Decisions and Inventory Management

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.

An embarrassment of far flung riches

An embarrassment of far flung riches

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.

13 thoughts on “Decisions and Inventory Management

  1. bhagpuss

    Great post and not just because you linked me. If I did “quote of the day” posts “…a genre that has been polished to the point that the texture which once made it interesting has been nearly rubbed smooth” would be going up right now.

    I don’t mind the “sell all trash” buttons. I even use them occasionally if I’m in a hurry. Contrary to Belghast’s opinion, however, bag management is often fun, to the point that it’s one of my favorite parts of playing MMOs. Moreover, I’ve posted about in the past and received comments that suggest other people enjoy it too.

    With my optimistic hat on, I’m certain there are enough people left like you, me and Keen who see the point of these “unnecessary” complications for some specialist or niche developers to keep us entertained until we all finally die off (and Keen’s got 30 years on me so if they’re keeping him happy that should see me out). With my pessimist’s beret, though, I see a maturing genre reaching that point where discovery is over and consolidation and exploitation are the orders of the day.

    I don’t anticipate many more big-ticket, seven-figure budget AAA MMORPGs catering to “that crowd”. I wonder if FFXIV:ARR might even be the last.


  2. Knug

    As a DM, we were taught (back in the day when you learned how to DM sitting at the elbow of a master) that the logistics of the big haul was intentional. That big bag of coins – good luck with that. That random collection of swords – are you going to spend the time searching through them to maybe spot a good one, or are you going to try to take them all or maybe abandon the whole set ? As was pointed out in the history of warefare, the movement of goods is critical. Yes, it can be boring, but the interruption of logistical trains is strategic rather than tactical thinking. In this limited attention-span environment we seem to be developing today, anything that rewards strategic thinking should be praised. 20 tons of wheat is a small ship with minimal crew, but 20 tons of grain going by cart requires a first rate wagon train, guards/soldiers, fodder/feed/ammo for them etc. that moves much slower and is far more vulnerable.

    In many games, agonizing over what you can carry and what you want is never – never – poor game design. In the various worlds where min/max game play is paramount, this kind of decision making is desirable.

    Oh, I recall tossing aside encumberance in D&D during the dungeon crawl portion of the fun – who wants to worry about that. But once the piles of treasure are found, its time to work out how much you can carry.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    And just as a side note, that picture from EVE Online represents the last of four pages of systems where I left some junk at some point in the past. There is stuff in some systems, like Uosusuokko (pronounce that one!) that I last did something in more than five years back. The secret to MMOs is database optimization. (And the number of jumps listed is the distance from B-DBYQ, where we are deployed at the moment.)

    @Bhagpuss – Yeah, I fished around a bit until I came up with something that captured my feelings on the idea of refinement. There was a lot of “omfg” nonsense that needed to fixed. But there are times when I wonder if the next step is to automate the player and and just be done with it.

    And I am not necessarily calling out fellow blogger Belghast. It was just his tweet that sent me down this path. Took me 10 days to figure out where it was leading, and there were a couple different endings along the way.

    @Knug – Indeed, I always think of the cover of the AD&D Players Handbook, where they are collecting swords and prying out that big gem. My thought is always about how they are going to get that stuff out of there. Who is going to carry those gems? How much do they weigh?

    In D&D and the like, inventory management was an opportunity for creativity.

    Even in The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves buried the treasure they picked up from the trolls early on. No lugging that around.


  4. jellydonut

    Strictly speaking, not entirely accurate. There is wormhole ‘blue loot’ that is worthless as an item and can only be sold to NPC buy orders. It is, however, extremely valuable, so not a typical example of vendor trash. I guess it is vendor gold?

    I think maybe incursions drop something similar but I have no clue about incursions so I can’t speak to that.


  5. Mattexl

    I’m with bhagpuss! Considering the majority of my “getting back into EQ2… AGAIN” weekend was spent plowing through 12 characters worth of bank slots and organizing, I really enjoy this aspect of the game. And I dug up some OLD OLD gems while I was doing it – solidifed dinoid loam, two stacks worth of muffled glass bottles from the original alchemy crafting recipes, and two 42 slot strong boxes worth of quest items. I really enjoyed digging through all this stuff as it brought back so many memories of the years gone by where I accumulated so much junk. (I too am a packrat at heart and never throw anything away)

    Once I tired with the bank tetris gymnastics, I headed out into the wild word of Norrath, driven by an item induced nostalgia frenzy. I tore through old Kingdom of Sky zones and dungeons, mentored down and molo-ing my way through raid zones I hadn’t touched since my raiding alliance was tackling these things head on back when they were new, and I very quickly ran up against the inventory shuffle yet again. Despite having six 42 slot containers on me, I was still rapidly filling up with quest bits, armor to sell/transmute (eventually), spell scrolls, tradeskill recipe books, lore and legend items, grey vendor trash, collectibles and crafting material (I’ve never met a harvestable node I didn’t like). The point of my ramble – I was having too much fun on my dungeon crawl to be bothered with heading back to town to maximize profits. So I started making those decisions about what to keep and what should go, and I LOVED every second of it.

    I think these types of inventory systems should continue to be part of the worlds that we inhabit. While the “sell all trash” button is a great convenience in the sense of “I’m playing a game” – it is seriously immersion breaking in the sense of “I’m a magic wielding conjuror traveling the world with my trusty elemental companion.”

    The other piece of the inventory choice puzzle, one I’m surprised you didn’t touch on Wilhelm, is the interactivity with other humans (players). In the initial EQ2 design (flowing from EQ of course) I remember dev discussions where they intended the cities to be hubs of activity, with people coming back to Qeynos or Freeport (depending on faction) to do their banking/selling/crafting/meeting up for adventures/etc. Granted, they cocked it up with some of their design decisions – three hundred zones in each city, crafting instances that were separate even from these zones, the long zone by zone slog back to a city before bells provided quick travel – but the inventory design decisions definitely reinforced this idea. Once your bags filled up (including the weight of your coins), it was time to go back and interact with the humans at home base, putting the massive and roleplay into MMORPG.


  6. Shintar

    This reminds me of a post about WoW I wrote over three years ago… ah yes, here it is. Basically, I like that random drops add flavour to the world instead of everything just giving you straight up cash, and I do enjoy the mini game of sorting through my inventory too (though I prefer for the process to take place at my leisure and in a city instead of me running out of bag space in the middle of a dungeon and then fretting about what to keep and what to drop while the rest of the group just wants to “gogogo”).

    SWTOR, which is my home now, has a “sell all trash” button too, but I still kind of enjoy getting all those greys, and bag space is so plentiful that I very rarely run out. Also, the greens still provide me with plenty of opportunities to manage my inventory every time I have to figure out whether one of them is an upgrade for any of my five companions or whether I should just vendor it. :P


  7. saucelah

    I could be wrong, but it seems bag management is a love or hate kind of thing with few feelings in between.

    I fall on the hate side of the board — I never got past level 30 in LotRO, specifically because f2p bag management, without buying more slots, was constant and irritating. One day I logged in, saw I had no space in my bags, let out an audible sigh, logged out, and never looked back.


  8. Vatec

    I have often been heard referring to LOTRO as The Exciting Game of Inventory Management! (TM). Let me tell you, the shared vault they added around Siege of Mirkwood was probably the single best quality of life improvement that game has ever gotten, with the revamped vault interface running a close second. And the upgraded wallet would count as third, if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion that they added 47 different varieties of tokens just to drive up demand for the thing….


  9. Potshot

    Evidence of my own pathology is that the first thing I thought of was how interesting it would be to form a hauling corp/business in Eve. In one of my last brief returns to the game, I had a blast combining contract hauling with market arbitrage.

    Constraints create opportunities for creative decision making. Call it emergent optimization.

    I’m pretty sure I could win or at least tie every hand of poker I played if I could play every card in the deck. Somehow it’s more interesting with just five or seven to play…


  10. thecesspit

    I like the restriction, but do find Rift’s ‘sell all grey items’ on the shop a bit of a ‘cheat’. It’s nice, but it feels wrong that in the middle of nowhere I can turn the chaff into money. Wish I hadn’t known about it to be honest. Knowing what I should keep and use and what I should sell on the non-grey side is also interesting. I assume some of the stuff I am carrying has no use to me… but can only guess right now which of it is based on my tradeskills. And I think this is no bad thing, there’s only so many times killing a random series of mobs can sustain a game.


  11. Teebags

    The hours of endless fun we used to have in EverQuest with beggars on the scrounge for free Plat. I’d offer them the money and tell them to meet me in the bank. Stand my character as far away from the bank teller as I could and still be able to interact with him. Get the beggar to stand on the opposite side so I know he definitely can’t interact with the banker. Then happy hand over the 10 plat… in copper coin. Then stand back and watch him spin as he realises he can’t move, can’t reach the banker and the only way out of this mess is to get rid of the money he’s worked so hard for.

    Of course, he should count himself lucky I didn’t lock him in the vault in Freeport Bank…


  12. *vlad*

    In the original Diablo, bag space was a big issue, what with mana and health potions and money taking up all your slots.

    I remember leaving piles and piles of money on the floor back at the town as there was no bank. All that gold must have bankrupted the local economy judging by how much Wirt wanted to charge for the useless items he was always trying to sell me.


  13. HarbingerZero

    Late to the party but I just wanted to comment: inventory “decisions” lead directly or indirectly to the idea of housing (or at least a home base) where you can stuff all your extra goods and money. Oh…and inventory management has been a thorn in my side ever since the Lone Wolf game books back in the mid-80’s. Think 16 slots is tough? Try having only 8 for an entire adventure. Bleh.


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