On how the inclusion of items that only act as proxies for money is often mishandled and leave us with broken pacing and mountains of busywork.
A Sprinkle of Context
Loot and inventory management have gone out of hand; their presence overwhelming, their misuse rampant. One of the ways the loot car has swerved off the road is by using items as placeholders for money.
Let me share with you a brief rule of thumb to make predictions about a game. If a game has:
- Items you can pick up
- An inventory to store them into
- Money you can spend
Chances are, it will also include a serving of items that have no other use than to be sold for money. While these like-money-but-worse additions can certainly have their place, most games do a stellar job of avoiding any potential benefits.
Exploring Uses And Benefits
Items that act as proxies for money can be used effectively. As with any design decision, it's a matter of balancing the benefits and drawbacks so they work in your favour. With that in mind, let's observe the kinds of purposes these types of items can serve:
- On limited inventory space, they limit the amount of resources you can obtain between trips to the shops.
- If sharing inventory space with other kinds of items, they can help setup decisions on eventual money vs. resources you can use right now.
- They can make resource acquisition more appropriate to the setting (e.g. you're stealing from a house and you snatch a diamond encrusted goblet.)
Both 1. and 2. are great but only if meaningful gameplay is setup around them. That means you actually need to design (and test, and tweak) a compelling game around managing your inventory and then tie that in with the core experience your game offers.
Compelling is the operative word here. If you're going with
The players stop to inspect their bags and decide which of these trinkets will fetch a good price while the minions of hell patiently await at the nearest checkpoint, chances are, I don't think your game is pretty good.
Using 3. properly can definitely strengthen how believable the game's fiction is. This only works, however, if you don't later undermine your efforts with suspension of disbelief busting decisions. A thief stealing valuable art pieces from a state is reasonable, a mighty warrior finding valuable jewellery after killing a mangy wolf isn't.
Dangers And Pitfalls
As useful as these items can be for you, they introduce potential pitfalls that can make a dent in your end product. Let's observe some of the problems you can run into:
- They add extra busywork (seriously, lots of busywork.)
- They make it hard to tweak how long players will have to spend navigating menus.
- They make it hard to tweak when players will have to start navigating menus.
Every part of a design should serve a purpose. Every element and challenge in your game should forward its core experience. Busywork, in contrast, is equivalent to spinning your wheels. These kinds of inventory shenanigans add a lot of clicking, looking at and deciding. If you add this kind of busywork, you need to ensure both the process and the payoff are rewarding.
Tempo is very important to the enjoyment of an experience; both 2. and 3. allude to this fact. All this inventory spelunking can make it really easy for you to mess with your interest curves; the result: a broken experience that has problems keeping the players engaged.
In almost every case, including these kinds of items is an insane design decision. Not because interesting gameplay couldn't be built around them, but because it never bloody is. In short, you suffer the drawbacks without enjoying the perks.
Case Study: LoTR War In The North
War In the North, like many games of its ilk, was plagued by this design problem. As your trio of characters romped through the Northern reaches of Middle Earth, they would routinely run into chalices, gems and minerals that existed only to cramp their inventory and later be sold.
As a player, the end result was a mixture of irritation and detachment:
- The picking and sorting stopped the action and slowed everything to a crawl.
- The items offered comparatively low cash rewards and it was almost impossible to avoid picking them up. This became a problem because…
- The items shared a limited inventory space with others that had wildly different uses. This presented strange storage decisions between items of low monetary worth and others that were either useless or cumbersome.
- Their presence made no sense within the narrative. First because you obtain these valuable items by doing such time honoured actions as breaking rotted barrels and kicking around rocks around on the far reaches of the wilderness. Second, because the necessities of the story are antithetical to players acting as pack rat merchants.
The Bottom Line
Remove anything that's not central to your core experience and make that core experience the best you can. Inventory systems and game pseudo-economies are often tacked on to respect the particulars of a genre when they should be either designed to work for your game or avoided in the first place.