The Rhyme and Rhythm of Itemization

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Maybe you are new to the whole MMORPG or ARPG thing. Maybe you avoid the public channels and game forums in an effort to preserve your sanity. Maybe you just prefer to focus on immersion and try to forget that video games run on numbers like a nuclear reactor runs on fissile materials.

Eventually, though, you’re probably going to hear the term itemization being thrown around. Possibly your first thought will be to wonder if someone’s cat stepped on their keyboard and added a few extra letters to the word “item”.

If you asked most players, you’ll likely get an answer to the effect of:

Itemization is way a video game presents item progression both over the course of a character’s progression and a game’s inevitable expansions.

This is…true-ish. “Ish” because while this definition is accurate, it is a little deceptive in that it caters to one of the Great Illusions of Video Game Development. (Number #6, if you are curious, or counting)

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Why the “Ish”, then?

To get to this, it helps to peel back the layers of presentation and look at what items are actually doing under the bloody flayed skin of the game.

When you move past the “item as a physical thing” (since it isn’t really even that in most video games, except very metaphorically) an item is simply an arbitrary categorization of ability and attribute progression.

Wait. What?

Think of it this way: When you level up in most games, what happens? Your character stats – hit points, mana (or equivalent), etc. go up. Your character probably gains (or at least gains the ability to gain) new abilities, call them spells, skills, powers or whatever. When you get an item you get…wait, more character stats, or more abilities.

In some games, there are actually systemic rules as to what goes on an item and what goes in the bucket of simple character advancement. In others, it’s complete legerdemain and prestidigitation. Note, there’s nothing wrong with either approach, and each has advantages and disadvantages based on a lot of other factors.

Even when one thinks of items – and by extension, itemization – as being “the things you drag from your inventory to your power tray that have a theoretical aesthetic physicality”, they can be very sneaky in where they appear.

Consider other things that are – functionally – 100% absolute items (no, not the vodka, though I do have an amazing horseradish vodka infusion I can sometimes be persuaded to share the recipe for):

All of these things are items – they affect or apply abilities or attributes to your character, maybe numbers, maybe aesthetic visuals, maybe new powers. They all come in gradations that encourage a player to seek out better versions of them over the course of a character’s progression.

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From a psychological point of view, itemization serves the same purpose thus as character power progression. That is, it is there to meter out rewards to stimulate a player’s lizard brain over as long a period as possible, since players playing more = less churn = longer longevity for a game.

Some may see this as some kind of free-to-play evil strategem, but the truth is it exists in games with an upfront box cost or, even, free games.

(Obviously, this can go too far, leading to a feeling of grind, but that’s a topic for a different article.)

One of the particularly insidious and under appreciated aspects to itemization has to do with the inverse relation between choice and difficulty.

A game may theoretically have, say, a hundred different items for a particular slot, but how many of those are actually valid? How many are too low level, or lower quality levels, or combinations of effects that can’t be used by the same build of a character? How many are inappropriate for a class, or involve attribute bonuses that do not scale as well as other attributes?

In other words, the total number of possible items is usually quite theoretical. In some games, this can rapidly lead to, for any particular character, there only ever being a very small number of viable items – or sometimes even just a single “best of slot” item.

It gets worse, though. Characters who are operating at very high levels of challenge in a game must often eschew aesthetics or play preferences to maximize their performance. This is particularly true of player-versus-player gameplay or group raids where social pressure itself can jack up the emphasis on very specific item sets.

A game that, at high levels of itemizations, is quite easy ironically offers more choices to a player for their character. The problem, of course, is that a game that is too easy will tend to result in higher rates of player churn with players eventually reaching a point where they grow bored and phase out of a game, either temporarily or permanently.

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Ultimately, itemization is about the rhythm and pacing of a character’s progression through the game.

How powerful does a game want a player to ever be able to get? How hard should it be for a character to reach that height? What should the difference be between the worst-geared character and the best-geared character?

Are these differences qualitative (i.e., different abilities outright) or quantitative (i.e., better in degree, not kind)? How often should a character get a new, actually usable item? If a character is swapping out old items for new items too fast, when does that actually become a negative in that the player no longer really cares about what they are slotting?

What about simply access to items?

A common itemization design strategy is to make certain avenues produce the “best of” for a particular slot or class. For example, maybe the best axe in a game can only be gained by crafting, while the best bow in a game can only be gained by a rare drop off a difficult-to-farm monster. This is popular, design-wise, because it ensures that different types of gameplay – in this case crafting and rare spawn farming – remain useful to players.

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This, of course, introduces yet another difficult design choice – trading rules.

Is there trading in the game? Are all items tradable? Okay, if not all items, what are the rules that determine which are tradable and which aren’t?

Mechanics like “Bind on Pickup” and “Bind on Equip” are primarily guards against inflationary game economies since if a game is escalating desired items (via this whole itemization thing we’ve been talking about) that means eventually the items you have will become useless, and if they aren’t tradable, they move out of the active economy.

The dangers of inflationary game economies have been widely talked about, but there are actually other, more subtle dangers that are much less often talked about. One of the worst of these involves the concept of analysis paralysis.

Analysis paralysis – or choice paralysis – happens when a person is facing so many choices for a particular course of action that they become incapable of making a rationally considered choice.

In this case, this means when a player is considering what is the best item to slot, or even what is the item one wishes to focus their anticipatory desire on. If most players can’t consider all the choices in a particular situation, then all the efforts at design in favor of normative decision making fall apart as players start to act in unpredicted ways, something that can drastically affect game balance and even things like zone distribution.

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At the end of the day, a player’s concerns are not identical to a designer’s concerns.

A player wants to want items. A player wants to feel like the time they are spending in getting that anticipated item is worthwhile and fair. A player wants to feel like they have genuine, understandable choices.

A designer wants these things as well, of course, but the designer also has to consider the difficulty of coming up with qualitative-yet-competitive abilities, with the effects of itemization on play patterns and game mode distribution. The designer also has to worry about minimizing the feeling of grind while maximizing development efficiency and speed (art and designer time is neither cheap nor fast).

Longevity of the itemization trajectory has to be kept in mind, and the effect of expansions and raising the level cap, in games that have that as a mechanic. Many have decried Blizzard’s rapid obsolescence of previously top-of-the-line gear with each new expansion, but the truth is without this, creating a fair level of difficulty across the full range of characters at the previous progression cap is exceedingly, brain-stabbingly problematic.

This, of course, only scratches the surface of the behemoth that is itemization, but hopefully it gives people a better idea of the complexities of the discipline and some of the unenviable devil’s choices designers often have to make when making and balancing a video game.

Clemency

Of all these times,
Do not lie to me now,
Admit here that anathema
Of sculpted aspiration.

Your winter denunciation of
That spring-dreamt future
Does not fall now upon deaf ears
Though only some devil
Of a distant hell
Might receive such imprecation
With favored smirk
Or guileless eye.

So unburden yourself now
Of that ill-spent guilt,
Speak plainly in place of
Those penitent lies.
Let Moira’s dice dance
Upon the osseous tableau
And grant clemency
To this end.

San Diego Comic-Con 2014

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I will be at San Diego Comic-Con 2014 in late July in a generally unofficial capacity, but would be happy to field a Q&A and general chat over lunch one of the days if there is any interest.

Obviously, I am most interested in talking about Org, but to the degree that I can I would be happy to talk Marvel Heroes, Star Trek Online, game design in general, how to get into the industry, historical methods for transforming oneself into a werewolf, or exchange zombie haiku.

Kidding about the zombie haiku.

(Actually, not kidding about the zombie haiku at all…)

Let me know what days there’s interest for either on this thread or messaged to me so I can gauge interest and such.

The Dreaded B-Word

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In the world of video game development, there are certain words that really should be four-letter words. Invoked on forums or uttered in whispered voices in the halls of game studios, these are the utterances that make the blood of designers and producers alike run cold with dread.

One of the most feared of these words?

Balance.

balĀ·ance [bal-uhns]

  1. To arrange, adjust, or proportion the parts of symmetrically.
  2. To have an equality or equivalence in weight, parts, etc.; be in equilibrium
  3. The act of weighing factors, quantities, etc, against each other
  4. To assess or compare the relative weight, importance, etc, of

The first problem with balance is that perfect balance is, in a word, boring.

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This was, in fact, probably the primary undoing of the 4th edition of the popular pen-and-paper game Dungeons & Dragons. The result of well-meaning design by a group of very sharp designers, this edition deviated sharply from the path of previous editions. Classes were placed in strict balance using common mechanics that resulted in the difference between a wizard’s spells and a rogue’s combat maneuvers being essentially aesthetic.

In an MMORPG such as Guild Wars or ARPGs like Diablo III or Marvel Heroes this presents a particular challenge to a designer: How do you architect character design that both presents interesting and differentiated tactical options that maintains a sense of equality between characters?

The second problem with game balance is that balance is ugly and messy precisely because by its nature it must incorporate a multi-dimensional matrix of playstyles, skill levels, and philosophical design preferences.

Because some players are expecting a game to reward character effectiveness based on progression time while other players are anticipating a game to reward character effectiveness based on player skill, for example, at aiming, or more esoterically, by dint of tactical decision-making, problems can readily arise in a game design.

If the design opts for consistency – for example, philosophically always focusing on player skill as the primary determinant – then there is a risk of significantly limiting the types and variety of game mechanics available for a designer to differentiate characters.

Even in the case of such a design decision the ground can quickly become muddied, however. Different skill mechanics will inevitably be picked up faster or slower by different players – what one player finds an intuitive, effective skill mechanic may seem hopelessly obtuse by another player.

True, some mechanics will tend to require a higher degree of learning time by most players, but this is far less true then is commonly presumed.

All of which is a long way of saying:

Players will generally assume balance is objective, when balance is in fact almost always subjective.

How, then, can a designer approach this with a minimum of collateral damage?

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The first tool at a designer’s disposal is simply math.

While it is true that perfect balance has a dangerous tendency to be boring, the methodical use of standardly-applied formulas. The initial formula – whatever it is – is, however, ultimately less important than the twining of that formula directly into the damage, health, resistances, and other attributes for player’s characters and any enemies or allies they interact with.

For example, most of Cryptic Studios‘ games’ power systems are based on an especially elegant set of spreadsheets that link all of these attributes together in a network of explicitly defined relationships.

A designer can define, say, the number of basic hits a particular class of enemy should fall to, and this will automatically reverberate throughout the attributes of friends and foes alike. Health and damage are automatically shifted based on the defined relationships between these various factors.

While this is, to be sure, useful in the initial design, the real benefit of this approach is that it creates a long-term system that can be adjusted and modified based on feedback.

The second tool at a designer’s disposal is the creation of explicitly defined playstyle schemas.

While it is possible to haphazardly assign power and ability availability to characters, categorization of powers can make it much easier to identify significant imbalances.

For example, categorization could be explicitly defined by speed of effect (instant, damage/healing over time, instant plus over time, delayed). Categorization might also be defined by type of effect (damage, healing/recovery, crowd control, resistances/control breaks).

This all might seem obvious, but the reality is that whatever the initial implementation there is a real tendency in the furor of operating in a live development environment for this kind of explicit categorization to be forgotten.

(It should also be noted that I am not saying what types of categorization one should group together or even have – just that defining these explicitly, and establishing how and when these are used, can help with not only the players’ understanding of the way the rules in your game work, but in maintaining internal designer consistency.)

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The third tool at a designer’s disposal is the iteration loop.

No matter how skilled a designer is, no matter how big your studio’s QA team is, no matter how many internal playtests your studio runs, the fact remains that the moment a game hits the battlefield – meaning a live environment – a design’s assumptions and expectations for normative behavior will be fractured.

Some elements will, to be sure, survive this process. Some will not. Predicting which is which is problematic, to put it very mildly. The solution is the iteration loop.

Iterating rapidly (and safely) requires, first, effective internal tools that have been proven to work with the game design that has actually been built. Far too often, the game one winds up building is not the game one originally expected to be built, and a common casualty of this is ill-fitted tools.

Internal testing, both by design teams themselves (a practice sometimes termed “eating your own dogfood”) and by QA teams can allow a team to reach a reasonable level of polish. Once that level of polish has been achieved, focus groups of white listed players and, eventually, beta tests on test servers can garner a great deal of subjective feedback.

Subjective feedback is, to be honest, a rat’s nest beset with several problems:

  • Players, whether internal or external, are generally very good at defining what they don’t like, but notoriously uneven in their ability to accurately define why they don’t like something.
  • Players without access to the internal workings of game mechanics can become subject to what I call “the Joseph Campbell effect”, where functionality that doesn’t in fact exist is assumed to exist despite claims to the contrary, creating a kind of mythos of the way the game works. Many claims of improper random number generation fall into this category. (This is one of the reasons I am a fervent advocate of transparency to players with game mechanics, as that reduces this particular issue).
  • Most people have trouble separating their own aesthetic preferences from an objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of a system as it relates to accomplishing an identified design goal.

Metrics are the final tool at the disposal of a designer seeking game balance by means of iteration. Different studios have different standards and place different priorities on how important metrics will be.

My own experience is that while dedicating committed engineering and design resources to the gathering of game metrics is, yes, expensive, it pays for itself with a lot left over in the area of long-term community satisfaction and retention.

Lunule Fevers

I still recall that caliginous night,
Sallow street lights choking a cloying smog
It was nothing, she said, only a bite,
A lonely stray, she said, an outcast dog.

No fool was she, my now-lost Hannah Cao,
But rabies shots and antibiotics
Must fail before what nature does endow
With course of tainted blood the moon predicts

Flesh and bone folding like a paper cup,
Fever annexes an aberrant fear
In newborn wrath to a sanguine worship
Her claws like knives, her teeth a fateful spear.

Now sixteen days gone her scent still lingers,
And lunule fever through me now slithers…