Being Realistic About Virtual Loot

February 15th, 2010

Awhile back, my friend Kai—the web developer and DigiPen grad I mentioned in my previous post—emailed me a link. The Escapist article, “The Broken Economy Is Your Fault,” rightly points out that the economics of video game RPGs are broken. The author suggests that, unfortunately, they probably can’t be fixed. As Kai wrote, “I see his point, but I think don’t buy that you can’t have a game that’s more economically interesting without making it full of tedium.”

I’m with Kai on this one. I’ve been sitting on this post for months while I took care of some other things, but now that Mass Effect 2 has gotten me thinking more about inventory management, I figured it might be time to revisit this.

Shamus Young, the author of the article, points out that the big problem with game RPGs is that after a long enough time of looting enemies’ corpses and rooting through their homes, you have so much stuff to sell that you effectively have unlimited money. Shamus points out why such games allow you to get rich off stolen goods:

  • We want to allow the player to loot bad guys. […] If you defeat someone with a better weapon, you should get it.
  • We want the player to be able to sell the gear they collect. Managing resources and collecting “treasure” is a big part of the appeal of these games, and leaving out the trading means leaving out the fun for a lot of players.
  • We want the shopkeepers in the game to pay reasonable prices for gear. It really is obnoxious to be the hero of the realm and have an NPC offer me three copper for my unicorn horn and turn around and charge me ten gold for a bent, rusty butterknife. […]
  • We want shopkeepers to be able to do business with the player. Some games put a cap on how much value a shopkeeper can handle in a single transaction, or they give the shopkeeper a small pool of money which is replenished every few in-game days. These are intended to stop the player from unloading their entire haul in a single transaction, but it’s easy to exploit around these limits. If you want to sell all of your violently attained swag, you have to wait for their money to refill several times, or unload big-ticket items through a series of complicated trades. This limitation just encourages boring behavior. You must then choose between having fun and acting rationally as a character.

To consider an example, recall how these issues and limitations are apparent in Fallout 3. Just about any weapon, armor, or clothing on a character’s person can be taken from that character, whether by killing them or by picking their pocket. Inventory management is a major aspect of the gameplay; there’s even an entire skill, and skill-boosting items, for your ability to Barter. And while shop owners have a limited amount of currency to buy items from you, you can click a button on your controller to wait for them, or click on different locations on your map to travel from vendor to vendor. Even if you don’t game the system, you will end up rich beyond your wildest dreams eventually.

Shamus concludes, “There is no way to patch this economic perversion to have it make sense,” and so the best a player can do is “ignore the silliness and enjoy the game. The worst thing you can do is waste time over-thinking it.” That may work for players until game designers figure out a solution, but I don’t think it exempts designers and critics from brainstorming how to do this better. Concerns with how economics are handled arise from a conflict between gameplay and narrative immersion; can’t we make a working economy that plays with the narrative rather than working against it?

I think we can do just that. In-game economics could benefit greatly from considering what the purpose or consequences of looting might be, in a realistic sense. Considering one avenue, Kai suggested: “What about games that extend a line of credit to players?” When you stop to think about it from a narrative perspective, it’s a little bit creepy to search through the pockets of the first man you ever kill in self defense. Even in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, however, characters may need to make ends meet, and being in debt may be a good way to represent the purpose of looting. Kai elaborated a bit on the idea of a line of credit.

That’d give you:

  • an additional drain on player finances, which’d keep you from getting rich (assuming you’re the average American spender)
  • a way around forcing the player to endlessly grind at the beginning of the game to start getting the good stuff
  • loan sharks and repo men, maybe even as player classes (pawn shops may or may not have a place in this world)

This is one elegant solution with great narrative implications. In Fallout 3, someone just gives your character a really sweet suit of armor right near the beginning of the game as long as you’ll run some errands for her. I could certainly see such a character (or a less sympathetic character in the next store over, with better inventory) offering an item early in a game on the promise that you pay back with interest—and then you really have to loot enemies for cash and prizes just to keep debt collectors and their bounty hunters off your back.

Along similar lines, it’s worth noting that Fallout 3 has food and water, but you don’t actually need to consume them in order to live; they simply replenish your health after taking damage, and they’re not the most efficient means of doing so. (You have access to weightless “stimpacks,” which you are unlikely to ever run out of.) One way to make sure you have a constant place to invest money is to actually require the player to spend money on food, water, even rent. I don’t suspect it would be fun to have to watch your character eating every meal, but I could imagine a system that regularly deduct from your cash (automatically or by prompting from an NPC). As you get higher in level, you might have to spend more to get better food or more luxurious living quarters, which might be healthier (e.g., giving stat bonuses).

Even beyond the purposes of looting, there could be discouraging or detrimental in-game consequences. In the comments to the original article, someone points out that if you killed every US soldier, you’d be rolling in weapons and money; Kai wisely responds:

  • Even US soldiers are obviously very vulnerable to their enemies in the real world. This makes the risk-reward proposition of asset acquisition very different from real life. This could potentially, then, tie into the “death in gaming” conversation; what if combat is (almost) always a frightening prospect?
  • In real life, if you killed a bunch of “bad guys” (e.g. Al-Qaeda, etc.), you’d end up with a bunch of weapons that you’d have a hard time selling off since they’d be illegal to own, generally speaking. And if you had a stockpile of these things? You’d be a suspected terrorist. Even vigilantes don’t have much of a good name in real life. (This, of course, is contingent on living in a world that has a) a legal system and b) weapons control.)

In a game world that responds to the PC’s actions, any number of consequences might occur that affect the economy (even including that people stop taking their valuables out into public when they find out that a murderous madman is wandering about, so the more you murder and loot, the less you get for it). And, of course, there are the realities of supply and demand; after you’ve sold a few dozen swords or guns to any given vendor, how much are you really going to get for the next dozen you bring in?

My first reaction to reading the article, however, was that the author neglected to consider that the most narratively coherent solution is probably a less forgiving encumbrance system. As a player, you want to sell hundreds of items worth of loot because the game lets you put it all in your “bag of holding,” as it were. Again, to use Fallout 3 as an example—though it’s certainly not the worst, offender, or even unusual in this regard—a bottle of beer has an item weight of “1.” The lowest-strength character, wearing no clothing, can carry 160 beers.

Real hindrances could enforce a more realistic economy. There’s no reason that a character in Fallout 3 should be able to carry around sixteen guns, four suits of armor, and the entire contents of a liquor cabinet. The easiest and most narratively consistent way to correct broken game economies is to limit how much the PC can carry, and factor encumbrance effects gradually. This would require the player to be more selective about which items are looted and carried.

Realistically, in a game like Fallout 3, this might allow for a weapon holstered to each leg, maybe another along your back, and perhaps a duffel bag or a shopping cart that slows you down, and which you’ll need to abandon as soon as you get attacked. And, while most games with an encumbrance limit simply define it as a hard cap, over which you can’t carry anymore items (e.g., Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins) or can’t move effectively (e.g., Fallout 3), it is possible to gradually slow the PC as they approach their weight limit, much as heavier armors do in Fallout 3. Such adjustments would discourage moving the game’s focus from saving the world toward running a salvage operation, but preserve the sense of realism and freedom to act that comes from the ability to interact with objects in the game world.

Some games already employ a more narratively coherent inventory systems, though they remain relatively rare. Dead Space, for instance, has very limited inventory management, allowing you to carry only a small supply of health packs, ammo, and air canisters, displaying inventory contents as a hologram in front of your character’s face. Alone in the Dark, meanwhile, literally showed how many pockets you had free in your jacket to fill with things. In each example, inventory management is entirely in-game, to preserve the sense of narrative immersion and the real threat posed by enemies: Looking at your inventory doesn’t pause the action, leaving you open to attack. I can’t speak for others players’ experiences, but I can vouch that these games had less “broken” economies; the limited supply of items meant that my character was less likely to be swimming in riches.

There is, of course, another approach entirely: Don’t let the player loot enemy corpses at all, as in Mass Effect 2. Your character still gets a cash bounty for completing missions and hacking other people’s financial records, but doesn’t acquire gear that can be sold. To some extent, it strains credibility when you can’t steal fallen enemies’ weapons, though there are narrative workarounds (i.e., the attacks you use on them cause them to disintegrate entirely, and it’s implied that the guns basically have the future equivalent of DRM, so you can’t use them without a fabrication license). The approach does help prevent the player from becoming ridiculously wealthy, however, without precluding the possibility of acquiring new items and upgrades.

As I discussed in my previous post, of course, efforts to de-emphasize—or even remove—inventory management and trading have infuriated many roleplaying game traditionalists. As games become more mainstream, these players are probably rightly concerned that the level of micromanagement they appreciate may disappear from games over time. Personally, I would appreciate seeing more games in the future that establish some balance between resource management and narrative credibility. The trick, I think, is to make micromanagement possible, but optional. Some games like the Dragon Age and Mass Effect series move toward this somewhat in allowing players to “auto-level” rather than allocating points and selecting new skills themselves. Too Human, a Diablo-like science-fiction game, had an option to automatically destroy any items you acquire that are beneath a certain level of rarity (which didn’t work very well for getting the best items, but seems on the right track). I wonder whether optionally automated inventory management and trading systems might scratch that micromanaging itch, while still retaining those players who are more eager to save the world than sift through an overstuffed backpack in a virtual pawn shop.

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4 Responses to “Being Realistic About Virtual Loot”

  1. Jason Tocci Says:

    I was interested to see this thread on Bioware’s Mass Effect Forums, incidentally:

    How many stores do you know of buy up whatever you have to sell?

    None, one? Accumulating an absurd amount of equipment on missions and then being able to sell it all to the first vendor you see is silly. I get that massive inventory has been a staple of RPGs but its time to move on. […]

    How many people out there carry 150 items on them at a given time?

    Well, at least I’m not the only one wondering about this kind of stuff.

  2. Chris Collins Says:

    My son’s webkinz account has essentially the same problem. Just thought you’d like to know. (which, given he is not yet 4 means that the next gaming generation is totally going to group up with this as a convention).

    (I should say, it’s not that you loot the body’s of enemies in webkinz, it’s that inventory management is a huge issue/problem, even if you take no longer useful/good clothes to the W shop and turn them into Patchwork items–which are both ugly and worth less than the individual items you use to manufacture them.)



  3. Tango Says:

    Actually, the STALKER series handles this quite nicely. You can normally only carry about 50kg worth of items, weapon condition plays quite severely into the price offered, and you do have to eat, take anti-rad meds (or drink), and use medical supplies regularly.

    Also, nearly all combat is a frightening prospect, even if you’re the one to initiate it on your terms (rarely the case) as you’re just as fragile as the NPCs and you’re in nearly constant fear of ambush any time you’re traveling.

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for the comment. This definitely makes me wish that either I had a PC suitable for PC gaming or that STALKER would come out on a console I own.

    Ah well. At least Fallout New Vegas is out this month.