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Respawn: Mailboxes and Timesinks

Posted Wed, Mar 26, 2014 by Xerin

Respawn Pink

I have a question. What is better, physical mail boxes or mail being part of the U.I.? Which is more satisfying to you? Physical mail boxes in games exist for a reason, but that doesn’t mean it’s satisfying. It’s really a small mechanic in our day to day lives but it has a major impact on the game systems.

Okay, so let’s discuss mailboxes first. They exist as a timesink. Games require you to use the mailboxes as a way to walk around the world just a little bit longer. Want to mail gear to a friend? You’ve got to fly or walk or horse to the next town over with a mailbox, find it, then mail the stuff away. They have positive impacts on the social aspect of the game too, because they provide an excellent reason for people to congregate in major cities.

It also restricts inventory space. If you can mail your stuff away when you’re anywhere, then you can simply just mail items to a mule. If you mail the items from an physical mailbox then that’s the same as pretty much returning to town to sell, eliminating the “inventory loophole” so to speak.

Now, there isn’t many technical reasons to use mailboxes. Clicking a mailbox brings up a graphical interface element and clicking a button on your UI does the same. The only difference is requiring you to be at point A instead of anywhere in the game.

For embedding the mailbox into the GUI, it creates the benefit of 24/7 access to mail without having to leave and do anything. You can mail stuff whenever and wherever you want and you gain a ton of time back by not having to travel.

So obviously not having mailboxes is the superior choice in this example. However, I sort of kind of disagree. While it’s more convenient to have access to your in-game mail anywhere, it’s also not as special. Whenever I’m playing a game that has a flashing mail icon and I can click it to retrieve my mail it just feels so easy. Yet, at the same time, again this is such a small issue. We rarely think about it.

I think the bigger discussion is more about time as mechanic, realistically, and how that relates to how we feel about games. Games can make us spend more time doing something and it could feel more enjoyable because we relate time and our effort spent doing something with the value. For instance, if you write an email to someone then it’s just a “meh” thing but if you write a letter in the mail then it’s like woah how did this happen.

So some game mechanics like travel or sending mail or whatever can be trivialized simply with teleports and adding it to the U.I. Yet the time spent traveling or getting places or even doing things is where the value in a game comes. You can boil a game down to a button clicking simulator (Cookie Clicker anyone) and skip through all of the nuances of doing anything, but where is the fun in that?

Cookie Clicker

I think that mail boxes are rather neat personally and we should keep them where appropriate. For certain games, the application of a mailbox doesn’t work nearly as well when it’s not immersive. If you have some kind of holonet built into your character’s skull then it’d make sense for the mail to come up to your Google glass. If you’re in a fantasy setting then mailboxes that use magical teleportion portals or whatever make sense as well.

It’s fun to think about the small things in games sometimes and how much thought developers have to put into something. If they stack on too many things that require travel / timesink then the game is boring because there is a lot of downtime. If they let you teleport everywhere and have instant access to your mail and reduce the game too much then you go through content too quickly. Finding the right balance for each game is super critical. If you’re ever a beta tester, I’m sure a lot of developers would love feedback on the smaller mechanics just as much as the bigger ones, so keep that in mind.

Tomorrow we’ll discuss the fun of pre-order rewards.



i cant speak for everyone but i've loved not having to circle back to a mailbox in guild wars 2. The birds that deliver the mail aren't immersion-breaking, and they let me keep having fun playing the game rather than having to stop if i want to see my mail. Right in the second paragraph you call it a timesink, a waste of time that could be spent playing the game!

The same applies to inventory management. I don't play games to sort my bags or play inventory tetris, that's maintanence i have to do because of my loot. I'd rather just mail stuff to the AH than jog all the way back to a vendor or bank. I don't think limiting your inventory is a good enough reason to have mailboxes.

I also don't miss people standing on top of the mailboxes with their mounts or traveling to a mailbox only to find its just more goldspam. BARF

All the talk about cookie clicker is SO OBVIOUSLY an attempt to drag the ol' casual/hardcore thing out. You can boil any game down to a button clicking simulator, you say, but where's the fun in that? Its out playing the game, traveling around to do cool stuff rather than traveling back to check your junkmail.

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