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Under The Hood: Colored Segregation

James Murff
05.24.08
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There are a lot of different game mechanics, ranging from the downright simple to the ethereal and hard-to-explain. I've talked a lot about the more subjective stuff, such as lore and paradigms and this and that, but only a few times have I hit the nitty gritty. So this week, I'm taking things to a controversial (not really) place. Judging items based on their color and how fantasy MMOs follow the same color patterns for identification, at least to a certain point.

If there is one delightful constant in the stream of endless hack'n'slash clones, fantasy MMOs, and the like, it's the "magic color". Any player of World of Warcraft will know at least the two basic colors of magic quality, and those who play both MMO and non-MMO hack'n'slashes, from Titan Quest to Mythos, will know this progression of coloring:

  • White/Gray/Black: The no-color items. These are your non-magical items, which often provide the base for the magical items in terms of durability, base damage, and the like.
  • Green: The slightly magical. Usually green items have between 1-3 modifiers on the item, and only 1-2 name modifiers. These are the gateway into magical items, but are not to be discounted. At high levels, the average green drop is more powerful than a low-level legendary.
  • Blue: The very magical. These items either have a few very powerful effects or 5-6 slightly less-powerful effects.
  • Any Color: Magical to the point of absurdity. These items have a multitude of extremely powerful effects, but are often very hard to acquire. They are usually quest rewards or rare drops.
  • Any Color: Unique. These items are named, have a history, and are usually extremely powerful for their level. They go for a lot in in-game economies most of the time. Extremely hard to obtain.
The thing that's wrong with this list is everything that comes after blue. For having 3 extremely recognizable colors as the most common (White, green, and blue), MMOs lack in the consistency department beyond that. Why is it that so many games take the later colors and fiddle with them, forcing a player to learn what late-level colors mean what again?

Part of this is an attempt to feel different from the horde of its peers. Everyone knows that green and blue are magic items because of World of Warcraft and Diablo, and developers would be foolish to change these colors.. But in three separate games, you can have gold, orange, brown, and purple for uniquely named items. It's an altogether frustrating practice that can render higher levels confusing, especially if you are playing, say, Dungeon Runners, World of Warcraft, and Mythos all around the same time.

The other big part of it is that it is assumed that a lot of gamers never see these end items. And, indeed, a lot of gamers don't. The legendary items can afford to be different colors in different games because, it is assumed, only a fraction of everyone who buys the game will be patient and perseverant enough to obtain theme. And while this is quite true, it doesn't excuse the changing of colors.

So please, developers, set up a revised, consistent standard. Even just purple for legendary and gold for unique would be lovely and cut down on the confusion a great deal. Because in the end, the greater ease of transition between MMO interfaces will bring in tons of new and veteran players alike to enjoy a good game of whack-the-baddie.

Each week James Murff writes Under The Hood, a deeper look at MMO game mechanics and how they affect players, games, and the industry

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