Decisions and Inventory Management July 8, 2013Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in entertainment, EVE Online, EverQuest, EverQuest II, Lord of the Rings Online, MMO Design, TorilMUD, World of Warcraft.
Tags: A lot of words, No Real Point
I must agree. I love that button. I feel that pain all the more because I am playing Lord of the Rings Online at the moment, which makes vendoring items about twice as annoying as most other MMO I have experienced. Meanwhile, Rift has put that button in the cash shop, so you can rid yourself of vendor trash wherever you may be.
Well… at least I agree at that instant, gut reaction, convenience level. Long live the button!
Hell, as one person responded to that tweet, why have gray items at all? If you want to reward players, just drop coin and be done with it.
But then I start thinking about how we got there in the first place, which seems to me to be a convergence of a couple of things.
First there is the reality of currency and the fact that wild animals rarely ever carry any at all. If you want to give your players a currency reward for every kill, then you have to do it indirectly with item drops or explain why your wildlife feels the need to have coinage on them at all times… and how they carry it.
Granted, these sorts of drops do not necessarily have to be vendor trash. LOTRO has turned those gray remains into quest items that generate a little experience and a small boost with the local faction, though in the end I still vendor them most of the time because I usually need cash more than faction.
I will call that the lesser reason for gray drops. It could be worked around it in all sorts of ways if you set your mind to it.
Then there is what I think of as the greater reason, which is essentially to drive us crazy.
Well, not explicitly. That is just a side effect for some.
It really is/was a way to put constraints around the game to force us to make choices rather than simply having things our own way. This aspect has some deep roots.
Much meandering on that after the cut.
Wall of text warning… oh, wait, you’re already here.
If you were born in the right time and place, you probably played Oregon Trail. One of the major factors in the game is that your wagon can only hold so much so you have to decide what to take with and what to leave behind. How much food would you need to have along, barrels of water, spare parts and tools to keep the wagon going were all part of what you needed to balance. There was, if I recall right, even a piano in the mix of things you could choose. I am not sure anybody ever took that. And then there were guns and ammo, which every 13 year old boy loaded their wagons with to the exclusion of all else, leading to a very different vision of history.
And even if you do not see Oregon Trail as an antecedent of MMOs, it certainly had influence.
Dungeons and Dragons though… nobody is going to deny that as an ancestor of the genre, and the constraints of weight and what you could carry were definitely part of the game. You would go through the process of rolling up and equipping a character and you would look longingly at some of the expensive items on the list… or I would in any case… the sword with the biggest die roll, the plate armor with the highest armor class value. Of course, you couldn’t afford that sort of thing starting out. But even more so, they would likely be more of a hindrance than a help because their weight would limit your movement and what else you could carry.
Even outfitted in a much more modest fashion, you would still face constraints. That backpack you bought had limited dimensions and I knew several DMs who loved to call people out when they tried to do something like store a dropped quarterstaff in their bag. Were you planning to have it sticking out and hit everything or were you going to break it into pieces that would fit? I once did break up such a quarterstaff and used it for firewood later just to prove a point. And there was one DM I knew who used to take great joy in providing huge amounts of treasure in a low price density format. Sure, that pile of tarnished copper coins is worth a lot, but you can only carry so much. So you would pack what you could and then run into the weight based trap on the way out.
Later (for me at least) in TorilMUD, things needed to get simplified, and weight was chosen as the limiting parameter. I could stick that quarterstaff in my backpack, no problem, so long as I did not go over the weight limit of the container… and the carrying capacity of my character. Weight impacted movement and your armor class if you picked up too much. I recall fighting the weight constraints as part of a vendor trading get rich quick scheme back in the day.
And, as with D&D, the coins had weight as well. It was a literal logistical effort to try and move ~8K platinum coins from the bank in Leuthilspar to the vendor at the tinker camp in the Faerie Forest in order to purchase the Tinker’s Bag, one of the best items in the game. There was also a low level zone called Split Shield, which was home to a tribe of orcs. As a place to work on your alignment score it was a very popular place. People would slaughter the orcs constantly. But they would have to leave the coins on the ground as it was a long way from town and the bank. You might keep the gold coins and maybe the silver if there were not too many, but you would have to drop the copper after a while just to be able to move. So there would be piles of coins all over, but unless you had a magic container like Dartan’s portable hole, you couldn’t do much with it.
Then there was EverQuest. Weight was still a factor. You couldn’t carry unlimited coins… not yet anyway. But the concept of bag slots was also now part of the mix. You had to factor in the idea that a rusty dagger and a quarterstaff essentially occupied the same amount of “space” in your bag. Thanks to a mix of inflation and the fact that coins had weight, expensive transactions had to take place right in the bank so enough coins could be handed over and deposited in a single trade. Later the Bazaar came in and was made weightless so you could carry your fortune with you as you visited player vendors. I recall once leaving the Bazaar with all my coins still on me and getting stuck, unable to move, out on the Plane of Knowledge. Oops.
EverQuest II continued the tradition of weight and space being a constraint, with the twist at launch that no NPCs dropped coins. The only way to get a reward in coins was to loot the vendor trash and haul it back and sell it. That was a planned aspect of the game, put in place to try and keep a lid on inflation in the economy. We were all poor back then, except for the guys who found that dupe exploit. And to make things even worse, vendors conveniently out in the world paid much less for gray drops than did the ones back in town. So there was a clear push to make inventory issue an aspect of the game. And then there were all the bits and pieces that made up crafting in the early days.
World of Warcraft also had its own twist on the inventory management game. Weight was never an issue, but for a long time, back when mounts where items that took up a bag slot space, crafting materials barely stacked, and you had to pick up and carry around a lot of quest items, managing your bag space was a big deal. I think anybody who remembers a bag full of pages for the Green Hills of Stranglethorn knows the pain of which I write. And bags were small. I remember it being a big deal when I got a 16-slot bag drop.
Of course, for me, part of the problem was a need to hang onto things just in case I needed them later. I think an embarrassing number of my characters in WoW still have the bag of marbles, a reward from an early Elwyn Forest quest, in their bank.
Then there was Lord of the Rings Online, which held out the promise back in 2007 of alleviating inventory issues by giving each player five 15 slot bags right off the bat. 75 bag slots as soon as your rolled up your character!
Of course, Turbine squandered that initial bag space advantage with tragically small stack sizes and by requiring that every quest item be an actual in-game item that took up inventory space. 75 bag slots were quickly filled up and people were asking how to upgrade bag space almost immediately. You couldn’t. And to this day all you can do is buy another 15 slot bag. So Turbine did a lot of work on stack sizes and quest items. Though, as mentioned above, gray items still drop, and while they have a couple of uses, they still fill up your bag with things off the main track of your efforts.
And somewhere in the midst of all of this is EVE Online, which may have the best/worst inventory management mechanic of all the games I have played. In a strict definitional sense, there is no vendor trash in EVE, since there are no vendors to sell to, so nothing is really a “gray” item in the way it is in WoW. Everything must be disposed of on the market or destroyed. And while you may think that “exotic dancers” drop you got on a mission has no value, I bet somebody will buy them on the market.
In EVE there is no magic, available in every key location, banking system by which to transfer your goods in New Eden, nor instant parcel delivery system that works behind the scenes. If you want to get something out to null sec or over to Jita, you have to haul it or pay somebody else to. And the first time you do a region-wide buy order for something, you are bound to discover just how many systems there are in that region and how far away systems can be. I have a huge number of items, including a few ship hulls, sitting in remote systems due to unfortunate buy orders or because I bought the cheapest item listed first and check the actual location second.
All of which is a bunch of long winded stories and excuses to link old posts that sort of establishes that inventory management… which is what it all comes down to… has a long and multifaceted tradition in the genre and its predecessors. And I didn’t even go into any number of side paths I could have.
I would say that there is enough history there that one could not help but conclude that it was all done on purposes, that the inventory management mechanics are part of the genre and make up part of the “interesting choices” that help define such games.
Remember, you do not have to enjoy making a choice for it to be interesting. But are such choices interesting? Does standing out in a zone with your bags full, minutes from a vendor and in the middle of a quest, and having to decide what to drop from your bag if you want to pick up a specific item really add to the game?
Is inventory management the last set of trade offs we are left with in a genre that has done away nearly every other hard choice? And I am not even sure where that lands on the continuum of choice types.
In a genre that has been polished to the point that the texture which once made it interesting has been nearly rubbed smooth, where there are scant few choices where an actual, tangible trade-off is involved, is inventory management the last frontier to be conquered, tamed, and subsequently rendered “uninteresting?” Or is inventory management just annoying housekeeping and accounting that should rightly be done away with for the good of the greater game?
This post actually started back when the tweet at the top went out and the point of it, such that there is, has ebbed and flowed in the intervening time. But it does seem to fit into some recent posts bemoaning the loss of the essence that made MMORPGs what they were back in the day. So I’ll jump in with that crowd. The shoe seems to fit.