When most people think of “cool loot” they first think about how it looks. A giant sword, shining armor, flowing robes, huge pauldrons. But there is another aspect to loot that is just as important: stats. While Ember isn’t a loot-focused game, we did want loot to play an important part in the game’s design.
Ember wasn’t originally going to have a lot of loot. The plan was to make a few different weapons and types of armor and sprinkle them throughout the game. After designing the skill system, we quickly realized we would need the player to be continually getting new equipment so they could find all the different skills in a given play through (see the blog entry “Equipment and Skills” to learn more about Ember’s unique skill system). We had to put our designer hats on and come up with a system for allocating statistics to equipment that would be fun and meaningful to the player.
Finding loot generates an emotional response. When a player opens a chest there is a feeling of anticipation, then after they open it there is either a feeling of joy (yay this is better!), disappointment (ugh nothing good again!) or indifference (bunch of crappy side grades). It is tempting to always give the player joy; it would actually be very easy to generate a small upgrade in every single chest you open or enemy you kill. But just like many other aspects of game design, you need peaks and valleys. If you always feel joy, joy stops feeling special. You get desensitized: you know every chest is going to have a minor upgrade so it becomes rote and uninteresting. To put it succinctly: you need low lows to make the highs feel higher.
In Ember, equipment is split into bands of levels with each band further split into different qualities. Specifically, the gear has minimum character level requirements of 1, 4, 8, 12, 16 and 20. Within each level band there are three possible qualities: crude, standard, and crafted. The level and quality combine to determine the stats on the equipment. This equipment design helps facilitate the emotional waves as the player levels up. Upgrades will happen less often for about 4 levels, then all of a sudden there is a burst of major upgrades when you reach the next level band. Then small upgrades for 4 more levels, then another burst, and the cycle continues.
When the world builders were placing loot they simply had to select a level and quality without worrying about specific stats. Every area in the game was meant for a specific range of levels, for instance the Northern Forest area that you start the game in is meant for level 1 to 4 characters, so you will be finding level 1 or level 4 items. As for the quality, designers had some general guidelines for deciding which quality to set a piece of loot to. Enemies should drop crude quality equipment, treasure chests should have standard quality, and special enemies, such as bosses, would drop crafted quality items. The reason for these guidelines was to further reinforce the up-down emotional wave of finding loot. Loot from normal enemies is the most common, so it will be of the worst quality. Chests are more rare, so they have a higher chance of containing an upgrade. Bosses will almost always have an upgrade because they present a combat challenge. Finally, if the player goes through the effort of crafting an item they should certainly have the best quality available.
The system ended up working well. There is a nice rhythm to getting big upgrades every four levels, with smaller upgrades in between thanks to the quality levels. The world builders didn’t have to worry about specific stat values and could place loot quickly and easily. This system also works well with our skill system, the game assigns skills to equipment randomly with some general guidelines as to skill type and power level depending on the level and quality of the equipment.