On Quantity vs. Quality

I love RPGs. But, if there is one thing that most RPGs have in common, it’s that 95% of player equipment is totally… useless. There’s a selling point on the back of the boxes of many RPGs: ‘150 weapons! 70 armor sets! Lots of everything!’ And this is a strange thing, because people always agree that quality beats quantity, and yet we constantly see the opposite when it comes to items in RPGs. In this post, I’m going to elaborate on why this bothers me and what I consider to be more preferable.

The general consensus is that when there are a lot of items, there’s a more or less constant player reward loop that keeps him going. And I disagree with this philosophy; I believe that it detracts from the sense of progression. Let’s say I have a Sword of Awesomeness that deals 15-20 damage, and then I find a Sword of Coolness that deals 17-23 damage. Of course I’ll take the Sword of Coolness – extra damage is always nice. But will I feel rewarded? Will I feel a sense of accomplishment? No.

Now, let’s take for example a game that’s not even a full-fledged RPG – Quest for Glory, a series developed by Sierra which is a mix between classic point & click adventure games and RPGs. In the first game, there are basically only two armor types: leather armor and chainmail armor (which is extremely important for the Fighter class). You start out with leather. Chainmail is available in the store from the very beginning, but it costs 500 silver coins! That means you have to work at the stables for 50 in-game days at the least, receiving 10 coins per day! And that’s if you don’t eat. So, to gain money faster, you need to complete quests, to complete quests you need to defeat monsters – but you can’t, because you’re a crappy Fighter, they kill you easily. Not to mention leather armor is not good in defending against a lot of monsters. So you train with the Sword Master, and then defeat monsters and sell trophies in the Adventure Guild, eventually completing one of the quests… And you finally have enough money to buy Chainmail. The sense of accomplishment is amazing! You feel like you worked hard for this piece of equipment, because you did, and you feel warm and fuzzy inside. You notice the difference too: all those monsters who gave you so much trouble before can barely damage you, so there’s that too.

Quest for Glory (not the first game, but the hero looks badass)

Another good example is in the first two Gothic games. The armor progression system there is also quite linear… it depends on what side/camp you choose, but in each camp there’s only one way you can go up in quality with armor. Each time you upgrade your equipment, however, feels like a milestone. In Gothic 2, before you can join the Paladin Order you need to become a part of the Town Guard. So you receive a uniform which has crappy stats and you don’t really want to go fight dragons wearing it. But in time, you become a Paladin. As a reward you receive this shiny piece of armor, but your social status changes too. People react to you differently, you’re not a low-life nobody anymore.

                                  Gothic 2 - Hero as a Town GuardGothic 2 - Hero as a Paladin

Now let’s take Titan Quest… Lots of equipment, no attachment to it whatsoever. We find better armor or weapon every five-ten minutes. And it’s usually better, like, by 1-2%, which is nothing at all! There’s even an option to not show normal items that fall from enemies, only special ones. That’s like deliberately telling to the player, ‘Yeah, 50% of our items are unworthy of your attention, so you can filter them’. I’m sorry, but I just can’t see how the reward loop of such speed is better than a slower-paced ‘every piece of equipment is an accomplishment’.

I know that in my examples I’ve mentioned only linear equipment progression, and that may seem boring. Well, there’s nothing standing in the way of spicing up the items you can have, as long as you don’t overflow the player with lots of fluff and give a reason to use or not use any item. Let’s say, if there is a sword and a spear of approximately the same stat parameters, what’s the reason to have them both in the game? If the sword is super effective against one type of enemies, and the spear is super effective against another, now there’s actually a choice that matters. Or sword has a high defence rating and spear has a high offence rating. These are really simple examples, but it’s surprising how many games don’t have a good enough reason to have different kinds of items. The same first two Gothic games which I’ve praised for their armor progression have this problem with weapons. Sword, knife, club, axe, whatever – doesn’t matter. The only difference is between one-handed and two-handed weapons, and there are a lot of weapons in the game in both categories. Half of them are pointless.

Titan Quest

If we have a relatively small amount of items and a clear sense of progression present, as well as a reason to use each and every item in every ‘progression tier’, we can open up space for a more meaningful customization. There are item customizations in a lot of games, but only when there’s a small amount of equipment does that +5% Fire Damage from the rune you inserted really matter and can give you the edge you need.

When it comes to customization, I feel like I should mention the Russian RPG Evil Islands. People who know me may recognize this game as my main inspiration for becoming a Game Designer. It has a really interesting item crafting system, especially for its time. Absolutely every weapon/armor and spell has a blueprint. And you need materials (for weapons and armor) and runes (for spells) to create something out of that blueprint. You can also combine finished equipment with spells to create magic items. A very interesting system. But let me give you the numbers. In the game there are approximately 20 weapon blueprints, 15 armor blueprints, 30 materials, 30 spell blueprints, 15 runes. That’s enough to provide a huge number of possible combinations, but the fact is, half of those blueprints/materials/runes aren’t used by players. At all. Because there’s no reason to. And this is why I feel there should be a smaller amount of items in RPGs, and each piece of equipment has to bear a bigger meaning.

Evil Islands

I hope you enjoyed the read. I’ll update my blog with thoughts on games and Game Design, as well as progress on some of the stuff that I’m doing during my free time, so… if you’re interested, keep a look out for updates. Feel free to post in the comments. Do you agree with me or not? If not, then why? I love discussing this stuff and am interested in hearing your opinion. Have a good day!

Posted on March 27, 2012, in Blog, Game Design. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. While I do agree with you, I believe that one of the major reasons why there are so many .01-2% upgrades is because it helps with reinforcing positivity and progression to the player constantly. If quests only rewarded gold and exp and not 1% better equipment, it can become difficult for those quests to give you a positive feeling because its only numbers that are increasing ever so slowly. It’s a lot more positive for a player to visually see the character that they have invested in and are immersed in visually improving.

    • While I do understand that position, I don’t feel like it helps to reinforce the progression constantly, especially visually (let it put me this way: I don’t feel like it helps to reinforce it ENOUGH). There are a lot of times when my characters in RPGs look like bums, because they’re dressed in random pieces of armor that I managed to find over the game + some pieces that were story-rewards or something like that. And for me personally, that’s a negative feeling.

      If done right, the slower-paced progression IMO is much more effective. I don’t remember how my character progresses visually in Knights of the Old Republic or Neverwinter Nights (awesome games, but…). I do, however, remember how my character progresses visually in the first two Gothic games (and the pictures of the dude with Militia and Paladin armor are example of that progression). There’s like only 15 or something like that armor sets in the first two Gothic games, and during the course of the game you’ll have like only 5-6. You start out with drags in nothing, are very vulnerable, and then eventually change your social status to the point where you wear cool and strong armor.

      Why it works in Gothic is because, even though quests basically do reward only gold and experience, there are much more mini-milestones than just armor. For example, at the beginning of the game, you swing your weapon like a drunkard, because… well, you can’t swing your sword properly until you train your skill to a certain level. You also can’t sneak, lockpick, are not acrobatic, basically you can’t do anything because you, for the lack of better term, suck and have to run away from anything that’s not a level 1 monster (which is EXTREMELY dangerous at this point). So in Gothic, there are a lot of mini-milestones… for example – learn to get trophies from animals to get money, learn to use the sword better, defeat higher level monsters (by that I mean like 2-10 😀 ), and then bam! A more permanent milestone where you’re rewarded with a visual armor piece, both storywise and progressionwise, when you’re being told ‘you, sir, are now on your way to becoming much more awesome’.

      There’s more to player progression than just parameters on the items, it’s about showing player what he can’t do yet and then after he gets strong enough rewarding him with the notion of ‘you are becoming awesome’. Skill-wise, story-wise, item-wise, location-wise (like, you couldn’t enter a certain area because it’s too dangerous and then you feel fine there)… basically, gameplay-wise, equipment is just part of it. And when there’s less equipment and the differences are bigger, the change/upgrade feels much more special than the constant reward loop of a ‘slightly better items that create a mess in your inventory’. And if you mix-up the different rewards based on different aspects of the gameplay, you don’t need that constant item reward loop anyway. It’s harder to design it that way, but the feeling of accomplishment and reward is much stronger in my opinion.

  2. 1st of all, congratulations that you can write again, that’s great. It’s always good to find some time to share what you think with other.
    2nd… ray of pain and sorrow to man who made a black background… that man is realy against my eyes…

    About this post…

    I think, it’s not always so important not to have a million of swords. There are many players, who prefer to receive many stuff every minute to choose something better than he has, like in Diablo, WoW or TQ. And there are not less people who are for money saving on potions to buy after 5 days of killing mobs this OH-MY-GOD “Demon Fangs”.

    What will be Diablo without lot of it’s stuff? What would you do there?

    P.S. I have a better example for this post: there were a lot of non-witcher weapons in Witcher 1, and they were usseless, but there were 2 or 3 sets of armor, and getting the new one was like “Oh my god, there are new armors in this game”. Now look on Witcher 2. There are plenty of pants here, but they are all the same, with a little differences in fire protection or… whatever…

  3. I don’t think any of that helps improve the gameplay…. which is the Primary reason why I don’t play RPGs. Whether you have a bunch of crappy Armor sets or a select few Armor sets I get dissatisfied either way. I don’t judge my experience by what I have in my inventory, I judge it by What I Do and How do it.

    In other words RPGs are all about Abstract Progression (Stats, Levels & Items) while Other games are about Actual Progression (The Player Getting Better at the game even if the player character Stays the same).

    Reward Loops like the one’s you’re Describing have more to do Behavioural Psychology more than They do with Game Design Theory….. 😦

  1. Pingback: Torchlight | Stanislav Costiuc

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