Friday, March 9, 2018

Trash (Go Pick It Up)

Telwyn wrote a thoughtful post a week or so back on new uses for junk items. It's one of those perennials that come up periodically in discussions about MMORPGs. I seem to remember arguing about it back on TNZ, the old EverQuest Newbie Zone forums, around the turn of the century.

There's always been a strong body of opinion that believes MMOs should have no "trash drops" . Things with no reason to exist other than to be sold vendors for cash have no reason to exist, period. The lobby for nothing but coin drops existed even back when when dropped coin had weight.

In this post-F2P world there's a conspiracy theory that claims vendor loot has a secret purpose - to create demand for the inventory slots and bag expanders on sale in the cash shop. There may even be a grain of truth in that one.

I recall very clearly how surprised - shocked even - I was by the extremely limited inventory space in one of the earlier F2P titles I played, Allods Online. It did seem that part of the financial plan there included making things awkward enough that you'd want to buy your way out of a bind.

The theory doesn't really hold water, though. Trash drops long predate the F2P concept, let alone the dominance of that particular payment model. What's more, just about every MMORPG I ever played uses inventory space as a form of character, account or guild progression.

Yesterday I wrote about my excitement over having the opportunity to quest for a 32 slot bag. I completed it last night and it was one of the more satisfying things I've done in GW2 for a while. ArenaNet funds itself primarily via cash shop sales (between expansions, at least) but you can't buy bags for gems. You can buy extra inventory slots but if you want big bags to go in them you have to "quest" for them or craft them.

EQ and EQ2, post F2P, both have active cash shops. They'll sell you bags but it's not the best way to get them. Each game has a wealth of baroque and complex in-game paths for both adventurers and crafters to obtain large containers. Bag quests are a staple and a new tier of slightly larger crafted bags and boxes forms a regular, expected and essential part of the offer in any expansion that also comes with a level cap increase.

So, no, I don't believe trash drops are there just to pad cash shop sales. There must be other reasons why they exist. Someone has to sit at a desk and design them all, draw the illustrations, come up with the names, write the little descriptions. It doesn't just fall out of the sky - or out of a wolf's gutted corpse - without a little help from someone being paid good money to make it happen.

I have a vague memory of reading a developer interview once that discussed the use of vendor loot as a social engineering mechanism. By filling your bags with things that have no use other than to be sold to vendors you can ensure that players return periodically to set points, the places where those vendors stand. With the addition of other services like banks and auction houses you can create social hubs where players can meet and bond and the game can come to life.

Something like that did used to happen, back in the day. Still does, in new MMOs, for a short while. Indeed, if you could travel back in time to the dawn of the 3D MMO, you'd find players forming relationships with other players based on transactions that centered purely on trash loot. A whole evening's gameplay might amount to one player waiting just inside a dungeon to buy vendor trash off other players who felt they were too busy to run all the way to the next zone just to sell. There were people who really did want to be known as "that guy that'll sell your crap for you".

Then there's the realism argument. It might be convenient to have every animal drop a few silver coins but where would a wolf keep his wallet? Wouldn't it be a little more convincing for a rat to drop a tail or a set of whiskers rather than 70 copper?

Nice idea, seldom thought through. Clearly someone was thinking along those lines when they designed and created all those animal body parts that have no function other than to be sold to vendors (we'll leave the question of why those vendors want to buy such utterly useless items for another time...).

Unfortunately, someone else must have had oversight of the final loot table because those rats and wolves often ended up dropping weapons and armor and spell components anyway. Depending on the MMO, there might be some attempt at consistency, with gear drops limited to the kind of creature that could use them - bandits, orcs, goblins - but as often as not the drop table seemed to have more to do with the level and the zone than the creature you were killing.

Over time there's also a retro-fitting effect, whereby things that used not have a use acquire one. Sometimes developers will incorporate existing trash drops into new recipes and something that no-one wanted suddenly finds a demand. Mostly, though, trash is trash and stays that way.

Which makes it all the more surprising that someone behind the scenes puts so much effort into it. In many MMOs I've played the tiny spot illustrations for vendor loot have been exquisite. In EQ, back before SOE added housing, I used to hoard some of the more attractive vendor drops just to give my characters the illusion they owned something beautiful.

In GW2 right now, there's someone sitting in an office writing piquant, delicate prose about coffee pots and buckle prongs destined for nothing better than the "Sell Junk" button. I always used to wonder who drew the short straw when it came to writing the "thank you" notes that came in the mail after you completed a Heart. This seems almost a step below that.

It has to be the office junior or the intern, doesn't it? Or maybe someone really just loves doing it. Maybe some dev sits there writing this stuff in his lunch break or begs her boss "it'll only take me a few minutes". Once again, just about every MMO I've ever played is stiff with flavor text. That deserves a whole post of its own.

Whatever the reasons behind its existence I would really miss vendor loot should it ever disappear. It adds granularity and context. Yes, it can be annoying when it fills the last few spaces in your already overfilled bags but without annoyances like that I'd maybe start to feel I was playing a game, not living a virtual life.

I wouldn't be adverse to some of Telwyn's suggestions, all the same. Just because you can't equip something doesn't mean you should have to sell it to a vendor. I'm not wedded to an infinite series of trips to the store for a few silver a time.

What I'd really like is the equivalent of an in-game Panini sticker album, where I could collect all those little icons and captions to browse and enjoy at leisure. Add something like that and suddenly those vendors might find themselves in competition with players willing to pay a whole lot more than a few coppers - for the rare stuff, at least.


  1. If you want to create a hierarchy of value, where some things are better or valuable than others, then you need cheap or bad items, in addition to the good or valuable items. I heard a developer of ARPG's explain this in response to a question about why "white" or common items drop in such profusion.

    ARPG's of course have exquisitely tuned systems for making player salivate over drops, and finding the prefect gear. That's why people buy them!

    Perhaps such a dynamic is in play with vendor junk in MMORPG's? It makes the usable drops seem that much more valuable. Though GW2's loot system is kind of a special case, I recall it being widely panned at launch. Not much that drops is actually directly usable. Perhaps then vendor junk serves to make salvageable drops seem more important?

    - Simon

    1. That's a very good point. I have seen the opposite happen in several MMOs - indeed it has happened in GW2 - where over time things that were seen as valuable become very little more than vendor loot because of power creep. The usual solution is to make them salvageable into crafting mats or to add some quest or bounty that allows you to hand them in for faction/reward.

      I find the ARPG loot system fascinating. It has absolutely the reverse effect on me to what the developers intended. I can't play ARPGs for more than five minutes without getting the overwhelming sense that what I'm doing is utterly pointless. That comes mostly from the items being signed as "useful" when they are in fact useless. If you're throwing away 99% of everything you get while looking for the elusive 1%, why make any of the throwaway stuff "magic"? I'd be much more likely to play an ARPG if that 99% was unequippable trash loot made to vendor.

  2. I think it was an "early lootbox" mechanic, where the corpse of the wolf is the lootbox. You can get a good drop or you can get a bad one. The existence of bad one somehow implies the existence of a good one more than gold coins.

    I remember when WoW introduced bonus rolls on bosses, you could get loot (out of nowhere), or "You won gold", which was an euphemism to "you lost" to the point where my GF used the term when something went wrong in real life (like opening a box of eggs, finding the eggs broken). I feel it would be more appropriate if the bonus loot would give TRASH instead of coins when you lose.

    1. Another very good point. I find it dispiriting to get nothing but coin drops, even when the coin is significant enough to matter. EverQuest always had certain mobs that dropped exceptionally large amounts of coin - Hill Giants were famous for it - and they were naturally camped 24/7 as though they were ATMs. Even they dropped quite a few other items as well, though. If they'd only dropped coin it would have seemed really off, I think.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide