The Request Post.

November 26, 2007 at 3:54 pm (Musings) (, )

Hokay. So I’ve been a little busy recently and hence haven’t updated as often as I would have liked. No matter. In my last post I asked what people would like me to write about and one of my Devoted Fans mentiond the following.

Do you think mmo’s nowadays put to much emphasis on Item collection and progression through that next “Phat Lewt” or can a game that has replacable low cost items with high wear or player lootable corpses live in this day and age thanks to the EQ style game. Surely someone can supply a better “end game” than that next 7 hour raid for chance at getting the Sword of uberpwn instead of his current sword of pwn.

So, here I am, 60 seconds on the clock to talk about itemisation in games…

A lot (read: most) MMOs are based on oldskool computer RPGs which in turn are often (read: nearly always) based on oldskool pen and paper RPGs. The overarching meta mechanic is you fight stuff to get more powerful and bag phat lewt. Sometimes this mechanic is disguised in some way but generally if you strip away all the fluff and fancy design sidesteps, your game of choice can be summed up as Munchkin.

There are two major reasons for this and they both boil down to ‘because it works’. The first one is a tried and tested mechanic that offers a lot of design benefits (easy scalability, control of player power levels and a transparent reward system that will hopefully hook your players and keep them playing long after the game play ceased being any challenge to them).
The second is player expectations. People are familiar with this system from countless other games they already played, in balancing reward vs risk, players expect that if they risk more and defeat a more powerful enemy, they willget a commensurately higher reward. XP alone doesn’t cut it, players are smart enough that they won’t have one difficult fight if it’s possible to have two easy fights in the same amount of time for the same reward, so designers dangle shiny things in front of the players as an incentive to seek out the tougher mobs.

This is where the game designers find out how good they really are at balancing their game. If the reward is too good then it will unbalance the game and make everything else irrelevant, if it isn’t good enough then players won’t bother to go through the difficulty of obtaining it and you’ve wasted a lot of design time on content which players don’t want to experience. While it is possible to get a rough approximation from previous experience, gut instinct and various internal algorithms, the acid test of whether you got it right or not only comes when there are actual players on your servers making the decisions that actual players make rather than the ones your QA team made because it was their job to make them. Stat inflation is as much of a design problem as inflation in your ingame economy. You have to start with the assumption that anything you put into your game is eventually going to be owned by all of your players. Rarity is not a balance tool. So your best item set will eventually become the benchmark against which everything else is measured. Any thing that’s measurably better than this will become the new baseline, anything worse will be ignored. As better kit percolates through, the balance decisions in your game become obsolete as old content is made much less challenging . As this old content is probably still dropping the old, less uber items, it becomes even less relevant to players.

How does all of this relate to your ‘end game’? Perhaps obviously it mostly depends on what your endgame is perceived to be. For many DAoC and WoW players, the end game is to reach max level, obtain a final equipment set and then grind PvP for as long as possible. These players don’t need (and actively dislike) an item carrot being dangled in front of them. In games without such a PvP end game experience or for games that have a fluid level cap then itemisation bonuses are probably the best way to retain players – after all these people are paying to lap up your PvE content so giving them more of what they seem to like makes a lot of sense. As ever EvE is something of an anomaly in the market, falling between several stools. Superficially the end game revolves around PvP, however the item-chase never truly ends even though there are well defined limits for items and little stat inflation. There are also very significant death penalties which can (if you are particularly unlucky) result in you losing years of character development.

A game that doesn’t offer an item chase as the end game needs to have another, strong hook to retain subscribers. Even DAoC had regular PvE content updates that brought in new things for players to lust after. Many players complained about them at the time but I’m not convinced that the game would have had such longevity, even amongst hardcore PvP players, if there had been no new things to shake up the mix. I’ve touched on this to a degree before, a player needs their time in game to feel worthwhile and to feel that they have achieved something – however that is measured. If the yardstick is not marked off in items then it must be calibrated in something equally valuable to the player. Realm points and honour are essentially ladder systems which give structure to the PvP endgames of DAoC and WoW but by themselves they probably aren’t enough to keep subscribers without being backed up by other advancement mechanisms – otherwise we’d all be paying ten bucks a month to play our Counterstrike-alike of choice.

MMOs have a unique issue that isn’t shared by other games. If you get bored of Assassin’s Creed or Bioshock for example, then it’s not a big deal, the publisher already has your money and has no particular investment in retaining your interest. For MMOs obviously, that isn’t the case. Bored players stop sending you money. Item chases work and have been proven to work so they are a pretty safe bet when you are trying to get someone to drop the kind of money required to float a new MMO these days. Any game without a strong mechanism for engaging and retaining players is going to have a hard time making it past the moneymen. Fun doesn’t cut it here, there are a lot of fun games out there and the majority don’t require a monthly sub to play, your game had better have some kickass way to keep people playing or it’s dead in the water.

So, what are the options if you don’t want to go with the tried and trusted item chase? As said there are ladder systems, but mostly these will only engage people over a short term. Once people realise they are grinding they normally stop. Without shaking up the playing field every so often, your game will stagnate into a status quo that will never be broken and players will become bored.

There’s fun. Good luck with that one.

If you can make a game that people will pay monthly for that includes no advancement of any kind but is purely played ‘for fun’ then you my friend have hit the jackpot. Even casual games portals like Pogo have to give you badges, points and prizes to keep you playing their ‘purely fun’ games. In a subscription based game the only thing that’s worth anything is time, your time has to net a reward or you won’t pay for it.

Your options then come from a very limited palette. I don’t see item grinding going away anytime soon



  1. Flim said,

    I want to comment with something more significant than “well put” but I can’t, so I won’t.


  2. Lee Saggers said,

    Very good writeup, I am still convinced there is a Holy Grail out there in the back of somones mind that will beat itemisation as a reward for time invested. One that will keep players hooked and paying thier subscriptions.

    What is it?

    Wish i knew.

  3. Ryuno said,

    A good post.

    Ryan Shwayder posted on his blog recently about Grinding

  4. antipwn said,

    “Ryan Shwayder posted on his blog recently about Grinding

    I posted in his comments too.

  5. antipwn said,

    Itemisation isn’t the only (or even necessarily the best) way to reward players for playing your game. It’s simply the easiest.

    It is possible to make a game in which item chases are minimal or non-existant, however you will need to replace that mechanism with something else that is just as strong. Off the top of my head I don’t know how you’d do that but I suspect that it would be a variety of linked systems that interacted with each other in complex ways rather than a single ‘not loot’ reward system.

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