Out of the schoolyard and into game development, rock-paper-scissors is a useful game mechanic that can inject strategy and fairness. From RPGs to fighting games, it can be used and abused to impressive limits.
A common use of ro/pa/sci for RPGs are elemental weaknesses. The Jellies I’m running into in Final Fantasy IV are nearly impervious to physical attacks, but very weak to magic. This forces the player to play a certain strategy, which is linear, but creatively exploiting weaknesses the game didn’t intend can be extremely satisfying.
A fighting game without R/P/S will struggle to feel fair. It’s not fun if an opponent can low kick you to death without an easy retaliation, or if they can block without fear of being thrown. Baiting and predicting your opponents so you can deliver the ultimate punishment is an essential part of good fighting game design.
A strategic RPG implementing character movement can also make great use of R/P/S. If Spearmen are the rock, Cavalry the scissors, and Axemen the paper, every move can have drastic consequences as you maneuver units to optimal positions. RTS games rely heavily on this mechanic and MOBAs took it even further.
Quake and even early Halo were praised for their balance. Certain weapons dominated over others and part of the challenge was acquiring the weapon. Newer shooters however have allowed the lure of progression to disrupt balance. If a player invests more time and has access to a superior weapon than a starting player, you end up with an unfair situation. It’s fine for a sub-machine gun to beat a sniper rifle in closed quarters, but an upgraded SMG beating the starting SMG is bad design in my opinion, replacing skill with time (or money). This is a slippery slope that can be exploited by publishers selling upgrades that give an advantage and something I hope the industry moves away from.
Rock Paper Scissors has stood the test of time because it’s easy to understand and perfectly fair. Incorporating this and other classic gaming techniques into video games is a part of what makes the medium so fascinating and malleable.
Our next episode will take a big fat look at Super Mario Galaxy as part of a series discussing the Mario franchise.