MMO Mechanics: Loot

Editors Note: This is the second in a series of articles talking about the ins and outs of given MMO mechanics.  I’m no game designer but I research a lot and have been gaming for an obnoxiously long time.  I’ve played MUD’s, MMORPG’s, MOBA’s and have been a PC and console enthusiast for as long as those things have existed.  I’ll be citing appropriate references where possible and as always comments are turned on, so please disagree if you do.  Part one of the series on MMO Economies can be found here.

In games with a well defined vertical progression scheme (WoW and most of it’s clones), loot is the primary tool to drive character growth.  Go to a new dungeon, get a new drop, it becomes part of the character.  Since it’s difficult to decouple this style of progression from the loot itself, we’re not going to get into a discussion of vertical and horizontal progression systems here.  Also, depending on how a game has been built, loot-based progression can totally undercut your crafting mechanics if the loot from drops is better than what can be gotten via crafting.  We’ll cover crafting mechanics and how those should interact with loot in a later post.  After that we’ll possibly wrap up our economic discussion and move on to other mechanics.

So with all this in mind, let’s get right into some of the mechanical issues of loot that most games, past and present, fail utterly to deal with in any sane or reasonable manner.

“You’ve defeated a savage wombat.  Press x to search the dead carcass and x again to collect anything you find.”

Can this mechanic please die in a fire now?  This particular abstraction is some hold over from pen and paper RPG’s where some particularly sadistic DM decided to punish his players for not paying attention to the world around them.  As a mechanic in an MMO, the only game design reason I can see to propagate this is to create some kind of perverse half second time sink that over time manages to be no more than a minor inconvenience in the game.

And it is an inconvenient.  When I kill a spawn and it drops loot, I shouldn’t be asked to search for it.  There’s no searching.  The body is right there.  I just go over and metaphorically rifle through the dead thing’s pockets (though let’s not ask where a forest boar is going to store a +3 mace of disruption, ewwwww.)  And that abstraction helps to push away the notion that we’re really corpse looters and quite probably murderers too. Yeah, you killed that guy, now take his stuff.  Aren’t I supposed to be a hero or something?

“Come play the exciting and rewarding game of Inventory Management!”

I swear Guild Wars 2 is one of the worst perpetrators of this issue, because it feels like inventory management is all I do every time I log in to play that game.  If your game requires that I spend 10 minutes at the start of the game and 10 minutes and the end and probably a few breaks in the middle just to manage my inventory, than I’m not really playing your game.  My guild mates goaded me into Guild Wars 2, and the very first thing I asked my high level friends to make me wasn’t a suit of armor or a weapon.  It was inventory bags.

Guild Wars 2 (and most other modern MMO’s) throw the loot at you, right from the start.  And they keep throwing it at you as you go.  It gets ridiculous after a while, and it turns my game into the game of inventory management.  This is not desirable behavior.  Clean up your bag space, sell off your junk (GW 2 even has a sell junk button at every vendor, wtf???).  This is just housework.  I can play that game in real life, and it benefits me more there.  No subscription needed.

The Extra Credits video, linked in my last MMO Mechanics post, talked briefly about this.  How games flood players with these low value items of loot that are good only for selling back to a vendor.  Well if all they’re good for is cash, why not just give me the cash?  Are you looking for time sinks?  Why?  Is your core gameplay not good enough to sustain the game without all these needless account tasks?  Hmmmm.

Crafting materials in your inventory backpack

Sell it.  Sell it all.  Rare, common, I don’t care.  It’s taking up space in my inventory and the game of inventory management up above says I must keep things clean.  So what if I never ever try to craft because keeping up with crafting components and my inventory is just too much.  Inventory management the game MUST be played.

This Sword of Santa has an iLevel of 3568, 3 major and 2 minor gem slots, and will boost attack power by 92 points, damage 127 points, and gift wrapping speed by 18%.  It will also proc a long white beard on your character with every 20th attack.  Ho ho ho!

Loot has a lot of mechanics associated with it.  Stats, slots for boosts, and procs are hard to keep up with.  While these mechanics won’t go away over time I do wish loot, especially loot designed to boost a character’s stats, were designed universally and with the same rules that characters were designed for.  Just some better integration in terms of how a particular piece of loot improves a character versus a wall of stats that I’ve got to check to see if it’s green or red to see if it’s actually better.  And that’s just for some pre-defined version of better decided by the devs when they crafted the item.  Not necessarily what I would consider better.

So.  There are alternative mechanics to some of these issues.  Let’s take a look.

Press X to search and X to collect loot…..

This one is simple.  Loot should drop into my backpack automatically.  There shouldn’t even be a prompt aside from a notification of what I’ve gotten.  Just do it.  Stop making me stop everything and pick it up.  It’s a tiny fractional annoyance that has to be repeated for every monster you kill.  People have rage-quit over the fact that they’ve lost out on loot because they couldn’t find it in the chaos of a battle/dungeon.  Just drop it in my backpack, notify me if it’s full through some icon update, and let’s move on.  On the same note….

Crafting materials in your inventory backpack

If your game has a separate inventory space for crafting materials, then auto-drop that into that space and give people easy access to it.  It won’t eliminate the game of inventory management, and I’m not sure you want to totally eliminate that anyway, but you do make some of the more onerous aspects of it less annoying.

Geographical Loot

In many ways all end-game loot is already implicitly geographical.  The devs add a new high level zone with all new loot and you raid that zone until you have the best of it all and then you move on to the next one.  You could make this explicit and offer up loot that has a geographical bonus.  Something that offers up some bonus that only works while you’re in a certain area.  For example, when you’re in the Sky City, maybe you find a belt with some good stats on it that’s worth hanging onto.  But while in Sky City, it also gives a fly bonus for short durations so you can’t just fall out of Sky City and never return.  Or loot with fire powers that only work in an ice dungeon.  There are lots of ways you could go with this and since it’s already being done implicitly, why not deliberately do it as well and add a level of variety to your loot beyond what has previously come before.

Max-Level Only Loot

This is similar to the above suggestion, however, this is loot that only applies to max level content.  Below max level the loot stops working, or at the very least, stops giving max-level bonuses.  This is actually a reasonable method for dealing with Power Creep and some of the issues that continually raising the loot cap causes, though it would be very hard to implement on a game that didn’t start out with it.

Loot that has a story

The quintessential example of this kind of mechanic would be the masks from The Legend of Zelda, Majora’s Mask, one of my favorite games of all, ever.  None of the masks in that game were loot that you could just find in a random chest somewhere.  Each one was in a particular part of the game world and getting it required doing something, such that by the time you had it, you also had a story for how you got it.  And that’s something that’s super important.  When you give players a reason to get something, they keep it for a lot longer than they might necessarily want to because it has a story attached to it.  Sentimentality.  The item in question has meaning and value beyond just the stats associated with it.  Unique gear that has a story will always be better and the more of it that’s seeded into your world the more your players will go after it to try and get it.

So that’s it for loot today.  Sorry no sweeping reassessment of the systems but loot in general should be a means to an end and not an end unto itself.  Lots of moderm MMO’s have forgotten this and we can talk about what the point of an MMO should actually be some other time.  As always, these are just some suggestions for how to fix loot and make it better in our games, but there are surely others.  Please feel free to post your thoughts on how to fix loot below.

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