Depending on the kindness of drops

9th October 2009 – 5.24 pm

Over at Killed in a Smiling Accident, Melmoth laments World of Warcraft's looting system. I empathise fully, having experienced loot-envy many times myself, including sulking about losing an ideal tanking drop to a DPS class. Loot distribution is a curious issue, as it's not just in MMORPGs that loot-envy occurs, having been felt in pen-and-paper RPGs for years, even before the first MMORPG was designed. Random tables or pre-generated loot cause problems in exactly the same way, either arguments of ownership when something particularly shiny is found or bitterness when a worthless item is plucked from the treasure chest of the climactic encounter.

An experienced GM can eschew random or pregenerated loot tables in favour of offering a balanced and equitable distribution of loot throughout the adventure, ensuring both that every character gets a suitably shiny upgrade and arguments about who takes what are avoided. To be able to distribute loot fairly, such a system requires an overseer that knows exactly the party composition is coming in to the adventure, what they have equipped, what is hidden in bags, and what is squirrelled away in bank vaults, which a GM can accomplish with complete access to players' character sheets. It thus remains baffling to me why the final boss in an MMORPG encounter still has a good chance of dropping loot that no one can even equip, considering the systems controlling the world are omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent, so it should be no surprise that this can cause resentment. But despite reading the argument in Melmoth's carefully considered writing, I am still left wondering about the real cause of his frustration.

By the end of the run through the Deadmines, Melmoth writes that he made out 'like the proverbial bandit', getting a couple of excellent pieces of armour, so it can't be that he feels he came away with nothing. Nor can he be feeling bitter that the loot system doesn't drop needed items, either favouring a certain class or ignoring party composition and dropping useless items, as he also notes that everyone got something they could use. It seems that missing out on the axe gnaws at him but, knowing Melmoth, he certainly isn't complaining that he didn't get every single drop. Yet even after getting equipment upgrades himself, and the rest of the party similarly, Melmoth argues that the loot system is flawed. However, gauging his disappointment, I suggest that the problem with the system lies not merely with loot distribution, but also in loot dependence. Loot may drop arbitrarily, random items plucked from predetermined lists regardless of party needs, but the relative utility of the loot itself is unbalanced almost to the point of being broken.

If you rely on a weapon for attacks and damage, the weapon becomes the most important item you can own. That extra DPS the weapon offers is simply incomparable to armour drops. For example, a warrior gains one DPS for every fourteen attack power, and two attack power per point of strength. To get a single DPS increase on a warrior requires getting a piece of armour with an extra seven strength, and that's on top of whatever ability buffs your current piece of armour has. At low-level, the kind of ability gains needed to boost damage output simply is not available on armour. In addition, weapons don't only have damage stats, they can also have ability buffs. A two-handed axe offering an extra five DPS and buffed with a significant amount of strength is not just shiny, it is radiant with an unholy darkness that corrupts any heart that dares con it.

It is not just the randomness of dropped loot in World of Warcraft that potentially causes rifts, but also the heavily skewed difference in the utility of specific loot. Even getting a couple of pieces of the best low-level armour in the game can leave a bitter taste when the game itself reminds you shortly afterwards that armour doesn't matter as much as a weapon. The inequalities are rife in World of Warcraft, and are unfortunately highlighted most brightly under negatively competitive circumstances. Melee and ranged attackers suffer most without a good weapon, an item that relies on drops to be upgraded. It won't matter that you are three levels above this mob, you're still using a weapon several levels below even that. Conversely, spell-casters suffer from drops not helping the power of their spells, the caster classes getting gradually weaker until an improved rank of each spell is learnt every several levels. It won't matter how much intellect the robe has that Archmage Arugal drops, your frostbolt will still be tepid for two more levels.

World of Warcraft is a loot-dependent, level-based game and, despite its popularity and influence, it should be clear there is much that can be improved. Dropped loot should not be quite so arbitrary, particularly when it binds to a character and cannot be transferred. After all, loot is meant to be a reward for overcoming the challenge. There is little reward in gaining a few silver from selling the dropped loot, particularly when comparable and more useful items cannot then be bought with the profit. Reliance on a particular item, such as weapons for fighters or a caster's spells, will only be fair when there is reliable method of obtaining a suitable item that will, at the very least, maintain equilibrium with level. Making the already arbitrary level boundaries worse by denying fair access to the required tools for a class only ends up emasculating characters and, by proxy, players. Melmoth is right that 'it’s no wonder that more and more players switch to solo play wherever they can'.

  1. One Response to “Depending on the kindness of drops”

  2. "Not all loot is created equal": it's a good thought, and certainly helps me understand a little more why I should feel that way even after having had a couple of great instance runs and with very nice loot drops.

    I don't like feeling that way though because it doesn't feel like me, and I play these games, in part, to escape a world that seems full of that grasping mentality.

    I find it frustrating that I can be so easily manipulated by a game in that way. Most perplexing.

    By Melmoth on Oct 9, 2009

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