A few days ago, I had a really interesting discussion with a bunch of people that I admire greatly. I will hopefully be able to tell you who they were at a later date, but I still wanted to expand on the discussion I had with them, and perhaps add something of my own.

The discussion was about the problematic inventory of Mass Effect. If you’ve played the game, you know that there are a lot of choices connected to the weapons and armour and tools of Mass Effect. So many, in fact, that for a while I actually had a spreadsheet to play with the optimal setup for my chosen class of Shepard.

Here’s the problem. In Mass Effect, you can select object, upgrade and ammo. This is fairly simple, right? No, not really. You can also select weapons manufacturer – and these are dependent on what licences you buy from vendors around the Mass Effect universe. Each manufacturer has different quality weapons to offer. For example, Rosenkov Materials manufacture high quality weapons with high stats, while Hahne-Kedar’s line of weapons leave much to be desired. As one of the people I discussed this with mentioned, a high Level Hahne-Kedar weapon might be outclassed by a lower level Rosenkov Materials weapon. Yes, I should have mentioned. Each weapon type also have a level. Level one weapons are less impactful than level two weapons and so on.

So the selection process is now weapons manufacturer (also keep in mind that different manufacturers make different weapon types in different quality. A shotgun from Batarian State Arms might be different from a shotgun of a similar quality manufacturer, simply because Batarians like shotguns. As we all know.) weapon level, weapon and then upgrade and ammo.

Except the upgrades are also affixed with a level, and there are many of them that have similar functions but not quite. Combat optics and combat scanner might seem approximately the same, but they do different things. The same thing goes for the ammo that you can attach to the weapons. Tungsten rounds are different from anti-personnel rounds etc, etc.

So for the Mass Effect inventory, we have a myriad of choices, designed to give the player the opportunity to choose their load out, and feel happy that they’ve managed to put together something that is right from their point of view.

The emotion, or experience that the player should have when doing this is one of ownership, player satisfaction and player choice. I think a sense of uniqueness might have played in as well. But if you must play a game with an excel spreadsheet to stay on top of your equipment choices, is that really the best experience you can have as a player? Will you really feel a sense of ownership, player satisfaction and player choice, given this vast amount of, well, stuff? Minute stat changes will have very little impact on gameplay for a player who doesn’t have the insight in what all the stat changes do when they play. And with the branching selections of hundreds of different combinations, the average player will most likely just pick the weapons with the best stats for the moment and leave it at that. Us excel sheet gamers are not the norm in the gaming community.

To my mind, a selection of choices that are narrower but with a much more visceral impact in the game will most likely increase player satisfaction and ownership and agency experienced in the game. This is also something that BioWare did when reducing the weapons and upgrades in both the second and third installation of Mass Effect.

The point that I wanted to make with this blog post is this. Agency in games is supposedly good for the player. Agency for players is deeply connected to the idea of choice. The wider selection of choices, the more Agency the player supposedly has.

This accumulated list of choices available in Mass Effect should, then, create a really wonderful experience of Agency. This is true for us who enjoy the excel sheet approach to gaming (hello Eve online, I’m looking at you), but for less hardcore players the amount of choices available might lead to paralysis. How do I as a player make a selection when there are so many choices? The result will of course be that I won’t make a choice. I will give away the Agency that a developer spent so long trying to implement for me, because I simply can not be bothered to investigate and learn the effects of all the choices that are given to me.

Another aspect of this is of course that my inventory will become bloated with all the possible upgrades, ammo types and weapons I collect, because one of them might just be a teeny bit better than another, so I can’t throw away any of them. For Mass Effect in particular, this selection hysteria had me spending a lot of time in the area where all the lockers were on the Normandy. I also have a tab for each companion character in the game. Shepard isn’t the only one who is minutely affected by my choices of equipment.

So why do I behave this way? Why not just sell stuff and move on? Well, what if I’m missing out? All this agency, all those choices – if I don’t know exactly how to outfit Wrex I might be missing a combo that is much better than the one I currently have. And what if I find out on a forum or wiki-page that I had the perfect weapon for Wrex but sold it? My enjoyment of the game would of course decrease, and as a designer or developer that isn’t a result I would want.

Adding choices will also increase expectations of those choices. If you have tens of manufacturers making tens of weapons with tens of upgrades in tens of levels and tens of ammo types, one of these combinations should – to the player’s mind – lead to the perfect combination for that character.

Our expectations of the choices we make will go up with the amount of choices we have, but of course the more choices we have, the smaller the differences between those choices we have will become. And as a result of THAT the expectations we have will not live up to the actual result in game.

So, while choice is indeed a good thing, as a UX designer and a game developer, my advice would be to first look at the audience. Will the players expect a wide choice of weaponry, upgrades etc? In other words, are they excel players? If not, my second piece of advice would be to add “best fit” options. Much like each class of character – rogue, mage, warrior (or sentinel, vanguard, and soldier etc) – has an ideal way of levelling up, each class probably also have an ideal weapons setup. Well. That’s not quite true in Mass Effect, because you can level up your character in different ways depending on play style, so the ideal fit is probably a bit more complex than in a simpler, class dictated system. But there are still stats, and the stats still give an idea of what weapons would be suitable.

Instead of inducing choice paralysis, you can help the player to a reasonable selection of weapons and armour based on what’s in the inventory. This option is also useful for the game developer who wants to offer choice, but doesn’t want to turn players off by the more complex aspects of the game.

An “optimal selection” button also helps with bloated inventories. Granted, some games help the player by letting him or her store stuff that isn’t used, and that’s a good thought. As someone who repeatedly forgets all the runes in my storage in Skyhold, this is however only a partial fix for the problem. I still need to go through all my companions and fit them with the best weapons and armour they can have under the circumstances.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the relatively obfuscated recipe system in Inquisition. I don’t know how many pieces of armor or weapons I’ve crafted that I simply had no use for, because I couldn’t see what I already had and made less powerful objects wasting resources I might have had a better use for. I think it’s worth a blog post all on its own.

Storages require fixed spaces in the game, why else would you have them and not just expand the inventory? And with a fixed space comes the logistics of reaching all your characters at once. As you’ve probably figured by now, inventories are complex systems with tie ins into many other features in a game. There are a lot of decisions to be made.

The third thing to think about is managing the players’ expectations, where again, a smaller or narrower set of choices might actually improve both the sense of agency and the expected result on the players part. A larger amount of choices will lead to smaller improvement increments, making it more difficult to see what actually changed in game. A smaller amount of choices will lead to a bigger improvement increment, which will be more visible to the player in the game and feel more rewarding.

The main point that I want to make is however that the game you design should have a good idea of what the audience should be and what experiences you want to gift them with. Complexity and choice should always be a function of the experiences you want to create, and the experiences should be derived from the players you want your game to have. The narrower the target audience, the more specialised and tailored to that audience the game can be. The wider the audience, the less tailored to one play style the systems can be, unless you offer help to interpret or shortcut the systems to the players.

Okay, so this blog post took a left turn somewhere, but I think my point was made. Choice is not always a harbinger* of agency. Sometimes it can be just the opposite. Oh, and as always, “it depends”. User experience is not only tailored to the intended audience, but also to the project it lives in.

I’m going to stop writing now. Jetlag makes me wordy.

ADDENDUM: One important point that I totally forgot, but that @purrestweets and @gaminghamster reminded me of, is the cool factor on armour, upgrades and weapons. The visual impression that you get from a piece of armour or a weapon also has a high impact on the user experience of some players, meaning that they would rather walk around in armour that is weaker, but looks better to the player, than armour that is stronger and will give better perks but looks bad on the player character. There are some prime examples of armour that I would never be caught dead in in the first Mass Effect. The pink Phoenix armour is one of them, and that yellow/ black bumblebee thing is another.

This issue was of course also rectified in the second and third installation of the game by having armour parts replaceable, but not the entire armour, and also by having the player tint the armour on their own. Some parts are however ugly enough for me to never want to use them, despite stat improvements that I might find useful.

As a part of user experience, though, it is important to keep in mind that the experience is not limited to the actual effect in games, but also to the visual and sometimes aural impact. I noticed that I chose staff recipes to create in Dragon Age Inquisition based on the staff visuals rather than the recipe requirements. I think this is an important note to make. If I have a cool armour, I’m not going to change it for something that doesn’t look as good but is only marginally better. This visual aspect of selecting items in game should be taken into account when designing a game. Can I as a player elect which look I want without sacrificing the gameplay. I thought it was a good point by Purre and Gaminghamster.
* See what I did there?