The Soapbox: The ‘problem’ with MMO hoarding

    
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treasure hunting is one step from lockboxes

I remember a number of years ago, in an article for a game I can’t recall, an MMO developer discussed how an early build of his crafting game allowed for unlimited bag space. On paper, it sounded great, but the problem was that it allowed players to hoard to the point that they didn’t need to keep playing the game. Resource management, while not fun, is supposedly a necessary evil.

I wasn’t completely won over by this idea even then, especially as one of the game’s fixes was adding an item sink for the offending resources. I admit, we do need limits, but within reason. Hoarding in any game is natural, but especially in multiplayer games with economies. In the real world, the only thing that limits our storage is money: buy a bigger house, rent a storage unit, have enough land to bury your treasure in random areas and claim it’s a time capsule to the future.

But as MMOs have moved away from items being droppable on the landscape to lootable-only account-bound items, it’s become harder to use old hoarding systems.

The pro-hoarding agenda

I don’t want this piece to become just a long history of items in MMOs, a treatise on hoarding, or even a list of games that let you hoard the best. Instead, we’re going to talk a bit about why people hoard, whom hoarding benefits, who is hurt by it, and how a few games these days tackle it.

So the first question would be why hoard? MOP’s Hoard Queen MJ actually wrote very good piece on the topic that’s so on point and so thorough that anyone wanting to do an actual study on MMO hoarding should really start there, just as I’m doing now, as MJ describes her rationale, with the understanding that she’s far from alone.

The first reason we hoard is time. We recently discussed what people do when they run out of space in games, and like MJ, I noted that lack of time is a factor since we don’t play games to min-max our storage, unless you consider Tetris as a storage-sorting simulation. In short, people don’t always hoard intentionally; it just comes with gaming territory when you’re given tons of items and you’re short on time/organizational motivation.

Then it’s about personality. Some people are collectors. No, I’m not talking about hoarding to hoard necessarily, but that could be it too. For example, when Asheron’s Call 1 went offline, I made sure that my house, which had been abandoned and luckily never taken by anyone else, had my trophy room rebuilt. Even at the end, I wanted people to see both my decoration skills and some of the cool stuff I amassed. I even ended the game holding a very cool-looking but largely outclassed sword simply because it was rare and a major pain to obtain.

But others may collect because they think the item may be useful in the future or that they may need it later. This causes players to hold on to everything, and it’s probably the more problematic type of hoarding people think about, whereby a hoarder keeps things not specifically because they bring him but because he either expects to use it later or fears to be without it when it’s needed. In that sense, there’s a difference between hoarding, where you keep stuff both for enjoyment and potential use, and stockpiling, where a player is collecting goods for future use.

This is where our next reason comes in: sharing. Like MJ, I’m often the guy holding that weird item everyone else got rid of, and while often it may be to sell or to keep for myself, it equally may be to give away. We all know players like this, though it’s not exclusive to traditional MMOs either. For example, because Pokemon GO rewards old pokemon with increasing their odds to have high stats after trading, old ‘mon become useful as a trade currency. And yet trades are in-person only, and space is highly limited, so people with lots of old ‘mon would probably be wise to give them to friends. That’s stockpiling.

MJ also noted alternative gameplay reasons, such as minigames and house decorations – and even player made content. MJ mentioned roleplay in particular (after all, we generally talk about MMORPGs), but some hoarded items could also be used in making a custom game. I noted that in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I used both extra items and multiple stopwatches to create a custom game within the game; I also named some of my Darkfall Online items for a “bounty” game and offered spare rare mounts as prizes in World of Warcraft and The Old Republic for in-game contests I ran. Especially these days, MMO players focus more on developer-created content, and while it’s admittedly higher-quality, more accessible, and easier to repeat than player-created content, we shouldn’t forget about player-made content or the fact that hoarders are probably the best at providing the tools and treats to make it good.

Mine?

Who benefits from virtual hoarding?

I think it’s safe to argue that at least in games, everyone wins when it comes to hoarding.

There’s the hoarder herself, of course. As we noted above, having a ton of stuff that suddenly becomes useful can make the hoarder richer, potentially more powerful, and even more popular if she’s generous. For that same reason, her friends also benefit, as would her guild, alliance, and even the community that can trade/buy from the hoarder. Heck, when/if there are war-effort type events, such as back in WoW for AQ that made low-leveling crafting mats people normally couldn’t use valuable, the whole server can benefit.

But developers can benefit too. We did a poll on MMO spending once, and more than housing, pets, or even lockboxes, our readers pay for storage. Final Fantasy XIV players already have the option to pay extra sub fees for more storage, and when Star Wars: The Old Republic went free-to-play, storage was one of the parts of the game that would suddenly be reduced if you stopped paying for a subscription, prompting players who quit to keep subbing or buy storage space anyway.

Clearly devs know storage pulls in money, but they also don’t want to allow players to essentially buy unlimited space. Why?

How and how much hoarding hurts us

I’d argue bad devs are hurt most by hoarding since it threatens both their workload and game. Unlimited space wasn’t the problem in my first example, after all; it was the dev’s experience and creativity that fell short. The studio lacked the foresight to create strong items sinks that caused problems, and we’ve all seen how bad economies can hurt an MMO in the long run. Especially veteran players know some older titles where cash became useless even as rare items and resources became de facto currency.

Speakers at Ultima Online’s GDC 2018 post-mortem panel have long touted Kristen Koster, Raph Koster’s wife, as a driving force for the game’s economy, which clearly inspired Koster when he went on to work on games such as Star Wars Galaxies and Crowfall. While neither of these games is officially up right now, neither went down because of its economy either. (However, I would argue that SWG hurt itself by removing item decay, as many players simply had everything they could want or need, so breaking into the economy as a new player or crafter late in the game’s life could be difficult on some servers.)

We don’t talk about it a lot in our genre since MMO devs worth their salt assume hoarding will happen naturally, especially with gear, but traditional game devs talk a lot about stopping hoarding. Often, it’s more about game balance or inspiring people to use items, rather than the attachments people feel to objects, an effort to address stockpiling rather than address players keeping things that make them happy. Hoarding because an object has sentimental meaning is one thing, and devs don’t seem to talk about that, but stockpiling does seem to be an issue they at least try to address.

When creating not just the idea of a living virtual world but an online world that’s meant to last for years, a good developer should understand the ramifications of stockpiling by now. We’re not a young genre, and most of the mistakes we see made to this day are ones we’ve seen several times before. No one’s perfect, but if the only motivation you give players to make space is to limit it, you may not have a really fun game on your hands in the present, let alone years in the future.

Then there’s the environmental impact. According to a 2021 study by Md Abu Bakar Siddik et al, “data centers [which are what hold the data for all the items you hoard/stockpile] are among the top-ten water consuming industrial or commercial industries in the US,” particularly among already stressed water sources, among other factors (like using about 1.8% of total US electricity, not to mention carbon footprints). Of course, the paper is talking about data centers in general, not specifically for games or specifically focusing on item storage, so it’s pretty hard to gauge what impact hoarding may or may not have on the real-world environment, but still, it’s not insignificant.

That being said, traditional MMORPGs are a niche, and as non-MMO online games in genres (such as MOBAs, survival games, battle royales) all have minimal storage and are mostly made up of decayable items and/or consumables, my amateur guess would that all your leather scraps and newbie armor probably won’t affect the environment quite as bad as a streamer posting hours of unedited jabbering all over the internet on a daily basis.

Finally, we have the impact on the hoarder himself, but maybe not in the ways you’d imagine. For example, you might think hoarders wind up spending more money for more space (which is true). I haven’t been able to find any peer-reviewed research on MMO hoarding in particular, but I have found some on digital hoarding, which in addition to game items would include the hoarding of emails, images, various media, and even links. These papers often tackle hoarding as part of other mental health issues, such as OCD, anxiety, and depression.

A 2019 article by Thorpe S, Bolster A, and Neave N noted that while people, even in games, can form emotional attachments to their digital items in way similar to real-life hoarders and their physical items, the organizing of digital files can lead to stress and anxiety. However, a 2018 paper by Sweeten G, Sillence E, and Neave N noted that digital hoarders often don’t consider the digital space they take up, unlike hoarders of physical items. In fact, one reason it may be studied less on a personal scale is that contrary to corporations, individual users rarely keep large stocks of physical devices for their data, especially now that we have cloud storage on a wide scale.

Again, the sum effect of digital hoarders can be a reason game companies need more data storage centers, which we know has environmental impacts. It’s easy, if not easier, to hoard in games than in meatspace, but it can still take its toll on some people. Digital hoarding, not even specifically in games, is still under-researched, especially when the topic isn’t major corporations, and while I hesitate to say it isn’t a problem, I would like to argue that it’s not a major one. In fact, I’ll once again turn to the idea that good game design can seriously cut back on hoarding tendencies.

Storage tackling in action

Let’s start with something modern and well-known around these parts: Final Fantasy XIV and crafting. While there are tons of things you can hoard (pets, mounts, costumes…), crafting resources are the items I hear complaints about the most. My crafting friends in the game frequently note the large amounts of resources they stockpile for this part of the game. Again, this is a specific type of hoarding that’s easier to not only understand but even potentially “fix.” It’s less about hoarding and more about having a surplus of items so they’re ready to skill up or craft. Not only that, but crafting allows for the breaking down of items, which somewhat helps with potential hoarding (but still essentially leads to stockpiling).

I have a friend who’s doing only crafting right now, with the goal is to level up to a certain point for self-sufficiency, not to craft for friends or profits. That will also mean “returning” the additional storage added to her subscription, which is interesting as she’s an admitted hoarder but had enough storage until she began stockpiling for crafting levels.

This flexibility in storage benefits both my friend and Square-Enix. It also means that crafters who do want to keep tons of supplies for their friends could expand said storage without making bank alts to repeatedly log in and out, potentially putting more stress on the servers (as I assume it’s far easier for the game to store item data alone than multiple characters, their stats, and their items). This is fairly well-balanced and a good starting point.

Old school MMO players will remember that MMOs like UO and AC1 had far less storage. In fact, Ultima Online originally launched with infinite bank storage but had to cap it early on, specifically because of hoarders. As noted above, players frequently had alternative characters or even whole accounts devoted to storage. I knew players like this in WoW, even after the November 2007 update introducing guild banking. My own guild actually had an officer who used an entire second account as late as 2012 so we’d have more space, so the issue isn’t entirely ancient history (yet).

Similarly, this is where housing can come in handy. Unlike having all your stuff gathering dust on a character, saving items in the gameworld can distribute the items to another part of the game world. While this too will take up data storage, even instanced housing can take some pressure off bag loading times, while also adding at least gold dumps to curb currency hoarding – or at least keeping it in check for the majority of the population.

But as modern MMO gaming includes free-to-play, micro-transactions, and mobile titles, things start to get messy, which readers helped highlight in a recent Daily Grind. Reader Schmidt noted that he counts any paid storage costs as part of his calculation of the game’s base price, which isn’t entirely crazy. Admittedly, if the game’s updates frequently introduce more “stuff” for free, I can see the argument that additional storage costs are similar to a subscription or expansion fee, but to each their own.

This is important, though, as a few readers have mentioned that if storage gets too tight, they’ll outright walk away from a title. We aren’t seeing too much of this in the genre right now, but as the mobile market takes more shares, we might, so let’s pivot to that as part of our closing.

I’ve talked a bit about Pokemon Go’s historic low storage issue going on this year. While 500 spaces were added for purchase in December 2023, the January 2023 update added XXL and XXS size variants to all pokemon. Ignoring the want/need for multiples to enter into contests, counting all but the first/original stage of evolution, costumes, gender differences, and accounting for only some evolutions (such as all the separate Eevees) leaves us with roughly 930 “new” pokemon to store. With a total of only 1100 slots being added during the entire year, that leaves little room for the variations I left out: middle forms, new shinies, new shadows, gender variations, and the constant hat/costume variations and their shinies/gender/etc. variations as well.

As POGO is primarily a collection game before you get into battling, trading, and now contests, hamstringing players on the base experience seems incredibly unwise, and given myriad other issues the company’s struggled with this year, I’d say it’s probably another big reason the game has made less money this year than many previous years.

Design-wise, XXL and XXS pokemon were probably a mistake to introduce in general, but one that would have had less an impact if costumes were equippable rather than devoted to a whole pokemon, or if Shadow Pokemon, which we know are in pain, didn’t get a damage boost, promoting the keeping of both the damage rewarding Shadows and cheaper-to-raise Purified variants. Niantic prevented storage bloat with Mega Evolutions, as many players thought the company would simply have them as another whole pokemon, rather than the rentals they are (though even that backfired).

On the opposite end of this is Orna: The GPS RPG. Player storage is essentially unlimited in Orna, but loading times can be felt and seen at the top end. That being said, Orna’s items are rather simple, basically being a light pixel-bit sprite and some stats. There are tons of gold dumps, items can be broken down for raw materials, and materials can be crafted with, used to complete daily+ quests, or even refined.

Even if Orna items have a sentimental value, the game includes a bank, further cutting back potential lag from hoarding. And as the items are rather simple, it’s not too difficult to not only search for items but list them and checkmark them for deletion/recycling/selling/moving to the bank. There’s sadly no trading/player selling in the game, and Orna isn’t primarily a collection game and items can’t be shown off beyond text, but even so, it still tackles potential hoarding issues (which are easy to develop) better than POGO as a primary collection-based game.

More than anything, hoarding is a developer problem, and mostly when stockpiling threatens a game’s balance. No one seems too concerned about those of us keeping useless items for fun, and if anything, designers give us extra space for that.

Especially for MMOs, many hoarding/stockpiling problems come down to economic issues. Even when there’s no auction house, player home decorating, or trading, hoarding can be easy to unconsciously do, but good tools like item sink mechanics can help rectify that. In the absence of those mechanics, lack of storage can lead to player frustration, even quitting. Developers need to elevate their design skills to make storage more available, the same way the introduction of guild banks helped move MMOs away from bank mules. Or they can get creative, such as POGO making Mega Evolutions a time-based forms rather than whole new pokemon that constantly take up storage space.

Even better, however, is rentable space, such as in Final Fantasy XIV, especially if hoarding/stockpiling mostly affects a single optional part of the game for a limited amount of time, like the leveling process. Players have limited time and plenty of reasons to hoard. Some may not be healthy, but the overall impact seems negligible on a personal user level. Better design can not only help cut back on hoarding but also help the devs themseves with monetization and creative gameplay.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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