THOUGHTS ON LOOT PROGRESSION: “WOULD YOU LIKE RNG WITH THAT?”

I’ve talked about this on here before, but because a good game designer should always be trying to further delve into their views and challenge them that’s what I’m gonna do here.

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First of all, I don’t think any developer is going to tell you that a procedural equipment system (aka the Diablo lootfest) is actually going to create equipment that is more interesting than say, the static, pre-designed equipment of a game that doesn’t use the lootfest method.

In a very literal sense, this RNG heavy loot system focuses on quantity over quality. That’s not really in dispute I think.

What is in dispute among many game developers is: “Is that a bad thing?

You have 2 camps here, one that believes that having superbly crafted, designed content in a game is better than telling a computer how to make decently crafted stuff on the fly.

But I think you can (and in some cases we already do) have systems that can incorporate both styles of loot progression in them. First though, ask yourself this:

How many games can you think of that feature randomized loot progression, but DO NOT feature avatar levels?

To my knowledge I can’t think of any. Obviously there are plenty of games that use designed equipment and weapons inside a space where avatars do not upgrade over time(Traditional FPS come to mind, as well as many action games), but I can’t think of any games that feature procedural loot but also DON’T feature any kind of character leveling system.

There is of course, a very good reason for this.

It feels good to win a game of chance. But it only feels good because the game has and continues to establish that certain items are rare and therefore more valuable than other items. If rares dropped every 10 enemies in Diablo they wouldn’t be rare anymore. So the odds must be stacked against you obviously.

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But going back to our question, why then do we not see this being used as the sole progression system?

It’s because RNG is by its nature, not particularly kind to the player. If your only progression system is randomized, it would mean your player could potentially waste hours of their time making no progress if said player defines progress through avatar advancement, and let’s be clear, most players do define that as progress to varying effects. In some cases, like the aforementioned Diablo, or really any aRPG, it’s usually the only method of progress.

But we’ve already established that few (if any) of these games are only using the randomized progression method. They are also using a fixed progression system in the form of levels.

What we need to keep in mind is that if random progression is the casino slot machine, leveling up is the casino comp rewards, only in video games case they’re far better. Now while we keep spinning the one-armed-bandit, every spin is also getting us closer to a guaranteed prize (leveling up).

This system works great! It’s tried and true and guarantees us loads of content that feels meaningful! Sure, spending 5 hours of gameplay not receiving a new sword sucks, but at least the consolation prize of leveling means we didn’t waste our time!

But here’s where we run into problems.

Many many games with random loot progression have now begun to suffer from having absolutely terrible endgame content. As we’ve already discussed, the key to good random loot progression is to couple it with a guaranteed reward for time spent… yet so many games fail to do so!

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Take a look at Borderlands for instance. Once you’ve hit the level cap in these games the only reason to keep playing is for new loot. But now you are at the mercy of RNGesus to get your progression fix, and frankly when RNGesus is the only thing stringing you along it’s very easy to just burn out. It also leads to players actively seeking out the dreaded path of least resistance, and while it’s true that players are always keeping an eye out for this, if your players are actively looking out for it (or in the worst case scenario the developer provides it COUGH CRAWMERAX COUGH) then you have failed as a developer because the path of least resistance is by definition repetitious, and nothing kills a game quite like obvious repetition.

Now it’s not like Gearbox doesn’t try to address this, the token system introduced in BL2 does give you some small progression system way into the life of the character. But because this system is always presented as an afterthought to the player, and because it’s effects are SO limited, the player is well aware of the fact this consolation prize is a shittier one than the one they were receiving. As a result the game “disrespects” the players time as they say. Do you really care that you spent 5 hours to get a 0.1% increase to shield recharge rate? Especially considering the fact that before you capped out you were getting much more dramatic returns for your investment?

Now admittedly this is based on the idea that a game should be so good that that even 40+ hours in it’s holding your attention, so if you don’t agree with that then you probably don’t care, but if you do, then we’ve identified the issue, but what about the solution?

Well I have 2 favorites myself though they’re hardly the only ones, but I’m like 10 paragraphs in already so we’re gonna just use these 2 examples:

1. FIXED PROGRESSION OPENS UP FOR A RANDOM REWARD AT ENDGAME.

This is an approach I have seen used in some MMO’s and aRPG’s, but basically you provide the player with a method to work towards what would normally be a randomized reward from the loot pool. This is essentially circumventing the randomized progression system and replacing it with the fixed one. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, but it does fix the issue. However…it also means that you are potentially not keeping players around as long as you had hoped, because the good thing about the random progression system is that it keeps players hooked for an indeterminate amount of time, and if you give the players a reasonable expectation for when they can earn that reward, it means you’ve put a hard-timer on how much longer you can keep them invested (again, assuming they are invested for avatar progression primarily, though given the timescales we are discussing, that’s probably one of the only things that could keep someone interested hundreds of hours in). This is not my favorite approach though. That would go to option 2-

2. JUST LET THE PLAYER PROGRESS THROUGH BOTH RANDOM AND FIXED SYSTEMS…INFINITELY.

Okay bear with me here for a second because I know that you think this sounds both obvious and flawed, but just trust me I have both precedent for how this works and a reasoning! First though, precedent:

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Rune Factory 4 (RF4) is in my opinion a strong contender for best game I have played in the past decade. I could bore you to tears about it’s near perfect spiderweb of expertly designed systems and subsystems but we’re only gonna talk about player progression right now.

What you need to know is that RF4 has a stupendously ridiculous amount of progression opportunities for the player to upgrade in. There are nearly 40 skills ranging from monster taming to weapon and magic skills to mundane stuff like walking, sleeping, and eating. There are also 60 spells/special abilities with their own upgrade systems but the thing about the previously mentioned skills is that most of them, functionally speaking, have no level cap and furthermore most of them do not increase your abilities in said skill.

That’s a little confusing. What I mean is that as soon as you can fish in RF4, you can pretty much fish for anything. A lot of the crafting skills do wall off content but for most skills this is not their primary purpose. So why level them up? Because they increase your base stats. Leveling up Farming doesn’t make you a better farmer, but by farming and leveling up that skill, you get physically stronger.

What this means is that unlike games like Borderlands which is extremely stingy about handing out avatar progress, even 100+ hours into RF4 the game will prominently hand you skill level-ups and regular level-ups constantly!

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And this is really important, because while weapons and equipment don’t drop often in RF4 (you mostly craft them) the crafting ingredients do incorporate a random loot system. Obviously there are rare and powerful crafting ingredients, but each item also has a randomly assigned 1-10 rating that affects the ultimate effectiveness of whatever you craft it into. Using all 1′s isn’t a bad thing, you’ll just get a standard version of that weapon, but using higher levels will result in improved gear.

In essence RF4 never really slows down in rewarding the player. Again the level cap is functionally infinite (it’s not really but to cap out in player level and all skills would take thousands of hours) so we get fixed rewards all the time while waiting for RNGesus to bless us with that level 10 Rune Sphere!

And one last thing, despite all this the player doesn’t actually become a steamrolling god of destruction (because that would make the game boring if there was no challenge), because you do get stronger faster earlier on with bigger gains, so your character gets front loaded with power, but because of well balanced difficulty settings once you get to this endgame stage you find yourself trying to focus on loading your character (and wife/husband/child) with items that make the tough-but-fair fights more manageable.

Whew! That was… a lot longer than I had thought it would be. Your thoughts?