Why would you have bind-on-equip items in a single-player RPG?

On my Twitter feed, as well as here on the blog, a few questions have arisen, regarding the “Bind item on equip” option displayed in the Item Editor. It is an option that is highly unusual for a single-player game, and some of you are wondering what’s up with that.

“Bind on Equip” has been brought to the table by massively-multiplayer online games in order to prevent players from using and then selling valuable and unique items to other players. It forces the player to consider‌—‌if only for a moment‌—‌if he’d rather use the item or make money off it.

In retrospect, I find it strange that this feature has never come up in single-player games before, because at its core, the rationale remains the same. Perhaps we have all just been too blindsided to realize its existent potential. After all, they are not uncommon in mythical lore and popular fiction. James Bond has a gun that is attuned to him, and so does Judge Dredd, and even the magic wands in Harry Potter work that way. Excalibur, the mythical sword from the Arthurian saga or Ulysses’ bow are also perfect examples of bound or attuned weapons, so it is only sensible to carry the concept over into games.

When we bind items in Deathfire, it will be mostly for the same purpose. While buying and selling items in the game may not be the driving factor for item binding in our game, other aspects of it are. In Deathfire’s game design I want to use it to force the player to think about certain decisions. In this case, which party member should I give the item to?

If you give it to the wrong character, you’re robbing yourself of another character’s opportunity to make better use of it, perhaps, because the item can no longer be traded among party members. If you give it to an NPC, he or she might run away with it at some point. More importantly, it prevents that you take a truly powerful, unique weapon from an NPC who just joined the party to give it to your favorite character and then boot out the NPC. If you equip it, you’re no longer able to sell it or barter it away. What if the item is unique and part of a quest, and in the end you learn that only a certain character can use it, all the while you already bound it to someone else? On the other hand, the binding weapon you just found might be so powerful that the lure of it is simply so strong that you throw all caution in the wind and equip it anyhow, against your better judgement, because you hope it will help you overcome that mob of Golem Guardians awaiting you.

Decisions, decision, decisions… the lifeblood of a good role-playing game.

These are aspects the player has to consider, and like a cursed item‌—‌which is bound, though it does not come with the warning label of a bind-on-equip item‌—‌it can have consequences to equip such a weapon or piece of armor. It is that decision-making that I think has an interesting value, because it adds depth to the role-playing aspects of Deathfire. Giving away this additional layer of complexity and player involvement, simply because using bound items in single-player games seems unorthodox, would seem silly to me, now that it’s on my radar. Who knows, this may even turn out to be a feature other games will pick up as well… and why not?

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25 Replies to “Why would you have bind-on-equip items in a single-player RPG?”

  1. Damjan Mozetič

    Don’t you think that the ability to save and restore the game overturns the rationale behind such items and perhaps even annoys the player? Players will save, equip such an item and test it out. Then if they don’t like what they see, they will restore the game.

    Just my 2c.

    • Guido

      Virtually anything can be overcome with the load/save crutch, don’t you think? The same way, the answer to every riddle and puzzle we put in the game will be available for everyone in the blink of an eye over the Internet. So it’s not really a concern of mine, but it is something to keep in mind, of course. If we lay it out so that the advantage/disadvantage is not immediately obvious, it will hopefully help carry the effect a little further for those who want to try and enjoy the game without having a virtual butler by their side who instantly tells them that this item might be best suited for that character, or that the answer to the riddle he just read is “Fire.”

  2. Guido

    I should probably also point out that this is not a feature you will find on every corner. It will be used very sparingly and deliberately on select items only. The screenshots may create a bit of a wrong impression there.

    The thing is that even if we use the feature only once in the entire game, I need to have a field for it in the editor reserve and create the respective variable in the items to hold that information.

  3. Damjan Mozetič

    I am not an experienced designer, but IMHO if you backup that mechanic with story so it makes sense in the world you’ve created, then it could work. Otherwise it feels a bit artificial to me.

    • Guido

      I’m sorry that you feel that way because I see quite a bit of potential in this, but as I said, I’ve never planned to use this in anything but very rare circumstances to achieve very specific goals at that point in the game.

  4. Süleyman Okan

    Irreversible, capricious, senseless plot twists that lessen flexibility based on game mechanics that can have no role-playing value whatsoever (what might be a real-life precedent of a bind-on-equip item that just dropped from some other poor sod?). Artificial frustrations are good crutches too, don’t you think?

    • Guido

      Süleyman, that is a loaded question, really. Senseless plot twists have no value, yes, but often it is an subjective feeling, because when is a plot twist senseless? There may have been more at work behind the scenes that the player is just not aware of.
      Capricious plot twists, are much the same, the may appear capricious on the surface, but there may be underlying reasons that make them very rational and therefore less capricious than they might seem.
      Irreversible plot twists on the other hand are extremely valuable when they are used properly. They are essential in showing the consequences of actions. If you can go back and reverse every action in the game, or if there are always alternate solutions for the same problem, you will often find that the game suffers, because every decision is relegated to irrelevance, and when that happens the entire game becomes irrelevant and the player will begin to feel as if they are in an auto-pilot mode where the game heads towards the conclusion no matter what. I do not like that at all. not as a player and certainly not as a game designer.

      I cannot think of real life precedents of bind-on-equip items, but then again, we are not making a real life simulator. We’re making a fantasy game and as such cursed items, magical items and items with personality are three examples of items that could potentially bind themselves to their users.

  5. Mico Selva

    Mechanics such as bind-on-pickup and level requirements for items are artificial means for balancing gameplay in combat-heavy games like MMOs and online hack&slash games. While they serve some purpose in these kinds of games, I do not really see any viable reason for them to exist in a single player RPG. Including them will not make the game better in any way and I encourage You to rethink this design decision.

  6. Alexander

    Will it be possible to unbind those items with magic? Also, cursed items seem to work differently in that you literally cannot unequip them. The item binding seems to be about not being able to give or sell it anybody else, including your own party members, correct?

  7. Guido

    Yes, that is correct. And no, you will most likely not be able to unbind them, even with magic—but honestly, that is a detail I will tackle when I get there, story and design-wise.

  8. Onne van Dijk

    I guess the reason people don’t like this is because you just haven’t made it immediately clear that it will make some kind of sense story wise. For people who don’t play MMO’s and have never heard of bound items as a game mechanic (like me before your blog post) it will be confusing and weird if it doesn’t.

    But like you said on Twitter it’s not hard to imagine bind-on-equip items in fantasy, so if it’s explained properly I say go for it. I like the consequences it has.

  9. AbounI

    Hi Guido, hi all
    This is my first post here, just to say that I’m actually interested in the Deathfire project, and I’ve decided to “react ” to this update to tell you I approve this feature.

    This reminds me an interesting feat in a fastly & badly designed pseudo RPG: Dragon Age 2.
    Remember all the NPCs who have personal items like Varric & Bianca, Aveline and her armor, etc etc.
    If I’ve understood the idea correctly, then it could be quite the same case, right? Except, that this time, it is the player who first decides what (kind of) item/weapon will be bound to PCs/NPCs.

    May I suggest you to go deeper and further than that, and not to stop in the middle of the race? Let me explain you my thoughts with a simple example:

    Admitting that from the start of the game I’ve decided to equip my warrior only with two handed weapons, could it be in your point of view a potential idea that during the game this warrior could reject all that is not a two handed martial weapon (= malus for not the same kind of items bound to him). By this fact, not only his character sheet will be developed in this direction, but also his inventory. Making him use such kind of weapon will grant him bonus, and conversely. A Rogue who has first learned to move with leather armors will gain benefits from those armor (= bound to leather armors) and will reject all that is not “pure” leather (like padded armor in example).

    In another update, you show the huge amount of weapons and item that could be found in Deathfire.It could help player to find the right path in this “jungle”. Don’t you think so?Exemple : In theory, this +4 padded armor should fit a rogue, but my rogue only want/accept leather, so the player prefer to keep for now his used leather instead of this new magical padded until he finds a better leather.In this way, a worst leather is better than a new magical padded…

    Can’t it be added to “traits sheet” and help the player to make right decisions and it could prevent the easy and usual solution of “save & load” like Damjan underlined that?

    Sorry for my bad English, but be sure Guido I am closely following this project

  10. Ryan

    There’s a reason it’s never been used in SP games, it’s a horrible design decision. The reason it exists in MMOs is solely for economy/Raid reasons. I’ve never played a table top game that had such a system in the rules either. It doesn’t add depth, it’s just tedious. It prevents you from passing down a weapon from say Warrior #1 to Warrior #2 when an upgrade is found. Now it just makes more sense to give the new upgrade to Warrior #2 rather than waste an item, regardless of which is better from a min/max stand point. Limiting choices is rarely the right way to go imo. 99.9% sure we can count on a mod/hack/cheat table removing this system.

    • Guido

      I know that some people seem to take exception with this, but let me just say that I have my reasons for doing this, and you will see in the final game that is neither tedium nor pointless. Just because it is a feature not found in other games before doesn’t make it a horrible design decision. We have some pretty unique ideas for this concept and I am pretty sure that players will enjoy them in the end. Just have a little faith…

  11. Roq Marish (@Roqsan)

    I don’t think that RPGs are about choosing irreversibly between good and bad options, but rather choosing which one of several paths to go down. In MMOs, devs have been forced (by user pressure) to make decisions taken on incomplete knowledge reversible. So most MMOs now have a respec option, which you can take if you inadvertently nerf your character. Plus you can usually recover from any circumstance, in the long term, without having to start the game over.

    I think devs of single player games have become lazy, by relying on save/load game so they don’t have to balance options; if you do something wrong, die or whatever, just load a saved game. Would be good to see single player games take ironman mode more seriously, so that it is feasible to play a game straight up with out the frustration of losing everything and having to start over – How many people are not going to revert when they lose their best soldiers in XCOM EU, for instance? Not many. Of course, you do have to penalise bad decisions / poor play, otherwise there is no tension; it’s a balance thing.

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  13. Süleyman Okan

    Just wanted to check in to say I came off rather pissy. That granted, I cannot see a solid justification for a bind-on-equip item other than a Gollum-precious dynamic, which should be very rare and well intertwined into the story. Just injure or curse a character; it’s way classier.

  14. Guido

    We have certain very particular plans with this feature in the story and I can only repeat over and over again, that it is a very rare occurrence that is tied to very specific events in the game. It is always been our plan that way and we will implement it that way. I simply do not wish to reveal more about it at this time because I do not want to spoil the effect or the storyline that goes with it.

  15. Roq Marish (@Roqsan)

    Yes, and it’s not hard to see why one might choose a single party member to be the recipient of a unique blessing or item that changes or augments their role within the party. It’s not really any different to choosing which of your party specializes in some skill, such as speaking Elvish or whatever (in fact a unique item could have some such similar effect).

    If one could just change skills or transfer a characters unique experience at any time, then there would be no sense of developing and individuating your characters over the course of the game. So I don’t see why this couldn’t be a very useful mechanism in the right circumstances. Maybe people are objecting, because they think they’ll be stuck with some cursed weapon in their main hand for the rest of the game or something :).

  16. Moorkh

    I felt I had to lend my first comment on this blog to support the chorus of irritated voices on this subject. Bind-on-equip, or, worse, its ugly cousin, bind-on-pickup are horrible design decisions even in MMOs, where they rather cheaply replace the need for a balanced economy by immediately removing a large proportion of loot from at least the the player-to-player market almost immediately after dropping. These mechanics have only ever caused tedium and frustration for players and if they have lead to decisions, those ever drew the player out of any immersive gameplay onto some undesired meta layer.
    Now, frankly, I’m not alarmed if it is as Guido states, that such a mechanic is well-embedded in the design of the game world and the storyline of Deathfire as singular encounters and subsequent decisions (“The spirit lord seems appeased by your deed and willing to keep her part of the bargain: who of you will embrace to ethereal essence into his soul to wield it as a weapon henceforth?” or the like). But then, I don’t see how this can be considered a “feature”, as it hardly resembles the mechanic we’ve come to hate in MMOs.

    • Guido

      It was never meant as a “Feature.” It was simply showing up in the image I posted with the blog post and somehow it has been completely misconstrued.

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