[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - a look at how rock, paper scissors-style mechanics rule in games from Final Fantasy through Doom to Persona.]

The game of chance is so deeply embedded in game design, it might be easier to think of video games that aren’t rock, paper, scissors. It's a classic building block of the wheel of luck and/or skill that makes up nearly every video game, from its transparent use in RPG element wheels to FPS games like Doom where weapons are based on properties like burst damage and hitstun.

Rock, paper, scissors finds its RPG incarnation in the wheel of elemental strengths and weaknesses that compose the flashy magic so common to the genre. Final Fantasy in particular consistently makes all the spells look very beautiful and very distinctive, disguising the fact that they are all essentially exactly the same.

Despite the different graphics, the nine classic spells of Final Fantasy (ranks 1-3 of the three elements of ice, fire and lightning) are really the same spell repeated over and over again. This redundancy is frequently coupled with arbitrarily assigned weakness and resistances make little logical sense, turning the RPG into a guessing game.

It’s not an easy conundrum. If elements are essential to winning, players need to have access to the correct elements and know which are effect on which enemies. But if they do, they can just spam their strongest spells on enemies weak against them without thinking. This is a lose/lose situation: either way there’s no challenge for the player, and it either results in a frustrating loss or a boring win.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In Doom, which weapon is most effective in which situation is based on enemy behavior and environment; things that can be observed by the player. In RPGs, it's more like gambling.

The wheel of elements is by nature a game of gambling, but it's not impossible for a game of luck to require the same sort of thinking and skill required for a game like Doom. By thinking about what sort of thinking is required for these two very different games of rock, paper, scissors, we can try to pin down the point at which luck and skill converge to make fun.

Wheel of Fortune

Final Fantasy's solution to the element problem is to remove a lot of the risk from it. Access to elements is very easy, enemies can usually be hit by at least one thing the player has access to, and the worst thing that can happen is that your magic heals the enemy the first time you make the mistake of using it. In all cases, players can win without exploiting elements and won't be punished too harshly for fumbling them. This approach cuts down on frustration, but also strategy. Since neither loss nor payoff is very severe, there aren't many difficult decisions and monotonous spell spam becomes the order of the day.

The Shin Megami Tensei series and its numerous spinoffs respond to the problem by taking the opposite approach. If Final Fantasy is like gambling with M&Ms, SMT is like gambling with Ferraris. In Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, using an element that is blocked, absorbed, or reflected causes the player or computer to lose turns, meaning a single mistake can easily result in a loss (not to mention that reflection can wipe a party all by itself).

Using correct elements results in more turns. With severe rewards and penalties, players need to be very cautius about testing the waters and also need to make sure that all the elements are covered. Multiple turns is such an overwhelming advantage that player’s can’t win without it, and clever players can win fights that others can't. In this case, chance actually increases how much skill matters.

The elements themselves are still as arbitrary as ever, perhaps even more so in the Shin Megami Tensei series since it draws its monsters from humanity's most bizarre myths and legends (or in Persona makes them all puddles of blackness). It works by treating the elements like a game of poker in which your opponents can't change their hands. The challenge is mitigating that risk in the best way possible. So you the correct bet low until you figure out what they've got, then hit them with everything you have. This is why the games and RPGs in general have to have such a ridiculous number of enemies; once you've beat one enemy, you've beat everyone else that looks like him.

Good Old Shotgun, Nothing Beats Shotgun

If Shin Megami Tensei is like cheating at poker, Doom is the fistfight that happens after you get caught. Everyone's hands are out in the open, any risks you have to take happen in less than a second, and if you screw up you've got no one to blame but yourself.

Doom has a remarkably coherent element wheel, even if it isn't especially wheel-shaped.

Think of it like this.
Melee: Fist->Chainsaw
Repeaters: Handgun-> Chaingun-> Plasma gun
Burst: Shotgun
Area of Effect: Rocket launcher->BFG

There's a bit of padding here as well, but due to ammo considerations, none of the weapons (except the handgun and fist) ever become irrelevant. The BFG is even more situational and dangerous than the rocket launcher, and the Plasma gun's high rate of fire and damage make it wasteful against anything that isn't really strong. This matters, of course, because shooting is the easy part; not getting shot is the real challenge. Anyone who’s played the game on god mode knows that the game because incredibly boring very quickly in this mode.

So the question in Doom is not so much how to kill as efficiently as possible, but how to kill with the least possible risk. Let’s also keep in mind that the most common and most of the only enemies with instantaneous hit weapons are the humble zombies. They are infamously slow shooters, so quick reaction time is all that's needed to not get hurt against them and since they come in swarms the shotgun is essential against them.

The chaingun is important because of its incredible hitstun. Enemies under fire from it can barely react. It can only really be used against one enemy at a time, so it would be useless against zombies even if it wasn’t so much overkill. Chaingun battles mean focusing on enemies one at a time and either queuing them up in a choke point or running around dodging them. A shotgun doesn’t stun them enough, making running around harder and choke points as likely to kill you as them.

How Bad is Chance?

The player sees the enemy behave a certain way and thinks "What is the best response to this?" Players don't use shotguns against zombies because they take more damage from them, but because it's an efficient way of killing them in droves without wasting ammo (which would happen if you used the chaingun). Just like elemental weaknesses and resistances, this is something players can derive from trial and error.

The most remarkable thing about the elemental wheel is that it really does approximate a much more complicated system like Doom so well. But what's frustrating is that JRPGs can contain much more logical systems alongside their arbitrary ones. Spells that hit whole enemy groups, for example, are more efficient the more enemies there are. That's a big deal in game like Persona 3+4, where saving in dungeons isn't possible and you can only reach a checkpoint after a long journey that completely drains the player of their mana.

There's a great deal of chance in Doom as well; a player can't possibly predict what every enemy will do at every time. But most importantly, it's hard for a player to feel so ruined by chance. This is the single greatest problem with an arbitrary system. Players are much happier when they know they died because of their own incompetence. After all, anyone can fix that. Random number generators, on the other hand, not so much.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog which he's actually updating now called Mammon Machine, which inserts a terrible joke into the title of every blog post, and he can be reached at AndrewVandenB@gmail.com]