Category Archives: UI Design

Inventory systems as game features

When we think of the feature list of a game, we often think of things like the combat system, the PVP system, the content, and so on. Unless we’re part of that niche that’s constantly looking for a very specific type of game where things like logistics of goods are something that requires a lot of thought put into, rarely do we come to think of anything that is closely related to the inventory system of a game.

The inventory system touches many areas of a game. It may seem like a boring subject, a tiny little thing beside the things we tend to see as more important, such as combat. But overlooking it is not justified, for how the inventory is handled in a game affects all of it’s players, raider and playerkiller, crafter and warrior alike.

Often do the effects a game’s inventory system go subconsciously unnoticed. Or rather, we tend to not think of the chosen inventory system as a feature – handling the system as it is simply becomes second nature. Yet, while we may not notice it consciously, these systems affect our view of how the game feels, how immersed we feel within the world, how fun or satisfying the gameplay feels, and so on.

In many an MMORPG, when for example a blacksmith is at work, they may be carrying hundreds of kilograms worth of stuff in their bags. They might pick up 400 iron bars from their bank, run to an anvil and turn those bars into 80 iron swords. Is that realistic? Not at all. But does it suit some games? Obviously, the most popular of them all, World of Warcraft, uses this system. Still, it is quite a bland system, and not very satisfying as far as immersion goes. It also does not offer much in terms of gameplay – how much the player can carry at one time is so unrestricted you rarely have to think about it. They might buy the occasional larger bag, but that’s about it.

Compare WoW’s system to that of another very popular Western game, RuneScape. On paper, there’s not much complexity to it other than the fact the weight of items affects how long the player can sprint. But that’s not all that completely differentiates Runescape’s inventory system from that of WoW – there’s also the fact inventory space is much more limited. It’s not just the bag size that does this, which by the way is limited to about 30 slots – its also that much fewer items stack. Foods, potions, all of that – each piece requires an individual slot.

Would WoW’s very, if not overly convenient system, where one is able to carry a hundred battleaxes within a single inventory without breaking a sweat, suit RuneScape? The answer is that it wouldn’t. As a game, RuneScape is built around the idea of a limited inventory. The skill grind relies on it – you have to constantly run between the bank and the crafting spot, and this makes the endeavour of skilling up slightly more varied. This, along with planning one’s inventory, is made more important by the existence of the various unconventional and advanced methods of skill training, which experienced players know more about. And the limited inventory size has a major effect in combat and quests where inventory planning is a common practice and indeed essential. The inventory system, as it stands, is a crucial part of the RuneScape experience. A core game mechanic.

Yet, the effects of the inventory systems used in these two games often go unnoticed. The simple lack of item stacking and the more limited space can already add a lot of gameplay. Of course the game’s other mechanics must support this, however. RuneScape lacks for example the trash items of modern themepark games, and healing is done mainly through food instead of spells. These two points both make the inventory system more viable for the game in question.

The two of the most popular Western games are of course not the only MMORPGs on the market, and their inventory systems aren’t the only ones out there. Ultima Online, as many will remember, as a pioneer of the genre tried a more realistic approach to handling the inventory. In UO, there are no inventory slots – the bag is a two-dimensional space where items must be dragged and dropped, and each item is given unique coordinates.

This adds more inventory-related gameplay than either of the two systems presented before. Having to individually drag and drop each item from the ground to one’s bags is a completely different experience from shift-autolooting a corpse or spam clicking an item on the ground (especially in PVP) – as is the organization of a bag without a nice grid within the limits of which your items line up nicely in a perfect order.

There is a reason however why very few games have adopted UO’s system – the only one I can quickly recall from recent years would be Darkfall. The reason is the simple fact it is annoying and predisposes players to carpal tunnel syndrome. This is of course a matter of opinion, but I think in this case the majority will agree that more gameplay is not automatically a good thing.

While the choice of inventory system depends quite a bit on the game itself and it’s other mechanics, I would personally hope for all games to add at least some level of inventory-related gameplay, something more complex than bags with slots of a fixed fit-for-all size. One of my personal favourite systems from recent MMORPGs would probably be that of Eldevin’s – it is much akin to Neverwinter Nights’ system in that there’s still a grid, but some large items can take multiple slots.

What I would add to this system would be weights, modified by some character statistics such as strength. In addition, I wouldn’t have the extra bags be purchasable only by real money, as Eldevin does. About those bags, another idea would be to be able to enchant some bags to magically reduce the weight of items inside them, or something of the like. That would add some more gameplay, and something non-combat related for an enchanter to do. Anyway, as far as inventory system design goes, I think what a developer should aim for is a good balance of gameplay, realism and convenience.

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UI design: too much information

User interfaces in MMORPGs tend to be quite extensive to put it mildly. From various exact numbers like threat, damage-per-second, health and other resources to real time boss strategies and timers, you’re likely to find an option to display it on your interface in many games.

A justified question is whether this is a good thing or not. The question  was sparked by a YouTube video by Corpsealot (whose videos I very much recommend to anybody interested in MMORPG design philosophy by the way), titled Players know too much. In the video it is argued that players have too much information, and that the right way to design a truely immersive game experience would be to not convey more information to the player than can be considered to be available to the player’s character.

I don’t necessarily agree with the view all games should be designed around this principle, but then again in the video is presented a single person’s opinion. That being said, there’s a point to the commentary there. Having more information of, for example, the health state of an opponent being conveyed by visible phenomena within the game, for example by bleeding and slowed down movement rather than by numbers on the UI, might well be more immersive than the typical RPG approach that displays a lot of things as raw numerical values.

Is a minimalistic UI a prerequisite for an immersive experience then? Of course not, we all know that. Whether it was while playing a tabletop RPG or a tab-targeting based CRPG, we’ve all (I hope) at some point felt very immersed in a game world. And honestly, most people probably aren’t even looking for complete three-dimensional world simulation. The majority of gamers are perfectly happy with character health states, feelings and other things being presented to us as numbers, icons, bars and text. But I think there’s room for discussion whether we need as much information as we are currently being handed.

Take for example exact unit health values. We already have a red or green bar roughly representing the health percentage of boss X. Do we really need to know boss X has a maximum of exactly 120,063 hitpoints, of which 99853 are left? I would argue that discovering the rough amount of health a unit has by trial and error would make for intriguing gameplay in many games of the genre.

For another example, take unit levels. How do we know this cat-like beast we’re engaging in combat is exactly at a combat level of 37? And why does a unit with the exact same model and texture have a combat level or 8 instead? Or 56? Coupled with the knowledge of the exact maximum health of the unit amongst other possible bits of information conveyed to us by the UI, we can pretty much tell without ever engaging the opponent whether we’d stand a chance or not. Why does this information have to be so exact?

I’m not saying design should go back to the EQ days when you would type /con to consider every single unit you ran into. But I feel that a game needn’t tell the player exactly whether or not an opponent is suitable for them to take on or not. Even color codes for names based on relative level would in my opinion be an improvement. Not only is it ridiculous that a knight rushes headlong into battle against a massive troll whose combat level is 5, yet hides when they meet an exactly similar looking troll who’s combat level is 50 instead, but if exact level display was disabled, in PVP it would be more difficult to decide whether or not you might want to attack that lonely rider on the road as you couldn’t tell for sure if they were just a regular traveler or a master swordsman in disguise.

The overabundance of information isn’t always nonsensical. It suits EVE Online for example because, well, spaceships – complicated machines with all kinds of sensors and buttons and whatnot. But as you’re trying to become immersed in a high fantasy world, it’s a little ridiculous you have 7 boss ability timers on your screen as with a battleaxe you smash away at the Dragon Queen who you know has exactly 74302/120000 mana left, meaning that after she’s spent 24302 more mana another mechanic, shouted at you by a big block of red text in the middle of your screen, will enter the fight.