Better Gear Management and The False Promise of Build Switching in MMOs
I haven't gone off on a good inventory management-related rant for a while, but the latest news coming from Rift has inspired me. It's not because Trion is doing anything wrong with the game; in fact, I like what it's attempting to do and I wish that more MMOs would follow its example.
The opening paragraph of the dev blog explaining Planar Fragments pretty much says it all:
Do you fill multiple roles in group content? Are you tired of carrying around all that extra gear that clutters up your inventory? Are you frustrated with needing twice as many item drops of everyone else?
One of the most common MMO trends of the past few years is the ability for a single character to fulfill multiple roles. Many games, Rift not the least among them, tout the ability to switch from a DPS build to a tanking build to a healing build with a single click. Other games might be a little less convenient, requiring you to visit an NPC and/or rearrange a few traits or skills, but it's still a heck of a lot quicker than making a totally new character. It's easy! It's convenient! It's fast!
There's a catch, though: gear. Your character's DPS gear is probably going to be ill-suited for tanking or other roles. If you really want to be an efficient multipurpose character, you'll need to switch that as well... which means grinding out additional sets of gear... which means carrying them around in your bags... which means swapping all of them out when you want to switch roles. “One-click build switching,” my legendary ass.
Enter Rift's Planar Fragment system, coming in the Starfall Prophecy expansion, which... solves that issue? To be honest, I had trouble fully understanding the system as described in the dev blog, and even Magicman, MMOBomb's resident Rift expert, thought it sounded “needlessly complex.” Hey, it wouldn't be Rift if there wasn't some mind-bendingly confusing system, right? Still, I'm going to assume that the blog's initial claim – that Planar Fragments will greatly reduce the need to swap gear when swapping builds – is true.
I think there would be a simpler way to do things, if a game was brand new, but trying to retrofit a system like this into a five-year-old game probably does require some convoluted rejiggering so as to fit within the existing framework of the game and not overly piss off existing players. Plus, it sounds like the acquisition and improvement of Planar Fragments is a different form of gear grind – ideally, one that requires less work than would be needed to completely outfit yourself with a second (or third) set of gear to fill different roles. So Rift's system might make things easier in the end, but getting there is probably still a chore.
I'm not suggesting that you shouldn't have to do any work whatsoever to have access to all stat permutations. MMOs still need you to grind out that gear, after all. What I would ideally envision is something like the cosmetic systems found in some MMOs, like Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft. Once you've acquired a piece of gear, its look is “unlocked” and you can equip that appearance with minimal hassle and without having to keep the gear in your inventory or bank.
Something like that could theoretically work for gear, whether based around individual stats or combinations, such as “light DPS chest” or “medium healing gloves” or “tanking sword.” There would still be plenty of things to unlock – and you might have to do some or all of it again once the level cap is raised – so I don't think this would make the process of acquiring gear any easier. It would just make managing it easier once it's acquired.
Go immerse yourself
I suppose there's some argument to be made for “immersion,” going something along the lines of “Why should tanking heavy armor be instantly switchable to DPS heavy armor?” To me, this is just adherence to “the way things have always been done” and doesn't hold much water when examined against other MMO conventions we've grown far more accepting of for their ubiquitous nature.
MMO gear management is already nonsensical in terms of realism. You shouldn't be able to carry 12 suits of armor in your backpack or change into them in less than a minute's time. Not to mention how banks in different towns always have your items, and where exactly was that boar hiding the greatsword you just looted? None of those make sense either, but we've all grown so used to having to micromanage our individual gear pieces that any change, even if it would make things better or at least more convenient, is met with skepticism. I'd rather play my game than spend hours fiddling with my inventory, so give me convenience over immersion any day.
The next time I hear about a new MMO that lets you switch builds quickly, I'm going to ask if the same applies to the gear required for those builds. Maybe it's not the most vital question that can be posed, but the initial claim seems a little deceptive to me. If you're going to claim that your game makes different builds easy to manage, you should actually make them easy to manage, and not just pay the concept the most basic lip service.
About the Author
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.
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