Game Inventories

Game Inventories was a serial in five parts that ran here at from August 31st to September 28th 2016. Within it, pairs of games are examined, and the lineage connections between them are considered, especially in connection with inventory practices. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

Here are the five parts:

  1. Game Inventories (1): Minecraft and Dungeon Master
  2. Game Inventories (2): The Bard's Tale and Dungeons & Dragons
  3. Game Inventories (3): Diablo and Daggerfall
  4. Game Inventories (4): Resident Evil 4 and X-Com
  5. Game Inventories (5): EverQuest and MUDs

Special thanks to Erlend Grefsrud, Griddle Octopus, Doug Hill, Jacobo Luengo, Sketchwhale, Oscar Strik, VR Sam, Worthless Bums, and José Zagal for contributing to brief discussions on Twitter that helped shape this short serial. Additionally, and this always the case when I talk of the history of games, I am indebted to my friend and colleague Richard Boon. 

If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!

Game Inventories (5): EverQuest and MUDs

EverQuest 2 2004One final element of Minecraft’s inventory practices remains unaccounted for: the bar at the bottom that allows rapid access to the contents of the inventory. This is clearly an inventory practice that makes no sense at the tabletop, yet it will hardly be a surprise at this point to demonstrate that it too descends from a lineage that traces its departure point to Dungeons & Dragons. In this case, the pivotal game is Sony Online Entertainment’s EverQuest (1999), which is the first of the ‘graphical MUDs’ – what would become known as a Massively Multiplayer Role-playing Game or MMORPG. Pictured at the top here is an inventory window from EverQuest II (2004), which shows another conventional grid inventory, with the bottom three rows marked with keyboard shortcuts: this is what EverQuest termed a hotbar, and which comes to be known as a quickbar (styled in Minecraft’s case as a quick-bar).

EverQuest Hotbar 1999Tracing the practices of MMOs, or indeed any game that is run as a service, requires significantly greater effort than investigating games that were released as products. Game-as-services means constant changes and updates, and this makes archaeology difficult to adequately perform. Nonetheless, the picture here shows a very early (perhaps the first) form of the hotbar in the original EverQuest. The player is able to customise its contents by placing different actions (at this point primarily described in words e.g. “Melee Attack”) onto the bar, where it can be quickly clicked with the mouse, or activated with a hotkey. The name ‘hotbar’ is clearly a reference to the concept of a ‘hotkey’, which has its origin in the graphical interfaces of computer operating systems.

Dark Age of Camelot Quick Bar 2001 Dark Age of Camelot Quick Bar 2001It appears to be EverQuest’s early competitor Dark Age of Camelot (2001) which coins the term quickbar, and as with all games of this style, the design varies radically throughout its life. The images above depict one of the last versions of the iconography used (top), and the original green and gold iconography (bottom). The functionality, however, remains parallel to the equivalent practices of EverQuest.

Computer RPGs were already moving towards this kind of customisable inventory practice as the available hardware resources increased and games took advantage of this to add more functionality. The action bar at the bottom of the screen in Baldur’s Gate (1998) is a proto-quickbar, even though inventory items are a small part of the space allocated for it. Similarly, Diablo II (2000) offers a quickbar-like system that is presented as being part of the world of the game by linking its functionality to belt items. Each belt provides the capacity to access potions, with different belts having varying capacities. However, by Diablo III, this experiment had merged with the main lineage of quickbar practices, which blossomed in the MMORPGs. To appreciate why, we should examine the two decades before the first MMORPGs, and the lineages of the original multiplayer fictional worlds: MUDs.


MUD1 and its Descendants (1978)

When I met Richard Bartle in Dundee this year for the first international joint conference of DiGRA and FDG, where he was giving a keynote, I asked him about the influences that fed into MUD1, the 1978 game that took a simple database, hooked it up with a parser, and connected it to the outside world with BT’s packet switch stream (a precursor to the internet). Bartle was keen to play down the influence of the text adventures, admitting that the parser idea had come from them, but suggesting if it hadn’t been from games like Colossal Cave Adventure (1977) or Zork (1977/1980) it would have come from elsewhere. I’ve already suggested we should set aside such counter-factual reasoning: a history is a narrative that connects the events that occurred, and we should not be too distracted by mere possibilities when constructing one.

Similarly, while Bartle and his co-designer Roy Trubshaw, had played Dungeons & Dragons, which clearly serves as an influence in the trajectory of the MUDs, Bartle was keen to note single-player games of his own devising which were similar in form to early tabletops that had influenced him in making MUD1. This isn’t entirely surprising, since while it was D&D that spread the practices widely by being published, there were numerous proto-RPGs in circulation in the time preceding it. The collision of tabletop player practices with the world practices of novels created unique conditions for the creation of new player practices focussed on narrative play, out of which springs the explosion of inventiveness for which D&D is a key locus of influence.

The early MUDs, however, were much more exercises in world building and community play than adaptations of Dungeons & Dragons. It is the LP MUDs (1989) and especially the DIKU MUDs (1990), originating in Sweden and Denmark respectively, that saw in the MUDs the opportunity to (yet again) adapt D&D for computer form, repeating what had happened back in 1974 on the PLATO educational network. From its first publication through to the early 1990s, wherever there was an opportunity to adapt the various player practices of D&D into a computerised form, it was taken.

The inventory systems of all these games remains resolutely in the style of the early text adventures, and thus in the form of D&D: a list of words. A text command ‘inventory’, often available as just ‘i’, would list all the items that the player was carrying in a simple linear list. Each item was specified in the design of the game, either as a unique object (in most adventure games) or as a class to be instanced (in computer RPGs and MUDs). As long as these games were represented in text, there was no possibility of it being otherwise.

Where, then, is the connection to the highly customisable quickbar? Players of MUDs often found that there were actions (or clusters of actions) that they needed to perform frequently, and swiftly hit upon a solution via running additional software in parallel to the MUD supporting macros. A macro was simply a script of text actions coupled to a key press to trigger it, typically (but not exclusively) the function keys (F1-F12), which were ideally suited for such purposes. Later client software for MUDs began to build these macro systems in automatically, because the player practices had become dependent upon the macro concept for smooth play. Note also that it was the players who added this element to the MUDs, with no involvement from the game developers.

Because the developers of EverQuest were MUD players, they appear to have been drawn to providing customisable interface elements like the hotbar, and thus accelerating the development of what would become called the quickbar: they were (on this reading) a graphical substitute for macros, a customisable element that could tailor to the individual player’s practices. MUDs required more actions in part because they brought together multiple players, which necessitated communication and performance irrelevant in a single player game. MMORPGs inherited this requirement, and developed the quickbar practices to deal with it.

Here, in this final element of Minecraft’s inventory design, is an example of why examining the history of games as player practices can reveal aspects that are invisible if they are examined solely as artefacts, since it is only through the actions of the players that the practices of games are sustained. The design of every game is conditioned by the conservation of player practices, which sustains those practices that are effective at satisfying the visceral or imaginative needs of players. Every example within this serial serves to elucidate this point, and to show how games are never isolated objects: they are always embedded in the manifold of player practices responsible for their creation, and which they then contribute to maintaining.

The player is the heart of the game, and game design conserves player practices because designers are also players. We can trace lineages not because successful games are the rare exception that borrow their practices from earlier games, but because games that borrow the majority of their practices from earlier games are best positioned to be successful – especially if they can manage to bring something new to the table in the process. Notch probably did not play tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, or The Bard’s Tale, or Dungeon Master, or UFO: Enemy Unknown, or EverQuest, but the inventory practices of Minecraft nonetheless inherits the successful variations that these games introduced upon a bedrock of established player practices.

With thanks to Erlend Grefsrud, Griddle Octopus, Doug Hill, Jacobo Luengo, Sketchwhale, Oscar Strik, VR Sam, Worthless Bums, José Zagal and, always when I talk of the history of games, to my friend and colleague Richard Boon.

Game Inventories (4): Resident Evil 4 and X-Com

Resident Evil 4 2005The Attaché Case inventory in Resident Evil 4 (2005) feels like a logical next step from Diablo II’s grid inventory three years earlier. Both involve positioning multi-cell objects in a fixed size grid, with weapons varying in size. Resident Evil 4, however, takes the idea one step further, allowing the player to rotate the items, and providing a ‘swapping space’ to store items temporarily while the player fiddles with the layout. It’s an ingenious and absorbing design that most players loved, although a few complained about the way it broke them out of the world of the game (the aesthetic flaw I have called rupture).

Yet if we examine this game from the perspective of player practices then what we are dealing with is not a progression from Diablo II at all – for that particular game was never released in Japan, and is vanishingly unlikely to have been an influence upon the design of Resident Evil 4. Indeed, the player practices that condition the creation of this particular post-survival horror game are primarily those of the Resident Evil franchise itself, which represents an entirely parallel development of the grid inventory concept from largely different influences. I’ve warned previously about the danger of bringing in counter-factuals to examine the history of game design – but when it comes to this instance, we get an alternative history of a single design element because its actual history was different.

We do not, however, cast aside the influence of Dungeons & Dragons in this version of events, even though the game never had a serious following in Japan. Rather, it was once again Wizardry that took the design of the original tabletop RPG and brought its influence to Japan – firstly, as Henk Rogers’ Black Onyx (1984), which was Japan’s first computer RPG, and soon after as Dragon Quest (1986), and from there into the Japanese RPG lineage, a complete analysis of which would be a major project in itself. (Henk Rogers, incidentally, was a D&D player at the University of Hawaii, where he was studying business – and immediately saw how Wizardry’s adaptation of the tabletop RPG practices was a way to make money; he just had to bring it somewhere new…)

The original Resident Evil back in 1996 (Biohazard in Japan) has two key points of influence. From a technical standpoint, it is clearly inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), which in turn was inspired by the hugely influential tabletop RPG Call of Cthulhu (1981), written by Sandy Peterson (who would go on to be a level designer for id Software, bringing Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into their games). From a player practice perspective, however, it does not seem that Capcom’s team was coming from Alone in the Dark at all, but rather from an obscure Japanese RPG entitled Sweet Home (1989), itself adapted from a Japanese horror movie with the same name. This is hardly a secret: Tokuro Fujiwara, who made Sweet Home, was one of the two key people responsible for directing Capcom’s first Resident Evil game, and it is relatively clear that Sweet Home provides the rough draft of Resident Evil’s inventory practices – including the idea of limiting space in the inventory, the use of save rooms to store items, and individual character items like the lockpick and lighter.

The player practices of the survival horror genre are centred around the inventory, and the limitations therein that Sweet Home pioneered. Having rendered the inventory as a grid for the first game, director Shinji Mikami went on in Resident Evil 2 (1998) to make some weapons take up two spaces in the inventory, adding to the difficult decisions that had to be made. While reviewers complained about the limitations of the inventory, and the surreal quality of the Item Box that shares items between all save rooms, when Capcom eventually removed these in their final survival horror game, Resident Evil Zero (2002), the inventory system unravelled completely. Players were forced to choose a room to layout all of their belongings, which was even more surreal than the Item Boxes!

Alas, the decision to give up on the player practices of the survival horror game had already been made by the time Resident Evil Zero shipped: Mikami-san had been ordered to make an action game, which is where Resident Evil 4 came from. On the foundations of their own inventory practices, the ‘perfect’ grid inventory of Resident Evil 4 was born. But having traded survival horror for action, the stop-and-start inventory ultimately had to go to make room for multiplayer, and the perfection of the grid inventory in Japan was ultimately a dead end.


UFO: Enemy Unknown AKA X-Com (1994)

UFO 1994The connection between the inventory in UFO: Enemy Unknown and that of Diablo that it inspired is readily apparent: here, for the first time anywhere in the world, is a grid inventory where the equipment items take up variable cells of the grid, creating interesting decisions when equipping character. This game, known as X-Com: UFO Defense in the United States where it enjoyed tremendous commercial success, was to found a hugely successful strategy franchise, yet its influence is nowhere more apparent than its provision of the multi-cell grid inventory practices to Diablo.

Just as the case of Resident Evil 4 depended upon a contiguous set of player practices from one linear sequence of games, so the influence that led to Diablo’s grid inventory came from a contiguous sequence of games, in this case those of the British programmer and game designer Julian Gollop. From the age of 14, Gollop was playing Dungeons & Dragons and the strategy boardgames of Avalon Hill that had inspired it. Unlike everyone else considered in this serial, Gollop was strongly influenced by the design of strategic boardgames, and began creating games on 8-bit home computers that adapted the player practices of these games.

Rebelstar Raiders 1984Rebelstar Raiders (1984), pictured right, was one of Gollop’s first experiments with putting a strategy boardgame onto a computer, in this case the ZX Spectrum. With no AI at all, the game could only be played with two players, a limitation that was fixed with the sequels Rebelstar (1986) and Rebelstar II (1988). While the latter two games did allow for changes in weaponry, none of these titles featured an inventory system, which is not surprising since the strategy boardgame practices they had adapted never used an inventory concept either. This was the invention of D&D and the tabletop precursors that inspired it.

Laser Squad 1988It is with Laser Squad (1988), pictured left, that Gollop begins to combine D&D style differential characters – and thus inventories – with the player practices he had developed across his Rebelstar games, the last of which had been released earlier in the same year. As the screenshot makes clear, each member of the player’s squad has a name and an inventory of weaponry, shown with small icons. The more equipment a squad member carries, the more rapidly they run out of action points, and thus tire. The player practices of X-Com descend directly from Laser Squad – indeed, it was originally conceived as Laser Squad II, and both games combine an RPG-like differentiation of characters with the practices of a strategy wargame.

The step up to the full grid inventory with multi-cell weapons in X-Com feels like a substantial progression from Laser Squad, and six years separate the two games (although the last edition of Laser Squad, for PC, wasn’t released until 1992). It seems likely that in the intervening period, Gollop encountered Dungeon Master, and hence the grid inventory. However, the effect of multi-cell items on the grid inventory concept results in a substantial shift in the player practices, as Diablo made clear. I speculate that the influence here might have come from Steve Jackson’s classic tabletop autoduellist wargame Car Wars (1981), for which allocating weaponry to the limited spaces available in the chassis was a major element. Since Gollop worked upon the 8-bit videogame for Games Workshop’s 1983 dodgy knock off, Battlecars, it seems likely he was exposed to Car Wars player practices. But perhaps, like Resident Evil’s parallel lineage of grid inventories, Gollop just hit upon the idea on his own as he continued to develop his own unique lineage of strategic videogames.

Next week, the final part: EverQuest and MUDs

Game Inventories (3): Diablo and Daggerfall

Diablo II Horadric Cube 2002One key aspect of Minecraft’s inventory practices is absent from all of the examples previously examined: crafting. Indeed, crafting formed no part of Dungeons & Dragons player practices until the 3rd edition in 2000, and none of the early computer role-playing games descending from it feature this concept. The means of creating magical items that tabletop D&D offered has next to no influence, however. It seems to be Diablo II (2002) that largely establishes the player practice of crafting through the introduction of the Horadric Cube (pictured left), a secondary grid inventory of 3x4 spaces that includes a button to transmute its contents into a new magical item. This provided a means for players to create endgame items beyond waiting for them to drop, and although its function was considered fairly arcane, it was nonetheless a central part of many players’ experiences of this game.

That the crafting box in Minecraft resembles that of the Horadric Cube is not coincidental: Diablo (1996) and Diablo II (2002) were so commercially successful that it is these games (and those of the Elder Scrolls series, discussed below), that anchor the conservation of player practices in Western-style computer role-playing games from this point onward. The Japanese computer RPG lineage, which also traces its heritage back to D&D via The Black Onyx (1984) and Wizardry (1980) before it, would tell a different story, and one that exceeds the scope of this serial to adequately trace. Again, as I pointed out last week, we can tell whatever counter-factual stories we like about the ways things could have gone, but they cannot nullify the influences upon the actual history of games.

A less influential aspect of Diablo II’s crafting practices are items with sockets, which can be fitted with gems in order to power-up the item in question. Like the Horadric Cube, sockets attempt to make the overflowing treasure tables of Diablo something other than a demand to go to the shop and dump the junk. Ernest Adams has joked that computer role-playing games make their players into “itinerant second-hand arms dealers” – the practices added to Diablo II attempt (rather unsuccessfully, as it happens) to offset the root causes of this, and crafting ever since has built upon this idea. The only other major contributor to early crafting practices other than Diablo II appears to be Daggerfall, discussed below.

The original Diablo is one of the games that synthesises influences both from tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, and its computer game inheritors. Co-creators Erich and Max Schaefer had played in the kind of mindless dungeon bash style of D&D that was common (but by no means universal) in the early days of the hobby:

We wanted to do an RPG how we’d played Dungeons & Dragons as kids: hit monsters and gain loot. Our mission was that we wanted the minimum amount of time between when you started the game up to when you were clubbing a skeleton.

Indirect influences came in via the other co-creator, David Breivik, who had played Moria (1975/8) and Angband (1990), two early roguelike games descended ultimately from the unimaginatively titled dnd (1974) on the PLATO educational computer network, written in the same year that tabletop D&D appeared.

Diablo 1996The inventory in Diablo has another key point of influence, however, namely Julian Gollop’s X-Com: UFO Defense (1994), originally entitled UFO: Enemy Unknown. The influence here was in the idea of breaking out of the original grid inventory concept, which allocated one square to an item, by having items take up multiple spaces. As the crop of Diablo’s inventory screen to the right shows, weapons take up between three and six spaces in the grid, in various configurations, an inventory practice established by and descending from X-Com, which all three of the Diablo creators mentioned above point to as their inspiration for the interface design. This thread will be picked up next week.


Daggerfall (1996)

Daggerfall InventoryThe same year that Diablo was released, Bethesda were working on a follow up to their first Elder Scrolls game, Arena (1994). Just as Condor (later, Blizzard North) had been engaged in player practices from both the tabletop and from computer RPGs, Bethesda’s influences came from both lineages, with Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (1992) mentioned as informing the design of Arena. But Bethesda were deeply involved with the narrative practices of tabletop role-playing, and were far more interested in role play than the simple kill-and-level rule play that inspired Diablo. Daggerfall marks the point that their influences change from Dungeons & Dragons to later tabletop role-playing systems, particularly Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS (1986).

An interview on Gamespy with designer Ted Peterson (archived in this forum discussion) makes the connection explicit when discussing Daggerfall’s character creation system:

Julian [LeFay] and I had decided to go with a skill-based advancement system rather than Arena’s kill-the-monster-and-advance system, so each of the classes had been assigned different skill sets. Given that, it made sense to allow players to create their own classes assigning their own skills. Then, thinking about GURPS, we added additional bonuses and special abilities and disabilities that the player could assign. I’ve always enjoyed character creation systems in games of all kinds. I don't like playing Gamma World, but even now when I'm bored, I'll sometimes roll the dice and see what kind of mutations my character would develop if I actually wanted to play the game.

The move here is towards the second generation of tabletop role-playing games, like GURPS, with their emphasis on putting the player in charge of character creation and away form dice-rolling practices, like Gamma World (which was TSR’s post-apocalyptic game, using rules very close to D&D). White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade (1991) has also been mentioned as feeding into the world of Daggerfall, with clans of vampires added into Tamriel for this iteration of the Elder Scrolls franchise.

A striking aspect of the inventory screen in Daggerfall is its division into categories like Weapons & Armour, Magic Items, Clothing & Misc, and Ingredients. As noted last week, this was a common aspect of Dungeons & Dragons character sheets, but it hadn’t been used much in computer RPGs. The influence of tabletop practices is also felt in Bethesda’s crafting systems. Arena had a spell creation system that was clearly a modular version of D&D’s fixed-definition spells. Daggerfall, on the other hand, has a more detailed spell and weapon enchantment system, drawing very clearly from the GURPS concepts of Advantages and Disadvantages, that would go on to influence Fallout (1997).

Daggerfall 1996As noted in respect of Diablo, tabletop RPGs hadn’t had a motive to include crafting systems, but the excessive volumes of loot earned in computer RPGs (a product, in part, of much faster paced play) created a need to find other things to do with items other than just sell them. For Daggerfall, the system that most resembles future crafting practices is the Potion Maker, pictured above. Certain items in the game were characterised as Ingredients and could be combined in a Mixing Cauldron, accessed from Temples or the Assassins’ Guild. Mixing could be done freely, or recipes (acquired as treasure drops) could be used to operate the Mixing Cauldron automatically.

Although Daggerfall’s Mixing Cauldron is narrower in scope than Diablo II’s Horaldric Cube, both are initiating the same kind of player practice: one where the inventory is not just a source of equipment for immediate use (as in Dungeons & Dragons), or simply fodder for sale (as in most computer RPGs prior to the 90s), but a set of active elements that can be combined in different patterns to get better equipment. These player practices made no sense at the tabletop, where complex look-up tables would be required. But on the computer, the availability of automation within the game systems kicked off experimentation with crafting as soon as there was sufficient memory space for such luxuries. It was thus the widespread adoption of the CD drive around 1993 that opened the door to crafting practices, which have thrived ever since.

Finders Keepers 1985That technological limitations play a role in delaying the onset of crafting can be seen by considering one of the few examples of crafting prior to the 90s: David Jones’ Finder’s Keepers (1985). This budget gem (Mastertronic sold it in the UK for £2, one fifth of the price of most games at that time) had a five slot inventory of the style we have already seen in The Bard’s Tale. The twist was that certain items would automatically react in the player’s inventory to form new items e.g. Bar of Lead and the Philosopher’s Stone would switch to Bar of Gold, while Sulphur, Saltpetre, and Charcoal would produce Gunpowder – used to escape the castle in the ZX Spectrum version, and resulting in the player blowing up (Game Over!) on the Commodore 64. But unlike Diablo and Daggerfall, this game failed to influence even its own sequels, which never again experimented with crafting. The 8-bit era does, however, have an important part of the story of game inventories, which we will turn to next week.

Next week: Resident Evil 4 and X-Com