GAMMOP – Thou Shall Not Covet Thy Mobs Gear

MMO’s have generally accepted principles much like accounting. Rules and systems that have been adopted over the years. I recently signed up to try the Age of Conan Trial (haven’t played it since I dismissed the game as ‘not for me’ in beta). I’ll most likely discuss how things have changed there in another piece, but playing through the first 3 levels reminded me how loot systems in our MMO’s really kill immersion.

In AOC I awake on a beach wearing only a loincloth and slave tattoos. A broken oar is my only weapon. My character, a Stygian Ranger, must find Tortage. I look around the beach and see a slaver of particular interest – full leather armor, a bow by his side and a quiver full of arrows on his back. Wielding my broken oar with the fury of a thousand raining arrows I down the slaver, and begin to rummage through his gear.

Now, being a ranger myself, you would think that I would be overjoyed at the opportunity to pick up my weapon and ammo of choice to make my way to Tortage. No, though. The golden tooth of the slaver is the only thing I find of value. Perhaps I neglected my own dental hygiene and am obsessed with teeth – either way, I discard the weapons, armor, and arrows, rummuge through the guy’s mouth and remove 1 gold tooth and tuck it somewhere in my loincloth. (I won’t tell you where  – use your imagination.)

MMO’s have come a long way with loot, and some try to make that experience even better. Building my private set of dentures in AoC just left me with one thought – ‘why didn’t they even try something here?’ As a ranged class, providing loot that fits my class, from an NPC that obviously also slings arrows is a missed opportunity. In fact, I didn’t even find a bow or arrows until level 3.

Why didn’t they even try?

As MMO gamers we know the routine. Kill mobs, get levels, get loot. That really is the core of most MMO gameplay. Once you get your levels, all that is left (in current MMO iteration) is to get the loot. We spend hours each week doing that at max level. Now, I could rant here how silly it is that random Boar carries a platemail chest piece, or that Poisonous snakes somehow find somewhere to put a 2 handed great sword. Developers are trying hard to distance themselves with ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ features that they often miss the most basic of ideas that the average gamer would appreciate. Because they know we are trained to accept a GAMMOP, they can focus their dev dollars elsewhere trying to make a bigger ‘splash’ for marketing to take advantage of. I suppose it’s hard to argue – what would a marketing department rather drool over – ‘innovative 4th Gen MMO Combat!’ or – ‘a looting system that makes sense!’. One is sexy, one is sensible.

Games didn’t always loot this way. Heck, back in EQ I fondly remember that if I saw an Orc wearing a chainmail helm and wielding a mace, when I killed him I could loot either of those items. Fun was always to be had – I could give my city guards a sword, and they would equip it. If a player from the opposite faction killed that guard, he could loot it. If I sold a shield to a merchant, it would stay on that merchant – and others could buy it. Items existed in Norrath (or at least had the illusion they did – it has been a long, long time).

The issue is how we have been trained that when we kill something it must have something worth taking. Entire MMO systems are based off of ‘rate of return’ on adventuring – if I do 20 quests, I should have 400 gold. To counter that gold influx, we need gold sinks. Both the influx and the sinks are in constant war with each other, as developers increase rewards as mobs grow, then find ways to force us to spend that cash to show some semblance of economy balance.

To change this GAMMOP a brave developer would have to decide if there is value in having a player not fill up all bag space while questing – that the spoils are the gameplay experience itself, not the 90% vendor trash, 9% auction house sellable, 1% keepable items  insensibly placed on random defeated creatures. I am worried though, that like puppies we have been so well trained that if we don’t get our treat after rolling over, shaking a paw, or sitting pretty that we’ll just all pee on the carpet if we don’t get our ridiculously itemized per mob loot tables.

WoW has done some things I can appreciate in this regard, with the  badge and token system. I can live with the fact that an armorer might give me a special piece from his collection because I defeated certain mobs that perhaps ravaged his village in the past. There is an arguable point there. In Cataclysm they are moving to a points system, which I can also buy into – not as ‘this is the best way of doing this!’ but a ‘meh, it’s better than having a 40′ dragon having swords and armor stuck to his scales on display, that you can only take off once he is dead’. The system I like the best that I have seen in a few games is having a chest, or cache that the Mob has in his lair. It could be things he has stored from killing past adventurers. That makes sense. Having a giant plate armored-wearing evil knight with a 10’lance, that once killed, gives a leather helmet and a tiny dagger is just plain silly.

I do understand that it is just another way for developers to gate content, to force you to keep paying and playing, but surely there are other less insulting ways to provide that loot in an immersing manner? Any games out there make looting make sense?

9 comments / Add your comment below

  1. As with lots of things, the problem here is complicated. This was a topic covered a long time ago on my own blog.

    From that post, my own history is that in Meridian 59 we introduced a new enemy with a patch: faction soldiers that looked like players (used player artwork) and had player equipment. I wanted it to make sense, so I scaled the monster’s defense based on the armor it had and scaled the offense based on the weapon. “Well,” I said to myself, “It only makes sense that they should drop the items they’re wearing.”

    In short, the players hated it. Not only did i make getting some equipment trivial, it also damaged the economy while since it was easy to kill masses of soldiers and pick through the equipment. Eventually I made it so that there was only a small (20%) chance for each item to drop.

    So, it’s just about “forcing” players to keep p(l)aying, it’s also about maintaining the proper feel for the game, including a working economy. A lot of systems are interconnected, and there’s possibly a reason why equipment doesn’t fall freely from the enemies. For example, EQ1 could have piles of loot because your carrying capacity was fairly limited. I remember people talking about “destroying copper (coins)” because they had looted too many of the lowest denomination of coin. So, they weren’t going to be picking up dozens of garbage sets of chainmail and bent maces.

    Want a reason why that full set of armor and weapon weren’t available? You battered it all up too badly with your boat oar. But, luckily, you did knock some teeth loose. 😉

  2. I could understand why they would hate it – because those same players are trained to pick up everything that a mob drops, to sell later on, to cover their ‘costs’ of fighting.

    A fundamental shift in loot-thinking would be needed. Make those items worthless and not part of the economy (or only value is melting down the metal for plate, etc).

    The best change in loot systems I have experienced is Mass Effect 2. In both Dragon Age and Mass effect I had pages and pages of junk inventory that I had to loot off every mob so I could afford to buy the things I wanted in game. In ME2, they did away with that – pretty much completely. You looted money, minerals, or schematics – which you could then turn into useful items.

    I appreciate your experience with your playerbase, and you were trying to change a fundamental shift in the way gamers play any online game that involves looting. The only way it would really work is if the economy model changed to reflect that ‘you don’t have to loot every item to sustain money in this world’.

    Change the experience from where loot is the satisfying part of the battle to the battle itself, and make loot more rare and valuable when there is something that is worth keeping. a very worn mace may not be worth carrying around (and you can design it so it isn’t) – so the only reason why a player would pick it up is if it is better than what they had.

    If I could get the same coin ‘return’ selling the 5 items I found while adventuring, instead of the 95 items, and I won’t need 145 bag slots, that works for me =)

  3. Titan Quest foes drop the stuff they were wearing. It’s even visual; they equip the gear they wield to attack you. (So kill the goblin with the glowy spear before the one with the bland staff.) I wound up leaving a LOT of gear on the ground because it just wasn’t useful. Even as vendor trash, it was a waste of time; once past the first couple of towns, I’d make enough coin selling the best stuff I looted.

    Sometimes I’d get some really cool stuff from enemies, but most of the best gear was found in chests.

    All in all, it’s a pretty solid game in this respect. Translating that to MMO space will indeed be a bit tricky, but not mechanically, but because of player expectation. I say it’s worth a try, though.

  4. I love the visual aspect. This can be taken further in boss mechanics (in current MMO iteration) where if a mob can drop 3 different weapons he can use, when you zone into the encounter he could be wielding 1 of 3 different weapons. If he is a warrior class, that may be 2 handed sword, sword and board, or polearm.

    The panzy magic users gear can be locked away in his chest once defeated.

  5. Isey wrote:
    I could understand why they would hate it – because those same players are trained to pick up everything that a mob drops, to sell later on, to cover their ‘costs’ of fighting.

    No, they hated it because it broke the economy and the rarity of certain items. Part of the game balance was that some gear was harder to get, and the soldiers made it easy to get those items. They were also standing right outside of town, so killing a few and selling off their items was a relatively fast way to generate cash.

    And, no, M59 wasn’t a game where you picked up everything and sold trash to the vendors. Carrying capacity was limited, and most items just weren’t worth hauling back. Most cash in the world was dropped directly by monsters.

    As I said, there are a lot of assumptions in game design that support monsters not always dropping their items in an MMO. You’d have to significantly re-think the design on multiple levels. Not for the faint of heart, or people looking for outside investment from typically skittish investors. 🙂

  6. It’s hard to debate with you Psycho since I am firmly in the ‘armchair’ category while you are ‘in the game’, but you gave me my own counterpoint 🙂

    Do you think the response would have been different if they weren’t so close to town and accessible? Carrying high level loots? How about if it wasn’t an inserted change, but was a loot system designed from the outset? Gamers hate change (see: SWG NGE) even though that change could be considered positive.

    Interesting comment about the skittish investors which poses a new question for you (and perhaps a future article for you!) – how well researched are these investors? Do they even understand what loot is or are they just looking for WoW type ROI?

  7. Continuing our slo-mo conversation….

    It’s hard to debate with you Psycho since I am firmly in the ‘armchair’ category while you are ‘in the game’

    That’s fine. Part of the reason I post is to give you another point of view to consider. You might still decide that you’re right and people who do it otherwise is wrong, but at least you’ve had other things to consider.

    Do you think the response would have been different if they weren’t so close to town and accessible?

    The point of the faction soldiers as new additions to the game were to show the presence of the new factions in more open warfare. Soldiers spawned around flags that players could claim for their faction. Players could “claim” cities for boost to their faction powers, so the flagpoles needed to be near the cities.

    As I said, there are a lot of interlocking design decisions that affect these decisions. The easier route was to make the creatures simply NOT drop their equipment every time.

    Carrying high level loots?

    Keep in mind that Meridian 59 isn’t a typical WoW-clone game. There are four sets of armor, if I’m remembering correctly, so it’s hard to draw at what is “high level”.

    How about if it wasn’t an inserted change, but was a loot system designed from the outset?

    There are still a lot of issues to consider that are intermingled. Perhaps in the design it was the best solution to not make monsters always drop all their gear. (However, I think one could probably argue that a lot of design is just copied from other games and not considered on this level.)

    The issue could also be couched in different terms: What is necessary to give up in order to allow all monsters to drop all held items? As I mentioned before, EQ (and Titan’s Quest) had the issue of having severely limited inventory space. Would you prefer that? Personally, I’d rather have more room to carry more interesting treasure that drops a bit less often; as a player, I’m a pack-rat who likes to carry a whole lot of crap, though.

    Gamers hate change

    This is true, but people were very specific about why they hated this. It was the economic effects.

    Do they even understand what loot is…

    Ultimately that’s my job. But, part of that is convincing them that I have the secret sauce that will lead to a better (and therefor more profitable) game.

    The investors do know the big stories of the industry. For MMOs, they know what WoW is and the returns its made. (On social games, Zynga takes that place, which causes its own complications.) The problem is that this detail sets the trend. Even if you could have a great return on a smaller game, they would prefer to add a bit more money, try to copy WoW, and get mind-blowing returns. At least, this has been my experience. Maybe there are more insightful investors out there than the ones I’ve seen.

    …or are they just looking for WoW type ROI?

    Ultimately, they only care about return on investment. Everything else is secondary. Obviously it’s great to be able to provide a really fun game to people, but it’s about getting their money back in huge amounts that drives them to invest, at least on the scale of multi-millions of dollars; angel investors throwing in less money might not be quite so laser-focused on ROI, but they aren’t going to willingly throw their money into an obvious black hole.

    There’s also the issue that most investment is for the short term. I still contend that one of the big reasons why WoW did so well was the very long history both the Blizzard and Warcraft brand names had. Did Blizzard provide the maximum return on investment for all their games? Probably not, but their history of quality let them have a runaway success like WoW. But, try to convince an investor that they can only get WoW-sized returns after a decade. (If you do, I have some special consulting rates to offer you! 😉

  8. Thanks for the insights. While I design games all the time in my head, I have no plans to make the leap into actual design. I toy with the idea of working on a flash/java based basic idea now and again, but am too busy working on things I am actually really good at to give it a whirl. =)

    Vindictus does a lot of neat things with loot, similar to what we have been discussing. I really like what they have done. If you see a mob carrying a spiked club, and beat him, the club drops – but it can’t be kept or sold (as it is essentially just wood with spikes) but it can be used, and then discarded as you move on.

    The really neat aspect is that bosses drop their stuff. One gnoll boss drops items that, for all intensive purposes, aren’t useable by the player. Heck, they were made to fit a 14′ Gnoll, not a human. You can however take that equipment to a crafter in town, provide some other resources, and they will craft a useable version of it. Cool part is it still looks like what he was wearing, but obviously hacked up to fit a human.

    Extra bonus points is that to get a certain piece of his gear to drop you have to break it on him. Location hits make a difference in vindictus – if you want his helmet, through some boulders at it during the fight, or target it with some spears. When he dies, a broken version of the loot will available, and you can take it to town to make it for yourself.

    It’s been fun playing a game in the spirit of the looting system I threw out there (before I had played the game) and seeing how it works and flows pretty good.

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