Sword of Mana: Bad Customization

I have already written about Sword of Mana and how bad it is when compared to Mystic Quest (aka Final Fantasy Adveture), the game it is supposed to be a remake of. I have written how Sword of Mana spoils the story through foreshadowing and how it has an inferior world design. Today I finish the trilogy by looking at how Sword of Mana ‘improved’ the equipment system.

The equipment screen in Mystic Quest. Note how only two numbers indicate the character’s stats. One for the weapon and the other is for the armor. Simple, yet effective – the designers of Sword of Mana simply HAD to mess around with it.

Being an old game, Mystic Quest has a very simple equipment system. The character can equip a weapon, an armor, a helmet and a shield. All four pieces of equipment can be found in dungeons or bought at shops. As soon as the player gets his hands on one of them, he can use it immediately. Every piece of equipment is made of a different material, which clearly indicates its value. A gold shield is better then a bronze shield etc.

I guess the game designers of Sword of Mana tried to improve that by creating a system where the player is able to build and customize his equipment. At first sight, it looks like a very cool feature. Instead of pre-fabricated equipment, the player finds materials which he can use to forge custom equipment on his own. In a world of Web 2.0 and user-generated content, it seems like a smart move. Let me show you why it isn’t.

Yeah, the Smith and the Magic Garden are located in this cheeky cactus house. It would be just bearable if it fit into the theme of the game but it doesn’t. I feel ridiculed every time I want to update my equipment. Off to a bad start.

First of all, this kind of system screws up the positive feedback of dungeon treasures. In a simple Mystic Quest system, you find a chest in a dungeon, you open it and it is a cool, new sword. You can use it right away and you can see immediately how it improves your character. It is instant, certain, positive feedback. In Sword of Mana, you get something like a lump of “Baobab Wood” and you wonder yourself “Is that any good”. You have to visit a smith to find out. So you do not get any positive feedback immediately.

The logic of the interface works perfectly against your way of thinking. You have to first select what kind of equipment you want to make and then you can decide which of your resources you want to use. Back in the real world, you would like to select the stuff you have and see what kind of equipment you can forge out of it.

But things do not get better when you finally arrive at the smith to use that Baobab Wood to forge some equipment. You might find out that actually, Baobab Wood is not very good for making swords. It is good if you want make a bow or a staff but that might not fit your character. If that happens, that lump of Baobab Wood actually is useless because you cannot even sell it. Even if you could, that money would be worthless because you cannot buy weapons or materials in shops. You can only find them in dungeons. So there is not even a guarantee that the stuff you find does you any good. New material does not equal new equipment. The positive feedback is uncertain.

On this screen, you can see what kind of helmets you can build with your ressoruces. Note how 7 different stats indicate the value of just that one piece of equipment. And I grew up thinking helmets were pretty straight-forward.

On top of that, it is very difficult to actually find out what the various materials you have are good for and which choice is the best one. Each piece of material you find can be turned into one if 16 (!!) different pieces of equipment: swords, staves, knuckles, flails, bows, spears, axes, morning stars, helmets, hats, armor, robes, boot, sandals or gloves. This reminds me of a recent TED Talk by Barry Schwartz who explains how more choice makes us actually less happy. The more options we have, the less we are happy after we have chosen, even if we made the perfect choice. The sheer presence of alternatives is unsettling. Of course, the user interface makes matters worse by not even considering that players would like to be able to compare the results of the different possibilities. All in all, the complicated system actually lowers the amount of satisfaction, even in the best case scenario.

When the player visits the smith, he usually has several different pieces of material. So he does not forge just one piece of equipment but several. This creates a very troublesome feedback rhythm where you get no positive feedback for a long time when you are in a dungeon and suddenly lots of it at once when you arrive at the smith. It leads to long stretches of starvation followed buy sudden abundance. As a result, a kind inflation occurs. Because the player gets so much new stuff at once, the particular items seem less valuable. Even worse, the player will sometimes even discard new items right away. After all, he can only use one sword at a time.

Finally, even when the player finally decides for piece of equipment, the smith is usually outside of a dungeon so he cannot see the difference the new equipment makes until he reenters a dungeon again. Thus, the positive feedback (if any remains) is delayed even more.

The intention of that system was, of course to enable players to create their own weapons. However the system fails even at that because of an important detail: you only can find materials randomly in dungeons. So no matter how sophisticated the system is, ultimately all input is totally random after all. Garbage in, garbage out. If a player wants a silver sword, he has to wait until he finds a piece of silver. Players only can react to what the game offers. They aren’t allowed to act on their own. Also, because it is so difficult to acquire several copies of the same material, the whole system is very unforgiving and does not afford experimenting anyway.

And in the end, the battle system isn’t complex enough to support that kind of freedom of choice. You can have swords which are strong and swords which are a bit stronger. No matter how much you experiment, you will never come up with some new and exciting way to fight enemies, you just get stronger swords.

At this talking tree inside the cactus house you can combine two seeds to grow a fruit or a vegetable for tuning up weapons. Obviously.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the designers of Sword of Mana did not stop there. Additionally, players can also tune their equipment with fruit and vegetables. No, that is no typo. Players find different seeds in dungeons. They can plant two seeds together to grow fruit and vegetables in a special garden. Players can then proceed to “apply” those at the various weapons to make them stronger – how and why remains a mystery.

About every step of that process is a bad idea. Let me count the ways:

  • Again, seeds can only be found in dungeons, not bought.
  • The system features some unintuitive biology where two seeds yield in one fruit/vegetable.
  • Which combinations of seeds yield which fruit is, of course something players have to find out randomly. I have already written how bad this idea is. Sword of Mana actually manages to make things worse: you also have to consider the weekday and nobody tells you that. There are 567 possible permutations.
  • The seeds need time to grow so you have to get out of the garden and enter it again. Here is yet another useless feedback delay. Thus, if you plant several plants at the same time, you do not even know which fruit belongs to which seed combination.
  • To tune equipment, you need to have ANOTHER copy of the material the equipment was made of. This makes tuning of items from rare materials essentially impossible. Both, material and seeds are pretty rare anyway.

All in all, the custom equipment system of Sword of Mana is fubar. It is less immediate, less certain, provides less satisfaction, creates a bad feedback rhythm and does not even deliver the kind of freedom it promises.

Equipment tuning done right. Insert the shiny gems into sockets to get awesome abilities. The only bad choice is not using it.

For contrast, let us look at another equipment customization system which actually works: the famous Materia system of Final Fantasy VII. In this system, players can use equipment with so-called Materia slots. Materia are basically little magic gems which can be inserted into the slots on the equipment. When Materia is inserted into slots, it provides new abilities to the character who is carrying the weapon. Both, Materia and Equipment can be bought and sold at shops. In some special slots, two Materias can be combined to create an even stronger effect. This combination isn’t random but follows a system – it is logical and predictable. As a nice special bonus, Materia gets stronger as it is being used and ultimately, it can even multiply. Thus, you automatically get more copies of the Materia you use most frequently. And in the end, all that customization actually matters. It is possible to create various, distinct combos to fight enemies differently.
Unlike the system of Sword of Mana, the Materia system is immediate, certain, has a regular feedback rhythm and because it is reversible at any point it offers the player lots of freedom and encourages experiments.

To sum it up, let us identify key elements of a successful customization system:

  • Ask why. Make sure the whole system makes sense. Make sure the players can actually get different results by making different choices. Different means equally effective but distinct. Make sure the other game’s system can support the variety of solutions your customization system creates.
  • Immediate feedback. Minimize the time between when the player receives an item and actually is able to use that item. Players also should be able to test new items immediately to see the difference. A good idea is to allow customization and change of equipment anywhere, anytime.
  • Certain feedback. Make sure every item is useful in some way. Make sure players can easily recognize the value of any item. Implement a recycling system so players can gain at least some advantage from otherwise useless items (by selling them for example).
  • Minimize choice. More choice equals sad player. Do not make the system too complicated. Design the user interface to allow players to compare the different options to quickly discard the obviously stupid decisions. Make sure their choices are always lucid anyway. Many little choices are better then one big decision.
  • Regular rhythm. Make sure the player never receives too much new items at a time. Again, a good idea is to allow customization and change of equipment anywhere, anytime. That way, items do not accumulate.
  • Encourage Experiments. Make every choice reversible. Provide players with several copies of the same item to allow them test out the various possibilities. Make items available in infinite quantities in shops.
  • Logic is better then chance. Eliminate randomness from the system. Make the results of choices at least partially predictable. Make sure players understand what factors affect the result of a decision so they can set their goals and work towards them.
  • If everything else fails: kill the system. Like in Mystic Quest, simple systems with little choice can provide players with lots of satisfaction. Do not be afraid of simplicity. Be afraid of complexity.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

10 responses to “Sword of Mana: Bad Customization”

  1. Yu-Chung Chen

    Wow, Sword of Mana sounds like total crap… Good thing I never understand why the Mana-Series was popular, otherwise I would have bought that nice looking remake before you could tell me about the flaws.

    Even the much praised Secret of Mana didn’t left an impression on me. Actually I forgot why, but possibly because of the bad attack sounds (hits sound like light slaps, not meaty slashes) and poor animations (FF came away with it, but SoM is a ACTION-RPG, dammit!).

    Big and colorful sprites x too few frames of animation = floating billboards. Yeah I mean you too, Guilty Gear.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Actually, the Action Part of Sword of Mana is good. Especially the graphics and animations feel very juicy.

    Recently, I played some Secret of Mana and I agree – it doesn’t live up to the expectations. However, it’s not as bad as Sword of Mana. And hey, it even had Co-Op. You got to give kudos for that.

    The amazing thing is that Mystic Quest is SOO excellent! It seems like Seiken Densetsu gets worse with every sequel.

  3. ChronoDK

    Nice trilogy on the worst game in one of my favorite series. I agree on everything – it is sad that such obvious mistakes can be allowed to taint a series of mostly great games.

    I’m currently playing Children of Mana (NDS) and it seems like they listened to your critique.

    The world design is still branching, but instead of the linear progression throughout the game a quest based system is introduced. Sort of like an MMORPG – take the quest you like, or take the main story quest if progress through the game.

    The equipment system is simplified – we are back to four categories now. And the customization system is a bit like the materia system from FFVII – a “gem frame” is used to improve your skills. Fill in different gems for different effects.

    The starvation vs. abundance of positive feedback is not totally fixed though. You can’t equip new stuff during quests, but at least you have an idea about what the item you receive is worth.

  4. Anonymous

    Thanks for the nice analysis. Very inspiring.

    (Typo: there choices > their)

    Kind regards

  5. GuyLone

    You know what else sucks about the customization in SoM? All the monsters have different elemental and physical weaknesses and strengths, not just some, all. Which means that, when you make a weapon with an innate element, that weapon becomes useless against many monsters. So you might use up your rare items to create a powerful ice weapon only to find in the next dungeon that it actually isn’t very useful at all.

    Personally I prefer FF: Adventure as it more closely resembles Zelda than later Mana games. Sometimes I think if I could understand why people like Secret of Mana so much, I might be able to understand why someone would like Sword of Mana (which shares many of its characteristics). Not that Secret of Mana is bad, it just seems more like Super Paper Mario in the sense that it tries to combine two genres but fails to represent the strengths in either.

  6. Krystian Majewski

    I haven’t quite noticed the problem with immunities. I guess that’s another case of weak feedback. I remember it was also a feature of Final Fantasy Adventure but there, it was pretty obvious if a monster was immune against your weapon. There was a very distinct sound. Also, I remember it was pretty easy to stock up different weapons and quickly change them as needed.

    I must admit I haven’t played Secret of Mana for too long. It seems to have a strong following but I have the feeling you might be right. The reasons why people enjoy Secret of Mana are very different from the reasons why I (and obviously you) enjoy Final Fantasy Adventure.

  7. Charlie

    I disagree with most of your criticism of Sword of Mana. Once you unlock Niccolo’s secret item shop, customisation becomes very easy. You are also given options in customisation, in some cases many options. Different forging materials give different elemental dmg types to your equipment, so if you were smart you tried to balance which gear did which type of damage for handling enemies weak to it. It wasn’t simply a case of “this one adds more stats gogo forge”.

    Another feature was potential status that could be inflicted with different material methods. Some materials caused snowman, some caused silence, some caused sleep. Sword of Mana allowed you to choose which of these effects you might like to have. The armour was similar in that different materials created different resistances and stats in areas.

    My final point is Niccolo’s best material he sells was Orihalcum for attk pwr but Mithril Silver was a more balanced all element dmg type with a bonus to magic dmg so I always preferred to use that. It wasn’t Crystal weapons but that’s like the equivalent of ultimate weapons, no-one needs weapons that powerful.

    The biggest mistake was making Niccolo’s secret menu a secret and hard to figure out (but with the internet most people can easily read about it).

    I never bothered with fruits. I had plenty of seeds from fighting monsters so growing them wasn’t too difficult if I cared to. I just wasn’t bothered to create some ultimate weapon when I already found Mithril Silver was easily accessible and overpowered anyway.

  8. Krystian Majewski

    @Charlie: I believe you have defeated your own point here. As you have noticed it yourself, Niccolo’s Secret Item Shop is SECRET. Even if using it improves the system, it doesn’t change the fact that the system is flawed to begin with.

    And let’s be clear that this isn’t some kind of unlock that you gain in the regular course of the game. As I remember correctly, the requirements are to buy the 251 purchases in a shop in one go but. So each time you make a purchase, you need to exit and re-enter the purchase screen and buy another item. And you need to do that 251 times. This is what I would classify as a “cheat” or an “easter egg” an not part of the regular gaming experience.

    As for immunities. Yes, the game has immunities. Like in many other JRPGs. I don’t think it’s a good system. It requires players to either have clairvoyant abilities to predict what enemies they will face in the future or simply exposes them to frustrating backtracking (the kind of backracking where you need to cancel a dungeon because you realize that you weapons are useless). Personally, I agree with GuyLone: I found the system not transparent enough, over-used, and simply annoying. The best you can ever hope for in that system is to be prepared and being able to kill the mosters. That’s not depth.

    Again, Mystic Quest had also monsters with immunities but they were rare, came up only in special dungeons and because getting new weapons was straight-forward preparing for them was not that big of a deal.

    But I see you are an enthusiast of the genre, I suggest you give the original a try.

  9. GhostLyrics

    o boy… after reading many of the different posts on this page I get the feeling the Mass Effect 1’s story is in fact the only thing (well… maybe except for _some_ nice visual settings – talking about Virmire) that keeps it from being a complete failure with a huge budget.

  10. Josh s.

    Some people asked about Secret of Mana, and the answers seem to be lacking, so i thought i’d chime in with my two cents.

    The first thing i liked about SoM (Sword of Mana is SwoM from hereon) was that it plucked the heart strings early and effectively. Maybe this was due to my adolescence when i first played the game, and it might not have the same effectiveness if one were a more mature gamer their first time playing it, but who can’t help but feel a little bit of anger at the apparent injustice dealt to the protagonist in the very beginning of the game?

    Secondly, this was one of the first games i’d played where the main character actually talks, as opposed to the first Final Fantasy or any Zelda game where the hero stands silent while people telepathically read his thoughts.

    Third, the characters have animations during dialog. Not many, not often, but they are there. And sometimes funny.

    There are a few fork options early on in the game that help with the replay value, but only early on. You can effectively solo quite a bit before any secondary characters are thrust upon you, and when they are, you can choose who you party with first and when.

    The weapon and armor system was nice. You only buy armor, and you only upgrade weapons. The upgrades were predictable: kill a boss, steal it’s weapon orb, go to the blacksmith, upgrade weapon. The weapons changed their appearance some with each upgrade, as did their special bonuses.

    Sometimes a weapon might do well against werewolves, then you upgrade it and find it works better against aquatic monsters instead. Usually these changes happened around the area where that monster would be the most, but the choice to upgrade the weapon was always yours.

    Out of 8 weapons, only 4 were really useful, (Sword, Axe, Whip, and Boomerang) so you really didn’t have to waste time training with the ones you weren’t going to use, or the money on the upgrades. It all depends on your play style.

    The graphics were pretty nice compared to Final Fantasy or Zelda at the time, though a bit candy coated. I really feel that SwoM changed the pallet some, and it kinda nauseates me to look at.

    The elemental magic strength and immunity was borrowed from Final Fantasy to be sure. Fire Gigas gets hurt by normal damage, super hurt by ice, and healed by fire. It’s simple and intuitive. The area you are in or the name of the creature will sometimes be an indicator of what the monsters’ weaknesses will be. (If you’re in the temple of darkness, use Lumina)

    Running low on mana? Cast an elemental saber spell on the party’s weapons, it will save your mana in the long run. The nice thing is that, while this isn’t as time efficient as Materia, the spells can be cast again and again when they run out, which helps level up the element you are using, and if there are enemies with different weaknesses in the same area, all you have to do is cast a different element on the weapons and you’re good to go.

    Otherwise, there is a scanner spell which shows any monster’s stats, from health and mana to their weaknesses. This spell also works on treasure chests to help avoid traps. We’ve always noticed when playing that if you scan a chest it never seems to be trapped, almost as if the scanner spell disarms it.

    The quick and dirty action (as opposed to text menu and turn based combat) was amped by a 3 player option (that’s right, not just 2, but 3 players!)

    SoM borrows the weapon charge meter from Mystic Quest, the meter getting bigger based on the level of the weapon and your skill with it. The longer you hold your attack button the more powerful your attack will be.

    Music was always a big part of the game for me. I used to turn on the game and fly to a certain part of the world just so i could listen to the music while i studied in my room.

    Boss battles were strategic rather than a matter of attrition. They had to be, you could only carry 4 of any kind of item at a time. Knowing where to stand at a given time, learning the boss’ pattern, taking advantage of the obstacles to keep out of melee range when the boss goes on the offensive, fine tuning the ally’s AI so they don’t act any more stupid than need be, or smashing the critter with a living person sitting next to you, are all what made the game great.

    Does it live up to the hype? I dunno, i’ve never read the hype. I got this game along with the SNES from my uncle when his boys moved on to N64, and i’ve been loving it ever since.

    The other thing i liked about SoM was its plot based advancement of the game. Something i hate about MMOs is their almost entirely quest based advancement. It sorta kills the immediacy when you go to town, get a quest, go to the field or dungeon, complete the quest, go back to town, turn in the quest, rinse and repeat. Even Zelda does this a little. Link to the Past was really bad on the last 2/3 of the game. After you get the sword and you think it’s done, there’s a whole 2/3s of the game to complete, with very little dialog, very little npc interaction. The plot is advanced by rescuing nameless people who all look the same, not through interactions with unique characters.

    Secret of Mana has you going from town to town, and there’s something to do in each town, your quest is somehow related to each town in some way, or there’s a side quest to divert your attention, loads of npcs to talk to, and multiple reasons for doing what you do.

    Boy: restore the Mana Sword, find mother.
    Girl: find best friend and boyfriend, save them from a soul stealing, mind controlling freak.
    Sprite: restore memory, find homeland.

    Every character has at least one or two personal investments in the quest that goes beyond “kill the dragon, steal it’s treasure, save the world”.

    I played SoM first, then SD3, then FFA, then LoM, then SwoM, then DoM. And i have to say, of all these, i liked SoM best. No offense to Final Fantasy Adventure/Mystic Quest, but it just didn’t touch me emotionally or imaginatively as SoM did.

    And if you don’t like Sword of Mana, don’t play Legend of Mana. It’s got many of the same faults, but exacerbated. Really, SwoM is a culmination of Secret of Mana, Legend of Mana, and Seiken Densetsu 3, which probably explains why it’s so bad. They just took too many ideas from each game.

    Oh, and Dawn of Mana is nothing like the rest. It plays like an arcade game. Seriously, who makes an action RPG where you lose levels every time you complete a chapter?

    So, Secret of Mana. Multiplayer. Simple. Fun. Challenging. Straightforward. Interesting. Plot based.

    Oh, and if anyone tells you that the Sprite is a girl, tell them to play the earth temple again. Sprite’s a dude, and the Girl is his wife. ;)


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