I’m coming off a long weekend of real-world inventory management. In the Northeast US, as in many other parts of the world, we’ve been experiencing a heat-wave, making hauling and sorting through things particularly trying. So I’ve been away from blogging and from gaming for three days, and it’s been NO FUN at all.
This reminded me of something in-game that’s equally not fun: inventory management.
Even that name sounds un-fun, no?
I get the impression that game developers think that inventory systems should aim for verisimilitude — as if being encumbered by virtual goods will make us experience the game-world more vividly. Spoiler: it doesn’t work this way. Another (worse) scenario — the devs are desperate for money and forcing players to pay for slots seems like an easy ‘out’.
Inventory and Monetization
I’m struck by how many times I have quit a game due to inventory management issues. The most notable of these is with Star Wars: The Old Republic. After spending many hours downloading the game, I excitedly rolled up a new character. I made it about 20 minutes into the tutorial, when I discovered my bags were full. Ah, well, I knew this was a limitation of the recently instituted free-to-play model. No big deal, I thought, and set off in search of a vendor.
After 10 more minutes of futile search for a vendor, I logged off, never to return.
I understand that SWTOR developers were using the limited inventory as a means to encourage subscriptions, but this strategy relies on getting free players invested in your game. If players can’t get through the tutorial without being bogged down by inventory woes, this investment won’t happen.
Another recent experience: I patched up LOTRO, and planned to get my Champion geared up to proceed into Mordor. There was a lot of work to be done since I hadn’t played seriously for over a year. So I figured I would sort through her bags and vendor anything that wasn’t obviously valuable before reacquainting myself with a class.
I logged in, admired the surroundings. I was ‘home’. Then I proceeded to the nearest vendor. Hoping to clear out my bags before embarking on my next adventure, I made the mistake of clicking ‘Sell All’.
It had been long enough since I’d played that I expected my bags would be emptied of all vendor trash items. Instead, literally everything that was sell-able (not ‘locked’) disappeared — including several legendaries I had been leveling for many dozens of in-game hours.
LOTRO does have a buyback system, but it’s limited. Only the past 30 items sold can be retrieved. I had accidentally sold many many more items than could be bought back, and most of the items in my buyback tab were the vendor trash that I’ve been hoping to dispose of.
I understand that LOTRO has a warning when you attempt to sell all items in your bag, but I’d forgotten how messed up the system was after several months of not playing. I’m baffled about why this limitation should exist at all — how does this benefit the player? The developers?
I logged out, feeling deeply defeated, though I hadn’t encountered a single mob.
Eventually, I will venture forth to Mordor, but it will most likely be on a different character than the Champion I’ve invested hundreds of hours with.
Rise of the ‘Realistic’ Sandbox
There is a recent trend of retro sandbox MMOs which have gotten a fair amount of buzz on Kickstarter and beyond, which feature unnecessarily convoluted and punitive inventory systems. Chief among these, in my mind, is Project: Gorgon.
Disclaimer: I love Project: Gorgon.
Like, freakish, inappropriate amounts of love.
Project: Gorgon has an inventory system that depends upon leveling reputation with various NPCs to unlock inventory space. So, at best, you have semi-sufficient inventory spread out across a huge geographic space. Unless you are extremely strategic about where you are storing things (and even if you are) you’ll find that you’re making time-consuming treks across the globe simply to retrieve an item that’s required for some quest or recipe.
There’s something really disheartening about a system where you’re forced to cross zones on foot, taking up dozens of real-life minutes, simply to retrieve an item that, for lack of reasonable space, could only be stored in some obscure location.
It’s bad enough to suffer through a terrible inventory system because the devs need to monetize. It’s worse, as in the case with Project: Gorgon, where it’s done to increase ‘immersion’.
A recent Project: Gorgon weekend ‘special’ event increased inventory space in players’ bags by 20 slots. If increasing inventory space is such a remarkable feature that you expect players to log in simply to take advantage of it, that is a sure sign that your inventory system is broken.
At one point in Project: Gorgon, I was killed by a boss that had a permanent debuff — these are common in the game — which could only be lifted upon successfully killing that same boss. This boss’s debuff was to decrease inventory slots on the character by 15. I found that almost immediately, the character became unplayable. I considered re-rolling, although I had already dedicated at least a hundred hours to this character.
Luckily, after a few days, I was able to find someone to help me defeat the boss and proceed on my way — Project: Gorgon fans are generous in assisting other players stuck in this way. But the experience reminded me how quickly problems of limited bag space can undermine a gaming experinence.
The solution is twofold. First, inventory space should not be a primary monetization strategy for most MMO’s — or, at least, implementing this strategy should be deferred until a player is established in the game, and the increased space is a convenience rather than a necessity.
Secondly, in complex sandboxes such as Project: Gorgon, it should be clear when it will be worthwhile to stash away an item, or when it a player might reasonably decide between vendoring an item for cash or ‘gifting’ an item to a vendor for reputation. In Project: Gorgon, you may vendor something for pennies only to discover that it was worth hundreds or thousands of times the amount you’ve received. This rewards the experienced player, yes, but it also feels punitive to someone who’s just getting their bearings.
I’ll continue to play Project: Gorgon despite the inventory woes, just as I played Marvel Heroes despite feeling that I was being monetarily exploited for bag space.
I’m willing to make an exception for Project: Gorgon both because I’m significantly invested in the game, and also because the punitive inventory system does not exist for the devs’ monetary gain. Shift either of these two variables, and I will quickly bail on a game, even if it is otherwise appealing.
Many sweaty hours later, I conquered my real-life inventory woes, though I still have several hours to go of rearranging my house. Though trying, it was less frustrating than the similar experience in-game.