Tag Archives: RPG

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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The evil of homogenization

In most games, players generally expect all players to have an equal chance in winning from the point of view of game mechanics, the end result being mainly reliant on the skill of the players or sometimes simple luck.

This expectation is not easily justified in the world of roleplaying games, where winning alone is difficult to characterize. Some would go as far as arguing there are no winners or losers in RPGs.

Despite this, a lot of very competitive gamers play massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. They create pressure on the developers, pressure not only to make games more competitive, but to make what little competition there already is in these games more fair or balanced.

Balancing is always important, even if a game’s playerbase isn’t particularly competitive. As a developer, you want different options of gameplay to be at least viable, even if they aren’t optimal. If you implement different choices but they are never utilized, you are wasting development time (or alternatively, attempting to trick players with false choice).

Even in a non-competitive game, balancing can still be a fairly complex deed. Making characters and playstyles varied, not too similar to each other yet still viable, is a demanding task. It is easy to imagine then that balancing in a way that makes different options not only viable but also equal in terms of performance is very difficult.

Traditionally in RPG balancing, complete equality in terms of performance has not been a goal, because it hasn’t been needed or called for. The players don’t expect it. A lot of players don’t even want it. But again, the player base of the MMORPG is different from that of other RPGs. These players often have a history in competitive online gaming and expect completely different things.

So we can see that satisfying both, players’ demands of fairness and of variance are very challenging to simultaneously achieve. What can the developer do?

While going for the lowest common denominator isn’t usually the best recommendation, I think the safest answer to the question would be to aim for a middleground. A game doesn’t need complete balance, but options don’t have to be extremely far from each other either in terms of performance. If you are giving players the option to play a gnome warrior or an ogre warrior, it’s fine to let the ogre be more powerful in the job – as long as the gnome is still playable despite some possible difficulties. If the gnome tries hard enough, maybe they can reach almost similar levels of performance as the ogre. Or maybe the gnome has a special ability, like being able to move silently. This approach keeps some level of variance and choice in place yet doesn’t go overboard with homogenization.

Talking about homogenization, this is the big problem with balancing. When developers try too hard to make performance equal for all the possible options, homogenization tends to happens, and unfortunately it has the capability of diluting gameplay. We can see this in effect in a couple of games. Darkfall made all the races use the same model to unify their hitboxes. World of Warcraft’s developers got stuck on looking at damage-per-second numbers and little by little made most of the classes of the same role feel very same-y – things that were unique to some classes, such as rogues’ crowd control or paladins’ strong multimonster tanking capability, were either given to everyone or removed.

My strong opinion is that the latter is bad design. Yes, greater balance and fairness is achieved, but something is lost on the way, something that is very close to the heart of the RPG genre. Variance in gameplay, immersion (the gnome and the ogre shouldn’t have an equal Strength score), the feeling of playing the character you chose – you know, roleplaying.While loudmouths on your game’s forum will never seem satisfied, in the end my belief is that it is better for a game to keep true to the genre, at least to a reasonable extent. Overdoing balance and homogenizing things along the way has the problem that in time, even the majority of the more competitive sorts who have been asking for fairer gameplay will come to realize your game has become bland, lost some of the magic that originally drew them in. In the end, diversity is a very big part of the draw of RPGs.

Implementing alignment in MMORPGs

While levels, roles, dice rolls and many other features have all been successfully transferred from traditional roleplaying games to their massively multiplayer online counterparts, some features remain unimplemented to this day. One of those is alignment.

Most gamers are probably at least to some extent familiar with a form of the D&D-type alignment system. Even if one has never played a roleplaying game in their life, the good-neutral-evil, lawful-neutral-chaotic table should be a familiar sight from viral images if nothing else.

The purpose of D&D style alignment is to provide a moral framework for one’s character to base their decisions on. The character is to act accordingly to their own alignment. An evil character does evil things, and vice versa for a good character, to put it simply.

Ever wanted to play a chaotic evil character and have the game mechanics actually support that choice? That’s what alignment is about. Making choices against your alignment could change it, and should it change too much in one direction or another, you may get penalized. Maybe you are a cleric and some of your spells stop working because your deity disapproves your actions, or maybe you gain an experience penalty as an assassin because you are becoming too good to be one of your profession. Or maybe you, as an evil character, just gradually become good through a series of life changing events, and spells like Detect Evil will no longer return the same results when being used on you as they did before.

Indeed it isn’t just a character’s decisions that their alignment has an effect on – alignment is to play directly into the game’s mechanics. Alignment isn’t to be something that you simply pick and then act as you like, maybe sometimes completely contradicting your original choice.

But the consequences of changes in alignment, or of actions opposing one’s alignment, are not necessarily what’s on the way of implementation of the feature into MMORPGs – it is the decisions themselves.

We can philosophize all we want, but essentially what branch of alignment an action represents is subjective. Normally it would be the Dungeon Master that decides whether an action is good or evil or whatever, but you don’t have the luxury of having one of those deciding things for you in a massive online multiplayer game. Instead you have developers who have to hardcode these things into the game.

The developer can introduce dialogue and other options to quests that represent different values of life. They can make robbing an ancient grave move the looter’s alignment to towards evil, and they can make giving money to a beggar NPC do the opposite. But the one thing they cannot do is easily tell whether an action of a player character towards another player character is good or evil or something else.

Some situations may seem easy to solve. Should a player for example kill another player, the action could be regarded as evil. But what would be a good action towards another player? How would you tell whether a thing a player said to another was full of malice or goodwill? How about this: if greed was regarded as an evil trait, would manipulating an in-game Auction House system for profit be regarded as evil? How would you track it?

There are so many obstacles in the way. Not even the killing of another player is as simple as it may seem. What if the victim had murdered a friend of their killer earlier? That would make the deed revenge, and in some societies that could well be regarded as a lawful act.

Maybe some sort of a voting mechanism could fix the issue. One where players could vote whether this or that action by a player was within their alignment or not. But systems of this sort are prone to abuse, and require a very specific type of game, likely one with an extreme focus on in-character roleplay.

All that considered, its no wonder why just about no MMORPG supports an alignment system. SWTOR had it’s light and dark system, but frankly the game was a very singleplayer experience. The system itself was only ever a part of NPC quests, which felt very awkward, seeing as an MMORPG by definition is about interacting with other players.

Maybe in the next couple hundred years artificial intelligence will have advanced enough to analyze player characters’ actions towards each other and modify their alignments accordingly. With the issue being as complex as it is, I don’t see that happening very soon.

Pretending its not there

While currently it may feel like the MMORPG is a stagnating genre, a couple of years back it was still heavily evolving. It turned out not to evolve in the way many of us had expected however: instead of creating more and more immersive and complex virtual worlds, developers started taking a more game-y approach to these online spaces, focusing on bite-sized and instanced gameplay rather than world simulation. Partly thanks to the influence of the lobby based MOBA games, features such as Battlegrounds and the Dungeon Finder became standard features of modern MMORPGs – at least the themepark subtype of them.

Many of the new features introduced to MMORPGs in the past couple of years divide opinions. Already before the Dungeon Finder instancing itself was frowned upon by a large part of the community. Everybody has those features they dislike in their game of choice – no game is ever perfect. The question is: how do you deal with features you strongly dislike?

I mentioned the Dungeon Finder right at the top of this post. That’s because one of my biggest personal gripes is with this feature. Of course, as with any opinion, I am not saying my opinion is the only right one – that being said I tend to make my opinion heard on the fact I dislike this particular feature. I also tend to stay away form games that implement it. On the internet I’ve had many a discussion about the feature, and time and time again the same argument has come up:

Why don’t you just ignore it?

Turns out the Dungeon Finder is a particularly good example of why this argument does not work. In the case of this particular feature, if a game utilizes it, it is a near-impossibility for a player to play the game without it. Not only are many games nowadays designed all around the use of this feature from the get-go, even if it is introduced into a game post-release (which is what happened to WoW), it will be the optimal way to do things and hence everyone will expect you to use it. Often it even introduces extra rewards as opposed to the method of running dungeons in the “normal” way. Good luck finding a like-minded group of people to run dungeons with without using the tool.

Finding that group of like-minded players isn’t the only problem making it difficult to enjoy a game if you despise the Dungeon Finder of course. You aren’t alone in the virtual world – that’s what persistent MMO worlds are about after all. Even if you and a couple of friends refuse to use the feature, most others will not and this will affect your gameplay one way or another. You will see people getting equipment faster and easier than you. Other players will be capable of getting around the world quicker than you thanks to the non-class dependant teleportation system of the feature (which is a particularly unimmersive thing by the way). And most of all, everyone outside your group of friends will expect you to use the feature, and if you don’t, they will be confused. They will think you are stupid. You are being inefficient as a player, a burden to others.

But this post isn’t just about the Dungeon Finder. The suggestion of ignoring the existence of a feature to enjoy a game is an ignorant one almost no matter what the feature is, be it instancing, the DF, localized banking or there being no penalty to dying. If somebody wanted an MMORPG to have harsher death penalties, would you really go ahead and suggest they could just destroy their own property on death and that would solve the problem?

When players have to make up artificial rules to enjoy a game, the situation becomes comparable to that of a couple of children playing cops and robbers. No written-down rules exist and what ends up happening is neither side can agree on who shot first and whether or not the bullet hit. Now, to some extent that approach can work – see roleplaying servers of some themepark games for example – but that requires a very specific mindset. Literally going down to the level of childlike play for the sake of enjoying a game isn’t a satisfying solution – games, by definition, have rules. We shouldn’t have to pretend something does not exist, period.

Attributes in non-combat gameplay

To continue with the theme of putting combat and non-combat gameplay against one another, when was it it that attributes (or stats/abilities if you prefer) such as Strength, Intelligence and Wisdom became strictly combat-related variables? After all, RPG players are used to attributes affecting many areas of gameplay, not just combat.

The idea of attributes is to represent the character’s capability in physique, brain power and the like in a general way. But the truth is that in the world of MMORPGs, attributes have just about always been regarded as combat stats and not much more. One reason for this is that the genre tends to be quite combat-heavy – and that’s because combat is some of the easiest content to create. But the other, possibly greater reason is that coming up with meaningful non-combat uses for attributes in a massively multiplayer online world is difficult. Where would it make sense to make an Intelligence check, for example?

Attributes could be made use of in quest-driven MMOs, but hard-scripted quests that don’t branch are cheaper to make and have no place for attribute checks that might indeed branch the story. The way to utilize attributes would be that a quest could for example at some point make a Wisdom check that would be used to determine whether a character has some (possibly divine) knowledge available to them or not. Depending on whether or not the player would pass the Wisdom check, the quest would branch differently.

The fact quests with multiple branches are more expensive to make isn’t the only obstacle in the way – there’s also predictability. Unlike in a game session with a Dungeon Master capable of making up and modifying adventures on the fly, in an MMORPG multiple people will complete the same quest. Even if the quest can branch multiple ways, it cannot be dynamically changed. What this means is that eventually players will discover the attribute levels required to pass a given quest’s attribute checks, and they will make it known on the internet. Not much fun to it if players feel forced to use a search engine for every quest-related attribute check they come by.

Scripted content in the likeness of quests isn’t the only place where attributes could be of use though. If an attribute like agility increased a player’s run speed, it would be useful in not just combat but just about everywhere else, too. Maybe Intelligence could increase a player’s chances of  getting a discount from a vendor. Dexterity could increase the chances of lockpicking or thievery further, or maybe increase the rewards or skill gain rate. Charisma could increase the gold gain from selling things to a vendor, or increase the rewards from tasks done for NPCs. And Strength could increase the rate of mining and inventory weight capacity, to give a couple of examples.

Many of the things I mentioned above have been done (the most common one probably being Strength increasing inventory capacity), however, none of them are particularly common in MMORPGs, and most of the time if an attribute has four or five uses in combat listed for it, there’s only one non-combat use, if that.

More importantly, even if an attribute affects a non-combat area of gameplay, it can still in some games only be increased by partaking in combat. It rarely seems to be the other way around, and while combat oriented players are generally more picky about balance (the PVP crowd especially) and hence a developer probably doesn’t want to force them to do non-combat content just for the sake of minmaxing, it is not just unfair but also, to put it in a word, lame to then do the same to non-combat players. Then again, such an approach is understandable in games that focus solely on combat – take Shadowbane for example where farming characters, no matter the class, would have had to allocate a lot of their attribute points into Strength for inventory capacity – forced combat made sense here because after all the game was advertised with the slogan “We don’t play to bake bread – we play to crush.” But generally speaking, it such an approach makes no sense.

I would like to see attributes utilized more in non-combat gameplay – for the sake of realism if nothing else. I wouldn’t want to force combat-oriented players to start doing non-combat content just to increase their attributes, no, but a character who’s been a miner all their life without a fistfight’s worth of combat participated in should have a Strength score higher than that of a brand new character. Combat attributes, such as those from gear, could in fact be separated – armour gives armour, and maybe in some cases increases a mage’s spell casting speed or something similar through an enchantment. And I am sure there would be other ways to balance it out, but to put it simply, it would be nice to be able to look at attributes as something a little more than numbers that increase my Damage-per-Second.

RPG classes – not all about combat

In traditional RPGs, experience is often regarded as universal – you gain it by taking part in various activities related to adventuring, but what kind of activities those are hardly matters, for you use the same pool of experience to make your character stronger in different areas. And fair enough – when you step into such a game, you expect to be playing a specific role, a class, an archetype to which are tied some specific elements and traits, some related to combat, others not so much.

The traditional approach works well in tightly scripted games with limited scope, such as most tabletop games and their CRPG adaptations. Such games focus heavily on adventure of the moment and there’s no persistent world populated by other players out there, no player economy with it’s supply requirements and whatnot to speak of. The world outside of the view distance of the adventuring party may almost just as well not exist at all in the very moment.

But universal experience is problematic when it comes to games featuring more open world design, such as most MMORPGs. In many games it would just seem odd to get better at combat by, say, picking herbs or opening locks. And indeed there’s also the issue that no matter how well balanced a system is and no matter how many options there are for gaining experience, one method is always going to reign supreme in terms of pure efficiency. If both, crafting armour and battling orcs add into the same pool of interchangeable experience points and crafting armour turns out to be more efficient in terms of experience per time unit, people who would prefer to make their characters more powerful by battling orcs will be dissatisfied. And vice versa.

Because of these issues and some more, use-based systems have been invented. In your typical open world game the player’s blacksmithing level is a separate number from their combat level, and where as crafting armour will grant blacksmithing experience, battling orcs will grant combat experience.

Use-based experience works well enough for crafting and combat. But what about class-defining skills like picking locks, identifying magic items and similar activities that aren’t related combat?

The case of the learned wizard

In a typical fantasy world, swordfighting,  spellslinging and woodcutting aren’t the only activities characters partake in. Druids tame animals, clerics call to their deities for aid in all sorts of situations that aren’t at all related to battling foes, wizards teleport people around and rogues pick locks or pick pockets.  We come now to an area that to this date has been lacking in implementation when it comes to the MMORPG genre: non-combat class skills.

Think of the typical fantasy wizard, one who is deeply learned in the arcane arts and could be regarded as extremely powerful. How do you think the wizard reached this level of skill in wizardry? Was it by battling hordes of orcs, or rather by studying books and scrolls? Maybe by experimenting with different power words and reagents?

Being a wizard is much more than being able to effectively hurl fireballs at enemies. But in the majority of MMORPGs, hurling fireballs at enemies is the way one trains to become a powerful wizard. In fact, hurling balls of fire is often the purpose of the wizard. Along the way they might learn to use a portal spell or another trivial non-combat ability, but progression-wise these are tightly tied to the wizard’s ability in combat.

Part of the problem is balance. An online multiplayer setting will always be somewhat competitive, and hence class balance is a delicate topic. Training to be good at combat is part of balance too, and if different classes were able to hone their combat skills in very differing ways, players may find some ways unfair due to reasons related to efficiency.

But balance is only one thing. Maybe the real problem is implementing a proper training system for non-combat class skills. Its easy to figure out a satisfying way of training combat – slaying monsters. But how would a wizard train their skill in portal magic, or a druid their skill in animal taming? Repeatedly killing monsters for experience may be grindy, but not as grindy as, say, casting a few hundred portals to another realm for no other reason but to level up one’s portal creation skill. If anything, such a system would encourage macroing and not feel satisfying in the least.

Despite the difficulties of implementation, it wouldn’t be impossible to have non-combat class abilities make a bigger part of gameplay in MMORPGs. Surely there would be a way to implement a separate thievery or lock-picking skill for rogues that would be somewhat entertaining to train. Couldn’t be more boring than typical mining training, right? And as for non-combat spells, a modernized and improved version of Asheron’s Call’s original spell research system could well work even in a class-based game. And how about druids taming animals? There have been animal taming skills in games not even utilizing a class system before.

What I am sure about is that tying all of a class’ abilities to combat is, in a word, lame. And neither does it make sense that a fighter cannot learn a combat spell or how to magically open a shut door, but is then capable of learning the ability to permanently enchant equipment with powerful magic – a deed you would expect from a wizard rather than a fighter. Take the latter sentence as a note aimed at certain developers. Anyway, the area of non-combat class abilities is thirsty for innovation.