Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Rewards of Loot

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.
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The Scarcity of Pragmatism

Scarcity is a fundamental part of economic value. Diminishing returns is also irrefutable when examining economic systems, and the value of certain items in any given economic system. So why is it that most players, and the games they play, try to either ignore or control these two principles? While scarcity can be controlled to an extent, diminishing returns is more problematic, yet the two are rarely considered two parts of a whole.

While a great steak dinner has intrinsic nutritional value, most humans would grow to dislike steak if forced to eat only steak for years on end, regardless of its scarcity. Likewise, personal like or dislike for said steak dinners should not be based on how many of your neighbors are also eating steak, but personal like or dislike of a BMW would be affected by how many BMW’s are being driven by said neighbors.

We desire variation as an inhibitor to diminishing returns, and this desire for variation allows us to construct personal definitions based on our whims and desires. But our desire for variation is also determined in part by scarcity. This intimate balance of scarcity and desire for variation is what most games are not acknowledging.

Creating six similar variations of an ultimate weapon would not be difficult, and would be a much better than creating six copies of the same weapon, yet for some reason we always end up with the later. Variations need not be complex; equal DPS with variant min/max damage ranges, simple visible graphic changes, and/or skill based buffs as opposed to attribute based buffs are all easy solutions.

What game designers need to accept is that they are not arguing that this scarcity/variety relationship is healthy, or even that it should exist. They merely have to accept that it does, and then design their economies around it. Utopian ideas about consumerism, capitalism and greed need to be ignored when contemplating a game. Debate the merits of those factors in real life if you have to, but accept them as evil truths when designing a game economy.

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Egocentric Ignorance

I have noticed that although I own and love games of all kinds, this blog has concentrated on video games over all other types. Part of this is just due to the vast amount of information available on video games compared to the other genres, but the real reason is my own personal lack of playing anything but video games for the past year or so.

This does not mean my interests only lie in video games. I actually enjoy almost all versions of games, and believe that video game developers (and players) can learn a lot from chess, Monopoly and Mag-Blast if they would only play them more.

Finding table-top, board and/or card games (and the gamers needed to play said games) in my area has been difficult, and so my recent experiences have been limited to video games, the reason for the blogs’ unintended bias.
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Crafty Solutions

I have always enjoyed the side-track of crafting in most RPG’s, be it SWG or table-top D&D. As the internet becomes saturated with MMO-wiki’s the challenge for new games to create intricate and challenging crafting mini-games is daunting. How can new games give their players the ability to ‘invent’ or craft new items by trial and error? Once a recipe is ‘invented’ anyone with Google can get the specifics, negating the need to spend time, resources and creativity in pursuit of crafting.

Adding a random chance into basic A+B+C recipes leads to grinding, not invention. Nerfing the best gear available to be crafted, in order to limit min-maxing of wiki-recipes, in turn nerfs crafting altogether. Is there a middle ground? Can intricate and original crafting systems exist in today’s environment of infinite-wikis?

Once thing that has intrigued me recently has been the use of Communification to solve some of these problems, and it might be used to help fix crafting. What if an MMO were to embrace it’s own Wiki, and incorporate it into the game by allowing ‘sub-classes’ for content generating players within a framework that rewards them for accuracy and censors the use of spoilers.

Another angle would be the inclusion of a recipe for each non-unique item in the game. With each specific item, proprietary rights could be granted to the first player to decipher the recipe, with item rarity determining how many players could ‘learn’ the recipe before it can not be ‘learned’ by anyone else.

The use of random chance could even be tweaked to diminish the need for grinding and increase the desire to experiment. If a diminishing percent of success was used for crafting an item each time a copy of that item was made by any and all players, recipes would be hoarded and kept secret by those who put effort into discovering the recipe.

Any (and all of) these quick thoughts do rely on the addition of content on a regular basis. When new content is added, even low level items should be changed, even if just the name and recipe, if not in stats and graphics. This would not only keep players testing and experimenting, but it would also regularly invalidate most of the independent wiki-spoilers that are sure to appear.

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Classless Talent

Traditional Class roles for fantasy adventure stories have been stagnant for almost seventy years. The old class standbys of Healer, Magic User and Warrior along with racial templates for Elves, Dwarves and Humans have been adopted by RPG’s with almost religious devotion. With little exception have these basic ideas been changed, and familiarity breeds intuitive understanding. While the differences between D&D and WoW exist, most players who have never played WoW but have some D&D table-top experience would be able to recognize the class divisions with ease.

As WoW has shown, traditional use of class and race can work, but the vast complexities of modern video games are making balancing these multiple classes much harder. While I personally disagree with change for change’s sake, the current use of classes, and their respective talents in regards to balance issues, makes me wonder if there is a better way.

The current system seems to perpetually nerf and buff specific class talents with each update, hoping for the illusion of balance by continuous change. One solution to this constant need to tweak is to remove talents from a game, leaving only core class abilities. I understand that removing all talents from a game would not be as apocalyptic as it appears, as very few games offer all available class talent trees in such a balanced way as to see all branches used in the same frequency. Often, these talent tree paths are instead min-maxed to death, and you simply choose the best PvE or PvP talent tree available to your class based on your preference of PvE or PvP.

The removal of talents would not really solve this illusion of choice though. Even without talents, traditional class roles would still force players to adopt a specific role central to group play, with the only real choice being PvE or PvP speced.

What has intrigued me is the idea of retaining talents, but removing classes from a game. If talents were comparable to weapons, meaning they were created and balanced based on each other as opposed to their intended class roles, we would add some real choices into character progression. Limiting how deep or wide each character explores the different talent trees would become a completely personal choice for each gamer, without artificially limiting their access to talent tree content with class barriers.

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Despite the Intent

Unanticipated events have severely limited my ability to post in the past month. While all of those events are not completely resolved, the major obstacles have been dealt with. Even without internet access, I have found myself unable to completely abandon this blog, and have quite a few hand-written posts that I will type out and post as quickly as possible. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

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