MMO Mechanics: Material storage and the Guild Wars 2 economy
However, ArenaNet decided to temporarily keep a “handful of items” off the list for the game’s material storage system in an attempt to force players’ hands: The company is attempting to combat the shockingly high prices seen for expansion materials back at Heart of Thorns’ launch by discouraging player warehousing of valuable yet abundant materials. The news has caused quite a splash in the game community and it’s exceptionally interesting mechanically speaking, so I just had to dedicate an edition of MMO Mechanics to the topic.
Guild Wars 2 material storage mechanics in summary
Most MMO fans will be familiar with the concept of material storage, though I thought quickly letting you know how it operates mechanically in Guild Wars 2 would be useful for those who haven’t played before. The material storage pane, while accessed via the bank pane, allows players to build extensive stores of a wide variety of crafting materials without expending valuable bank or inventory space to do so. Stacks of up to 250 can be stashed away in GW2, which is a significant stack that is adequate for all but the most complex recipes in the game.
One of the most convenient inventory management mechanics comes in the form of a handy “deposit all materials” button that is found in the character’s personal inventory. It will automatically scan your bags for materials and send those into your storage stacks, cleaning your inventory quickly and making room for players to salvage gear, open loot, and otherwise perform post-run bag maintenance. For many players, materials that go into storage remain there until a full stack is gathered and the surplus materials start gathering in a character’s bag space: It is then that players decide if it is worth transferring the stored stack to actual bank space or expending the materials in crafting pursuits, or whether the stack should be sold to make room for future farming.
The decision to temporarily keep some new materials out of the storage system might be controversial, but the logic behind it is relatively straightforward. ArenaNet’s Gaile Gray explained that decision before the expansion launched to make players aware of the irregularity.
“Why? Well, at the launch of Heart of Thorns, we noticed a peculiar behavior: most players will deposit first when clearing their inventory, and then proceed to take actions like salvaging, opening chests, or, crucially, putting items on the Trading Post. This tended to mean that before a player will post an item on the Trading Post, they’ll wait to accrue a full stack in their Material Storage. During the early period of Heart of Thorns, this significantly contributed to the early expense of flax, which was abundantly available but, for the most part, was ‘warehoused’ in the banks of players.”
For me, the solution to the economic problem ArenaNet is trying to solve doesn’t lie with the storage mechanics and how players use them but is rather tied to the wider set of looting and item utilisation mechanics underneath the bonnet of Guild Wars 2. For now, let’s look at why players stash items and why many are complaining that ArenaNet has, at best, misproportioned blame for inherent mechanical flaws onto the player and, at worst, made a decision that will inadvertently rinse some players of their newly gained ultimate edition gems.
Let’s consider storage from the player’s perspective: You finish running some content or completing a story arc and your character’s bags are bursting. The first thing most players will do to combat inventory bloat is to quick-stash those materials that are cluttering your inventory. From the player’s point of view, these tiny piles of materials are the bane of inventory wars: There is a great deal of variance in materials and unlike items obviously do not stack together, so clutter is inevitable if you interact with the game world at all. On the flipside, however, the player also has an incentive for keeping materials, not least of which being because materials are inherently useful by nature and have an innate, fluctuating value.
While we get to know the merits of materials as we play MMOs, when a new expansion hits those values can change drastically, and new materials that are launched are entirely unknown agents in the economic space. It stands to reason that players are reluctant to offload materials that they don’t yet fully understand: If you’re unsure of the specific uses or actual value of a resource, you’re right to worry about letting it go and then finding out that it was worth holding onto. Having stash stacks start at 250 pieces means that the material storage mechanics give players a decent amount of room to hold stock until a market value has been established and the uses of each material are clear to the player without sacrificing precious — and expensive, but I’ll get to that later — inventory or bank space.
One of the most obvious problems with this decision to temporarily shelf storage for PoF mats, before I even get to periphery mechanics that are tied to storage, is that player habits are not that easily broken and hoarding will not be drastically prevented by the decision. Players who still feel the reluctance to sell I described above will simply move that stack of materials to the player inventory or bank, which will simply fill the space sooner and cause frustration and perhaps even impulse storage expansion purchases on the gem store. It’s problematic to me that storage has an inherent real-world cost to the player via the gem store, and it unsettles me that sales of such items might increase because of this call. The ultimate edition of the game was bundled with 4,000 gems, and I can’t help feeling that some players might well use those gems to focus on storage optimisation due to this decision despite its temporary nature. Consider also that some players have used storage upgrades for the specific purpose of not having to deal with frequent auditioning of materials and are temporarily being barred from making full use of that purchase, and you can see why some players are so irked.
Making storage trickier for the player comes with a quality-of-life cost too, of course: Anything that slows down adventurers and necessitates a return to town is not fantastic game design in my estimation, and this includes having to hit the bank to offload mundane materials that you do not wish to auction and cannot currently stash from anywhere. While I agree with ArenaNet in saying that flax prices were initially much higher than they ever should have been, I feel that the presented case is an isolated edge case that shouldn’t cause them to restrict players in the way they have been. Flax was required in frankly insanely high proportions, and although it was abundant the sheer volume needed in so many spheres of in-game development is what caused prices to rise. Flax cost was intrinsically linked to gaining guild housing and prices soon stabilised after the bulk of interested guilds had managed to secure their guild halls. There was a sense of collaborative responsibility to succeed in securing guild halls caused that pressurised the community into going wild for this resource, but this phenomenon has yet to be replicated in the game since and should not be used as a model for how players usually react to new materials.
In my opinion, player behaviours are not to blame for the flax anomaly and the solution to the problem won’t lie in a temporary material storage restriction. Without having access to the metrics and data ArenaNet has, I’m never going to be in the position to give a more definitive answer to the problem because the game features a wonderfully complex economy, but from a player perspective, it seems that other game mechanics play more of a part in economic trends than storage does. Crafting demands via scribing and the introduction of a highly coveted and visually impressive game feature that both rely on vast amounts of one resource, like in the case of flax, is a problem that can be addressed without inconveniencing players. Guild halls already demanded a collaborative effort in securing them via combat, so the resource costs could have been diversified or reduced without diminishing the satisfaction of securing the halls.
One of my major problems with this decision is that early sales of new resources will be purchased largely by market manipulators and speculators anyway: Before a true market value is established, most players will be content to farm new materials if they need them quickly rather than take a risk on fresh auction pricing. If ArenaNet needs players to dump resources into the auction house out of frustration that quickly, perhaps there is an initial farming issue that could be more swiftly dealt with without irking players. Overreliance on one core material instead of spreading the load across a variety of abundant materials is another mistake that is entirely fixable, especially if developer metrics show some common materials that are underused that could be revisited in new recipes. Lastly, having a drop system that simply encourages the uptake of inventory expenditure is problematic for players, even if it is lucrative for development teams.
It’s important to be realistic about the small scope of the problem: We are talking about a handful of items, after all, and only a few weeks of not being able to stash them. However, the precedent of experimenting at the detriment of players is an illogical one, especially when there are periphery mechanics that could be investigated instead and we’re reacting to an edge case item that was uniquely in demand at the start of HoT.
I feel as though the flax anomaly has been considered statistically without giving as much consideration to the context and mechanics in play. Inconveniencing players to solve mechanical issues isn’t the right approach and I am hoping to see the new materials entering storage very soon to limit the frustration. Am I wrong? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.