Inherent flaws with Item Management

I have survived yet another semester, so I thought “huh, my brain couldn’t possibly be fried enough, I should write about a quintessential aspect of game design that I am incredibly unqualified to talk about!” I also thought I should go into more detail about my general thoughts on the topic since I bitched about it in my last two posts.

Managing items is a core mechanic in almost every type of game. For the sake of my time and your sanity, I’m going to focus on the game mechanic of managing consumables. More specifically, it’s gonna be a focus on healing consumables, healing mechanics, and how they can interact with other parts of a system.

Consumables in games are simply items that you collect to nosh on when needed. These can be your health potions, your ammo, your stat buffs, etc. Anything you pick up to use up is a consumable.

Consumable items have this very interesting incentive system that seems backwards at first. This whole section is gonna cover a lot of obvious ideas, but I think they can easily be forgotten when it comes to game design. Not to insult your savvy consumerist intelligence, but More = Good and Less = Bad. This inherent quality of consumables incentivizes the player not to use items at all. That consumable is gone and unavailable for the next encounter. A “good” player dunks on dudes without getting hit. A “bad” player gets his cheeks clapped and has to gulp Grammy’s soup. A “good” player is rewarded by saving his supplies while a “bad” player is punished by using up an item. This even effects the difficulty of future encounters. This dynamic results in an incentive to stockpile consumables.

However, it is important to note that this on its own is not necessarily an issue. Not all consumables effect overall mechanics enough to have a negative effect on an entire game. In the Soulsborne games (Dark souls 1-3, Bloodborne, Sekiro), There are several consumables that work in very specific situations. There are items that apply elemental effects to weapons to deal more damage if they exploit an enemy’s weakness. There are also consumables that heal specific status effect the play may contract, like poison (everyone’s favorite) or bleeding. Because these items work under specific situations, they are less useful for the overall game, which in turn makes it less of a “punishment” to use them. Where I believe this issues of stockpiling can really negatively effect a game is when it comes to healing mechanics.

Healing mechanics have a massive effect on every aspect of a game. It determines a player’s play style, how much grinding a player needs to do and whether a player survives or dies each and every encounter. The way that both healing and item management mechanics so thoroughly effect the core game play of any given game, mismanagement of these systems can completely ruin a game.

When it comes to these mechanics and how they interact, a huge mistake a game designer can make is to have healing be instantaneous in a menu. I covered a good example of this negative impact in my last post on Prey’s difficulty curve. Combat was trivial by the last half of the game because of the ridiculous amounts of healing items you can have and the way you can chow down eight health packs at a time in a menu. A Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had this same exact issue as well. You can collect a bunker’s worth of food with little to no effort and munch em all in an instance. The only difficulty in BOTW comes from whether baddie can squash you in one hit. I could write an entire blog post on Breath of the Wild’s combat system but I gotta move on.

This isn’t to say that all consumable healing systems (even menu based ones) are bad. Many survival horror games pull it off! The (good) Silent Hill games and the (good) Resident Evil games have systems where you collect healing items and you can use them in a menu instantly. However, all of these games have a very “closed” system. They are linear games so the game designers can easily balance every encounter and every item drop. They can assume and test how a situation might go for a player according to what items they might have and what they had previously encountered. When I played my first run through of these games, it always felt like I had just enough to get through each encounter and I found just enough to survive the next encounter.

There are also games with consumable systems that don’t tie back to the game’s healing mechanics. Legend of Zelda games (excluding BOTW) have a limited number of healing consumables a player can carry (the number of bottles they have) and a majority of healing comes from finding hearts from pots, grass or enemies. The Soulsborne series also has pseudo-consumable healing system, with the Estus flasks and blood vials, in conjuncture with a normal consumable systems . Stockpiling isn’t possible in this series because the healing items refill at each checkpoint. Healing also happens in real time which requires the player to go through an uninterruptible animation. A poorly timed heal can end up killing a player.

I better conclude this before I end up writing an entire thesis! Healing systems that rely on consumables can result in many issues because of their inherent incentives. Players will hoard where they can because of the simple idea that having more items is good and having less items is bad. This whole issue can be avoided in several ways, including different healing systems that do not rely on collecting items or having a thoroughly designed balance between difficulty and tools that a player has. This is crucial because both item systems and healing systems are so integral to a game’s core mechanics.

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