When is it appropriate to have a vastly diverse collection of items to find as rewards in a game? When is it appropriate to have a more rigidly defined compact schema of reward objects? Is there an audience need to be reflected, or is it merely an issue of identity that each game should resolve in its own way?
The pattern for treasure objects in RPGs was set back in 1974 with Dungeons & Dragons (the white box version). It was expansive - more treasure tables and magical items than you could ever need. They must have felt it was the right way to go, because when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came along in 1978, they added even more items and even more tables. RPG games have stuck with this tradition... Diablo and other hack games have very little to offer but the diversity of their objects - a fact neatly lampooned by ProgressQuest.
Who wants myriad treasures? In terms of Temperament Theory/"DGD1.5" (since I am apparently using Temperament Theory as a provisional audience model), it is presumably the Strategic players (Rational temperament). With a desire for knowledge and completeness, players with Strategic bias are more likely to be willing to examine the data for many different objects and make decisions - this process lacks the immediacy that a Tactical player would presumably prefer. There could be a Logistical aspect, perhaps; the Guardian temperament (the parent temperament for the Logistical skill set) is associated with a capacity to handle supply mechanics. Perhaps a wealth of items is appealing Logistical players as a sorting exercise, but I feel such players must still have access to Strategic skills if they are truly to enjoy relating to equipment in this way.
Few other games show the diversity of items that we see in CRPGs. Even car games with considerable customisation options such as the Gran Turismo series don't hit the same volume of items. During CRPG case studies, a common element was that many players (principally in the Type 1 Conqueror and Type 2 Manager archetypes in DGD1) enjoyed CRPGs in part because of the mechanics. They liked learning the mechanics (surely a Strategic-type trait) - indeed, one female CRPG player went into some detail as to which Final Fantasy games she'd enjoyed in terms of how the mechanics were rendered.
Smaller collections of items give clearer rewards to the player that don't require much learning, and must presumably appeal to a wider audience. In a Legend of Zelda game, for instance, the rewards are extremely rigidly defined: there are a set of different colour rupee pieces (money), certain resource items (chiefly in the later Zeldas i.e. deku nuts, arrows), the map, compass and boss key for each dungeon, the tool key items that form the basis of Zelda structure, and the ultimate Zelda item - an empty bottle. This is a more abstract item system than the RPG approach of "more items than you could ever imagine!"
It is likely that this kind of approach is better for a wider audience because it requires less learning, and in the mass market the closer the game is to 'pick up and play' the better its chances. One can argue that Zelda's system is slightly too abstract for a mass market audience, however. It's hard for a new player to appreciate why a bottle should be of such value - especially since its range of uses only emerges through play and cannot be derived intuitively.
In reworking the Resident Evil game abstractions for the fourth game, Capcom included some RPG elements. This is not wholly surprising, as there is scarcely an upper market game out there which does not include RPG elements now - in particular, gradiated advancement schemes. Since these systems provide a satisfying sense of progress often without recourse to expensive game resources. The "RPG-lite" system in San Andreas is a great example, as the skills just affect parameters such as time the player can hold their breath under water, threshold of loss of control in a collision etc. Cheap additions to an expensive game. The arrival of an "RPG-lite" system in Resident Evil is a big departure from the usual mechanics of this franchise, but it is not wholly surprising given the prevailing trends.
For Resident Evil 4, the RPG mechanics rest in the weapon statistics - a rather neat system in many ways, as the numbers are tangible and immediately understandable (firing speed in seconds per shot, reload time in seconds, number of shots per clip) - only firepower is abstract, and the game fixes this by expressly informing the player that 1 standard handgun shot is worth Firepower 1. I will not be surprised to see this system crop up in other games, if it hasn't already.
RPG progress mechanics are driven by a resource. In San Andreas it's time spent doing an activity - an excellent choice for a mass market game in many respects, as the player automatically benefits from whatever they are doing. Most CRPGs use "experience points" - an artefact from Dungeons & Dragons and before which is showing its age. In Resident Evil 4 it's a straightforward currency system. Find treasure, sell treasure, buy weapon upgrades. Not an unfamiliar formula, but made more accessible by choosing readily understandable statistics for the weapons instead of largely arbitrary mechanics (as in most CRPGs).
The interesting part about the items in Resident Evil 4, and the reason for the title of this post, is that they are arranged in a scheme not unlike electron shells in an atom - they are arranged in an almost formal pattern.
The basic 'quanta' of treasure is a Spinel (for reference, spinels are gemstones related to rubys - although in the past they had a bad reputation for being passed off as 'fake rubys', modern gemstone dealers have developed more love for the stones). In fact, finding spinels is such a basic part of the gameplay that when my wife and I find one we cannot resist crying out "Spinel!", which in itself has added to our enjoyment.
Spinels are valued at 2,000 pesetas (ptas) and are placed in slightly hidden locations. Obvious locations contain contain currency valued at or around 1,000 pesetas (800, 900, 1,000, 1,100 etc) - representing the lowest quanta of treasure in the scheme. That the spinel's value of 2,000 is the basic quanta of the scheme is underlined by the fact that a 'full heal' (three green herbs or one green and red herb mix) is also worth 2,000 ptas. First Aid sprays are valued at 2,500 - encouraging the player to sell these and keep their other heals.
All the treasure exists in a broad quantum hierarchy related to the spinel/full heal. Here's the basic pattern:
- Spinel/full heal: 2,000 ptas
- Velvet Blue/First Aid spray: 2,500 ptas
- Emerald/Treasure with Slots (empty): 3,000 ptas
- Significant Treasure (e.g. Amber Ring, Antique Pipe, Elegant Headdress): 10,000 ptas
- Treasure with Slots (complete): 20,000 ptas
There are a few variations, but not so many that this general pattern does not stand out. The positive elements of the system lie in the rapidity with which it becomes familiar (hence our cries of "Spinel!" - we have not had such gleeful game catchphrases since Sega Bass Fishing's, "Small one", "Okay, average size - good job" and "This one's HUGE!") and the extent to which one feels the step up to a higher quanta. 10,000 ptas equals five spinels which feels like a big reward. 20,000 ptas is party time. The game hands out treasure like it's going out of style - it is practically the archetypal "Monty Haul" dungeon crawl. Just as well, as frequent supplies of treasure softens the blow of the somewhat pernickity challenges it sometimes forces the player to endure.
Are such quantum item schemes a good approach? In many ways, yes. They define clear patterns of emotional response, are easy to learn and add to the identity of the game (years from now, 'spinel' will still be in our lexicon) - not to mention they are cheap to implement since they don't require much in the way of art resources. That they are "gamey" (which is to say, favouring ludus over mimicry) is not actually a significant drawback as a more "realistic" system would struggle to deliver the cashflow required to power up the weapons without drawing attention to itself. Because the artificial collection of these rewards rapidly becomes familiar, there is perhaps less temptation to notice the surreality of spinel ubiquity.
On the other hand, I wouldn't expect CRPGs to give up their cornucopian approach any time soon, especially since these games place a priority on character expression - and there is no easier way to achieve this than giving the player a vast variety of items to choose their equipment from. The Sims is another game with the same premium on player expressivity - and therefore it too must inundate the player with choices (albeit largely cosmetic choices).
Perhaps, then, this is the boundary condition for a quantum item scheme. If the player's focus is intended to be chiefly in the active play of the game, it makes sense to have a more precisely abstracted scheme. If the player's focus is intended to be partly or wholly involved in personalisation and expression, a more expansive system should be preferred.
In many ways, quantum item schemes are a big step forward from the "every idea in my head" approach of Dungeons & Dragons, but there is little doubt that there are still times when a dazzling diversity of items still has its place.