Monday, June 20, 2011

A deep look into RPG mechanics and how they build long-lasting gameplay. Loot and item enhancements.

In this article, I'm going to talk about how RPGs add lasting gameplay via item collection and enchanment mechanics. A lot of RPGs use item collection to create long-term player goals. WoW is a prime example - once you hit the level cap, you do not acquire new abilities, talents, stat points and so on, so your sole character progression route is based on gathering better gear that then lets you tackle tougher content, that then gets you better gear, and so on. This is implemented via content patches which tend to introduce higher-tier encounters as an expansion progresses. Gear is then "reset" when a new expansion arrives and the level cap is once more increased.

A game like WoW is based on the aforementioned model of continually adding content, which isn't something that all software houses are willing to do. WoW's monthly subscription model funds the continual development of new content, but in a most games, all your money is made upfront and there's a business incentive to just use that money to create a new game or an expansion instead of on content updates. I blogged a while ago about the value I see in content updates, even in games where there is no continued subscription, and that post can be found from here:

One thing that I've never really seen is a single-player game that employs a monthly subscription model for content updates. I have theories on why this model is only employed in MMOs currently, but it's something that I'd hope to see in the future. I strongly believe there is a market for single-player RPGs that receive continual content updates - it's just a case of changing customer awareness away from an old and outdated model.

Back to the topic of gear-based progression, not all players find the gathering of new gear enough of a carrot to continue playing once they have reached the level cap. This sort of game-play is considered by many as too grindy, and I'm sure there have been plenty of psyhological studies done to determine why some of us are addicted by these sorts of goals while others aren't. For sure, one thing you need to balance, should you take this sort of route, is the rate and ease at which gear is acquired as well as the time investment needed to enchant and improve gear. Gear upgrades need to feel worthwhile enough to encourage the grind to acquire them.  In WoW, the better gear tends to be aesthetically more pleasing than the previous (as well as more powerful), and players tend to enjoy parading their "best of best" gear around the capital city in front of others. It also demonstrates that you're in a guild that can beat certain encounters that perhaps others can't, so competition is definitely factors into the incentive to grind out such gear.

If gear is too easy to acquire in comparison to the rate at which new content is added, you have a chance of players getting bored and quitting. If it is too difficult or slow, people get frustrated and quit also, so there's a fine line to walk. Also, there needs to be a reason for players to pick up this better gear - getting more and more powerful with the same old enemies will just end up trivializing all content, making the game boring. Content updates aren't necessarily the only way to implement this. Inotia 2, for instance, has a "boss killer" questline that opens up after the main story ends. The quest requires that you kill several high-level bosses which can be fought as you slowly level from around 50 (when the main story ends) to 100 (or 110 after the update).  As you level, loot drops scale. The last few bosses require you to be at the level cap and equipped with very good gear. Completing this questline takes a lot longer than finishing the main story line. All of the bosses in this questline can be farmed for rare drops, too. This sort of extension to a game requires very little actual content, in the way of storyline. However, it does require some work on creating extra dungeons and boss encounters themselves.

Another key factor in creating longevity relates to the number of gear slots a character has to equip. The basic rule is: the more the merrier. I've played a handful of games where characters had five or less gear slots, and it was way too easy to get your characters well geared. The more slots that need upgrading, the more time needs to be spent, and this relates also directly to loot tables, since more different types of gear on the loot tables equates to an increase in rarity for all items. In most RPGs, changing gear will reflect on the appearance of your character, but not all gear slots will be shown. In the simplest of cases, you might see differences in the body armor, hat and weapons. Even in the more complex cases such as WoW, you still don't see rings, necklaces, trinkets and these sort of items. The bottom line is that you can implement many item slots without having to worry about creating a huge library of graphics to support them.

As I mentioned in my article on stats, ( creating items with useful stat distribution helps alleviate a problem that I've seen in almost all RPGs to date - trash drops. Good stat distribution could indeed be mentioned alongside a discussion on loot quality. Taking a game like WoW as an example, items with green quality are seldom upgrades during most of the game, even the levelling experience. Back in vanilla, there were a plethora of drops that were useless to any and all classes (e.g. items with AGI/SPI on them). Most green items that a player collects while questing or grinding will be immediately either vendored or, in the case of WoW, turned into enchanting reagents. While this does provide an economy, there's something rather disappointing in seeing a lot of useless items. I've seen many other games do a similar thing. As an aside, white and grey items are even more useless than greens, and aside from flavor, don't seem to really be necessary at all. There are better ways of stimulating economy (something I'll probably devote an entire article in the series on).

RPGs tend to group items of different quality and color code them accordingly.  In WoW, the sequence is grey, white, green, blue, purple and orange. Typically, a player will strive to wear blue and above quality items, and once they get to this spot, everything below blue is useless unless the item is sufficiently higher in level. In vanilla WoW, purple items were much harder to acquire than they are nowadays, making them truly an accomplishment. In today's WoW, purple items are about equivalent to where blues were in vanilla. The problem is, there's nothing to fill in that gap that the old purple used to occupy, since orange items are legendary and hence only a few are made available per expansion (and they tend to require a whole guild effort to obtain). The main reason why purples were a little hard to obtain in vanilla was that they, for the most part, required 40-man raiding. One thing that vanilla did eventually do was to create long questlines for a non-raider to acquire purple loot, but that loot was arguably worse than even the basic drops from the first 40-man raid. However, the journey to get that loot was fun and the player felt a great sense of achievement and reward when acquiring that gear. If this idea had been implemented earlier, or with better rewards or even in the present day, I would feel like the process of obtaining nice gear in WoW to be much better than it ever has been. In the present day, purple loot of one tier below the best can be acquired with little effort in comparison, and the process of obtaining that loot is too grindy.

Arguably the best way to handle loot is to make it available to all players (not just a niche set) and make it sufficiently time-consuming to obtain. This will keep players focused for a long time with many goals to work towards. This alleviates not only the boredom of getting all gear too quickly, but also the frustration at having no way of obtaining the gear at all.

Higher quality items should offer something different to lower level loot, ideally. For instance, lower level loot may only contain stat boosts, whereas higher level loot may add extra effects to abilities, have a set bonus, add graphical effects to the game (sparklies), in addition to providing a superior stat bonus. There should not be one set of highest-tier loot, either. I've played through both Dungeon Hunter 1 and 2 and have noticed that this game suffers immensely from the problem of abundant useless trash drops and a single, rather easy to obtain set of highest-tier loot. It takes just a handful of hours to finish the storyline while obtaining the best-of-best in gear. It has also never implemented a system to allow upgrading or customization of gear - this is something I'll add more about a little later in this article.

Having gear scale alongside the player's level (or the level of dungeon they are capable of fighting in) is probably one of the best ways to implement lastability in a game, since you could theoretically design a very high level cap as long as your scaling is correctly calculated and doesn't cause trvialities along the way.  Indeed, it should be possible to randomly generate not only greens or blues, but full sets of purples with set bonuses and with many tiers of progression. An auto-generated system for all loot will not only save you manual design work, but allow players to compare items and always be on the lookout for the best set of stats in combination with set bonuses that suit their play style.

Another even deeper method of elongating play time would be to implement high-tier items as recipes to be crafted. Not only must players acquire the recipes, they must gather a set of materials (quite possibly including crafted intermediate items that themselves come from recipe drops). These recipes could, in turn, generate a slightly different item each time (in terms of stat distribution) so that a player may need to craft several such items to obtain the optimal stat distribution. Inotia 2 has such a system in place, although it suffers from the mistake that it is not used to generate the best possible gear, doesn't really offer choices (there's only one recipe for each piece) and doesn't even cover all item slots..

On the subject of handling loot drops, I've seen several methods that seem fairly successful. In a simple scenario, enemy creatures have different loot tables - chances to drop certain items of certain quality. Typically, outdoor mobs and dungeon trash mobs tend to have loot tables filled mostly with the chance of dropping relatively low quality items, crafting materials and a low chance to drop slightly better items. Boss creatures tend to have rather limited loot tables containing high quality items or rare items used for crafting. Therefore, you needn't kill a boss creature too many times to get the desired item (unless it has a very low percentage chance to drop). An alternative system I've seen implemented is based on tokens dropped by a boss that can be exchanged for specific items from a vendor (gear, gems, crafting materials, etc). This sort of system is more reasonable for a multi-player game where a party wants to be able to distribute loot somewhat fairly end evenly without a lot of wasted drops. Typically bosses in multi-player games drop a mix of random items and tokens.

A further system for loot distribution is one where you gain points for killing bosses and these points act as a currency towards buying new items. This sort of system tends to make the accumulation of gear rather quick unless the number of points you can obtain over a given time period is somehow artificially limited.  In WoW towards the end of WotLK, Frost Emblems were the currency to buy some of the best gear. However, these emblems were limited to dropping from raids (where there is a one-week lockout between clears) and from daily quests which limit the acquisition of emblems to a few per day and weekly quests which work in a similar manner. With the cost of items set as they were, it would take players between several weeks and several months to acquire all gear depending on whether they had access to a functional raid group. However, gear of one tier lower could be bought with Emblem of Triumph which were acquirable with no daily limits or otherwise. Hence, you could, with a high amount of intense play, gear up fully in a matter of days.

Torchlight has an interesting method of item distribution. There is an NPC in the town who sells "unidentified items". Think of it like a box containing an item of a certain type (e.g. a pistol). You buy the box and open it, and inside there is a random pistol. It might be really good or really bad. However, the cost is always the same (and rather high, too). I found this system not all that good, since money was pretty much the limiting factor for doing most things and therefore I'd rather spend it elsewhere and take my chances on dungeon drops. Inotia 3 has a similar system. Both of these games share the "identify scroll" system where loot drops must be identified before the actual stats show up.

A system similar to factions and reputation in WoW are another way to elongate the acquisition of gear. These work such that you either do quests or kill certain creatures to raise your reputation with a certain faction. As your reputation increases, you reach different levels (neutral, friendly, honored, revered, exalted) and as you pass each level, new items become available from the faction's vendor. In WoW, these items have mostly not been all that worth getting unless a faction could only be raised inside a raid instance. Occasionally, a faction was added that provided an enchantment item that was necessary, and this tended to be a faction that took a lot time to grind to exalted in order to buy the item. The system itself is a solid way to create a method where a player must invest time into getting an item, assuming the pacing is done correctly and the items are worth having.

I remember once reading an anecdote about a player who raised a reputation in WoW vanilla that nobody else, to my mind, has done. It involved the player getting hold of Librams (normally rather high priced and from the auction house, since they were largely random world drops) and then returning them one at a time (since they were unique so you could not have two in your inventory at any given time) to an NPC in Dire Maul (a level 60 five man dungeon). This grind took the player a very long time, since not only did thousands of Librams have to be acquired (meaning grinding the gold to buy them and waiting for people to sell them), but the round trip between the nearest mailbox and Dire Maul was substantial. Upon reaching Exalted with that faction, nothing happened. Imagine, however, if you would implement something like this in your game - something that is so crazy that only one person out of several million would do - but open up an amazing item at the end of it. That is truly a way of making something feel like a unique reward.

On the subject of handling loot, I wanted to mention one thing that I've seen in Torchlight that is really innovative. It's their system of heirlooms. The way it works is that, once you have finished the main storyline with a character, you can retire that character from the game, but leave one of their items for a new character that you start. This is a nice incentive for a player to create or acquire a really good item to be passed along and also to encourage replaying the game from the start. WoW implements heirlooms by providing items that a character at the level cap can acquire that are account-bound. These items can be given to other characters and scale with level. A few of these items provide a boost to XP while worn, making levelling a little quicker. These sort of items also encourage replay of the game in addition to making "alting" (the process of having several alternate characters) easier. The concept of "alting" itself adds stickiness, since players who alt are able to experience the content on different classes, thus giving them more variety, in addition to being able to play more (for instance, do daily quests on several characters per day or to attend multiple raid lockouts per week).

We've talked a lot about loot basics including ways to make loot available to players and specifically ways to make obtaining loot take time but feel rewarding. I'd like to turn to the next portion of this article, which expands on ways that a player can use to improve the loot that they've gathered. I feel that it's important to have both systems in place, since customization of your gear should extend beyond the framework of items provided by the designers. Again, this adds more possibilities for experimentation and tuning to one's own play style, something that needs to be present in order to create enough engagement for players.

There are many different ways that games use to allow players to enhance their gear beyond it's default. Let's look at a few and see if we can figure out good or bad things about them.

Starting with WoW, there are currently three systems available for modifying gear.

The oldest is enchanting. Enchanting allows a player to add a single additional stat to an item, or in the case of weapons, sometimes a special effect. At the current moment, all items except for neck and trinket can be enchanted in some way. This is a fairly simple system. There's normally an obvious best enchant depending on your class and spec, that you can add to an item, and a player will tend to apply this enchantment by default to any reasonable end-game upgrade they receive. Enchanting is the crafting profession used to create these.

The next oldest is based on sockets and gems. Jewelcrafters create gems that, in most cases, provide an additional one or two stats. Gems come in different colors and with a huge variety of stat combinations. Gems can be added to any item with sockets. There are also socket bonuses which apply if you put the correct colored gems in the correct slots to satisfy the bonus. In general, these bonuses have been largely ignored. Also, there is one slot for a special metagem that will normally provide a benefit slightly more interesting than a single stat boost. These metagems can only be added to the appropriate gem slot in some head-worn items, and have their own requirements for a certain number of other gems of various colors to be present on the character in order to function.

Finally, Cataclysm introduced a new system called reforging. In this system, non-primary stats can be forged into a different stat on an item. There are specific requirements about which stat can be forged into which other stat. The reforging can only be done once on each item, and only half of the less-desired stat can be reforged away (into an equivalent amount of the more-desired stat).

The main problem I can see with WoW's gear enhancement systems is that they all deal with only stats. They're quite limited in what they can do, and it's often a no-brainer on how to modify your gear. At the end-game, it's expected and required that you have all enchants, gems and properly reforged gear, and so the system ends up being nothing more than a simple money-sink.

Inotia 2 is the next example I'd like to take a look at. In this game there are also 3 systems.

The first is ethers. These are obtained from a quest giver in the late game (but also from random world drops pretty much all the way through the game). Ethers add a specific stat to an item. The higher the quality of the ether, the higher the chance of adding more of the stat.  However, even the highest quality ethers do not guarantee adding the highest stat boost. Also, the ether you get from returning the repeatable quest is random, and the game has a lot of different stats, making the chances of getting the ether you actually want somewhat difficult.

The second is weapon and armor scrolls. These are random drops, but also available from a repeatable quest in the late game. Armor scrolls can be turned into weapon scrolls with a crafting recipe at a rate of two armor scrolls to one weapon scroll. The repeatable quest rewards an armor scroll. These can be applied to gear to give a maximum of a +30 effect. However, the system is a little devious. Every attempt to apply one of these scrolls has a chance to return the item back to as if it had no scrolls applied. The chance for this to happen increases for each additional scroll applied, so it's a gamble to go much higher than +5. Armor scrolls add additional armor value to an item (a random small amount each time) and weapon scrolls add additional damage to a weapon (a random small amount for each one).

The third method is called chaos magic and it makes the weapon scroll gamble seem like a really fair system. Chaosing an item requires some very rare ingredients and some gold - it's a sizeable enough time investment to get the materials together to do it once. Every time you chaos an item, it has a chance to improve or worsen that item permanently. There's no going back. You can chaos an item over and over, but the results can swing wildly. It is possible to go between massively worsening an item to massively improving it in one chaos application and everything in between. This is the source of much controversy on the forums as people have spent a long time trying to find an item with the perfect stat combination only to chaos it into being worthless.

The first thing you'll notice about Inotia 2 is that all the item enhancement systems all involve some luck and as you move down the list, an increased amount of risk. The latter two do essentially the same thing - modify the armor value or weapon damage of the item, whilst the first only provides a stat boost. I personally think that there are perhaps too many different luck factors involved in each process. For instance, ether not only gives a random boost amount but also acquisition of them is random. One of these two random factors should be removed. I'm also not convinced that having systems which involve too much risk are a good idea, as you'll see below.

Finally, let's look at Torchlight. Torchlight only has two systems for improving gear, but I find them both fairly innovative.

The first is gems. Gems provide different effects when place in armor and weapons. Usually, in armor they provide either an armor or resistance bonus whilst in weapons, they add an effect to your attack such as life stealing, fire damage, lightning, poison, etc. Gems come in different qualities and lower quality gems can be combined into higher quality gems that provide better bonuses. An item can be destroyed yielding the gems out of it or the gems can be removed and destroyed to make space for new gems.

The second system is the enchantment system. You provide a vendor in town with your item and a large amount of gold. He'll attempt to enchant it which has a chance to do one of 3 things. It can either add extra random stats and perhaps sockets to an item, do nothing, or remove all stats and sockets completely while at the same time lowering the damage or armor value, basically rendering the item useless. The chance for worsening the item starts at a 2% chance and increases by 2% on each subsequent enchanting. Also, the price increases each time. There are also altars in the dungeons that can be used to add enchantments without the cost or penalty, but they are extremely rare.

Recently, I had an incredible bad luck streak which stopped me playing Torchlight for a long time. I managed to worsen three items in a row with the chance being 2%, 4% and 2% respectively. The final item was a really nice orange that I won from a boss fight. Players get a certain amount of satisfaction in obtaining a special rare item, and would probably like the chance to use it. Putting inherent risk on destroying the item might either invalidate the enchantment system (the player is too scared to use it) or create a massively demoralizing situation. I've noticed both in Inotia and Torchlight that I'm far more likely to want to enchant/chaos an item of lesser value just in case the process yields bad results. However, in both games, the cost of investment is so high that I don't feel like investing several hours worth of grinding just to improve an otherwise inferior item. This leads me back to investing into enchanting/chaosing the good item, but when that fails, it's a huge investment that I feel like I was just cheated out of - several hours of grinding for the cost and a lot more hours to find that one gem of an item in the first place (and to find the next really good item).

Looking at these three games, there's a distinct difference between the way item enhancements are handled in WoW compared to Inotia 2 and Torchlight. This is partially to do with the way the games are being designed. WoW needs to impose finite boudaries on character strength - knowing exactly how a character will play in a certain set of gear with the best available item enhancements allows them to balance PvE and PvP accordingly. However, the experience for the players is radically different from a game where luck and random factors are involved in item enhancements and loot stats. In WoW, you know where you're headed, how long it'll take you to get there, how much you'll need to spend and when you get the gear, you're done (until new content is added). There are sites and tools dedicated to analyzing your character's performance in specific sets of gear+enchants, gems, etc. In the other two games, there's essentially no cap to the progression of your characters as long as you're willing to take some risk in the process. This provides a much more open experience, and one where, if you extend the end-game to include very hard encounters, will actually encourage players to take risks and invest time. This, in turn, allows you to extend the duration of game play radically. Ultimately, although punishing, luck-based item enhancements seem to add a lot more to the lastability of a game.

This has been a rather long article so far, so let's summarize the findings from existing games and then move on and look at how loot and item enhancement systems could be improved. What we've learned so far is:
- items and item enhancements are key to providing long-lasting gameplay in RPGs
- items should not be too easy or too difficult to obtain
- there must be incentive for players to farm new gear
- creating a rewarding experience for a large investment in time is a really good way to distribute high quality gear
- it is important to provide plenty of gear slots for characters to equip
- group gear into different levels of quality and make getting the highest levels of quality a time intensive, but rewarding task
- higher quality gear should provide more than the simple stat boosts found on lower quality gear, such as added abilities, sparklies or set bonuses
- it's entirely possible to randomly create even high quality gear, set bonuses, etc.
- implement lots of different methods of obtaining a full set of gear, thus
  immersing the player in different aspects of the game (bosses, crafting, reputation, tokens, currency, gambling, etc.)
- gear enhancement is necessary alongside the gear itself to allow players a method for customization and continued progression
- adding random factors to gear enhancement systems adds fun and a lot more lastability to a game
- gear enhancement systems with in-built risk can be very offputting if the penalty is strong enough
- if your game does not require finite boundaries for character strength, open-ended gear enhancement systems provide a lot more towards lastability
- examples like Torchlight's retirement system provide nice incentives for not only grinding good gear, but for replay

There are many games that I haven't written about, simply because they weren't different enough or didn't provide interesting or innovative mechanics. For sure there are many games I haven't played that could have provided really innovative mechanisms to explore in this article. Given what I have experienced and talked about in this article, how would I innovate in the area of gear and item enhancements?

My favorite methods for gear distribution have certainly been from long-chain quests. This is also a really nice method for a player to upgrade their gear. This sort of quest-line would expect the player to have collected a full set of a certain named armor set before allowing them to start the first upgrade quest. To a certain extent, crafting might fit in a sub-category of this - I certainly recall the time it took to craft certain items for my characters in different games and how it felt like a definite goal to reach, especially if the materials needed were time-consuming to come by.

Games should always give random loot drops on bosses (this always gives a nice element of surprise when killing a boss), but I believe that token or points systems have their merit more in the multi-player venue. Points and tokens are otherwise a little too grindy - "oh, I have to kill this boss another 22 times and then I can get a gloves upgrade" isn't that cool. Random drops also allow you, the designer, to add super-rare drop chances for certain items. Another way, similar to tokens, might be to have drops that, when combined, create an item. This is somewhat similar to crafting but it's also similar to, for instance, the epic priest and hunter quests in vanilla WoW. In those quests, you needed two or three items to start a quest that would ultimately lead to a class-specific, unique item. Most of WoW's quests for legendary items are like this also.

In the area of mechanisms to provide loot, there has been a lot of innovation of late, especially in MMOs and I can't, off the top of my head, think of anything obvious to add to the ever-growing pool of mechanisms out there. In the area of the loot itself, my opinion is that adding more loot without simply stats (for instance, special effects or set bonuses) is the way to go.

In the area of item enhancement, I feel that there have also been a lot of ideas and innovation. Each game is looking to do something a little different. Simple stat boosts are quite boring compared to additional effects or the changing of the way certain abilities work (or adding new abilities). This is, of course, unless your basic stats do cool things. However, scaling basic stats is always something you need to keep an eye on.

My favorite gear enhancement innovation system is in Torchlight, who's gem mechanic actually adds a new dimension to attacks if a gem is added to a weapon socket. I feel that this is the best direction I've seen, but it still has a long way to be explored. That gems simply add resistances to your character is boring, and basing game mechanics on resistances is something I'd like to see phased out.

Next most innovative is reforging - the concept of being able to take an item and tailor it more to your needs is an interesting idea, but one that could easily be also expanded on. The reforging mechanism in WoW is very restrictive currently. Imagine the customization that would be available if multiple stats could be changed. This sort of system could also be made a little random or risky if you want. Reforging one stat into another could be a permanent change, and with a chance to add a little more or a little less of the original stat.

On the subject of random, I feel there are good and bad ways of doing this. For instance, a good way might be that when you apply an enchantment to an item, you have a slight chance to get a better result than expected, but not a worse one. Or that you have a chance to fail the spell completely, but not to erase all previous enchantments. Scaling the cost of continually adding enchantments to an item would allow players to continue to spend time improving an item until they hit their own calculation on the return of investment, at which point they'll stop. High-risk systems for gear modification can have bad repercussions to a player's perception of your game and may even make them quit when they hit the inevitable "enough already" wall of seeing too much bad luck.

One innovation that I've seen that might have promise is the gear enhancement system in Dungeon Defenders. You accumulate mana as you play, which you can funnel into items to upgrade them. Each item has 15 possible upgrades this way, but the amount of mana that you need to pump into an item increases rapidly between each level up. When you level an item up, you can choose from the stats the item already has as to which one you want to increase. I could see a system similar to this being created where you could even add stats or effects by spending some sort of currency (whether it be gold, tokens from boss fights, some crafted items, or what have you). This sort of mechanic could also have a "random effect", providing a chance for a slightly better boost than normal or a chance at a free level up, etc.

It's clear that loot and item enhancement is still one of the cornerstones of RPG lastability and it's here to stay. The fact that this field is innovating rapidly all the time shows that it's one of the most important parts of making RPGs what they are today, and with the psychological pull that it gives many players, it's obviously a tried-and-tested formula that can only improve even more in the future.

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