This past week I got to experience two different versions of the same game, one from 15 years ago and the other was the current version. That game was World of Warcraft. I learned a lot about WoW classic and why is so anticipated by its players. Looking at the differences between the two I got to a lot of interesting conclusions, but here I want to focus on a single one: the equippable items. This analysis is also taking games like Borderlands, Destiny, Darkest Dungeon, Dark Souls and other RPGs in which you can equip items you find into account.
First of all I want to explain a bit the concept I want to talk about. Most RPGs make their progression not only attached to the skills of the playable characters but to the gear, weapons or trinkets they can equip. This creates two paths of improvement. The first one, the skill based one, is based on how the character itself gets better and stronger. Normally based on experience, stats or even active and passive skills. Players have almost complete control over this path. It is true that developers decide which skills the players can get or the amount of experience needed to get to the next level but players have control over where to use those experience points or which skills to unlock. This path is, most of the times, set on stone by the developers and players can see how it will play out from the beginning, giving them the option to strategize over it. The second path is the one based on the gear, weapons or trinkets. These things improve the playable characters in other ways. They usually only affect stats but sometimes also affect the way in which the players will play with their characters. Most games will make this path as random as possible without breaking the game to give each player a unique experience. This is the path that is used for surprising the players and reward them.
The importance of gear
I wanted to talk about this subject because of the importance of rewarding players, giving them unique experiences and making them feel different on games of this genre. Those three things, in my opinion, are essential to a good role playing experience. To prevent this point being a mess I will explain those facets of the importance in itemization separately starting with the feeling of being different.
We as humans have engraved in our brains that individualism is a good thing so we tend to appreciate individualism over collectivism, when players role play they will most likely want to be, or at least look, different to the rest of the players. This applies more to MMOs or games with multiplayer features like WoW, Destiny or Borderlands. This feeling of being different also helps with the realism and immersion in massive multiplayer online games. WoW has created a tool to achieve visual uniqueness with end game characters called transmogrification. This mechanic lets players put on a second layer of gear that will only affect their looks, not stats. Below you can see three different female blood elf retribution paladins. Their actual items are the same but they look different because of the transmogrification. Players love this mechanic or feature because they can look different and unique at the same time being well equipped.
This mechanic came to existence because the meta of the game. Every time the game released a new raid or dungeon the items dropped there were the best you could find. The cities started to have the problem of having all their endgame characters looking the same. It looked stupid and boring so the developers at WoW created this system. Is important to note that this system also lets players of a guild all dress the same way to create a sense of cohesion and community within the guild. Tabards exist for that same reason.
Another important aspect in which items help player experience is by creating unique experiences. Those unique experiences are made by special items that are so different or powerful that once you get them you start playing slightly different. The game that uses this the most is Borderlands. Some weapons are so weird that when you use them you start solving combats in different ways. In this game you can find grenades that move as fast as bullets, shotguns that have bullets that move like waves, rifles that shoot balls of fire that bounce of walls and much more. Those weapons are weird to find but they are so different that the players feel like they have to play differently to take advantage of them. Those weapons are so strong if used correctly that players can spend triple the amount of time with them than with any other. By doing this the game not only creates memorable moments but also builds up the players anticipation for the weapons they might get in the future and makes players attached to their weapons.
Finally the items in game can be used as rewards for the players very easily. Items can be as good as getting a new skill or leveling up momentarily. As time passes the stats on those items will get behind. They get outdated pretty fast so their power spikes are when picked up. This means that the game can continually reward players with items because they need new items when the ones equipped get dated. Strong items can boost a player greatly because of their nature as secondary progression. Giving a good item to your players is like temporarily leveling them up.
To better explain the fact that items are a constant source of rewards for the players I made this graph. As you can see the vertical axis is the power of a specific item and the horizontal one is the game time or progression of the players. The graph has 3 lines that cross it in diagonal. Those represent the need of players when talking about item strength and relevancy. The line at the left represent the moment an item passes from being utterly broken (in the left side of the line) to just being strong (in the right side of the line); the middle line represents the sweet spot, this is the point the developers should aim for, at least for the most part; finally the right line represent the point at which the item has become an inconvenience for the player and should be changed. It also represents the power level the players have by just leveling up. Then we have the horizontal lines, these lines are examples of items in the game. The items are represented as horizontal lines because their strength doesn’t change as the players levels up. Finally we have a red vertical line representing a settled point in time. To the right we have the players future within the game and to the left the past.
If we look at the item examples we can see how the players see them at the point we marked with the red line. First of all we have the Item Example A, when the players find this item the item is within the range of useful items for them. They will most likely equip it. This item could be seen as a green or uncommon item. Secondly we have Item Example B, when players find this item its well below the needed strength so they won’t bother with even looking at it. This item could be seen as a white, common or under leveled item. Finally we have the Item Example C, when players encounter this item its strength is remarkable and will have an impact on the overall strength of the players. They will equip it without questioning. This item could equate to a rare item. If we gave an item stronger than Item Example C the game can become too easy for the player, maybe this is what we want but the game has to be design around us giving the player such an item. An item above C would be a legendary item. One last thing I want to point out is that because the items are horizontal lines all of them will eventually drop below the point of Drop Item. When this happens the game needs to have new items for the players to equip.
How games balance it
As said before players have a constant demand for items while progressing through a game. Items are a second layer of progression and they must be design as so. They must be carefully placed depending on their strength and the moment at which players get them. If a game gives too many strong items the difficulty of the game will drop considerably making it boring. At the other side of the spectrum, if the game gives a lot of weak items the difficulty will increase to the point at which the experience becomes anxious.
The tools used to take care of this problem are shared by most RPGs. Those tools are: shops, rewards for missions and rare drops. Each of them is used to give a specific item type, those types being: strong, normal and weak. Strong items are epic or legendary, normal items are rare or uncommon and weak items are common. These three types are represented in the graph explained some moments ago as: Strong=Yellow; Normal=Purple; Blue=Weak.
Let us start with the shops. This tool is used to provide the players with a bottom line when it comes to item progression. These shops will usually give weak items, in some cases they can sell normal items but most of them won’t. These shops are in places of easy access for players. The items in these shops are just good enough for clearing the area in which you found them. If the game is well balanced players should visit them only from time to time. The items in the shops should serve the purpose of letting players drop items that have fallen below the drop point in the item/progression chart.
The next tool in the list are mission rewards. Mission rewards are used as a little treat for the players. The items they give are strong enough to feel a small difference in the overall strength or performance but they get dated pretty fast. This items or rewards are used to give put players in the right spot when it comes to their item strength. This tool usually gives rare or uncommon items to the players. The space between mission rewards usually makes it so players aren’t fully equipped with those items. As they get new items the ones they had get outdated and must be dropped. Usually mission rewards focus on the most important items and try to cycle between them.
Primary items can be thing such as weapons in Wow, secondary chest pieces and tertiary things such as boots, capes or gloves. Once players have cleared a full cycle the weapon they got is now outdated and must be replaced by the new one.
The not so important items are not replaced as often as the important ones so the shops comes into place giving players that bottom line.
Finally we have the rare drops. They serve as rewards for tough challenges. Sometimes this tool gets mixed in with missions but only when it’s hard enough. The most clear example of the usage of this tool are bosses. Bosses represent the ultimate challenge for players in a game and the rewards for killing them is really good loot. Because of the items this tool gives, unique or legendary items, the late game in RPGs focus around them. Games don’t have an infinite amount of progression so there is a point in which players get stuck when it comes to leveling up. Games use strong items to make them even stronger well past the point of getting to max level. Most content in MMORPGs is unlocked once players get to max level because of that reason but this analysis is not about late game content. Some games will also give really good items for discovering secrets but we can think of them as challenges as well.
To sum it all up RPGs use three tools for balancing the strengths of the items players have at any moment. The first tool the game has are the shops to cover the bottom line of progression. The second are missions to put players on a comfortable position when it comes to power level. Finally we have rare drops or rewards for challenges which give players an edge over other players or content in the game. Those tools must be balanced on their own but they make the balancing much easier.
What could be changed
The way this games need to implement features like the shop to take care of the bottom line is a bit dull. The fact that the only way the game has track of the players worst items is by selling them directly to them is, in my opinion, bad. Buying items is not as good as getting them from the world. This is because simply going to a shop and spending money to get a mediocre item doesn’t create stories for the player. Items can be used to tell a story, as seen in the Souls Series. Placing an NPC that sells them in the middle of the village of a certain zone doesn’t help as much as one found in the middle of nowhere. There are many ways. Here I will explain just a few.
The first one would be to give sets as loot. There would be more than one set in each zone and they will have to do with the NPCs and story of the area. Random enemies would drop the set pieces. To make it so the player doesn’t get a lot of repeated pieces the game would take into account the ones they’ve already got. So, let’s put an example. Imagine a zone infested with trolls. Those trolls are killing the villagers and the wildlife so the army has decided to take action. You as a player take part in that conflict by helping the army defeat the trolls. In this case there could be 2 different sets. The first one would be the army set and the second one the troll set. Trolls would drop the two sets as you kill them. Those items would work as the bottom line for the next area. That way if you got all the set you are ready to go to the next zone. To this system the game could add things like upgraded versions of the sets.The upgraded versions of the gear could be given as mission rewards, by killing elite mobs or even in chests. By doing this instead of placing a shop in the hub village the game makes sense of the gear you have and gives a stronger sense of progression. As you advance through the area your character will get more pieces of the set until you look like a badass version of a troll or an army soldier. The game could then add the rest of the items for that zone. Those added items wouldn’t need to be part of the thematic of trolls and soldiers but maybe about the wildlife or some local stories and legends.
Another possible solution could be to use s system similar to the reputation in WoW. It would work like the following: Each time you kill a troll or complete a mission you get reputation points those points give you different ranks in reputation with each faction, in this case the army. The hub village could have a NPC that sells or gives that gear to players with a high enough reputation rank. The game could even have special items for players who kill enough trolls or complete all mission in the area. To have more than one set in an area the game would need more than one faction. Maybe the area we are using as an example has not only the army but a group of scavengers using the conflict to take a profit. The army points could give you points when completing missions and the scavenger by killing the trolls. The scavengers could sell the troll set. To this system the game could add the first one.