Lessons from Hollywood
Mental Pressure Valve

Quantum Items

Whitecover_1When 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.

SpinelThe 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.


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I would note here that typically, a depth of inventory/character development choices is typically to offset a shallowness in gameplay. Look at the games like Diablo, Resident Evil 4, Dynasty Warriors - all very simple games, just running around and hacking/slashing. Not much playskill on the player's part is called on for execution. Since the mechanics are typically straightforward and uncomplicated, a bredth of options for customization helps alleviate this. You will essentially experience all the gameplay Diablo II has to offer within 20 minutes. However, because of the lengthy skill trees (and furthermore, the skill 'synergy' mechanic in the 1.10 patch), there is a great depth to how one's play experience will be shaped, and thus the mechanically shallow game is made much deeper than it would have been without the extensive customization options.

I will also note here that I am strongly drawn to these types of games, and that player self-expression is an important concept to me. However, collection of items in games like Zelda or Donkey Kong 64 is abhorrent to me - I like collecting items, and will do so for hours, if the collection is optional and will enhance my avatar's power. However, if items must be collected mandatorily for game progress, and this key-finding is a core game element (Starfox Adventures, DK64), then it becomes tedious very quickly for me.

Whilst I'll agree the central play of Diablo is highly simplistic, with volume of equipment and other enhancements compensating for the simplicity of the basic play, RE4 is a significantly more complex game requiring notably more skill than Diablo to play. (And, indeed, more skill than earlier Resident Evil games). I would place RE4 in the middle ground of games in terms of the skill required to play. Certainly, I employ more skill playing it than I did playing Halo, or any other console FPS - but this may reflect my poor aptitude for FPS games, of course. :)

The Dynasty Warriors series are games you and I are in dispute about, of course. :) Although they can be played in a clumsy and artless fashion (helping make them accessible to more players regardless of their skill level), there is plenty of finesse and even some strategy within its play. As the game with which I have acquired the most skill in playing since Nemesis/Gradius (and I *still* struggle to play DW3 on Very Hard!), I naturally dispute your characterisation of it as "just running around hacking/slashing". :) I'm curious as to why these games fall in your blind spot, although likely it is because the fighting mechanics initially appear more simplistic than pure fighting games, which you have an affinity for. I still feel it would be illuminating to get us in the same room to see how we each approach DW - I believe this could be enlightening for both of us.

I wouldn't put Zelda in the same category as DK64 or Starfox Adventures in terms of mandatory item collection... Zelda does not make locating the items the core play, rather, they are positioned as rewards along the spine of the game. Zelda has the play of a classic arcade adventure (a form which is rapidly going out of style!) Mandatory item collection is more the model of the 3D platformer. Are there any 3D platformers you have enjoyed?

RE4 is of course more complicated than Diablo, but it is not a terribly complicated game overall. There's basically one mechanic you have to learn (shooting), and you stick with that same mechanic throughout the entirety of the game. This could easily have gotten very repetitive and boring; however, the variety of items that could be acquired in the player's inventory helped keep the encounters more varied and personal (as the player had a decent range of options of weapons and upgrade at their disposal.)

" I'm curious as to why these games fall in your blind spot, although likely it is because the fighting mechanics initially appear more simplistic than pure fighting games, which you have an affinity for. "

While this is a bit unrelated to the original point, I'll go ahead and address it anyhow. The simple truth is that it does not merely appear simple; it is simple in execution. While you can certainly choose to play fancy and utilize all the characters attacks, efficient play in the game is very simple. All the characters have an infinite juggle which can be used at any time (square square square sqaure triangle, pause, repeat) which will beat the AI any time, every time. The Square-square-square-triangle knockback attack typically has good invincibility to it, and usually hits a broad swath. Using that chain over and over will defeat the regular foot soldiers consistently. And if somehow you get in trouble, activating your super with a single button press will always save you, because supers in this game are completely invincible. The other reason why the game is so simple is that the opponents are always AI controlled - if you were to judge any fighting game on its AI only, it would be simple too. The AI tends to mob and rush mindlessly, and block works in any direction for you. Unfortunately, the versus mode in the game is not worthwhile either, as the first player to land a juggle automatically wins.

I'm not sure why I wrote down Zelda - Zelda generally stays away from mandatory collection; the collection elements in Zelda games are mostly optional for treasure. However, some games similar to it (Star Fox Adventures, if I recall) do suffer from collectivitis.

There are some 3D platformers I have enjoyed - unsurprisingly, they are less item-centric. Mario 64 had star collection, but they were designed in a way that made it feel more like a star was simply the end goal of a stage - not merely another item x you had to pick up along the way. In other words, you collected stars as a natural course of playing the levels; you weren't forced to go hunting for obscure items to further your progress. Mario Sunshine was more collection-oriented, and thus I didn't enjoy it as much (in addition to the 'a capella' stages being the most sadistic platforming levels ever made, and were mandatory for further progress.) I enjoyed Prince of Persia: Sands of Time quite a lot too, which didn't have any mandatory collection elements that I can recall. Beyond Good & Evil was overall enjoyable to me, but the pearl collection elements were pretty tedious.

I'll reluctantly engage your DW points briefly. :) The fourth triangle attack does not work every time. You must get your opponent's guard down first. There are many ways to do this - it's probably that as a diehard fighting game specialist with lightning reactions that this presents insufficient challenge for you. Also, control of the opponent while juggling them can be very tricky in crowd situations - one of the harder challenges, but the most rewarding since success affects the rate of skill advance.

The guard is omnidirectional as you say, but it is an analogue not a digital guard - it gets battered down. It's useful in certain situations (such as tripping up a tough opponent), but it's not guaranteed protection by any means. Letting the guard get battered down too much leaves you very vulnerable, especially on harder difficulties. Musou will save you in an emergency, but enemy officers can and will lock swords with you to break it, so there is judgement in how and when to use it. Also, post Musou you are very vulnerable - this is a common time to get killed - so you have to use the Musou well or not at all in a tight spot. Also, one can choose to play with an agressive Musou strategy or a defensive strategy - different players and characters make a big difference here.

The situational AI is simplistic, but the volume of opponents and other elements such as archers and enemy officers compensate. Also, there is the strategic level with choices such as closing gates to cut off reinforcements and determining where to make a stand comes in (bridges and choke points in particular) - i.e. the strategic elements. Knowledge of the historical battles sometimes helps with this aspect.

I wonder if the problem is that you are just too good at fighting games to face the necessity of making strategic decisions as how to overcome a tough opponent or cluster of opponents? That is, you can always beat any opponent because compared to a fighting game it is insufficiently challenging, so you never experience the other elements of play. If you can beat every opponent every time on all difficulty levels, you never actually get to play the 'same' game we do. This might be a game which has a high depth of skill but at a *lower difficulty level* to fighting games, if you see what I mean.

I find it particuarly interesting that when you talk about 'skill', you are often focussed on what must be learned. But in RE4, for instance, the skill is in the aiming and firing; that one can learn to do this instantly no more takes away the skill from the game than the fact that one can drive a car instantly in GT, for instance. It has made me think a lot about how we use the term 'skill'.

I'll ponder some more... there's definitely an interesting distinction in how you and I employ the term.

I'm not actually particularily good at fighting games, so I'm not some sort of unstoppable juggernaut of personal combat - I suppose I am better than the average gamer at them (being that the 'average gamer' does not play many fighters anymore), but there isn't really very much skill crossover, because DW simply does not have many of the mechanics that add depth to fighting games.

In a 2D fighting game, 'block' is several levels deeper - for one, it isn't omnidirectional, so if you are in 'block stun' (the period of time when you are stuck in your block animation after getting hit) and the opponent can jump to your other side, he can 'cross you up' and hit you from behind. Additionally, there are 'hit angles' - most attacks can be blocked standing or crouching, but certain attacks must be blocked high only or low only or you will be hit. Additionally, blocks are not safe from throws; so you can use a number of quick, low-damage attacks on someone to get them blocking; then, you can move in on them and grab them and do a throw. Furthermore, blocks are never perfectly safe - whenever you get hit with a special or super move when blocking, you will take a small percentage of the damage as 'chip damage.' Also, many games have a 'guard meter.' This varies in function based on the game, but one common way is for the meter to decrement with each blocked hit (and slowly recover over time.) If the meter reaches zero, you are temporarily stunned and you are in a 'guard crush' state. In other games, the meter will increase with each blocked hit, and the higher the meter is, the more damage you will recieve from future unblocked attacks (although the gauge wanders down.) Finally, some games have an additional block mechanic, such as the SNK 'Just Defend,' the Street Fighter Alpha 'Alpha Counter,' the Street Fighter III 'Parry,' and the Guilty Gear 'Dead Angle Attack' and 'Faultless Defense.' Typically these add a new type of block that offers a risk/reward scenario - a SFIII parry involves hitting forward or down (depending on the hit angle) just before an attack connects. If succesful, the move is 'parried,' and the parrier can recover very quickly (before the attacker recovers from his attack) in addition to getting a little extra super meter.

All that complexity is from the block functionality alone. While that was a bit excessive in detail, I want to show you the much higher level of complexity and sophistication in an average 2D fighter. Compared to this, Dynasty Warriors and its kin are very simple, and generally I do not need to make many complex decisions. When I play, I generally close all the gates, hunt down sub officers and officers (from lowest to highest morale) and complete any submissions if neccessary. I will typically just use the Three Square - Triangle, Five Square - Triangle, or Six Square combos, as those are typically fast and have a good amount of invincibility on startup (they are hard to interrupt.) Usually I'll remove the foot soldiers around the officer first to make my life less difficult. If the officer blocks alot, I will simply use the three-square (no triangle) chain over and over, because it is almost always 100% safe and unpunishable. If they keep blocking, I keep doing it, until eventually I score a hit from him dropping his guard. If I do connect, I cancel immediately into super (a fact made much easier because they have zero frame activations, can't be interuppted, and only require a single button press.) Occasionally I'll get into a locked swords situation, but then it's just a matter of mashing the buttons really fast and then getting a free big combo afterwards.

I do enjoy the DW series of games, and have even bought a large number of it's excessive iterations and spin-offs. Aside from providing great loot (the random weapon drops in 3 and 5, the item hunting), the games also provide easy fun for me - the visuals are usually pretty flashy, and I can basically just hit lots of buttons and win. I typically play on normal mode, and occasionally hard, but not usually the very hardest setting. This is not because the V. Hard setting is an insurmountable challenge, but rather because the neccessary playstyle is much less enjoyable - poking with three squares until eventually something lands, then doing an infinite juggle combination that can take several minutes to execute. While the strategic play becomes a little more interesting (because I have to run around fighting fires all day), the melee combat becomes much less interesting - the harder difficulty levels don't make the enemy smarter or the game more challenging; rather, the HP and attack damage are just scaled up by a ridiculous margin. Unfortunately, the higher difficulty level makes the actual combat part less complex, because only very simple, abusable tactics work reliably.

DW is complex much more so in its strategic play than in its melee combat portion, although its strategic play is not terribly complicated. At the higher levels, there are many more balls in the air to juggle, and you have to keep your eye on more events. I wish the game had seperate difficulty levels for its strategic play and melee combat, because while the melee aspect is beatable at the hardest levels, it becomes an excerise in rote infinite juggles instead of a more complicated battle. DW4: Empires suffered from this as well - at the normal difficulty levels, the world-map strategic AI was painfully stupid and would often be content sitting still; however, by switching to hard mode (which was still painfully simple on the strategic level, but a step up from normal,) some of the AI generals became almost unbeatably strong (attacks would do a fraction of a pixel of life damage, but they could kill you instantly.)

"I find it particuarly interesting that when you talk about 'skill', you are often focussed on what must be learned."

Yeah, that's more or less my defintion of the term. I agree with Koster's concept that the more there is to learn in a game (whether in depth or in subtlety), the more enjoyment I can squeeze out of a game. However, while learning to aim/fire in RE4 is intially simple, doing it well takes more practice than doing combos in DW well. Ultimately however, RE4 isn't terribly complicated either. It is still fun, however, because of the items that can be found, impressive visuals, and B-movie atmosphere. It's not a game I am likely to return to many times (because there isn't a whole lot more to learn), but it was still enjoyable. Gran Turismo is also a bit more complicated than that - it requiresa good deal of track practice and learning the correct timing for breaking and accelerating on each turn. Of course, you hit a plateau fairly soon, and eventually it becomes about making minute adjustments for a .04 second faster lap time (not fun for me.) There is also a great deal of subtlety in the car tuning (which is the real emphasis of the game), although that requires a good deal of extrinsic knowledge (that I don't have) to be effective. GT does offer a great variety of cars to collect, however, and in a wide variety of locales, and that collection element is probably the most enjoyable part for me.

GT driving is not "deep" per se, because it isn't complex, but it is "subtle" in that there are many minute changes that one can make to their lap runs to improve their time. The tuning aspect is deeper, as their are more variables to consider, but it eventually becomes a game of subtlety as well (altering your shock rebound by a small fraction to slightly improve your lap time by a fraction of a second, etc.)

Thanks for the detailed comment! There's a lot of illuminating content in there which I appreciate.

Our discussions over this have made me think about how I use the word 'skill' in a game context. I can feel a post brewing on this subject - not sure when I'll have time, but it usually manages to erupt out of my mind and through my fingers when I have a gap in my schedule. :)

Thanks again!

Always glad to provide another viewpoint :)

If you haven't read Koster's Theory of Fun, it's a great read - informative and interesting, and fairly quick too.

Additionally, I'd also recommend reading the articles by David Sirlin on www.sirlin.net to get a better understanding of hardcore competitive play - it would be a very interesting insight for you on a particular subset of the DGD1 H1 Conqueror type :)

Koster's book is on my reading list... trouble is, my reading list has got quite long. :) I will get there, though. Thanks for the Sirlin reference - I'll be sure to check it out when I get a spare moment.

Hi, first-time reader here.

To some extent, James O. is correct. A huge variety of items is often to shore up "shallow" gameplay - not that there is anything wrong with a "shallow" game.

It adds a variety to the game that otherwise would not exist. Sure, this is liked by the statisticians who are always on the look out for a new, better item. But it also pleases people who like to "explore" the gamespace - in my experience, most players. At least for a few moments, they are pleased by their new toy. If the toy has statistics which affect gameplay or allow for customization of your character, glee!

Take Daggerfall or Morrowind. These were titanic games with huge item lists. The item lists added an element of exciting exploration to the game. "What's going to be in his dresser? Maybe a gem? Maybe an herb? Maybe a corset?"

They took this further, allowing you to enchant your own items. Hence creating "broadswords of bashing" and "bras of levitation", which are thoroughly useless from a statistical perspective but delightful to someone who is simply exploring the game.

When people talk about the Elder Scroll games, they'll talk about the limitless world they explored. A big part of that is the items.

I think we can extend that a bit, Craig; it was not just the items, but rather the automatic procedural generation of content (random loot ala Diablo), combined with user-created content (user-enchanted items.) Those two factors greatly enhance the possibility space of the game, and why once Spore comes out I won't be seen again, ever.

Thanks for posting, Craig! Always nice to hear new voices. A caveat...

"At least for a few moments, they are pleased by their new toy. If the toy has statistics which affect gameplay or allow for customization of your character, glee!"

Most RPGs support such a vast volume of equipment because they are mostly different in their statistics. But it appears to be (strictly) a minority of players who enjoy working out the meaning of a game item's statistics. This is highly ludic play, and not to everyone's taste (although most Hardcore-style players seem happy with it).

Customisation of the avatar, on the other hand, seems more concerned with mimicry. It's appeal is consequently wider.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say 10-20% of people can enjoy interpreting game statistics, whereas 75-90% of players enjoy mimicry. I won't bore you with the maths behind these rough estimates. :)

If you ever wonder why strategy games are settling into a stable niche market while FPS and other games with glossy visuals are still riding high in market terms, I'd put it down to this effect.

James: 100% agreed! I can't wait for Spore.

Chris: I believe you are right, but you have to remember that there are at least two kinds of statistical variances.

One is "shallow": "this sword does ten points more damage!" This sort of thing, I think, has a very limited appeal, even with added complexity.

One is "deep": "this sword does something fundamentally different than the last sword!" I don't know if it has any wider appeal, but it's definitely a wholly different kind of assessment.

I prefer the latter kind. However, the earlier kind is easier to generate automatically using algorithms. :)

I should think just about everyone prefers the latter kind, Craig - it's just that (as you say) the former is vastly cheaper to develop. :)

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