Tag Archives: WoW

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.

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.

Endgame: is leveling really necessary?

EverQuest is what first introduced the DikuMUD model to MMORPGs. It was World of Warcraft however that really popularized it.

By definition, Diku is heavily combat and character progression driven. In modern times,  thanks to the influence of EQ and especially WoW, that progress for the most part happens after reaching the level cap, through the acquisition of better and better equipment.

One could say that essentially raiding focused games today are group dungeon crawlers that also feature an open world fit for socializing on the side. A cynic could say the open world has been reduced to nothing but a lobby space from which players enter various minigames – but we will leave that debate for another time. Anyway, if the player isn’t currently raiding in a game of this type, it is very likely they are at least working on something that is related to raiding or increases their raid performance.

At this point I should probably point out that I realize not all Diku-inspired MMOs focus on raiding – LOTRO for example has shifted it’s focus almost completely away from group content. And it should probably be mentioned that in this post I purposefully choose to ignore the most casual population of the games that feature raiding – those players who in WoW for example, despite the existence of features like Looking-for-Raid, do not raid.

Back to raid-centric MMORPGs. For many of them, raiding is quite simply the end-all-be-all of relevant content (some would call these type of games WoW clones). Now, raiding being as important as it is begs the question: why spend resources on other content when you could spend it on improving the raiding experience further? Why have, for example, an open world full of quests a lot of people will find to be an annoyance anyway when you could just spend the  development time on designing interesting dungeon encounters instead?

I have mentioned before that for hardcore raiders a big motivation to do what they do are the bragging rights. Standing in the middle of a great city in your spiked armour known to drop only from one of the hardest boss encounters in the game with newbies drooling and whispering as they walk by feels extremely rewarding.

And while even the hardcore cannot raid 24/7, they will from time to time want to play the game outside of their group’s raid times. Hence, incentives to log in outside of raids times are needed – as fun as raiding might be, people don’t want to be completely tied to the schedule of others to do anything relevant in-game. Farming money or consumable items, or maybe simply working towards cosmetic improvements like mounts in the open world turn out to be valuable timesinks when it comes to keeping players interested.

Because of the above reasons, the open space, the persistent world outside of raid dungeons that defines these games as a part of the MMORPG genre, can be considered to be an almost necessary part of raid-centric games, even if nowadays less and less time is being spent outside of instances. I don’t believe a lobby-based game consisting of 100 % raiding could be made to work very easily. But one cannot help thinking: would a game focusing a greater proportion of it’s resources on raiding work?

Take WildStar for example, a game prior to release advertised to be a raider’s paradise. Personally, in the case of this game I believe most of the development time spent on the questing experience may have been, to be blunt, wasted. Of course development of the game engine probably took the most money, but I have been pondering whether the game would be doing better than it is now, financially speaking, had it only focused on the endgame without the fluff of the linear and (to many) boring quests and other scripted events that fill the outside world. The leveling simply feels like it was slapped on top, for no other reason but that’s how it has always been. But was it really needed? What if the game had simply been designed so that you started at the maximum level, or rather that there were no levels at all, and the only progression there was to be made was through gaining better equipment or some other form of character power and status?

For just about all the Diku-derivative MMORPGs today leveling isn’t what it once was. Level caps are expected to be reached in a very short time. Levels still increase character power, but because of the comparably small time investment, the real game may as well be treated to start at the maximum level. I know I am not the first one to say this,  but leveling in games that focus on raiding has been reduced to a sort of a tutorial to the game or the player’s chosen class.

To get to the point, I feel the concept of character levels may be needless if you are to make a game focused on keeping the hardcore raiding niche entertained. It would be very interesting to see whether or not a raid-centric game without levels would work. Personally I think it well could.

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.

Artificial difficulty: there’s no such thing

There are hard bosses and there are easy bosses when it comes to raiding in a themepark MMORPG. However, there are varying types of difficulty. This, I am afraid, is often not recognized when arguing whether this or that boss is more difficult than the other. Difficulty is still difficulty, even when it comes from a different source than the one one would expect, and that is what I want to address in this post.

Lets take a look at World of Warcraft, a game most of us have played. Time and time again on various discussion platforms one runs into difficulty comparisons drawn between the boss encounters of past expansions and those of the more recent ones.

Take the common claim that modern (Cataclysm expansion onwards) hardmode boss encounters are much more difficult than, say, the hardest of content offered by The Burning Crusade, the game’s first expansion pack. The arguments usually given are something along the following lines:

  • In The Burning Crusade, boss mechanics are rather simple – fire on the ground, debuffs that do damage to nearby friendly allies, debuffs that must be dispelled at the correct time, hard DPS checks with a slight twist.  Modern boss encounters often use the same mechanics, but there are also new ones and there are more of them per boss, making the newer encounters generally more complex.
  • Modern character classes have more buttons they have to press regularly in their second-to-second play (rotation) during an encounter.

If we simply compare the amount of mechanics of a modern hardmode boss to that of a boss from TBC, we can easily see that sure, the newer bosses have more mechanics. On the other hand, classes now have way more tools on short cooldown to deal with these mechanics – there are sprints, damage taken reducing abilities, multi mob tanking abilities, instant crowd control abilities, etc. And in The Burning Crusade, threat management (not overaggroing, and in some encounters, tank swapping by pure threat control) is still a mechanic where as it doesn’t exist in later expansions, mostly because tanks’ threat generation is through-the-roof and bosses are no longer immune to the Taunt ability which instantly moves the tank on top of the threat list.

As one can see above, there’s disagreement even on whether modern boss encounters really demand more mechanical expertise from the player or not. But lets, for the sake of argument, assume for a second that mechanically modern boss fights really are more difficult, demanding more individual player skill (of the twitch variety that is.) Does that mean The Burning Crusade would be a walk-over to the modern raider?

Despite classes’ PVE rotations in most cases being simpler back in the day and despite bosses having less mechanics, many bosses still took a very long time to kill in The Burning Crusade. In addition, now that the old content is no longer available on the official servers, private servers offer the experience of the old expansions  (although not in a perfect manner), and even on these servers guilds struggle on certain fights despite all of the strategies now being thoroughly known and players having reportedly come better at the game.

Now, time and time again some people who feel boss encounters in modern expansions are higher up on the scale of difficulty than those of past times make the argument that the above is simply due to something known as artificial difficulty. What exactly do they refer to with this term?

As far as I’ve gathered, artificial difficulty, to those who use it as an argument in said debate, is any difficulty that comes not directly from boss mechanics the player must react to in real time, but from external factors such as raid composition, logistics, consumable farming and the like instead.

An example of artificial difficulty often used is M’uru, the second last boss of Sunwell Plateau, the last and most demanding raid dungeon of the Burning Crusade expansion. The boss was infamous for “breaking guilds”, for it’s pure number requirements in terms of required healing and damage output were so high an extremely optimized raid composition was required. A very small percentage of the raiding population ended up killing the boss before the preparation patch of the next expansion.

M’uru forced many guilds to recruit certain classes such as shamans and warlocks en masse to meet the number requirements. Players also had to change their professions – about four fifths of the raid needed the Leatherworking profession so that they were able to use a certain consumable item. Lastly, the amount of gear and consumable farming (potions, foods, magical scrolls…) required was, to say the least, immense.

As said, only a very small percentage of players ever managed to beat M’uru when it was relevant content. However, mechanically speaking the fight isn’t that complex. There are monsters that need to be tanked and killed quickly and there is constant raid-wide damage going on, the amount of which grows as the fight drags on. Its nothing fancy, really – players just need to do what they normally do but in an extremely efficient manner. A single mistake can wipe the raid – be it a tank not picking up a monster fast enough of a damage dealer missing a global cooldown which ends up in the raid not meeting the number requirements.

So M’uru certainly isn’t a complex fight by the number of mechanics, but does that mean it isn’t difficult? Not at all. In fact I would argue it is one of the most difficult boss encounters in the game to date.

The thing is, not all that counts as part of difficulty is what happens inside the raid dungeon itself. You know the hassle of recruitment guilds went through to get the correct class composition to beat M’uru (or the leveling of alts)? That was part of the difficulty and somebody had to do it. The gearing up of the raid, the consumable farming, the whole logistics affair of it was indeed very challenging. Getting 20 players to roll a new profession certainly isn’t easy, let alone getting them online at the same time regularly to practice the encounter.

Boss mechanics the player needs to react to certainly aren’t the only thing that make a boss difficult. Sometimes different skills are required than simple reaction times and the ability to press the right buttons in the correct order – efficient recruitment or organizational skills, or maybe even calculating the optimal ways of dealing damage or healing on an encounter are all challenging deeds, too. All of them are part of encounter difficulty, and they certainly are a very tangible thing.

There is no such thing as artificial difficulty.