Thursday, June 18, 2009

Designer Emails #2: Item Hoarding

Dan Teasdale

Welcome to the designer email thread, Mr. Brian Chan! In honor of him joining the thread, I have a topic that he might have some idea on how to solve:

Item Hoarding

As a collector, I find myself hoarding powerful weapons and never using them "in case I need them later". I did it with airstrikes in Mercs 2, I did it with nukes in Fallout, and there's probably a bunch of games that I've repressed doing it in.

Is this good? Is this bad? How do you think designers can solve this, or at the very least balance a game where people won't use the most powerful weapons?

Brian Chan

Thanks, everyone, for presenting me with such a warm welcome. I'm looking forward to learning a great deal from all of you. And thanks, Dan, for asking me something I can actually answer (I'm still in that muddle of new terminology and culture shock that comes with switching workplaces [and cities]).

When a player finishes a game with "leftover" items, it can be either a positive or negative indication. On the positive side, the leftover items suggest that the game presents choices, with the items representing the path not taken. If players vary as to their leftover items, even better-the game presents meaningful choices and allows for alternate solutions. On the negative side, leftover items might signify poor communication to player of item utility or scarcity. That is, the player might not have used the item because he or she didn't understand its value or how common or rare it was.

The problem is summarized by the notion that, if players cannot experiment, then they cannot plan. By providing safety nets for experimentation (and failure), designers can discourage item hoarding.

I like when a game provides the player with some sort of consequence- free sandbox in which to "try before you buy." Often, games do this via gated tutorials. In a game where balancing is achieved via scarcity or resource cost, it's nice to give the player "freebies" so as to whet their appetite. And, if an item is a higher- magnitude version of another item the player is already familiar with, then this fact should be made abundantly clear to the player.

A few games solve the scarcity problem without sacrificing balancing- by basing the economics on (easily) renewable resources. In Bioshock, I don't mind testing out new plasmids because EVE is relatively plentiful. In World of Warcraft, all resources can be translated into time, which is a resource that the game's players don't seem to mind spending prodigiously.

Chris Foster

I thought I came to Harmonix after past jobs strategy games and MMO's so that I didn't HAVE to think about balancing uber items of destruction!

I can think of a few tools to balance hoarding versus wanton nuke-spamming: consequences, limitations and scarcity.

Consequences are ways to say that using a superweapon isn't all wonderfulness and smiting, but that there are potentially painful tradeoffs at work. If a super item is going to create lasting negative faction somewhere in your game, or hurt your character/base while crippling someone else's, then you can make people think more strategically about its use.

Limitations are ways to make sure a superweapon isn't always useful in every situation. I think there are a bunch of limitations that aren't appropriate here, since if a weapon is too limited, it's by definition NOT super. I'd be more interested in limits that make the weapon harder to use but no less potent, such as a missile that is slow moving and therefore somewhat easier to avoid, or a weapon that requires prolonged manual control to hit its target in the most destructive manner possible.

Scarcity is a double-edged sword, as Brian called out. Having plentiful resources in your game, but a significant cost for the best weapons, can be a pretty potent balancing factor. You can see this in everything from Civilization to Death Tank. (And if you haven't played Death Tank multiplayer, stop reading this and play it now.)

Dan Teasdale

I'm going to channel a conversation Sylvain and I had after I sent the email, and in turn steal his thunder. Hopefully I'll misrepresent it and he can come in and make it sound more awesome.

So, the biggest problem I have isn't on the spamming end - making something less appealing to use is kinda easy. My problem is when things are so powerful in a way that's not a direct tie to my standard weapons, with the direct example being airstrikes in Mercs. I'll swap my normal weapons up to the most powerful instantly, but I'll hardly ever launch airstrikes unless:
* I've cornered myself in a save and have nothing else to use
* The game forces me as part of a mission objective

Sylvain then brought up Halo, which solves this problem so elegantly that I didn't even realise they'd solved it. Essentially, restricting you to two weapons means you can never hoard a weapon. If you get a superweapon, your incentive to use it is that you'll be able to pick up another weapon soon, so you'll happily spend the small amount of resources.

Thinking forward to Fallout 3, they end up in this weird mushy area. You have your inventory, and when it's full you'll start burning through some of the cooler things in order to make room for other cool things. The problem with that though is that there's still enough room to carry lots of weapons, so the "superweapons" you're burning are things like medical supplies and stimulants.

(As a side note: It's unnerving how many pacing and design problems Halo solved compared to how revolutionary people think of it as being - especially so considering how much designers didn't enjoy it past the first few levels (myself included). Say what you want about the level design issues in the second half or the cookie-cutter narrative, but things like balancing health for encounters rather than levels, or getting players to experience more cool things by reducing their amount of choice, these things have ended up changing how people balance all types of games.

Funnily enough, designers never give Bungie never credit for it because of the other issues in the game. At the same time, Half-Life did the exact same thing but flipped (standard mechanics, amazing narrative innovations) but it's the game that people reference in terms of the turning point of FPSes. For mechanics designers, it's mildly depressing food for thought :) )

Chris Foster

While waiting for Sylvain to take back what's rightfully his, I'll chime in with this observation.

Your Halo anecdotes remind me that good game mechanics are really like good film editing. When I studied film in college, one thing that was hammered into me is that bad editing -- like an jump-cut, or someone facing left talking across the room to someone who's supposed to be looking at them but is ALSO facing left -- immediately draws attention to itself. However, good editing is invisible editing; it works so well that no one realizes it's working, and all of its subtle emotional and psychological manipulations occur while no one is looking.

When a game mechanic does exactly what is necessary to produce fun, then it's likely that no one will notice that the mechanics are even there; they're too busy having fun. And while that can be a little tough on the designer's ego, remember that the flipside is someone calling you out for your BAD design decisions. I'll call it a fair trade.

Sylvain Dubrofsky

Thanks Dan! I realize at this late hour that the deadline for this email is tomorrow and you typed up a lot of stuff I immediately thought of from my own gaming experience so I won't have to lose too much sleep :)

I remember finishing Half-life 1 having used primarily pistol and crowbar throughout the game. I had all this ammo left over for all these cool weapons that I barely used. The same thing happened with RE 4. I must have had 30 grenades when I finished that game!

Halo had a nice natural solution for the problem. As an aside I am a fan of the series (especially Halo 1 and 3) and think the innovations the game generated are often overlooked - primarily: checkpoint saves, dedicated melee and grenade buttons, 2 weapon slots, dual wielding, regenerative health and the FPS-style driving controls.

I agree with the Brian in the previous email that I prefer getting each new weapon (or any item really) in an environment where I can freely experiment with it - AND that fact is made clear to me. Also agree with Chris that Death Tank rules :) I find if I get too many weapons in Death Tank I get overwhelmed so I tend to only concentrate on 3 or 4 powers at a time.

The biggest improvement in this area was a personal change. I've changed my tune since I was younger and started "trusting" developers more. By this I mean that I will now use my best/funnest weapons first and trust I will continue to get ammo drops such that I won't be stuck with just my pistol and melee weapon. This trust worked very well in Half-life 2 - they had very well paced ammo caches and the tension of getting low with my best weapons had a nice release when I found the next cache of ammo.


dfan said...

I wonder if you can address some cases of this with a "use it or lose it" philosophy. If your nukes are time-limited because they're going to degrade to uselessness within ten hours of gameplay, you might be more willing to use them when faced with a big bad instead of waiting for a hypothetical immense bad. Do any games do this kind of thing?

BathTub said...

You could also possibly implement some sort of recharge timer on an item. 'Well if I do use it, I will be able to use it again in 20 minutes'. Reduces the risk of using it, but it's still some contemplation by the player about when best to use something.

Joe said...

It reminds me of the days when I used to play Final Fantasy XI (the online one for those who don't keep track of the series anymore). Each class has an extremely strong ability that they can use once every 2 hours. The class I used was White Mage and my 2 hour ability was that it brought everyone in your group to full health. Everyone always flipped their lid if you would use it, because then if the situation came up where you'd need it you wouldn't be able to use it for another 2 hours. In turn, there were many nights where I never used my strongest ability once because I was too busy having to worry about the moment arising where we needed it but I would no longer have it available.

James Williamz said...


Great information in this post and such as a missile that is slow moving and therefore somewhat easier to avoid, or a weapon that requires prolonged manual control to hit its target in the most destructive manner possible.

James Parker.
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