Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 March, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Food
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:25 PM

This week, let’s talk about an often overlooked part of online game: food.

What interesting designs can we come up with that include food? My thoughts after the jump.

In many games, food is nowhere near as important is it is in the offline world. For example, in WoW you can eat to heal faster than normal, but you will still heal just fine without food. In high-end raiding, most people are happy with summoned food and drink, which traditionally has been rather plain in RPGs. The cooking skill had only minor use at the game’s launch; it’s been recent additions that have made the cooking skill much more attractive, especially with buffs at the higher end. EQ2, on the other hand, has a specialized trade profession with a variety of recipes. This profession focuses on creating food that gives significant bonuses.

Can it be more than something people just keep around for mere convenience? Can it be a more important part of the game? What can a designer do to make people feel more interested in food for more than a minor gameplay element?

This challenge is related to a previous challenge about sensory experiences. Food is definitely about sensory experiences in the offline world. If you want to have more involvement with food in your game, perhaps you should try to engage more senses?

It’s also interesting that some online experiences have gone offline. For example, one site tries to duplicate WoW food with offline recipes you can supposedly make. I’m not sure I really want to try some of those recipes my character makes. I’m especially hesitant about trying anything that requires goblin rocket fuel as an ingredient….

The question in the end is, of course, is this fun? Can you make food more fun that it is in current games? Or, is it fun enough? What improvements can be made? Can it play a greater role in a character’s life? Or, is this a case where it will never have the same impact as offline food due to the lack of it being a basic necessity?


  1. Lovely topic. As I believe food can be a key element in an MMORPG. But as with any and all features, it only fits a certain kind of game. WoW has no real need for realistic food handling. It would just be a major inconvenience that really doesn’t offer any perks.

    However, if we take a MMO world which has a focus on realism, and is pvp orientated (especially with an open pvp universe) food can become a major element.

    For instance, what if a player builds a impenetrable stronghold, huge walls, cannons, wall spikes, hot oil, multiple gates, raised bridges over water, turning halls with holes in the roof to smoke the intruders to death, take all the examples from real life fortresses. All in all, a fortress that would require a huge army with an arsenal of siege weapons to take down.

    What one element is used irl to take down such fortresses?

    Camp em. Surround them and camp them so that no food can come in. Eventually they’ll run out and surrender or starve.

    Or if you are a small group trying to ruin a town or city, you can attack caravans heading to the city, burn their crops, poison their river. Very advanced features, some might be too complex, but yet there are plenty of very intruiging new elements that would be added by adding a realistic need for food and a realistic supply of food.

    This is just pvp.

    It could also work in a game with realistic exploring as feature. Before you go on a journey, (especially by sea where you isolate yourself on a ship) you have to stock-in food. How much do you take? how much CAN you take? Where do you restock? How far into uncharted territory can you go without being able to restock your food?

    Though this feature so many new elements are created that have to be taken into account that add an interesting and realistic immersion for the player. Just like for example, realistic weather conditions and clothing.

    But like I started with, it’s not for every game at all. In WoW having to consume food and take plenty with you is just a nuisance. Something that doesn’t make sense with the other design elements. And with the unlimited food supply of vendors there isn’t really any point to it.

    Comment by Roeland 'SandRock' Schoppers — 9 March, 2008 @ 1:04 PM

  2. Food is often overlooked as a potential clock. Rogue used this to good effect, as does Nethack and Crawl to varying effect.

    So, while food as an epicurean delight is certainly one approach, another may just to make food needed in general. Remove summoned food, make it eat-or-die, and part of adventuring into the distant unknowns is an exercise in provisioning/hunting/gathering.

    Of course, this is in strong tension with “teleport anywhere so I can hang out with my friends” so has some limited practicality in a MMORPG setting.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 9 March, 2008 @ 3:21 PM

  3. Brask,

    I think people play games to have the joy of an exotic experience without the hassles of one. In other words, yes I do want to jaunt off and slay the dragon, no I don’t want to estimate rations, use inventory space for water, etc.

    Food makes an excellent tileset because it is so intuitive: we’re all bound to understand a wide range of inputs about food on multiple levels (“Those are grapes, and grapes are delicious”). But ultimately, unless the resolution on your crafting system is extremely fine, food won’t be compelling as a game element for any reason that wouldn’t be shared by say, metalsmithing. That is to say, we all know to grab a turkey leg if we see one in an arcade game, just like we’d all know to grab a pile of gold. You -could- make a cooking skill so fine grained that you code for regional agriculture, varietal cross-breeding, transport constraints, refrigeration particulars, and heat vector simulations, but that’d be the only way that food, as, say, a healing system, would be substantively different from any other widely-recognized tileset (like potions or magic).

    Comment by Bret — 9 March, 2008 @ 5:17 PM

  4. “I think people play games to have the joy of an exotic experience without the hassles of one.”

    The premise is that you want to give positive feedback to your players for their actions, and avoid negative feedback (leave that for their opponents), unless they do something that they can percieve as a mistake (“doh I walked to the edge of the cliff and I fell”).

    Starving to death on a online game is hard to implement without feeling it is unfair, because players can’t percieve that their characters are hungry. It doesn’t matter how many emotes does the character have, it doesn’t matter how many sound cues, or text cues you’ve got, players don’t feel anything on their stomachs (don’t get me wrong i’m a huge fan of nethack, and i play it to this day, but i always found lame to die because of starvation).

    If you don’t have “magic” in your game (call it potions, scrolls, etc..) food can fill that niche, but if you already got potions that heal, recover mana and that kind of effects, you need to find another mechanical niche for food.

    A bad example of this is Dofus, you can have an alchemist and make potions that recover hp, or a baker that makes bread that recovers hp, or a butcher that prepares meat that recovers hp, or a fisherman that prepares fish, and guess what… it recovers hp.

    I think that if you create separated mechanics for each kind of consumible you will end up with a rules system that makes more sense, for example;

    potions; inmediate effects, one shot; recover hp or mana.
    scrolls; inmedate effects, duration; protection against something, flying, etc…
    food; small accumulative effects, long duration*

    As the saying goes, “you are what you eat”, depending on the kind of food you eat, get bonuses; eat snake meat and you are 10% resistant to poison, eat it 2 days on a row and you are 20% resistant to poison, 3 days 30% up to some floor, lets say 50%… then for each day you are not eating it it goes down a 10%

    That way you can have people developing online diets, and thinking about that they should eat something because they want to, not because it is imperative for their survival.

    Of course that was just one example, you could have food that gives bonuses to each and every single stat or rule you have in the game, for example if your game uses drop rates for items, you could have a five-leaf clover salad, that gives bonuses to the item drop rate.

    But that’s only thinking mechanicaly about food, if you want to go further you need to have a way to display the food to the players, eating animations, etc… but if you are putting that much focus onto food, why not just go and make a game based around food?

    you need to find a balance between making it interesting so it is not another kind of potion, but not so interesting or food will be more exciting that the last dungeon you designed.

    Comment by Felipe Budinich — 9 March, 2008 @ 7:34 PM

  5. Remove summoned food, make it eat-or-die, and part of adventuring into the distant unknowns is an exercise in provisioning/hunting/gathering.

    I think it depends a lot on the heroic role that food is supposed to have in your game, supporting the heroic ideal you want to support.

    In a game that is about survival and building a world from scratch, such as AC2, food fits right in. In a more stereotypical fantasy world, food’s role is often more ceremonial and social. In modern fantasy, such as the Matrix or the Marvel Universe, the characters never eat food, and it would be wrong for the mechanics to focus on them.

    Comment by Damion Schubert — 9 March, 2008 @ 7:42 PM

  6. Well I think the problem in most games currently on the market is that food is only limited usefull.
    Lets take for an example Goonzu… In Goonzu players can craft food as a profession. Food is used to feed the players mount and Avatar. If the Avatar doesn’t eat food he becomes hungry. If an Avatar is hungry for a certain amount of time, his STATS (Str. Dex. etc) will sink. Players then need to eat to regenerate their STATS.
    Or lets take the sims… Sims need to eat to be happy… But what benefits does it give to the player ? Basically none…

    In WoW players can cook and get a certain buff for some meals which is very interessting.
    I think cooking is a great profession for all MMORPG’s but players need to get a beenfit out of it and it shouldn’t be used only to avoid a punishment.

    Comment by Christian — 10 March, 2008 @ 12:15 AM

  7. I’ve been thinking about this one for ages, and I’m still not particularly happy with any of the ideas I’ve come up with on it.

    In a WoW style game, where food is entirely optional,the obvious way to make it central to gameplay, in my eyes, is to have it give, along with whatever other stat bonuses it includes, a small XP bonus while well fed. And as Felipe mentioned, longer durations – it seems mad to be walking around with 20 roast boars, eating one every 10-20 minutes. Food should be a buff that’s long-term enough that you don’t need to carry it on you unless you’re going on a long trip out into the middle of nowhere, so probably 3hours+ in WoW.

    I do think that food as a necessity can make for a great game mechanic, but the implementation would be tricky indeed. I’d probably go for some kind of combination of the above with a “supplies” system, where your character doesn’t get hungry if they have access to food (automatically eating rations in the wild, and not needing food while in populated places), but can gain bonuses if you go out of your way to buy or prepare a meal. Or simply leave food as a bonus system for PCs, but make NPCs require food to survive, making access to food important in determining where you can build your castle, and where you can move your army.

    Comment by Lobosolitario — 12 March, 2008 @ 2:16 AM

  8. *EDIT* Of course food XP bonuses would only be important from lvl 1 to 70, after hitting the level cap, a new incentive would have to be found – probably MP5 and Health regen while in combat.

    Comment by Lobosolitario — 12 March, 2008 @ 2:19 AM

  9. Very good points are made about the danger of adopting food-as-mandatory and how it affects what is “epic” in your game. I don’t at all disagree with them – I’m just pointing out that unless you make food *really* meaningful, you might as well just have it as flavour and give it no actual value. An equally useful effect of useless food is that it *can* have all the social uses. Food that is power-gamed loses its flavour. It stops being a fillet mignon and starts being +3% HP regen for 5 minutes. Equally frustrating, would be chefs find their ability to stock a banquet constrained by systems built around preventing powergamers from getting too many of certain food items – frustrating if the chef is not a powergamer. That is the choice I’d make in building a food system. Either food is rare in your world, so provisioning is a meaningful and necessary activity (and note raid parties *already* have to provision prior to expeditions – it is hardly introducing a novel concept), or it is abundant in which case I’d make it like UOs food – a useful social item with practically indetectable effects – except I’d drop even the pretense of their being any benefit to save the powergamers from affecting the food economy.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 12 March, 2008 @ 2:17 PM

  10. I don’t think that any game has captured the deep social aspect that creating and sharing food with others has in real life.

    As an unabashed social player, I seek out the experiences that make people feel warm and fuzzy and make them stop on their way to the bank/vendor. Having a character /say ” Would you like some free milk and warm chocolate chip cookies?” can begin a fun round of people taking a moment to dance and emote up a bit. But it doesn’t have as much connection as an RL social gathering where we use food as bonding.

    Not sure that there is a way way that this fits into current MMO mentalities but I look forward to the game where I can treat my game mates to a beautiful banquet for their pleasure.

    Comment by BridgetAG — 19 March, 2008 @ 7:13 PM

  11. In Meridian 59, the administrators could place special food objects that players could use to get food. One popular event was to set up these in an area and hold an impromptu party. These objects could be cleared away later. Food had a small gameplay effect, but the food available from the food containers was not very optimal. But, for new players, it was better than what they could normally get.

    Very social, but it was a bit limited. I wonder if other games couldn’t allow players to make the containers craftable and able to be placed in the world. The issue is how to make it something beyond, “Oh, that’s kinda neat.”

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 March, 2008 @ 9:19 PM

  12. Horizons recently redid the food system and class, making food more central to the game. Food is tied to death and the removal of the penalty for dying (reduction in stats as opposed to XP loss or corpse hunting). If eaten in a tavern (which players can build and which has a vendor) food has a 200% effectiveness.

    In addition food can only be eaten outside of combat and while sitting. This almost forces players to be more social with one another and do is together in a place.

    Comment by Jason Murdick — 27 March, 2008 @ 12:30 PM

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