Slay and Pray

Image of the Hymn to Tourach card

Turn two, your opponent removes a third of your hand and cripples you. Good game!

One of the potential items you can unlock in Dragon Age II (I promise, this is not another travelogue entry) is the belt Hindsight, a rather clever item that (in-universe) evolves protection that would have saved its master after its master has died.  Among its traits is an effect that makes enemies drop better loot when killed – and that got me thinking about the absurdity of our current loot model.  Which, of course, brought to mind Magic: the Gathering.

The powers that be over at Wizards spend a lot of time testing mechanics.  One of the things that they tested extensively was the use of random mechanics, especially with discards – they wanted to see what felt fair and what didn’t.  For those unfamiliar, back in the day there were two flavors of cards forcing you to discard from your hand, one where the cards were chosen by your opponent and one where you threw out cards at random.  Both were seen as being intensely valuable, and for good reason – shutting out your opponent’s hand can net you a huge long-term advantage, especially if you start smashing it early.

The tests arrived at an interesting conclusion.  A player who was force-fed a discard was pretty much equally happy if his valuable cards were saved by luck or by skill.  But while he’d be mildly disappointed if he was forced to discard by his opponent’s choices, he was incensed at losing his best cards to complete randomness.  He was less annoyed if his opponent (wisely) picked the cards that would lose him the game, because at least then he knew that he lost to someone who understood which cards were valuable in his hand.

As a result, all discards are now of the targeted variety, because we as human beings have a much easier time with losing for some clear reason than by chance.  Which brings me to the point: why, exactly, do we still have random loot in place?

Certainly it makes sense for an enemy clad in gleaming armor and wielding an immense sword to yield something upon defeat.  But you can’t always take that sword.  Sometimes it shows up among the spoils of battle and sometimes it doesn’t, and even if you ignore the fact that it’s another layer of immersion-destroying contrivance in the midst of many others, this phantom sword turns a rewarding run into the equivalent of an enchanted sword slot machine.

Of course, we’ve long accepted this as a part of the genre, because it’s been there for so long that it’s easy to forget there are better options.  Have bosses drop currency for each kill that can be traded in for items.  Make bosses the center of quests.  Decouple equipment from the enemies you fight, possibly giving bosses visually distinct but functionally identical equipment so that players have something to hope for.

None of these ideas are exactly new elements, mind you.  They’ve been in games for a very long time now, used to varying degrees of effectiveness.  The problem is that there are still large parts of many games dependent on the random loot model, where rewards are handed out based upon luck with random numbers instead of skill or persistence.  And random drops of any kind can complicate the game – try searching for just the right weapon modifications in Guild Wars for an example.  You don’t even have the benefit of a boss to farm for random loot there, just a vague hope that you roll just right and get a salvageable weapon with the modification you want.  Fun times!

Yes, these are ways of artificially increasing the amount of time you put into a game.  But they’re also obnoxious elements, and they’re long past the point of helping the game’s content.  I’m firmly of the mind that half of why people feel like heroics are tuned too high in Cataclysm is the repetition, the constant running of the same dungeons for the same rewards that keep not showing up.  You get some points for each boss kill, certainly, but much of the real punch still comes from the unreliably mechanic of boss drops.  The points are meant as a bonus, not the reward.

It’s a broken system.  And designers would do well to ask if having a chance to get a boss’s sword is really worth all of the frustration added when a player has killed said boss eighteen times for one damn sword.  Odds are that even if the player has been forced to drag his subscription out longer for that one sword, he won’t stick around much longer, because he’s sick of that dance.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

One response to “Slay and Pray”

  1. Drew says :

    Ah, yes, good ol’ Hymn to Tourach. A card so vile that I maindecked four Disrupts (U: counter target instant, draw a card) in my counter-post deck back in the day (and of course maindecked four of them in my Necro deck). But I digress. 🙂

    Excellent post – the parallels you draw between the lessons learned from randomness in MtG and MMOs today is quite insightful. The question is how to resolve the disparity between too accessible (getting the sword drop every time) and stupid loot tables (as you mention above). Finding the happy medium that keeps people both subscribed and interested.

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