Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

26 August, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Alternatives to Itemization
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:00 PM

Over at the, uh, lovingly named I Maek Gaemz blog (run by Patrick Rogers), there’s a post about devaluing items. It touches upon the issue of items, how equipment determines a lot of PvP fights and how the high end “raiding” game usually degenerates into getting incremental improvements. Patrick, a Meridian 59 player, mentions M59 fondly as a game that didn’t have this type of system given the limited selection of gear.

I figured it might be interesting to see what you all think of this issue, and how you would design around it. What game designs would you propose to eliminate some of the problems with equipment-dominated gameplay, as explained in the blog entry above?

When looking at a problem like this, the important thing is to take a look and try to understand why a system was designed (or has evolved over time) to be that way. Equipment is another facet of character in most games, where you acquire equipment to give you more power. The effort to acquire the equipment, especially a particularly rare piece of equipment, is also a sign of achievement that you can use to gloat over others.

Equipment also gives you a chance to customize your character. My main WoW character, a Druid, has two sets of equipment: one for going around in feral forms, and another when I need to do more spellcasting/healing. And, each of these sets of equipment has particular specialities: the spellcasting set focuses heavily on mana regeneration, since that helps me keep my mana going while casting a lot. The variety of equipment allows me to customize my character to a large degree. Compare this with a game like M59, where the limited equipment leads people to favor whatever the dominant strategy of the day is.

Equipment also provides a way to extend the advancement of characters. Instead of having infinite levels (you have to save something to sell the expansion with!), you can just have infinite advancement of equipmet. Getting another +1 to a stat is what it’s all about. Or, getting all purple items to show off to your friends. The equipment treadmill is just another way to keep people playing.

So, here’s the challenge. Either explain another reason for why current games tend to focus so much on equipment, beyond what I explained here. Or, explain a system that allows character customization or extension to gameplay without the negatives discussed in the original article. Good luck!


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20 Comments »

  1. I think you make the point for itemization well, though. Although I wouldn’t argue that WoW endgame itemization offers much in the way of character customization. At least not when I last played. It was all about getting the items in the highest level dungeon you could and slapping them onto your character.

    More often than not, the designers were the ones deciding how your character could best be played – which would then pigeonhole you completely as your teammates demanded you play your character to its highest potential effectiveness.

    As far as doing away the chase for items, I’m not sure people even want that. It’s the preeminent Achiever style gameplay, isn’t it – collecting more and more powerful items. Especially when you talk of endgame play. It’s pretty much all there is. Would players be happy without being able to collect gear?

    I suppose the example is oldschool UO, where the PvE game consisted of farming random drops off of soloable monsters. When you recreate the situation, there is no PvE game for the players, and the game degenerates into Quake With Swords. It’s very well balanced, because it’s like throwing everyone into a first person shooter with just pistols to shoot at each other. Is that exciting though for a PvE player? Is that even exciting enough PvE for a PvP player?

    For the hardcore PvP crowd, it provides little to complain about when losing at PvP, of course. That’s good enough for a lot of them. But I doubt a complete lack of PvE due to a lack of PvE incentive is going to cut it with a wider audience.

    All I can suggest is itemization with a feather touch. Have the design dance carefully around crafting to leave it intact and unharmed, make sure crafters remain useful and aren’t simply a gimped extension of the PvE grind. Keep magical items and effects rare and minor as to avoid extreme disruption of the PvP game, raising the value of the items – only, possibly at the expense of extracting some excitement from the PvE/Achiever/Collecter game. Find your own way to inject excitement back into the PvE game without harming other aspects of your game.

    In the end, you can either give them cake and dirty the plates in the process, or you can perform surgery on the problem in your own individual way – attempting to best preserve the health of the gameplay aspects that itemization harms and that you value the most.

    Comment by Azaroth — 27 August, 2007 @ 2:10 AM

  2. I’ll go for the “explain another reason for why current games tend to focus so much on equipment, beyond what I explained here.” challenge.

    I think there is one more reason why equipment is so popular: It isn’t fungible, as xp and levels are. Saying “I advanced from level 37 to level 38″ doesn’t sound like much of an adventure. But “I killed the End Boss and got the Sword of Uberness” does.

    Comment by Tobold — 27 August, 2007 @ 6:12 AM

  3. Wow, oddly enough I opined about this to my guild last week :)

    (Hope that link works)

    I think item-centricity in MMORPGs is a necessary and good thing to an extent, but I also think that current games probably take it too far and cause themselves problems. I mean, let’s face it, upgrading your gear is fun and makes for a great reward mechanism. But what happens to the old gear? What happens to the gear from two expansions ago? Is it still useful to players? Or is it just trash?

    I can see a few ways to try and handle this problem:

    1. Emphasize “different” over “better”. So “low-level” gear would be generalist stuff, that gives small bonuses in several areas. “High-level” gear would be specialized stuff, that gives very specific (although larger) bonuses to the character. The result – people still work on customizing their gear, but the lower-level stuff is still somewhat useful because it is less situational.

    2. Set up character attributes/stats on a diminishing returns system. So sure,you can get +50 strength from the most uber item out there and have a 98% damage bonus, but that +40 strength item will get you a 94% damage bonus, so the less powerful gear is still useful.

    3. Place restrictions on equipment so that characters have to meet certain requirements to use. For example, equipment from an expansion might require that characters complete a quest to be able to use it. Or in a skill-based game, you might have to learn the skill appropriate to the equipment type.

    All of those have been tried before, with vaying degrees of success.

    Personally I think what needs to happen is that we need to stop relying so much on items as a determinant of character power. The goal should be that gear makes things easier, but isn’t required.

    Ideally I would go for 33% player skill (knowing when and how to use your abilities, situational awareness, etc.), 33% character skill (abilities, spells, etc.) and 33% equipment when determining the power of a character. Encounters should be tuned such that a character in substandard gear can still win, if they have a highly skilled character AND have a good amount of player skill.

    In order to do this, combat mechanics would have to be designed in such a way that a single piece of equipment doesn’t make a significant difference in character power, but a full set would.

    Anyway those are my disjointed thoughts this morning. Love mondays :)

    Comment by Talaen — 27 August, 2007 @ 7:13 AM

  4. I think it’s just a lazy way to add content to keep players engaged. Traditional (i.e. paper and pen) RPGs had relatively little magical equipment and the occasional new magic item was both a big deal and also rarely game changing. But that’s because an RPG with a human GM has lots of content created by him or her and doesn’t need grinding for items.

    If an MMORPG takes out itemization, it’ll need something else you can do to incrementally improve your character, like skill points or talents or AA points, etc. If the game already has those, then taking out itemization just cuts down on what you can do.

    If the game was designed for all this, it could work — just skill/level upgrades, few item upgrades. But devs are lazy and items provide “content” of a sort.

    Also, note the fate of City of Heroes: no equipment/items as such at launch and that was one of the major complaints about the game when people quit (or didn’t play in the first place). They’ve recently added a crafting/rare drops/recipes system that grafts on a version on itemization so that players can run around working to upgrade their character outside of just levelling. So even CoH gave in and added itemization.

    Comment by Brent Michael Krupp — 27 August, 2007 @ 9:41 AM

  5. “Equipment” is manifested by the character, either through some sort of psionic justification or because the characters are battling in the Grid, or whatever. Basic forms of items exist, but are upgraded like characters along certain trees which provide further options. Upgrades cost some sort of resource that is collected, to keep that aspect and to differentiate item advancement from experience-based char
    advancement.

    If you wanted to keep some level of item collection, you could have something vaguely analogous to the final fantasy materia system, where some items have more ability to hold customizations.

    This allows you to make basically maximum equipment choices without having to grind, but takes away the mystery, as there’s only ever one kind of item/resource to find. Alternatively you could have different sorts of resources which could be spent on different classes of item upgrades.

    Comment by Ryan — 27 August, 2007 @ 11:00 AM

  6. Azaroth, I’d be interested in your opinion of the crafting system I touched on in my post.

    Put simply it gives items a chance to have a slot that can only be filled by the work of player-crafters. A big part of what I’m trying to do with this system is keep gear interesting and essential, but ensure that it’s obtainable by all players.

    The real trick will come with being the player who can come up with a clever mix of gear-bonuses that supports his skillset.

    Comment by Patrick Rogers — 27 August, 2007 @ 12:14 PM

  7. In Diablo 2, equipment choices always involved tradeoffs. There was no one set of gear that everyone of a particular class considered optimal.

    Do you want resistance to physical damage or elemental damage? the most resistance against Cold, Fire, or Poison? Do you prefer a weapon with a chance of bleeding damage, lightning’s wide but unsure range of damage, or fire’s lesser but certain range, or a chance to stun, or a chance to curse the enemy? and so on.

    In that game, different players made different choices, but there was still admiration of others’ gear and a sense of status items. Is there some reason a similar system wouldn’t work in an MMO?

    It also makes PvP more dynamic and interesting. Players would have to adapt their tactics to the different gearset of each opponent. One enemy might be strongly resistant to fire damage, so you have to be paying attention to notice your fireball spell fail (or recognize the opponent’s armor) and switch to other elements.

    As usual, smart dynamics seems to be the key.

    Comment by Aaron — 27 August, 2007 @ 12:16 PM

  8. Stuff, Stuff and More Stuff

    [...] are some very good reasons to have items in your game. Brian covers the obvious, which is that it gives Blizzard a way to keep the game going. Equipment also provides a way to [...]

    Pingback by Zen of Design — 27 August, 2007 @ 9:36 PM

  9. If you can’t get better equipment, what else can you get? :

    Better Character Skills (improved spells/abilities/etc)
    Better Player Skills (improved ability to play their character)
    Better Character Stats (increased strength)
    Alternative Rewards (more information about the world/ability to understand new languages in game)
    Probably many more

    Either way you will still probably need to make characters achieve these things through some type of trial (typically boss-fights) and few of them are about true customisation…

    I quite like the idea of a Tattoo system where you can find rare designs and have them put onto your characters body. Each tattoo would carry stats etc. In the end though isn’t a tattoo the same as equipment. Just like socket’s in WoW.

    I also thought a ‘zelda-style’ item system would be interesting. This is where the items you receive are about function rather than power. Getting a boomerang for example would let you reach distant switches or something. They quickly run out of steam though – once you have the set what else is left and how are you different from anybody else. I still think that a sense of ‘identity’ is one of the core reasons equipment exists. Players want to have their own stuff.

    It’s a PvP vs PvE thing too: in a true PvP setting I think you really want players to require skill rather than stats in order to succeed. In a PvE setting you want players to have bigger and scarier things to fight which usually requires more power over time. This is why WoW had problems and had to introduce the gear-based player matching. It would be difficult to scale boss fights if you’re character always has the same power.

    These are more musings than concrete solutions though. In the end a good chunk of players need carrots to chase after.

    Comment by Jpoku — 28 August, 2007 @ 3:26 AM

  10. Also an interesting question is: Is intermediary equipment completely necessary? Does the value of items go up if they are received after boss fights? Imagine WoW for a moment without every 10th mob dropping a useless item and every 1000th mob dropping a useful one.

    Comment by Jpoku — 28 August, 2007 @ 3:52 AM

  11. I still maintain that a system where all types of gear is accessible to all players can do well. If done correctly, the fun can come from customizing this gear through sockets, enchantments, or what have you.

    If you have the art resources, a visual modification system would be a big hit among most players… giving special looks to armor for PvE and PvP achievements.

    Comment by Patrick Rogers — 28 August, 2007 @ 9:48 AM

  12. Explain another reason:
    You guys have gotten too close to the trees ;)

    A great thing about items, is they help give non-rpgrs and new players a grounding in how the world works. It is a paradigm that they already understand from their everyday life, in a way that the concept of “level” is not (level a representation of more experience, while item is the root).

    Comment by emanon — 28 August, 2007 @ 2:20 PM

  13. That’s easy. Instead of having abilities at 10, and +5 items, abilities at 100 and +5 items. And in five levels, you might find a +7.

    And…
    Itemisation in something like WoW creates a dramatic power multiple between those at the “top end” with and without the gear.
    Itemisation in something like Eve… T1 is cheap and +5%, T2 is +7.5% and costs twenty times more.

    There are other ways..

    Comment by Andrew Crystall — 28 August, 2007 @ 5:52 PM

  14. Playing the people game is what most mmo players go once they grok the item game. Adding more items into eternity will not make a game last forever, adding more advancement will only serve as useful content if it helps players know each other better. In most cases that fails once the same design tricks are used to develop more content a few times.

    Some people might call “the people game” politics, others might call it guilds or whatever. An mmo which makes it easier to be a player in “the people game” could be on to something interesting.

    How the mechanics for politics works is another challenge i guess.

    Comment by Wolfe — 29 August, 2007 @ 1:40 AM

  15. I think equipment also provides another means for designers to modify base mechanics of their system without changing the base mechanics. For example in Wow prior to BC a single character such as a rogue could take down a clothy with about 2400 hp in about 2-3 seconds. Now as a rogue player, i had no complaints about this, but the net effect is that it devalued healers in battlegrounds. Targets died so fast that the healers couldn’t react, which not only made playing a healer in bg less fun, but removed a potentially cool tactical element of combat.

    Blizzard addressed this problem in BC in part, by increasing the amount of stamina available on the new items created for the expansion. Now seeing cloth wearers with 10,000 hp is pretty common in pvp and the days of the 1 shot kill are gone, allowing healers play a more vital role.

    Comment by Matt Deegler — 29 August, 2007 @ 12:34 PM

  16. Patrick, I’d just be careful that the entire equipment crafting game didn’t revolve around one item slot.

    That said, of course it’s always a good idea to attempt making player crafting more prevalent in the game and the items created more desired by players. Just be careful that your crafting doesn’t become an extension of the raiding game instead a crafting game.

    As for the rest of the system, I gave it a quick look over and it’s certainly interesting. But no matter how you slice it, things get tricky and creative solutions are called for when you want to preserve the PvP and Crafting games in the face of the ever increasing demand for item-centric pure Achiever-style gameplay.

    Comment by Azaroth — 31 August, 2007 @ 1:48 AM

  17. Alternatives to Itemization

    [...] I would like to explain why I feel current games tend to focus so much on equipment, beyond what Brian Green explained here. [...]

    Pingback by MMOCritic.com — 1 September, 2007 @ 5:32 PM

  18. There are many ways to control “magic” items in a game. One of the more fun ways would be similar to many PnP games. Make the items like artifacts in the orignal AD&D, they each bring on weaknesses for the character. This could of course quickly cause problems with game balance or promote characters with a glass jaw but a devastating attack.

    A better solution is one seen from cyberpunk type games, or the old intelligent swords from AD&D. Give the character some attribute that controls how much power in magic items a character can have at one time. If implemented correctly it could add an interesting method of character development since you could make some characters dependent on items and others on stats. There can be many game backgrounds that will support this for some neat storylines. It also makes it easy to balance previously overpowered items without nerfing them too badly since they could just be increased in their magic power.

    Comment by p0x — 27 September, 2007 @ 3:38 PM

  19. Alternatives to Itemization

    [...] I would like to explain why I feel current games tend to focus so much on equipment, beyond what Brian Green explained here. [...]

    Pingback by MMO360.com — 18 November, 2007 @ 9:48 PM

  20. Stuff, Stuff and More Stuff

    [...] are some very good reasons to have items in your game. Brian covers the obvious, which is that it gives Blizzard a way to keep the game going. Equipment also provides a way to [...]

    Pingback by Zen Of Design — 18 December, 2014 @ 8:26 PM

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