There seem to be two standard ways that loot rewards are distributed in most RPG’s; completely random dispersals and the use of level, or progression, based dispersals.
The major reason for using random dispersal seems to be that this method allows all players a chance to access all item content. Player skill and time played does not limit anyone in their ability to see and use item content. The use of extremely low drop percentages coupled with normal distribution frequencies for rare items does lead to some kind of association between time played and chances of getting phat loot, but luck is still the major factor. The biggest problem that random dispersal has is that it actually encourages players to farm rats until their eyeballs bleed rather than challenge the MOB content at their own current level.
The reasoning behind progressive drops is that as a player progresses through a game their desire for better loot is the carrot that leads them through the game content. If players want the uber-level sword, then they have to come into the new area we spent time creating, as those rats in the noob-level will never give you more than a wooden sword. The problem with progressive distribution is that it quickly leads to a game based solely on loot acquisition; and as new content is added, new uber-gear must be created, ensuring a permanent arms race and division between the haves and have-nots.
While neither system is perfect, they each still attract true-believers willing to adhere to their own flawed system because their system is not as flawed as the other one. Even attempts to blend the two systems were tepid at best. The use of percentiles to determine what preset loot a MOB will drop, but creating that list based on the MOB’s progressive level, leads to mind-numbing grinds within the framework of a loot chase.
Perhaps this is where video games could learn from other game types. The revolution that Magic the Gathering created came about by merging the addiction of collectable cards with an easy-to-learn hard-to-master fantasy adventure game. Could scarcity, or even collect-ability, be merged with random dispersal or with progressive dispersal? What about all three?
MOBs could drop colored tokens based loosely on their levels, or even use percentiles to determine what perset tokens a MOB would drop based loosely on MOB level. These tokens could then be exchanged for like colored “chests”. Each chest would contain one or more items from a designed “set” of items that would loosely correlate to that color’s level. Each colored set of items would contain a concrete number of common, uncommon and rare items. Multiple copies of the same sets could be placed into the game, much as multiple decks of cards are used in a Blackjack shoe. And as with Blackjack, once a certain amount of chests had been taken from the colored sets “shoe” in-game, all remaining chests are discarded and a new “shoe” is inserted.
Players would then have the choice of trading in their colored tokens not only for like colored chests, but could trade-down in order to obtain lower leveled (or colored) chests for the same amount of tokens it would take to obtain their similar leveled/colored chests. Players could also be given the option to save up their tokens and purchase a chest one color, or tier, above the tokens associated color/level.