[This article is about my upcoming 3D fantasy MMO code-named "Project Gorgon."]
One of the many design elements I haven’t fully figured out yet is item decay. This is a tough one.
Item decay is when your weapons and armor and tools can get “used up” and disappear after some amount of use. It’s very different from “item damage”, where the items can be completely repaired. Decay is permanent, and is thus a much more complex topic.
The Case for Item Decay
Why would you have item decay in your game? There are lots of reasons to use this mechanic:
- It gives crafters more to do. If people need to buy new swords regularly, then blacksmiths have more to do. If swords don’t wear out, then blacksmiths obviously don’t need to make as many.
- It reduces twinking. A big problem in games with random loot systems is “hand-me-down weapons.” In these games, players tend to find more weapons than they personally need. They hoard these weapons and hand them down to other players. This doesn’t hurt much of anything if it’s done for an “alt” character, but when a brand new player is given a bunch of top-tier gear, it can really hurt their enjoyment of the game, and hence their retention. What seems like a nice gesture from players can really hurt the game overall. But if weapons decay, there will be fewer top-end weapons to give to others, and anyway, the twinked player won’t be permanently overpowered.
- It lets you keep your power escalation low. In most games you want players to experience the thrill of finding new equipment often. In a game with a steep level curve (like WoW for instance), you’ll get new weapons all the time as you level up. But in a game like mine where people don’t get a ton more powerful as they level up, higher-level weapons can’t get much more powerful than lower-level weapons, so what’s the point of switching weapons? Well, if your weapons keep decaying, you’re forced to switch weapons. Problem solved!
The Case Against Item Decay
The case against item decay is really simple, and really damning: human beings are ridiculously averse to loss. There’s more psychological studies about this than you can shake a library at, but for me it can be summed up in this one principle: Human beings fear loss, even more than they should. They predict that the loss of an item will hurt more than it actually does, and they go out of their way to avoid it.
In a game with item loss, there are two ways humans deal with this fear: either they refuse to use amazing items because they don’t want them to go away, or they become clinically detached from all items.
Probably the most common thing is that they just refuse to use items. You see this in any MMO that has one-use super items. I don’t know about you, but when I get a “Potion of Being Amazing For 3 Minutes”, I hoard that sucker forever. In most games, I won’t even use it to save myself from dying, because the death penalty is less painful than losing the item! (In WoW or EQ2, I wouldn’t use rare irreplaceable items unless I was in a really good group/raid and we were going to wipe… and even then, I’d have to think about it pretty hard.)
But this isn’t a big deal — who cares if people hoard their one-use quest rewards? I don’t. It gets to be a bigger deal when all items in your game can decay. Suddenly you never want to use any high-quality item ever!
Let’s unpack that idea of “high-quality items” for a moment, because it’s important. An item is not high-quality if it’s “just good enough to get the job done.” You’ll be happy to have such an item (especially if you were struggling with dangerously underpowered equipment prior to that) but you won’t think of it as particularly super-powered.
By definition, a top-tier item has to be more powerful than is strictly necessary to survive. And that means it’s never actually needed. And if it’s not needed, and is going to decay when used, that means it’s going to get hoarded.
And if you try make top-tier items mandatory in order to survive, what you’re really doing is making all lower-tier items into junk, and you’re back to square one: nobody’s excited about loot because everybody has to use the very best items already.
(I’m oversimplifying here, because it’s actually possible to create items that are “kinda crappy” without being suicidally underpowered. But I also know from experience how really hard it is to find that sweet spot for consumable items, and how hard it is to maintain that balance over a long period of game updates. It almost always falls down into items either being “junk”, “the thing we have to use”, or “the thing that’s too good to ever bother using”.)
I said there were two scenarios that happen when you have item decay. One is that people hoard the best stuff because it’s too valuable to use. The other is even worse, though: emotional detachment from loot.
You see this in games with particularly heavy item turnover. Nobody gets too excited about even the most amazing items. “It’s nice, sure, <yawn>, but it’ll be gone soon enough.”
This means you (the designer) have a much harder time getting players excited. The game also tends to feel more like a treadmill: players can see more easily that they’re just collecting money in order to buy the same old stuff so they can collect money to buy the same old stuff so they can…
(Note that there’s not actually any more “treadmill” than any other MMO design. It’s just that item decay makes it a little easier to see.)
So once again we’re back to the same problem: we can’t have nice things, because there’s no things in the universe that are nice enough to get excited about.
If players aren’t going to be excited about loot, why bother having it? You’re better off leaving it out and focusing on something else. If you’re gonna have a complex item system, players need to be excited about items!
Gorgon Needs a Different Approach
So from a logical perspective, item decay is a great mechanic. Those problems I mentioned at the beginning are real problems, and very much worth fixing. But the psychology of loss is just too painful to me to want to do an item-decay game.
But since my main complaint is the psychology of it, maybe I can find a replacement design that fits psychology better.
And really, isn’t that what every game does? The reason your sword’s damage keeps going up and up in WoW is to force you to keep getting new weapons. It isn’t really much different than if your sword just decayed every few levels, forcing you to get a new weapon. But it feels so much less painful!
And WoW solves the problem of “hand me down items” with the trick of literally making it impossible to give great items to other people. The items become attuned to you as soon as you pick them up, and voila! No more hand me down items. It’s ham-fisted but it sure works.
But all hybrid solutions seem to have their own problems. In the WoW model, the power level has to keep escalating up and up and up forever, and at a pretty fast pace, too. If you ever get the very best set of items in the whole game, the treadmill breaks. There’s no reason to care about items anymore.
Hybrid Solution: “Permanent Plus Temporary”
I’ve been looking at different hybrid solutions for Project Gorgon. I’m calling my current plan “Permanent Plus Temporary.”
It’s a two-stage approach. Weapons, armors, and tools are permanent. So you can quest for the very best items in the game, and get excited when you find them. Hooray, you’re permanently better than before!
But by itself, the sword is kind of crap. It has to be magically sharpened (or maybe “enchanted”, or “have a new hilt put on”, or whatever — something has to be done to the item. I’m just using “sharpened” as an example).
So sharpening is not optional. An unsharp sword does so little damage that you won’t survive if you try to use it. You have to get your item sharpened, either from a professional sharpener or with a one-use do-it-yourself sharpening kit. And the sharpening “wears off” over time, requiring you to sharpen it again and again.
That solved one of the three problems I mentioned at the outset: it makes sure crafters always have enough to do. And I can fix the hand-me-down problem the same way WoW does it: for the very best items, you simply can never give them away. That’s not a particularly immersive or elegant solution, but it works.
But I still have problems with power escalation. Once you have the best item, you don’t need to look for loot anymore!
Lower Power-Escalation From Randomized Loot
In order to keep my items’ power levels from cranking through the roof, I’m using randomly-generated treasure. The idea behind randomly-generated treasure is that it uses a different reward schedule than fixed-design treasure. You have to look at every sword you get because one of them is going to be amazing. And when you find an amazing sword, there’s still a chance that you’ll find an even more amazing random item later.
So with random items, players rapidly reach a “sweet spot” of power (a little higher than the average quality level for items of that type), and then very slowly (on average) find better and better items. They have to keep looking because who knows when the randomly-better item will show up?
Lots of games have random treasure (and a few have random crafted items), but often the results are not amazing. Making a fun random loot system is a lot harder than it sounds! I remember that we struggled mightily to make Asheron’s Call 2′s treasure system the equal of AC1′s. In the end it was very cool… but it sure took a ton of time and tweaking, and it never quite had the elegance of AC1′s system.
The problem is that you can’t just graft a random treasure system onto a game; it has to be designed around it very heavily, and with a lot of subtlety. I’ll talk about random treasure another time, though, since this post seems never-ending…
(Random loot still doesn’t actually “solve” the power progression problem. It just slows the progression down a bit so it doesn’t have to keep going up and up and up every damned day.)
Better Plan Forthcoming?
I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily got the best plan yet. I’m still a ways away from actually implementing a treasure system (beyond the static loot that I have now for testing purposes), so I still have time to bat ideas around.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons. There are a lot of different angles you can look at this problem from — the trick is figuring out what angles are the most important.