I was replaying Borderlands and realized that I’ve been thinking all wrong about random treasure systems. Yes, they’re damned hard to do well. But even if they’re done poorly they can still be great. Borderlands’ random treasure system is broken in many ways. The color coding isn’t much more than a vague hint at an item’s power — you often find white and green “trash items” that are better than blues and purples of the same level. The monetary value of items is also completely broken. The item names, too. But whatever. It’s still insanely fun.
So the trick to a good random treasure system, I think, is to make sure there really are big payouts. Players really have to occasionally strike gold with an amazing, game-balance-destroying item every now and again. (Or at least temporarily balance-destroying!) When a treasure system fails (and many do), it’s almost always for the same reason: players just aren’t excited to look at the damned loot. That’s the point of any treasure system. Other things, like intuitive color coding, appropriate cash-values, cool item names, etc., are just gravy.
With that in mind, I’ve begun working on the random treasure system for Gorgon. I don’t have infinite time to polish this treasure system, but if I focus on the one thing that’s most important, the other things can come later if they have to.
Treasure Systems for Low-Power-Escalation Games
Gorgon is unlike WoW (or other Diku-esque MMOs, like EverQuest) in that you don’t grow dramatically more powerful each level. In my MMO, maxing out your combat skills might make you 25 times stronger than a newbie. That sounds pretty big, and it is, but it’s nothing like WoW, where a level 85 does thousands of times more damage than a level 1. This MMO has a slower power escalation, and that has ramifications all throughout the game design.
From a design perspective, one of the nice benefits is that crafted items are valuable for longer. Your low-level Poison Resistance potion (which reduces poison attacks by 5) is really useful when you first can make it, and it stays valuable for quite a while because monsters’ poison damage doesn’t escalate through the roof. I want crafted consumables to be useful for a long time so that you can learn them, come to value them, and create a market for them. But, of course, that’s a double-edged sword. I don’t want random loot to remain valuable for too long of a long time, because then you stop looking for more random loot and monster hunting becomes boring.
So how do I get random loot that has really significant power without breaking the game? My best plan right now is having a breadth of powers. Instead of finding swords with ever-higher damage numbers, you find swords with different buffs and powers that change how your abilities work.
For instance, if you’re an Unarmed fighter, you’ll love gauntlets that make your Punch attack heal you. You punch a lot, so that’s a huge power boost and very noticeable. On the other hand, you may prefer gauntlets that cause your Punch to do extra damage, or that cause your Cobra Strike to stun more reliably. But an amazing pair of gauntlets would do all three things.
The Augment System
So how it works is pretty simple: when you get a loot weapon, that weapon has some built-in stats and effects. In addition, it has a certain number of “Augment Points” which are used to randomly “buy” additional powers. (This all happens automatically: the item’s powers are bought before it ever appears in the game.) Higher-level items get more points to spend, and high-rarity items (greens, blues, purples) get more points also.
Augments come in levels. For instance, the first tier of Health-Enchantment costs 10 “Augment Points” and gives you +5 max health. The next tier costs 15 Augment Points and gives you +10 health. And so on. Normally items have one really expensive augment (costing the majority of its Augment Points), and any leftover points are used to buy something weaker. But occasionally it will decide to split its points 50/50, or even 33/33/34, so it’s possible to find items with lots of different powers at once.
Most of the time, when an item has multiple augments, they’ll be complementary: gauntlets might have serveral Unarmed bonuses, or several Fire Magic bonuses, but rarely will it mix the the two. (But it can still happen occasionally, because that’s fun in moderation.)
Here’s something slightly unusual for video game RPGs: augments with the same name don’t stack. So you might find a helmet and a shirt that have “Enchanted Punch Damage +5”, but wearing both doesn’t give you a +10 bonus, just a +5 bonus. However, many abilities come in several flavors. For instance, there might be Enchanted Punch Damage (magically enhancing your fists), Comfort-Bonus Damage (you can hurt people more because your armor is so comfortable), and Placebo Effect Bonus (your punches do extra damage because you think they will). These have different names, so they all stack.
This is a little unusual and I’ll need to figure out how to convey this to players well. But it’s a great technique in making sure that power levels don’t get out of hand too fast, while still letting you occasionally hit the jackpot of equipment configuration. It’s an old-school D&D technique, but it works well there. Finding items that stack together is part of the fun.
(Actually, I’m going to try this idea, but I admit I’m a bit afraid of it… I worry that it will just be too mind-blowingly confusing. “Why the hell doesn’t this helmet work?! What do you mean it’s because of my socks?!” I’ll give it a shot. In the worst case, I can fall back to the tried-and-true “slot model”, where you only ever find (effect X) on helmets, and you only ever find (effect Y) on shirts, so there’s never a chance they won’t stack. This doesn’t give you the chance for random lucky finds, but it’s extremely easy to understand… and to balance…)
Augments and Crafting
The crafting system is integrated deeply into random items. Remember that I said augments come in levels. That’s so that crafting and other skills can raise their level. A master jewelcrafter can take a Tiara of Placebo Effect +20 Health and improve it to have +30 Health instead.
This is also where item destruction comes in. (I’m borrowing the model from AC1, with some tweaks.) The more times you augment an item, the higher the chance that it will explode. One augment is always safe, but after that you’re playing roulette with your precious item!
You may wonder why I’d let you play roulette like that. It’s because the house always wins at roulette. Most items will end up being destroyed, keeping the item economy healthier, which is a win for the game. Of course, the down side is that players are never happy when they lose an item. It hurts. It’s not fun. But if it feels sufficiently voluntary, they’re unlikely to rage-quit over it. (If they feel like they need to play roulette with their items in order to have a viable character, though, then it gets a lot dicier… hopefully awareness of that potential issue can help me avoid it.)
Crafters can also craft unique items, too — they won’t be limited to just augmenting items. But most likely, the most powerful items in the game will be ones that were randomly generated as treasure and then augmented by crafters.
(I’m still mulling how crafting should interact with everything, but this is where my thoughts are right now, anyway.)
Excitement Around Each Corner
My main approach to making loot exciting is having lots of items that augment your abilities. At higher level, the powers get crazier and more unusual. This sounds exciting to me. But of course, one person’s “excitement” is another person’s “WTF, how can I tell if this sword is better than my old sword or not?” There’s something to be said for swords that just have bigger and bigger damage numbers on them: you can always tell which one is better.
I’m losing the ability to easily compare items, and that’s not something to scoff at. It’s actually a big price to pay. It can be mentally tiring to examine tons of items each play session, constantly working out which is better. That can make it tedious to find loot, which ruins the effect. I hope to at least get you in the right ballpark (by color coding the items, having price tags that reflect the items’ power, and with naming conventions and so on).
But even if I fail at all that communication — even if it’s extremely tiring and difficult to figure out which set of magic pants is right for you — I still think this design will target a certain audience really well. My main goal is to for my imagined player-base to find the system exciting. If I do that, I can then improve it to be more usable. If it’s not even exciting, though, well, that would be a tragedy. So I’m shooting for lots crazy powers and then we’ll see where to go from there.
Snails Return With a Vengeance
If you’ve been reading the blog a while you’ll know that I had a setback a while ago when it turned out that many of the art assets I’d licensed were stolen from another game. I got my money back on those purchases, but most of the creatures had no alternative versions available. The Giant Snail is a great example: it was a fun distinctive monster, and I was sad to see it go. But it’s back! Well, not the same snail. Actually, it’s a completely new snail!
It was created by Anthony Cook, who read on the blog about the lost creatures and made this one as a replacement. It appeared in my inbox one morning, complete with animations and everything, and bam! Mr. Snail is back. It looks really good in game.
This really made my week! It’s not all that common to find 3D artists with skill at making low-poly monsters. And so far, it’s been vanishingly rare for them to send me models out of the blue. :) Thanks, Anthony! (He mentioned that his portfolio site is outdated — but it has contact info, at least.)
I even got him to create an alternative shell design. I’m going to use the other shell with the Animal Husbandry skill. Players who raise snails can occasionally find the other snail pattern among their newborn snail pets. (Hmm, snails are hermaphroditic, aren’t they? Well, I guess that should make finding a mating pair a lot easier…)