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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Random Loot is How Our Civilization Will End

So I was researching really boring topics that I could write about and random item drops came to my attention.

Ask any real game designer and they'll tell you that rare drops are a necessary evil of game design, and without them many popular titles would stagnate.

But I'm here to tell you that random drops is a bunch of shit that has no purpose in a proper, self-respecting video game.

If you've spent sixty or so hours in front of an RPG (or better yet, sixty or so days in front of WoW) then you're familiar with the loot that randomly drops from defeated enemies. Early in the game this is a bonus that comes along with the more appealing money and experience, but later on, in the endgame, when money and experience no longer improves your character? It's all that matters.

I'm not a WoW endgame vet, but I have spent the last few months jumping in and out of Dragon Quest 9. The game is a joy to play, but almost every item except for the medical herbs are randomly dropped, and not only are they randomly dropped but they're rare. You can play the game for an hour, fighting monsters, and maybe only get one dropped item. Combine enough items into an alchemy pot and you'll produce an entirely new piece of equipment, from cat ears to bikinis to slime suits, so gathering these items has incredible appeal.

Creating unique equipment is damn, good fun.
Look at that sweet bandana! So much better than store-brand blue.

Haven't you always wanted to command a party of adventurers
who looked like this?

The drop rate, though, is still a bitch. Given how long it takes to collect these stupid items I had a lot of time to muse over a better system of item distribution.

For instance: Say I want to alchemize together some slime earrings. To do this I'll need a slime-drop, which drop from defeated slimes, and a gold ring, which can be bought in a store. The ring is no big deal but to get the slime-drop I might have to take down twenty to fifty slimes.

Now here's the alternative: What if slimes always dropped slime-drops and you just had to collect ten of them to make the earrings? Sounds good, right? It's more fair and it doesn't come with the frustration inherent with relying on a randomized system.

But would it really be better?

Mummy boys drop grubby bandages. That mage in the back? Wizard staff.
I could tell you what almost any monster in the game drops because
the items are so damned important.
I couldn't say the same for any other RPG I've played.
Final Fantasy 10. What does a behemoth drop? I have no idea.

In theory, I like the idea.

In practice, it would never work.

Other people have given much better explanations on the subject, but the gist of it is that we're hard-wired to prefer receiving our rewards at random. Even apes and rats fall for the same trick, exhibiting the same stupid behavior in a lab that we do in front of a game.

Sure, the game might be fun in other ways but any psychologist will tell you that this one-more-time desire is behavioral modification and your entertainment comes secondary to your internal demands.

And my idea? With the regular distribution of slime-drops? It would never work because the act of reaching that goal of ten slime-drops is less appealing to our monkey psychologies than it is to expect that reward right away.

A long-term reward is appealing the same way ten more minutes of a crap, part-time job is appealing. We know how far we have to go to achieve our goal, but there's no immediate incentive that's feeding our id, so we feel like we're just wasting time instead of achieving something, which is exactly the opposite of what's going on.

Go into a casino and look at the faces of the people in front of these things.
That's called behavioral modification.

So I guess I'm wrong about this whole always-drop system, right? Unless you want your long-time enthusiasts to move on to something else then random loot is the way to go. Right?

Maybe that's true, but I'm still going to defend my position of no random drops.

Think of it this way: If DQ9 had consistent item drops then what would I lose? Twenty hours of frustration? My least-favorite part of the game goes missing? My memories of the adventure remain fond long after I beat the final boss? And would I put the game down earlier so I could play something new?

How could that be a bad thing?


  1. Señor PanaderiaJuly 8, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    I'm glad you immediately realized your faulty logic in great detail. I'm impressed at how well you refuted yourself.

    I agree that random item drops are infuriating, and I think they're at least twice as bad when combined with an alchemy system of some sort. But DQ9 does things a little better than I'd seen elsewhere.

    In this game, part of what makes it even more addicting is knowing that you can improve your stats to increase the likelihood of item drops, or of steal success. Also, did you know that rare items drop more frequently if you play in someone else's world (multiplayer) or set the DS date to your birthday?

  2. Dude. When I finally reached the Treasure Eye-Land skill with my thief, assuming for the last two weeks that it was going to make stealing easier, and then it turned out to be a freaking (red only) treasure chest radar?

    I lost my shit.

    I Zoomed to the abbey and talked to Jack about three seconds after I got that stupid skill.

    Why the hell is Pitfall even in the game?

  3. Skill point allocation has become one of my RPG pet peeves, because it takes 100 hours to realize you've made a bad decision that you can't take back. I wish reallocation were more common; DQ9's feature where you can roll over a class when you hit lv99 is one of the dumbest things I've ever seen.

    Pitfall is pretty funny in multiplayer. It's intended to irritate your friends.