the game (as I'm sure you can on the PC version) it wouldn't be satisfying, because you wouldn't have overcome any challenges to get there. Games are about overcoming challenges, and the greatest satisfaction comes from overcoming challenge itself and knowing that you earned it.
Let's now return to Breath of the Wild and its weapon durability system, and consider how we might improve it through allowing the player to circumvent the system entirely. It is interesting that, to some degree, there is already a mechanic in place which allows the player access to weapons of consistent type and power. Once a divine beast has been beaten the leaders of that beast's corresponding race will grant the player a specific weapon, and the four races cover between them the four major weapon categories: the Rito grant you a bow; the Gerudo, a one-handed sword and shield; the Zora, a two-handed spear; and the Goron grant a two-handed club. Each of these are supposed to be the weapons wielded by the champions of those races a hundred years prior, yet despite their lofty lineage they are as capable of breaking as any other armament. They can, however, be reforged.
Reforging these items is difficult to justify. The strength of these weapons is not significant, and none of them grant you any particular abilities; they lack any elemental affinity, and they lack even a damage or durability increase over similar weapons. Additionally, the cost of repairing them is quite high: the spear granted to you by the Zora requires five flint, one diamond, and a Zora's spear. While flints and spears aren't difficult to come by, diamonds are very rare (though they can be consistently acquired by trading ten luminous stones for one diamond in Zora's Domain) and are more valuable as a source of rupees or as an upgrade material than they are as a component of a spear with a meager 22 attack power. More powerful spears are easily found off enemies all over the world and are functionally identical to what the Zora give you. I haven't experienced reforging weapons with the other races, but I imagine it's the same story: exchange valuable materials for boilerplate weapons which aren't as valuable as the materials spent.
Once again I think I understand the intent of the developers. Each race grants you a specific type of weapon, and in BotW each weapon type drastically alters your play style. If you as a player prefer one style over the other but for the life of you can not find a weapon of that style out in the wild, reforging the champion weapons give you a consistent source of arms of a consistent type and power level, even if that power pales compared to what you might find elsewhere. The system simply isn't rewarding enough compared to the material investment required.
What if they took that idea to its extreme? Allow us to spend valuable materials to forge these weapons, but make the necessary materials more valuable, and make the weapons more powerful in kind?
Here's my idea: squirrel away a legendary blacksmith somewhere in the world. Hell, make it our ol' pal Biggoron. Give him the ability to enhance our weapons in specific ways: give him rubies or sapphires to infuse a weapon with fire or ice; give him flint to increase the damage; give him diamond to increase the durability. Allow him to reforge our broken weapons with their current upgrades at a price consistent with those upgrades. Start the available upgrades off light, and as we complete sidequests for him ("I need a big freakin' hammer. Mine fell into the ocean. Hint hint.") the upgrades he's able to provide increase in potency. By the end of the game he's able to give your weapons one particularly coveted affix: Unbreakable.
The Unbreakable affix is what would allow players to circumvent the durability system, akin to Master material. Players will have spent tens, or even hundreds, of hours contending with their weapons shattering, leaving them to scrounge around for whatever they can find. With an Unbreakable weapon the whole game is suddenly changed. Players feel like they're cheating as they swing their maces and swords willy-nilly at every box and log and bush that comes their way. The stress of weapon degradation is gone, and a new tier of freedom is granted to the player. No more will they be too afraid of losing a valuable weapon to actually use it!
Perhaps upgrading any weapon in this matter is a bit much. You could limit this specifically to the champion weapons of each race, and in so doing give them the power the story implies they ought to possess. Forego elemental affinities in exchange for set upgrade paths for each weapon. An indestructible tree branch might be a bit too ridiculous after all, but no one is going to complain that the Scimitar of the Seven can't be broken.
However it might be approached, the most important element to these upgrades is that they would need to be frighteningly expensive. Not inhumanely so, but the cost would need to be high enough that acquiring even one Unbreakable weapon would feel like an achievement. Just spitballing, but let's say each champion weapon needs to be upgraded several times in the manner of your armor, with each level requiring increasingly rare materials. They may all require luminous stones (fairly common) for their first upgrade, followed by a precious gem (uncommon) related to whichever region the weapon originated from for the second level. Diamonds (rare) would be utilized for the third level. The final upgrade, to render them Unbreakable, then needs star shards (very rare), at a rate of something like ten star shards. They may need a handful of diamonds as well (diamond is unbreakable after all). In this way the upgrade requires a quantity of precious materials which would have seemed impossible from the outset of the game, where a single amber is coveted, but which by the end of the game is achievable with some dedication. You're giving the player the ability to break a core mechanic, and with such an investment they'll feel like they've earned an achievement. I personally played the game for thirty or forty hours and never happened upon a star shard (though I know now that there's a reliable farming technique for them), so seeing an upgrade which requires ten of the sumbitches would impart upon me the significance of that upgrade.
I don't think this method of earning indestructible weapons would redeem the durability system in the eyes of everyone. As I've proposed the idea above a player would still be required to invest tens of hours under the tyranny of weapon breakage, and those most turned off by it seemed to grow tired of durability after tens of minutes. Unlike the materia system, which limits the player without restricting their ability to actually play the game, weapon breakage in BotW can leave you literally helpless (I needed to abandon a Major Test of Strength shrine I found early on simply because the weapons I had all broke before I could kill the guardian). The easiest solution would be to increase the durability of weapons across the board, to make weapon breakage simply less common.
That said, the Legend of Zelda series does have a history of upgrading weapons through involved sidequests, so my proposal would be in keeping with series tradition. Players who have already beaten the game would likely appreciate the victory lap of kitting themselves out with an armory of Unbreakable weapons as well. Perhaps we could see something like this added in the future, as a free patch or as part of the planned DLC. Nintendo isn't exactly known for listening to fans, but weapon durability has been such a contentious issue in what is otherwise one of their best received games ever that I wouldn't be surprised if they addressed it in some capacity. Maybe we should all keep an eye out for Biggoron down the road.
Also, I know I suggested limiting the mechanic to the champion weapons, but man, I would love to beat Ganon to death with an Unbreakable Tree Branch.