Tag Archives: Ultima Online

Dynamic versus scripted worlds

MMORPGs are some of the most complex things made by humans. As world simulations there’s a massive amount of things going on behind the scenes the user may never be fully aware of. But there are different levels of complexity to these games, some being more complex than others – that is, in terms of game and world design, not graphical optimization or anything of the like.

Why are some games simplier to make sense of for the player than others? One thing is that where as most games today tend to have a massive amount of scripted events, other games are built around dynamic systems.

What exactly is the difference between worlds built around scripted events and worlds built around dynamic systems? There are many differences, both from the point of view of the developer and that of the player. Environments which are solely built upon scripted events are far more predictable, first of all. The developer has full control whether something will happen or not. Monsters will spawn when and where they are wanted and they patrol the routes set by the developer. Harvesting nodes spawn in exactly the the developer put them to spawn at. And so on.

Where as scripted events are easy to predict and control, the results of dynamic systems are quite the opposite. A classic example of this is Ultima Online’s original resource system, which didn’t quite work out at the time. The system would probably have needed some tweaking all around in terms of numbers and the like, but most of all the developers failed to predict player behavior – players just killed everything too quickly forĀ  the system to work.

While there’s the definite con of unpredictability to handling the world in a more dynamic manner, it still has an immense charm to it. Dynamism is definitely the way to go if realistic fantasy worlds are what we aim for – the real world isn’t based on scripted events either but on complex systems interacting with each other. There is something beautiful in attempting to simulate a living world with what is almost pure mathematics. Of course for some games a more directed approach is preferable, but if anything, games like Ultima Online and EVE are extremely fascinating examples of dynamic system design.

Furthermore, the dynamic approach can be cheaper. It is less predictable and the developers have less ways to control the player, yes, but ultimately it has the potential of cutting down production costs. With the correct systems in place, there’s no need for the developer to individually script every NPC’s patrol path, no need to time spawns by the second, no need to make a world object interact in exactly a certain way. Having to script every little event in a game from rolling stones to rats’ daily lives is a time consuming endeavour, and if these things were handled dynamically, a lot of effort could be spent elsewhere.

Of course dynamic systems have the risk of something ending up in completely unpredicted scenarios. But then, its not like scripted events don’t also have exploitable bugs and whatnot in them as well. Overall, what would be nice to see more in future games is the dynamic school of design. To some extent, it has sort of died in the fantasy MMORPG world, maybe partly due to the death of isometricism (which is a topic for another time); when you only have two dimensions to worry about, things are more predictable. But if anything, games like SWG and EVE Online show isometric graphics are a not prerequirement for a game that is strongly based on various complex systems that intricately tie into each other. And I suppose there’s some revival happening, what with Crowfall’s dynamic maps and all – but that game’s got Raph Koster working on it, does it not?

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.