Tag Archives: Game Design

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.

Difficulty Curve in Prey

My experience with Prey is much like the tragic lifespan of the noble avocado. The game is good at the beginning and only gets better and better as they throw more challenges at you. The game’s mechanics become more realized and “ripe.” The game reaches this peak excitement… then the next thing you know the game is rotten. It becomes easy, you no longer need to be cautious and you feel like you’ve seen it all before. In the post I wanted to talk about why Prey turns into some mad suck at this point of the game.

Before I get into some of Prey’s issues, I wanted to say that I had an incredible amount of fun with the game. It probably has one of the greatest introductions in any game I have ever played. It has great world building, level design, some of the mechanics are super unique and they mesh very well together. I recommend trying it out for yourself before I starting dunking all over it. I know a lot of people who love this game and I can’t blame them. When the game’s systems work how the developers intended, the game is great! The issues that I did have the game did not ruin the experience for me on their own. They compounded and made each other issue much worse.

In Prey, you navigate a space station that has been taken over by a hostile alien race called the Typhon. The first type of typhon you come across is the mimic, a small spider like creature that can perfectly imitate any object that is similar in size. You need to use visual clues to find them before they smack you some. I played Prey on Hard mode (cuz im hardcors as yall knows) and these suckers can do some real damage. This such an incredible enemy design! I started playing this game like it was a survival horror, slowly sneaking through rooms just they dont jump me and vacate my bowels! Sadly, as one of the game’s many upgrades, you can scan a room and find any hiding mimic, which totally ruin anything that made them interesting. In trying to give the player a sense of progression, they stripped away one of the game’s most interesting mechanics.

Another mechanic in Prey that starts strong but slowly deteriorates is the item management systems. Prey has an incredibly interesting item system where you can break down objects into base components, take those components, and turn them into useful items (as long as you have the schematics for the item you are trying to make). This creates an incredible game play loop where you have to manage a balance of useful items you intend to keep and total junk you can break down to make more useful shit. You could argue that Prey’s item management system might be the game’s most integral system. How stocked you are on health packs and ammo affect how you approach combat. In Prey, you unlock new abilities by spending “neuromods”, which can also be crafted after a certain point of the game. The upgrades change how you solve problems and turn aliens into mush. When you reach the point in Prey when your character is all decked out in fully upgraded weapons, a huge carrying capacity, and a shit ton of upgrades, you lose this need to conserve and and stockpile items. I killed dudes easily, I had more than enough health kits to gobble down that made playing recklessly viable, and I had enough shotgun shells to fill a swimming pool. Once you reach this point, you lose any weight that these mechanics had.

Another factor in Prey’s decline is the way enemies provide new challenges to the player. Prey’s baddies take many different shapes and sizes and they have many different ways to combat them. It’s a puzzle to find out what items work best against each type of enemy. Like before, this design decision works great at first when you are still encountering new enemies, forcing you to learn on the fly the best way to deal with the situation. You feel great when you use your liberal arts, big brain education to figure out “trick” to take out a new enemy, but this aspect is about as deep as knowing whether you should throw rock, paper, or scissors. When you discover a baddie’s weakness, fights with them become trivial. Even the “Hardest” enemies in the game can be taken down in a few seconds if you are using the right weapon. By the end of the game when you’ve seen all the different types of enemies the game has to offer, it feels like you’re solving the same puzzles you already solved 80 times before.

Okay so what’s the take away? What beautiful wisdom must I impart upon your squishy grey matter? Prey’s issues stem from a bad balance between progression and difficulty. The game’s mechanics rely on a player’s lack of experience or their lack of earthly possessions. They work in the beginning of the game but fall apart by the end.

Prey is amazing when it’s mechanics are first becoming realized to the player. They all fit together perfectly and build on one another. It creates this balancing act where every decision you make matters and effects every other mechanic. However, when one part of this engine becomes trivial, the rest get dragged down with it. Easy combat makes the item management and the upgrade system pointless. Having way too many items stockpiled allows you to play recklessly and result with the player not taking combat seriously. When the player gets a million upgrades, your damage output becomes massive so you can spray down any enemy in a second. All of these issues get worse before they get better, resulting in a game that works wonderfully at the beginning but turns foul by the end.

Some Early Thoughts on The Outer Worlds

Okay y’all, we gotta keep this fresh, keep it popping. Keep ahead of the pack, pump out some piping hot pieces. I was going to write a 40 page thesis on why Fortnite is the Rosetta Stone of our Gamerz rich culture but some South Dakota boy scouts griefed me and said many rude things about my mother. So I guess I’ll talk about Outer Worlds or whatever.

Obsidian Game studio is picking up the torch that Bethesda has been fumbling for the past eight year. Obsidian has a nice history of showing bigger game studios how to actually make good games. The game plays almost exactly like fallout 3 or New Vegas with its major differences being in the gun play. You make a character by mashing up their face, deciding what they suck at and what they’re good at, and adding some garnish through perks and background junk. You find yourself in a foreign world, you run errands for complete strangers, and you make decisions that affect how the game will turn out. You pick up trash, discover better trash, eat some trash, etc. It has all the Fallout thangs. So far in my 12ish hours of playing, I’ve had an incredibly good time.

The writing and world building are easily the best part about the game. Your character awakes in a futury, space, capitalist dystopia. The Corporations that own almost all of the galaxy treat the people who live in it like property. They are corrupt, ever expansive and ever present. The way the game portrays the characters that live in this system is incredible! The residents of the galaxy are fully immersed in the society and will get genuinely angry with you if you questions the status quo. They put so much time in the writing that some characters will hold a conversation with for quite a while. The companions you can befriend in the game have very real motivations. They don’t join you for the “fantastical adventure” or because your character is a walking messiah. They’re just looking for a job and you’re looking for a crew.

Many of the game’s mechanics are wonderful! A game’s difficulty can be ruined by it’s healing system but I think Outer Worlds pulls it off for the most part. Healing happens outside of the menu and takes time. You take Adreno, which requires an unskippable animation and it takes time to take full effect. Enemies can charge you or gun you down before you can fully heal so timing is crucial. My only real complaint with it is an issue of abundance. You pick up so much healing junk, you won’t need to think twice before doing some healing suck.

Another great element in the game play is the time dilation ability. It is similar to Fallout’s VATS system, but it’s less of crutch. You slow down time and you plan out what kind of shots to make. When you are skilled enough at a certain types of weapons, you can apply effects on enemies depending on where you apply your hurt juice. You can apply a special effect with a shot to the chest, blind enemies with a shot to the head, and cripple with a shot to their legs. You can only really pull off two or three shots before it runs out so a majority of combat still happens in real time. When to use the mechanic and where to take your shots add a nice layer of complexity to the combat.

Some of the mechanics end up being so shallow they do not have a significant effect on the game play. There are only three types of ammo in the game, light rounds, heavy rounds and energy rounds. As you play the game, you will never come close to running out of rounds. Scarcity might have been an issue in the early game but once you’re a few hours in, you will be stockpiling around 1000 of each round. The worst part about this is that there is even a perk you can get that makes it so shop keepers have more rounds to sell to you. I never had to drop any money on ammo, let alone empty a shop.

Speaking of that, I also found the perk system to be quite lacking. While many of the perks in Fallout boiled down just being simple stat buffs, they were at least thematically interesting. They helped build your character’s story as well as give the player a sense of progression. Is my character especially good at killing the opposite sex for a deep seeded reason? Does my character have the ability to forcibly turn their enemies innards into their outtards? Do they have a relationship to a mysterious figure that comes in the nick of time to kill a molerat while a Deathclaw is turning your innards into your outtards? These things were interesting and fun to have! Outer worlds adds some clever writing to their perks but they just amount to a boring stat buffs.

Okay, I may sound a bit negative about the game but overall, I’m having some of the most fun playing a game I’ve had in a while. It is filling my western RPG hole that I desperately needed filled. The world is immersive, combat is a ton of fun, and it tells a story worth experiencing. If you’re a fan of the Fallout franchise or western RPGs, go get you some Outer Worlds.