Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

Enough With the Items Already – Part 2

On Monday I talked about how there are too many crafting ingredients and trash items dropping in MMOs. Today I’ll have a look at equipment drops and consumables and actually have examples of games that improved much on the now standard way to do this.

Equipment

World of Warcraft has a tiered rarity system for items that pretty much directly relates to quality. White items are non-magical and pretty much useless. Green items have some sort of additional ability, usually increasing an attribute of the wielder, and are classified as uncommon by Blizzard. Throughout the leveling process, green items will make up most of the gear that players have but at the level cap, greens will no longer be used at all. The next step in the ladder are the blue  – or rare – items. A blue item is essentially always better than a green one of the same type and level. That means that if you are already wearing a blue chest piece, there is absolutely no point to even look at green ones that you find. Purple (or epic) items come after that and have the same relationship to blues that those have to greens.

White gear in WoW goes almost completely unused even though it is sold as basic equipment by vendors. There's just too much colorful competition around.

So the rarer an item is, the better it is. While that seems logical, it means that you get way more items that are completely useless for you (the more common ones) and only very few ones that are actually useful. The fate of these items is usually to be sold to an NPC vendor without even being looked at. This system is not endemic to World of Warcraft at all by the way, most MMOs these days adapt something similar.

So there are limited situations in which getting green items is useful for the player – though hardly anything to write home about – while they are completely pointless at all other times. This sounds to me like the whole system could be overhauled. Why is it that the generic minimum items that players use have to be found on enemies? Looking at traditional fantasy stories we do see the heroes getting fantastic magical items in the lairs of monsters or out of lakes or something. Their common go-to gear isn’t found on the corpses of wolves and goblins, however, but usually acquired somewhere in town.  What would be wrong with letting players simply buy their normal gear and making drops actually matter?

It almost seems as if Blizzard had exactly this in mind when making World of Warcraft. The towns are full of NPCs selling you white equipment. The problem is of course that green gear is so easy to get and so much better than white gear that the latter is absolutely pointless.

Aside from drops, another source of useless items are quests. Often times quests reward the player with green quality items (or their equivalent in whatever game you are looking at) which may or may not be useful. I like the idea of quests giving you the choice between a few items so that you can pick one that is actually helpful to you. What I don’t like is when the choice is between a lot of items that are useless to you and you simply pick the one that is worth most when sold to an NPC. This adds additional hassle – and besides, how mean is it when a girl gives you their family heirloom necklace for saving her little brother and you simply turn around and sell it to the next best vendor?

I would like to see a “just give me the money” option on quest completion. Sure, it wouldn’t always make sense from a storytelling point of view but you could make exceptions to the rule. When there is a whole quest line of reforging a sword for you, it would be a bit stupid to say “nah, I’d rather have cash” in the end. For most quests, however, this seems very feasible. Actually it is a lot more logical for NPCs to have money on them than a selection of various heavy pieces of equipment.

So if we use quests and vendors as source for your normal go-to gear, we don’t need to drop equipment all the time. Instead we can limit equipment drops to actually interesting, special occasions. This solution is mostly aimed at the leveling process, but even the endgame could take a bite out of it. If we go down memory lane to the old Zul’Gurub raid instance in World of Warcraft we will remember that many of the items dropped there were blues (rare items) as opposed to the epic items you get in World of Warcraft raids these days. Back then, wearing a lot of epic items actually meant something which in return made players happy when they got access to those epic items. These days, epic items are dime a dozen and getting an additional epic is pretty much irrelevant. This goes so far that certain sets of epic items are immediately trashed when they drop. Again it seems like the much better game design solution would be to put things that you want to be commonly available on vendors (or make them craftable by players) and to make drops from monsters actually matter.

Mass Effect II works a bit differently than an MMO, but shows us the power of streamlining an inventory system. You don’t need to drop a million assault rifles in every level and make the player pick the best one from those all the time while selling all the others to an NPC. Mass Effect II removed all that and instead added the ability to upgrade your weapons with schematics you found. No more hassle with the inventory, no more nitpicking over two weapons which are about half a point of damage apart from each other. Instead you can play the game and be happy when you find a new upgrade. Much better than picking up everything that’s not nailed down and then deciding what to keep at the end of the mission.

Consumables

Consumables clog your inventory because they are saved for special occasions.

The inventory of my LotRO character was constantly full of various consumables that I had picked up during my travels. There were potions to remove diseases and poisons, potions that healed me, potions that restored my mana power, food that increased various stats, and food that let me recover faster. All these items were also available in various levels of effectiveness. The problem with consumbales is that they are often incredibly situational. Sure there could be a situation in which removing a disease is great, but most of the time I absolutely don’t need it and it just takes up space in my inventory. Even healing and mana potions are often just carried “just in case” and rarely ever used.

I think it is good that these items exist, but it should be a conscious choice by me to get them and carry them with me. If I go into an area in which disease is prevalent, I might go to my local apothecary and get some cures for that. If I’m playing a healer, I might want to buy and carry some mana potions to be able to heal that little bit more in a crunch situation. If these items just drop from monsters, players will be compelled to keep them for when they will be needed. Even if they decide not to do that, they are again picking up lots of items that will simply be sold to the next vendor as soon as possible.

In a single player game, the availability of healing potions can be used to control the difficulty of a level. In an MMO, this doesn’t work because players could stock up those potions beforehand anyway if they wanted to. Dropping consumables is incredibly unexciting and could once again much better be outsourced to either NPC vendors or the player economy.

Conclusion

Computer role-playing games have come a long way from when finding a Longsword +1 was an occasion to be happy, but I don’t think the evolution was necessarily a good one. The flood of items players have to deal with these days makes each individual drop that much less interesting and most of those drops are completely pointless anyway. All they do is add the hassle of inventory management to the game and waste the player’s time by requiring her to sort through all the trash. Things that game designers want to be commonly available should not be drops and things that are drops should be sufficiently interesting and rare.

Masith pointed out on Monday’s post that rare isn’t always fun and he is right about that, please read my response in the comments if you are concerned about that issue. Maybe I’ll write a post on that at a later date if I can come up with a convincing solution. Until then I can only say that cases in which rare isn’t fun should lead to those items not being drops at all.

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