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2:07pm on Sunday, 12th April, 2015:



Last week, I was asked (by Morgan Ramsay) if I'd write something about bind-on-pickup and bind-on-account items in MMOs. I said I would when I next had time and nothing obvious to write about, which appears to be the case today.

So, objects in MMOs didn't used to work the way they do now. MMOs had wacky physics models in which dropping an object wouldn't cause it to evaporate on contact with the ground. Other people could pick up stuff you dropped. Imagine what kind of a crazy universe you'd have to live in if that were possible in real life!

OK, so this is indeed how Reality works. Textual worlds worked the same way, because if you want to make players feel that the virtual world is real, it's easier if said players don't come across unrealistic behaviours. It's bad enough that they have to will themselves to believe that magic works; if they also have to will themselves to believe that mundane physics is magical then that's unimmersive.

Now, it's fine for textual worlds to have objects lying around on the ground, but for graphical worlds it's costly. First of all, you have to store in your run-time database the locations of whatever trash people have left lying around, which clogs it up in a way that doesn't happen if you have a node-based world (as text worlds generally do). Secondly, someone has to create a model of the object so that you can see it on the ground (at least for 3D worlds).

Now both these are tractable problems. The first one can be solved by having objects rot (despawn) after a few minutes. The second one can be solved by having lots of objects that are reskinnings of each other or by hiring more artists. At a pinch, you can just have a "there's something here" symbol that people click on to see (as a 2D image) what that thing is.

Being able to drop objects on the ground wasn't just for reasons of verisimilitude — it had gameplay potential. You could use objects as markers to map mazes, for example, or as traps or bait. If you're being chased by a wolf, then throwing a dead chicken on the ground might distract it (I know it would distract me). It was also possible to trade objects this way, although trade windows (graphics) and the GIVE command (text) were superior. Nevertheless, for 3D graphical worlds the cost of creating models for everything you wanted players to be able to hold in their inventory was large, so the movement away from being able to drop them was inevitable; besides, if you can't see that the giant moth you just killed was carrying a shield, you're less likely to think it's as stupid as it actually is.

Although dropping items became unfashionable, trade was still important: trade (whether through a trade window or through an auction house) is vital if you want your game to have an economy — which you generally do, although they're not actually essential. In any case, transferring objects between players was seen as being A Good Thing beyond merely oiling the economy. It meant that low-level characters could have access to better items when high-level characters upgraded. You would sell your +4 sword once you got your +5 sword, so a lower-level character could use it. This was called trickle-down, and was seen as a way of redistributing wealth. It wasn't without problems, though.

Firstly, it was possible to give extremely powerful objects to low-level characters (called twinks). They could cut through monsters that were supposed to be challenging as if they were made of butter. What's more, they could do the same to other characters of their own level in PvP. The solution adopted for this was to put limits on what objects players could use, so a sword intended for level 50 content couldn't be wielded until you were level 40, say. I personally don't like this approach: if you can wield a sword, you can wield a sword — the level of the sword shouldn't make much difference. What does makes a difference is your degree of skill. I'd have much preferred for a level 10 person wielding a level 50 sword to get only a minor advantage (because it's sharper, say, but they're not skilled enough to exploit this properly). However, by now the ill-conceived shift of stats from character to equipment was well established, so it wasn't an option. If you're only as good as your gear, then to stop people from becoming too good you have to limit their access to too-good gear.

The second problem with trickle-down was that characters accumulated at the high end. This meant there were more players selling high-level things than there were buyers for it. Coupled with the inflation that typically accompanies levels (1GP at level 20 could seem a fortune, but at level 60 could seem a pittance) and the higher-level objects were practically given away. This annoyed high-level players who felt that their uber-elite armour ought to be worth more than next-to-nothing, and it also meant anyone could have over-powered gear if they sought it out. To fix this properly, gear should have been damaged more in combat (it's usually combat gear we're talking about here) and have a half life before it disintegrates beyond repair. You can imagine how popular that would have been among the players, though. The introduction of bind-on-equip and bind-on-use mitigated this by allowing players to sell stuff they found but didn't need, while preventing them from selling things they had used but no longer needed. It's a hack, though (as are BOP and BOA).

The third problem with trickle-down was that sometimes it was trickle-up. In worlds with meaningful penalties for getting killed, why would you send your main character into a dangerous zone when you could send in an alt whom you didn't mind getting killed? Having died on your alt a few times obtaining something stealthily, you could then pass what you got on to your main. This became less of a problem as MMOs relaxed death penalties to the current slap-on-the-wrist levels, though.

The fourth and final problem with trickle-down was what eventually brought about BOP: trickle-sideways. Some objects in MMOs are very powerful and rare. You can only get a shot at obtaining them every few days, success is not guaranteed, and even if after 4 hours you down the boss that may drop what you want, there's a good chance it won't. Ah, but what if someone else already has the item you want? They could give it to you! Hmm, but why would they do that if it's so powerful? Well, they might exchange it for real money. What happened, then, was that people started to farm rare items in order to sell them to other players. This increased the supply of the rare items (adding some imbalance, although not show-stopping amounts) and also competition to fight the bosses that dropped those items. There could be scores of people camping a location, waiting for a boss to appear so that they could attack it. Most of those people would be farmers, who were in effect imposing a toll on the regular players: if you want this rare object, that you could get far more easily if we weren't here, you'll have to pay for it. Shifting the bosses to instanced content removed this camping aspect of the problem, but it meant that farmers didn't have to compete with each other — each group could have its own, private boss to kill. This greatly increased the supply of rare objects, which then sometimes did create imbalance by a show-stopping amount.

In response to this, highly-desirable objects were made bind-on-pickup. This meant they couldn't be traded. If someone had one, the only way they could get it was to kill the boss that dropped it. This restored the supply to its intended levels and removed at a stroke the quite legitimate complaints coming from some players that other players were buying success. The related issue of uniqueness (objects that you can only have one of) came later, and in turn led to special currencies for buying BOP objects so you could grind possession of them if the drops didn't go your way. That's another story, though.

Bind-on-account was an innovation that allowed players to transfer goods to their own twinks, but not to those of other players. It breaks the fiction of a world even more, as an account is a concept from a reality external to that of the virtual world itself and is therefore not something that is meaningful within it. You do occasionally get some scant cover, such as the legacy system in Star Wars: the Old Republic, but it's never persuasive.

My own view is that BOP is a necessary evil in the current MMO paradigm, but that the current MMO paradigm is in dire need of an overhaul anyway. The issues that BOP (and BOE and BOU) addresses can be solved in other ways — large numbers of small-population servers rather than small numbers of large-population servers, for example — and as a result the worlds will become more realistic, persuasive and therefore more immersive than they currently are.

Putting the equivalent of biometric passwords on swords makes no sense. Putting it on armour makes more sense (because armour should only fit people who are roughly the same size), but the way it's implemented using BOP it either fits you so well that you can't even give it to someone else or it will fit them even if they're a female gnome and you're a male orc (because BOE makes it conform to the shape of the first being to don it).

If you want to visit another reality, it has to feel like a reality. BOP, BOE, BOU and especially BOA interfere with this, which is why ultimately I'd like to see them all go.

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Copyright © 2015 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).