Gorgon Random Treasure

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.)

Stacking Effects

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 hard to get a good screenshot because he was kicking my ass.

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…)

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15 Responses to Gorgon Random Treasure

  1. Your articles are fantastic. I’m thinking, “I need to figure out how loot is going to work” and BAM – there’s a whole bunch of ideas to think about. Its like I have a designer working on my game :)

  2. Azrapse says:

    Leveling is one of the most interesting subjects on MMOs and RPGs in general to my understanding.
    In the beginning, with D&D, leveling was the only character development possible, and it was a way to turn that earned XP into something that reflected how your character had improved.
    Of course, that was the most primitive way of development. Most of the time it made no sense at all that by killing 20 kobolds you would all of sudden learn a new spell.
    Later on, some RPGs shifted onto raising particular skills instead of just an abstract overall “character level”; some of them by spending XP, some of them by using them.
    Anyway, character development was just another part of the whole that made up the game. Players played those RPGs for fun, not for leveling up, or for stacking stats.

    In most MMOs today, however, leveling and character development have become something totally different.
    In WoW-likes, character development comes mainly from equipped loot.
    Leveling raises also the HP/Mana and Damage ratings, giving an appearance of development, but that is fake, because the player usually must move towards another region where all enemies are higher level too, with bigger HP pools and Damage ratings; countering, indeed, the “development” achieved by leveling and keeping the status quo.
    A scary tough Orc in Bree has 1/10000 HP pool and damage of the same scary tough Orc in Rohan. Is there anything in the setting that can explain that? No.
    So in the end, leveling has become actually a measure for Grind, Carrot-and-Stick, and Programmed Obsolescence:
    - Next bunch of enemies will be higher level than the player, so the player must grind the XP to level up to have any chance against them.
    - Loot is bound to level, so player will have to get rid of the loot after they level up and grind for more loot.
    - When the developers want the players to start afresh, they only need to raise the level cap, rendering all loot got by the players meaningless, and making them spend more time regaining everything they lost from having to scrap all now underlevel gear.

    LOTRO’s Legendary Item system is a great representative of this. Those weapons have a specific equip level that determines their damage rating and other stats. There are several qualities of these items (ages), as well as many different random special stats (legacies) that affect your skills.
    After every level cap raise, the player must discard all their current Legendary Items and start with a lower quality (third age) weapon from the beginning. When they find the one with the right combo of stats, and they have slotted the best slottable buffs (relics) on them, and got the most appropiate slottable damage type (title). The stats costs points to raise their rank, and there is a limited amount of points. Stats also appear with random qualities, and it’s more expensive to raise a stat that is low quality. So the player has to grind (or pay) for special scrolls that improve the quality of one stat by one level.
    There are usually 6-7 stats in a weapon, with 6 different qualities, so to max everything out, it takes many of those grind-to-get or pay-to-get scrolls.
    Multiply this grind by two, because every character has a Legendary Weapon and a Legendary Class Item, that works exactly the same.
    Then the player finds a special token that lets him create a better quality Legendary Item (second age), and he has to scrap his lower quality item (having to pay real money if he wants to unslot some of the buffs he slotted or lose them forever) and start all the grinding again with that second age item.
    Multiply this by two again.
    Then the player finds another special token that lets him create a top quality Legendary Item (first age), and the same as before. Multiply by two.
    If the player has not quitted before this point, then the developers raise the level cap and everything above is sent to the garbage, because a lowest quality New Level Cap item has better damage and stat ratings that a top quality Previous Level Cap item.

    Your proposal for random loot has sounded to me really familiar to this thing from LOTRO and I wonder if MMOs are actually real games, or what they really are is games that wish to be hamster wheels of consumerism and grinding.
    I’m quite sure your game is not focused too much into that, but still the thought is scary. :)

  3. Zubon says:

    Augments: for existing models to borrow, consider Guild Wars 1 (“non-stacking” attribute runes) and Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 (typed bonuses, including the few “stacks with everything” untyped bonuses and a couple that can still stack with themselves (dodge? it’s been a while); I think this made it into D&D 4E).

  4. kalamona says:

    Not trying to push myself, but maybe I can help you on the artistic front too. I worked with unity a lot, I made the dynamic elements pack you are using sometimes (combo punch effect, levelup effect, etc), and I made a lot of lowpoly, animated caracters for games.

    some references:

    (these are also buyable in the unity asset store, but I can send them to you for free as unitypackage, with animations already set and all)

    Write me a mail if you are interested, kalamona01@gmail.com .

  5. Aaron says:

    Stacking Effects:

    Confusion over this seems like it could be solved by tooltips. Maybe some warning on the item description when you examine an item that has the same stat type as something you’re wearing.

    Excitement Around Each Corner:

    For me, a lot of the fun of finding items is bragging to my friends about them. On that note, I hated WoW’s item system after about two expansions. Once I hit WotLK I stopped being able to easily talk about items with friends, because the numbers were getting so absurdly high that I couldn’t actually remember what was good without looking at what I had equipped. “Oh, your staff has 700 spell power? Is that good?” I think it’s a lot more fun to say “My bunny slippers give me a knockback effect on my kick!”

  6. Jason says:

    Breadth of powers is a good way to handle it. Don’t forget that negatives can always be useful as well. Yes, players hate them, but if they are balanced by positives then someone may find it useful. A sword that gives +5 Fire Damage while giving -5 to Fire Resistance might seem on the surface to be so-so. But, for someone who focuses on dealing fire damage and isn’t concerned about taking it then it might be okay. Even better if they have an item that gives +5 Fire Resistance already so it off-sets the negatives.

    Negatives are something you don’t see that often but could be widely used to create more variety and force players to make more choices about what to use and keep.

  7. Zik says:

    Honestly I haven’t been excited about loot since AC1, so a similar system gets the thumbs up from me. With all the class-based games it’s immediately obvious what piece of loot is for who (high strength goes to warriors, high dex goes to rogues, etc) so upgrades end up being one point here and there. Loot that gives bonuses to abilities in addition to or instead of bonuses to stats will be welcome.

    If you want to avoid possible player frustration over which piece is “better” than the other, I would suggest making the math the system uses visible. Make the tooltip for the item show exactly what’s changing by equipping the item. SWTOR did this fairly well (when it worked correctly anyway) – hovering over the item in my inventory compared it to what was equipped, showing in green what stats would increase and in red what stats would decrease.

  8. Michael Kujawa says:

    “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″

    The shape of the curve is the key, not the difference between the current endpoints. In WoW, a level 60 did about… 25 times more damage than a level 1. The 2000x multiplier WoW has at level 85 is a consequence of following the exponential curve further out (and the increased speed of growth for expansions and the tier-doubling hard mode fights.) If your curve is exponential, you’ll suffer the same fate some happy day.

    As for item advancement, I liked the Dark Cloud mechanic of investing in a particular weapon by using it. That could play into your current design by having the augment risk slowly decrease based on using it. Could work out about the same in terms of player time invested and powerful items around, but it has a very different vibe.

  9. Shawn says:

    DDO does the non-stacking bonuses thing for loot and I found it incredibly confusing when I started playing. Some sort of notification when you first equip two bonuses that don’t stack would be really helpful in alleviating this. I wore a completely useless bracers and belt for at least two levels before I figured that out in DDO.

    I’m not sure direct comparisons on whether or not something is an upgrade is really necessary. I tend to find them misleading in most games anyways since its almost impossible to take into account all of the comparisons. Back when I played WoW I had to use a separate website to figure out whether items were really an upgrade or not since it was difficult to really compare different attributes like +crits and +to hit. So a system where the bonuses tend to be of different types sounds very good to me. The min/maxers can still figure out that on average plus health on punch is better than plus damage on punch (or whatever) and everyone else can have fun with what works for them and use a piece of gear that actually changes their gameplay. Plus the situation where someone is trying to trade their helm with a placebo bonus to strength for one with a comfort bonus to strength is endlessly entertaining to me.

  10. Jules says:

    @Michael: “The shape of the curve is the key, not the difference between the current endpoints. In WoW, a level 60 did about… 25 times more damage than a level 1. The 2000x multiplier WoW has at level 85 is a consequence of following the exponential curve further out (and the increased speed of growth for expansions and the tier-doubling hard mode fights.) If your curve is exponential, you’ll suffer the same fate some happy day.”

    I’m not a WoW player, so not sure how accurate those figures are, but that’s a lot more than exponential growth. If a stat grows exponentially with level and is 25 times its starting value at level 60, you’d expect it to be about 100 times the starting value by level 85.

  11. Michael Kujawa says:

    I don’t know the power curve for a naked character over levels 1-85, but I doubt it’s nearly as dramatic as the thousands figure Eric quoted. I was including gear in the advancement, which definitely complicates things. I called it exponential because a character at the end of an expansion has been several times as powerful as at the end of the prior expansion. Characters who quest to the new cap tend to be slightly better than max equipped characters from the prior expansion (creating a gear reset.)

    My point may be better illustrated by item level. Epics were level 90-ish at the top tier of Vanilla, 160 at the end of BC, 264 at the end of WotLK, and 410-ish now.

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  13. Brad says:

    “DDO does the non-stacking bonuses thing for loot and I found it incredibly confusing when I started playing. Some sort of notification when you first equip two bonuses that don’t stack would be really helpful in alleviating this. I wore a completely useless bracers and belt for at least two levels before I figured that out in DDO.”

    I agree with this completely, even though I play Pathfinder regularly and it has kept the “maximum bonus for the category only” mechanic. For a pen and paper game, it’s perfectly okay to make everyone deal with a rule like that. For a computer game, having an indicator or highlight or something to say “This item of +5 awesome is not effective because your other item of +10 awesome overpowers it” is really, really important.

  14. hugo says:

    A short comment on non-stacking buffs: Why don’t you inform the player about stacking conflicts like in AC1: if the player has some item giving him/her +5 to and try to wear another item giving also +4 to , just display a msg saying “wearing item xxx, but spell xxx’s +4 is surpassed by item yyy’s +5″ where yyy is the name of the first item.

  15. David says:

    Non-stacking: I was also going to say that this can be solved with UI. However, I don’t think it needs to be as… verbose or imposing as many of the ideas cited in the comments so far. Suppose that your effects list (tooltips?) currently looked like:
    +5 Foo-fighting
    +10 Bar-fighting
    Suppose you just color code and add a little text at the end like:
    +5 Foo-fighting (inert)
    +10 Bar-fighting (redundant)
    to designate that you have some other with bigger Foo-fighting causing the +5 effect to be inert, and have another item with exactly +10 Bar-fighting causing the +10 effect to be redundantly matched by another item(s).

    Further, if you have UI where the effects list is more static than a tooltip itself (examining?), consider having additional tooltips to help. Suppose when hovering over a given effect, it shows you a list of all equipped items which have that effect, highlighting the one with the active bonus.