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Player Perspectives: The Tyranny of Items

Columns By Isabelle Parsley on November 12, 2010

The Tyranny of Items

When I listen to regional or global chat in games these days, most of the discussion centers on items – how to get them, where to get them, which are better, how much it’s going to cost (in money or effort) to get them.


In MMOs these days, the almighty “Item” is king. Fun, on the other hand, seems to be falling by the wayside in order to accommodate our apparently ever-more voracious appetite for newer, phatter and shinier items. Personally, I don’t remember signing up for this endless focus on getting gear so I can fight bigger monsters and get even better stuff.

Even worse – in some games now, like WoW, if you don’t have exactly the right items with exactly the right item score (or whatever it is), people will A.) laugh at you and B.) refuse to let you play with them. “Sorry, your spade isn’t the right color! No sandcastles for YOU! Noob.”

I’ve never been particularly motivated by items. Maybe it’s something to do with my gaming generation. I started out playing pen’n’paper role-playing games, where getting phat loot was fun but was definitely subordinate to telling a good (okay, usually very silly and fall-off-chair funny) story. We occasionally told bloody and tragic stories where lots of people died – sometimes even our beloved characters – but most of the time it was high-jinks and high-silliness, fueled by too much junk food, late nights and an abundance of good company.

That’s not to say I didn’t like my stuff. Hell, I will never forget the time a friend ran the old AD&D Hill Giants modules, in which the characters basically got ambushed and woke up pretty much nekkid. That day I realized quite how attached my ranger had become to her back-talking, overly-smart, really annoying magical sword (that also kicked butt and had some wicked bonuses). Getting said sword had been grueling and memorable in its own right and she loved it, in a purely platonic way. She also had some sort of girdle of giant strength, which came in handy because everyone else in the party was either an inveterate coward or a robe-wearing finger-waggler, so she was usually the one taking the hurt. (For the uber-geeks among you, I’m talking about the original series of modules for 1st Ed AD&D; none of your recent re-run stuff. Yes, I’m that old.)

But that was a special case. I couldn’t tell you what any of my other tabletop RPG characters owned, though I could tell you who everyone else in our regular group was and what our horses, ships and other vehicles were all called. We had a phase of naming steeds & ships after Iain M Banks’ Culture Ships, for instance; our noble Spelljammer ship (okay, overgrown phlogiston-navigating dinghy) was called the Malicious Intent and ended up getting painted in psychedelic patterns during one memorable session. If a druid tells you the mushrooms are perfectly safe to eat, do not believe them!

But I digress. Point is, I remember people and events but the stuff, however shiny, was incidental to the creation of awesome gaming memories.

And yet in MMOs these days, we end up chasing the loot more than we do anything else; it’s part of the design of the games we play, so presumably it’s something we wanted. Right?

Like I said, I don’t remember signing up for that. In my first few MMOs there wasn’t a huge focus on items – they were nice to get, sure, but they weren’t the main reason we were playing. Not by a long shot. Asheron’s Call had very random loot drop tables and you could get some pretty nice stuff without a whole lot of effort; but the game wasn’t designed around using item combo XYZ in order to be able to defeat monsters A B and C, so it didn’t really matter. There were a few items you could “quest” for (I use the term loosely as far as AC was concerned) but again, if you didn’t have them you weren’t really at that much of a disadvantage. I didn’t do any PvP in that game so I can’t comment on whether it affected that aspect of things; again, it was probably important to some extent (and became more so as the game evolved) but I don’t think it was the be-all and end-all of player-killing.

Star Wars Galaxies went even further and had no item drops to speak of in the beginning. Everything people used was crafted by other players. You could harvest meat and hides off dead beasts, but mobs didn’t generally drop half a suit of armor or a really cool gun. Gear did have its place and did make a difference in combat, but you didn’t quest or kill stuff for it – you made it or bought it from someone who had.

And you know what? I never spent a single minute of my play-time thinking “Man, I wish there was more stuff I could loot off these corpses! I wish NPCs would stand around offering me insanely long quest chains so I can get a new pair of boots that is 0.005% better that my current set of boots. Then my gaming life would really be complete!”

Sad to say, both AC and SWG are much more item-centric now, especially SWG. And yes, there are NPCs in Mos Eisley and everywhere else who will offer you insanely long quest chains so you can get those new boots.

Personally, I don’t think it’s an improvement to my game-play. I am the rat, the game is the maze, and the ever-shinier items are the bits of cheese. Press a button here, kill a monster there, escort some hapless stranger I’d rather kill over there… and if I do it right, I get to do it all again tomorrow for a different-flavored piece of cheese.

I’m not saying we should do away with items altogether, but I am questioning whether that’s really all most of us play for. Am I that different from the norm? Or is it that items are just a good and relatively easy way of saying “look at all the cool stuff our game has!” and of structuring player game-time? Because if you don’t provide structure, chances are your supposedly attention-deficit stricken gaming audience will take its subscription and in-game store money to some other game, and if enough of them do that the game’s revenue dries up.

Game companies are in the business of making money and it’s naïve to think otherwise, for all that they also provide entertainment. But if you’re not paying them to play, one way or another, they won’t be able to keep making content and items and fancy festival ponies for players to enjoy. Maybe that’s why it’s so much about the repetition and the endless round of shiny-acquisition and less and less about actually designing fun. Yes, we make our own fun – but the devs help that process, or used to. These days it seems to be all about the next killer dungeon with the next killer items.


Isabelle Parsley /