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Item Luck in MMORPGs

Luck plays all sorts of roles in MMORPGs. I’m wondering how much randomness we really need, and how much of this random luck based gameplay can be replaced with the player actually engaging with and doing something in the game.

There are those moments of luck when you crit that monster right before it kills you and you survive. I think those elements of luck are less avoidable and are generally ‘okay’. They add to the spice of life and the thrill and dynamic nature of combat. Sometimes twitch based play isn’t always necessary, and even most twitch gameplay has elements of random luck.

The kind of luck I want to see change mostly has to deal with items. I’ve experienced a variety of item drop luck. EverQuest monsters would often have a loot table, and one particular mob might drop a pair of pants I need. I could kill that monster 100 times and it might never drops the pants, but it could drop them twice on the 101 and 102 kill. Raiding in WoW is another type of luck. When 10-40 people go into a raid the luck factor becomes much more complex: Does the item you want actually drop? If so, are you the one to win it?

That kind of randomness leads to frustration and is purely “Did it drop? yes or no?” Almost no skill or active input is required from the player other than attending and making the kill. There are slightly better ways which I admit do not remove luck entirely from the equation but use it more as one tiny cog in a much larger system.

One of these forms of item randomness I did find workable was that in SWG. For example, Krayt Dragons on Tatooine could drop an item called Krayt Tissue.  The Krayt Tissues would have stats like “Enhances: +30 (to 300) to Max Damage, -0.3 (to -2.0) to Speed.” The +30 was common and low end, and anything around 100+ was really good but pretty rare. This item was used in crafting by Weaponsmiths to make Acid Launchers, DH17 Carbines, and a couple of other weapons better. They would take the tissue, use it as a component, and rely on their skill levels, modifiers, recipes, etc., to output a weapon that itself could have a range of stats.

The difference between item luck in these examples (EQ/WoW vs. SWG) is significant. One is luck or “randomness” (call it whatever makes you sleep better at night) worked into a larger system and the other is simply ‘did it drop or not’. One feels integrated with the game, and the other feels lazy to me.

I want players to have more control over this randomness. It’s not enough to simply craft 100 swords and have 30 of them crit into pristine quality. What else can the crafter do to have control over that end result? Is there a way the crafter can use the materials or a skill he can acquire? It has to be more than whack-a-mole or combine and pray. It has to be more than “did it drop for me?” These all have to be combined into something more dynamic and complex.

I still think SWG was on the right track. The raw materials had variability in their quality based on several factors: Conductivity, Decay Resistance, Flavor, Malleability, Overall Quality, Potential Energy, Unit Toughness, etc., etc. Any combination of these could have a different quality, and it was up to the crafter or a supplier to find them in the world and harvest enough to be used.  Crafters then combined the resources, used experimentation points, and crafted an item that itself had varying degrees of stats and qualities based on the outcome of the components and experimentation. Very few items were the same, and crafters could leave their mark based on their recipes — this is what made someone the “best weaponsmith on the server.”

Integrating this all into a crafting system seems to be the easiest way to remove the dumb or lazy luck factor. While I get that some people enjoy loot pinatas, it’s way too one dimensional for me and won’t ever lead to something new or better.

The Council of Gaming Elders

I had a very interesting dream last night. I was evaluating the current state of MMORPGs and decided that the current state of affairs had gone on for too long. Our beloved hobby and industry was degrading past the point of recovery. I took action into my own hands and called a Council of the Gaming Elders.

I was standing in a dimly lit room with a solid round wooden table in the center. A chandelier with glowing blue flames hung above. There were 6 chairs. As I stood at my seat the other Elders entered, each announced by a low voice. First to enter was Mark Jacobs. He stood next to the seat at my right — the table in front of his seat embossed with the realm triad from Dark Age of Camelot. Next to enter was Raph Koster stood by his place marked by a lightsaber crossing a crafting station and house. Steve Danuser was next and took his place by a lore book.  Dave Georgeson entered next and stood near his place marked by a map. Last to enter was Mike Morhaime who took his place next to a seat marked with golden coins.

Once all of the Elders had entered, we sat together in unison. I began the meeting by stating that I had called them all there to discuss how we can restore these games to their true potential. Each of them possessed talents necessary for restoring MMORPGs to their previous state. What followed was an enlightening discussion and meeting of the minds. Each Elder brought up ideas and we began to craft the perfect game… the game to restore balance. It ended with the Elders departing, each committed to bringing their resources together to make this game (which we completely planned out) happen.

I don’t know why my mind chose these people. Mark Jacobs is an obvious one because he has become a friend and I value his contribution to PvP and the MMO community. Raph Koster is someone I’ve always thought of as a virtual world connoisseur. Steve Danuser is someone who gets the idea of a living world and I like his sense of lore and continuity. Dave Georgeson because he is attached to EverQuestand I respect him as a person and his career. Lastly, Mike Morhaime (who surprised me since I thought this would be Chris Metzen) because of his position over WoW.

The game we designed was ideal. That’s the general impression I get. I remember only minor thoughts I was having during the dream. This perfect MMORPG was some sort of mix of every game these Elders had worked out. I was in charge of the vision and I know that I felt like this was the true spiritual successor to every ‘great’ game I remember playing from 1996-2004.

I woke up feeling like I had accomplished some great work. For a moment I was even anxious to go play this game. If only…

NPC Merchants

Everquest NPC Merchants

Today’s EverQuest Next Roundtable question asks:

If a player sells an item to an NPC merchant, should other players be able to buy that item from the merchant?

I say absolutely yes.  I actually like NPC merchants — even in a player-driven economy.  In fact, I think merchants should sell decent gear and items to players.  Early Dark Age of Camelot handled this quite well.  Players made the best stuff, and occasionally a good item would drop from dungeons, but players more often than not sold and marketed the best items.

If the weapon sold by a merchant was lower quality, maybe it breaks quicker or does slightly less damage.  Maybe it can’t be repaired fully, and slowly loses permanent durability over time.

The idea of merchants can really be taken further.  What if certain merchants allowed players to put up items on consignment depending on that player’s crafting or merchant status.  Star Wars Galaxies’ merchant class had great tools to utilize both public and private merchant and auction services.

One of the best things about the original EverQuest was being able to find hidden gems on merchants in town.  I would always do a quick check of the merchants in my class training area.  Sometimes you’ll find bone chips, bat wings, and other spell or quest reagents.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure!  There’s even the rare occasion where I was able to find magical dungeon drops just sitting on a vendor because someone just sold it to the vender to get rid of it.

So yes, merchants are awesome.

New and Interesting Crafting Professions

MMO Song CraftingI was thinking about MMOs the other night while trying to fall asleep, which rarely is a good thing for me to do. What first popped into my head was how could players make a name for themselves among their server community. Eventually I got around to remembering back to Star Wars Galaxies and how different crafters of weapons and other knick-knacks essentially created name brand recognition for themselves. The ability to experiment and  find higher grades of materials allowed for some variation in products so if you found out that Guy A made some great blasters then you would make sure to always swing by his shop first because you knew he made good stuff. This in turn got me thinking about tradeskills in general and how there isn’t really much variation nowadays. You have people that make weapons, armors, gems, potions, etc. It’s pretty much the same for all games.

So I tried to think of some possible new trade professions that incorporated the same kind of experimentation as SWG while keeping in mind my original thought of making a name for yourself. The first thing that popped into my head was Composer, like somebody who writes music. Imagine utilizing resources like creativity and inspiration to help you craft songs for bards. Maybe you could experiment around with them to increase their potency or tweak what they did. Then you name your piece something like “McNubbit’s Aria” or whatever and put it up for sale. Then players would actually be able to purchase your song skill and use it. I think that is a pretty appealing idea.

Obviously that profession is a little narrow in its scope and would really only work for a small percentage of classes like Bards and Minstrels but you get the idea. You could easily do the same thing for spell crafters. The first thing that popped into my head was Melf’s Acid Arrow. I mean, why the heck not let players craft at least some spells and skills? It doesn’t even have to be just spells either. Maybe there could be some kind of Swordmaster or Battlemaster profession that designs martial moves for melee classes. Same general concept and maybe you could even select from and combine any assortment of animations for your technique. I just think it sounds like a cool concept.

The hardest part in all of this is developing a system that can’t be abused by players while still allowing the wiggle room for customization. Spell making has been done in single-player games before like the Elder Scrolls series. Maybe that isn’t the best example, but I think that through a combination of different types of rare materials you could easily limit the potency on crafting combat abilities. To be honest, when it gets to this level of design it is quite beyond me. I’m just the idea guy who is kept up until 3 a.m. coming up with this crap.

Bring Back Character Customization!

EQ Character Customization

Graev and I were having a discussion the other day about character creation in MMOs, and we’ve come to the conclusion that it pretty much sucks these days. Yes, there are exceptions, but almost every new MMO released limits the player to just aesthetics (usually swapping faces) and a few basic choices like what class you want to play.

I enjoy character creation that lets me truly customize how I’m going to play.  I don’t like to be overwhelmed with meaningless or complicated customization, though.

SWG had a really good customization process where the player could choose their character, fully customize his or her looks, choose a starting skillset, and then allocate their stats to determine their Health, Action, and Mind.  You could never truly break your character because stat alteration was easily adjusted with an image designer (or I think you could wait it out via real time) and you could always pickup and drop skills.   Other than amazing options to customize the character’s appearance, nothing felt lasting or permanent.

UO had very similar customization in terms of character skills and stats.  If you messed them up, or even wanted to change them, it was a matter of pointing arrows up or down then just playing the game.  Choosing your skills mattered though because you were given starting items to help you out.  Ultimately, UO also falls into the same category as SWG with not a whole lot to care about later on.

A more hardcore approach is the oldschool EverQuest stat allocation.  Messing up your stats in EQ was definitely a horrifying experience.  I remember dinging 50 on my Necro, and all I could think about was how much I regret not having min-maxed my stats properly.  Eventually people figured out the ‘ideal’ way to build a character and it became less about customization and more about checking the right boxes.

I think striking a balance between the SWG and EQ style is ideal.  I want to ding level 50 (or max a character out, etc) and be able to still be affected by choices I made when I created my character.  I don’t want those choices to be game breaking or something that makes my character perform less than someone else — after all, we have to be friendly to newbs.

Maybe some sort of special traits or abilities (that aren’t worthless once per day novelties).  I’m trying to remember which game it was that let me choose a bunch of ancestral/heritage information.  Having those types of choices impact where your character can live, or what towns you’re welcome in, or play a part in factions would be cool.  Deities in EverQuest were a great idea, and I think the same type of customization should allow for cosmetic abilities and alternative paths of progression later on.

Race choice should also matter a lot. If you choose Dark Elf, you should expect to be evil and have to work hard to be accepted places.  Races with a natural affinity to magic should have higher intelligence and ultimately make better casters, but sacrifice in other areas.  Overcoming these shortcomings should be possible, but it should require you to sacrifice something else in order to one day achieve that status.  For example, if I wanted to be a Halfling Wizard, I may have to progress my character throughout his entire life away from his sneaky heritage just to one day be accepted by the master wizards who will teach me to hone my skills.

I’d love to hear about any ideas you folks have about customization.  I still believe you shouldn’t be able to break a character, but living with consequences that are meaningful is part of character progression even if those choices are made at the beginning.