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Improving Random Loot Drops

But what if, instead of completely random loot, the drop percentage for the item was based on how many times the player had killed the creature that drops it?

World of Warcraft and I have this silly relationship, wherein I quit after playing for a few months, only to come back months later when something interesting happens. The third expansion, Cataclysm, will be released soon, so I recently started playing again to get my characters ready for all the changes the expansion will bring.

It so happens that I started playing again just as the yearly Halloween event was going on. The OCD player that I am wouldn't allow me to ignore it, so I started doing all the quests and farming for achievements that lead up to fulfilling the requirements of the event.

Everything I do, even time-wasting things like WoW, leads me to stop and consider how I could make it better – more fun, more efficient, etc. Many of my posts stem from hope of improvements to existing things, and this post is no different.

You see, many of the achievements needed to complete the Halloween event in World of Warcraft are based on random chance. You can "trick or treat" NPC's in the game every hour, with a random chance of getting the item you need in order to complete the event. There's no skill involved and no guarantee that you'll get the item you need because of the way statistics work.

Of course, random item drops in video games, especially MMOs, are not limited to WoW. Every MMO has them in some form, and even many other types of games have them as well. The random loot is part of the game – it's built into the design, and many see it as a consequence of this genre.

However, random loot can be frustrating, even causing burnout in some players. Obviously, if a player stops playing the game because the loot system is frustrating, especially when that means the player stops playing a subscription fee or decides to abandon the franchise and not buy future titles – this is a important issue that must be solved, or at the very least, an opportunity for improvement.

I'd like to propose a better way. Certainly, with all the ideas out there someone has thought of this before – most likely I'm not the first. But that doesn't mean we can't talk about it anyway.

Random Loot is Random...But It Shouldn't Be

Random loot should be less random the more times a player tries to get it. Let me explain. And please note first that I am using World of Warcraft as an example, but this idea should be applicable, at the very least to all MMOs, and possibly single player games as well.

Anyway, so let's start with a rare item in WoW, the Deviate Hatchling. This item is a noncombat pet for players, which basically means it's an item that players can get to summon a small creature to follow them around and look adorable. The item is also exceedingly rare – according to, the item has a drop rate of 0.2% or 1 in 500. Or course, because of the way statistics work, players can actually get the Deviate Hatchling on the first try or the 10,000th.

Now, the player who receives the Deviate Hatchling on the first try is unlikely going to have any issue with the random loot philosophy. However, the player who receives the Deviate Hatchling on the 10,000th try is either pulling his hair out, quitting the game, or enjoys mindless grinding while relaxing and listening to audiobooks. We can hope all players are the latter, but they're more likely to be the former.

But what if, instead of completely random loot, the drop percentage for the item was based on how many times the player had killed the creature that drops it? What if each time the player killed the creature without receiving the item, the drop percentage increased for that player?

For instance, say that although the Deviate Hatchling drops at 1 in 500 on the first try, the chances increase with each kill, until the player receives the item: 1 in 500, 1 in 250, 1 in 125, 1 in 62.5, 1 in 31.25, 1 in 15.625, 1 in 7.8125, 1 in 3.90625, etc.

Of course, the progression doesn't have to be that fast. It doesn't have to double every single kill. Certainly, doubling the chances each time is perhaps a bit excessive, but I wanted to illustrate the point. In the case of the deviate hatchling, even adding (rather than multiplying) 0.1 to the drop rate each time until the drop rate reaches 100 percent means that a player will always get the item within 500 kills, and much likely much sooner.

Drop Percentage Should Reset

So that's the idea – let's talk about some of the implications. First, it's immediately obvious that the drop percentage needs to be reset once the player receives the item. Since many of the rare items are very valuable to players, they sell for exorbitant amounts of in-game currency.  If the drop percentage of an item didn't reset, a player could simply get as many items she wanted once the percentage became very high or maxed out. Instead, once a player receives the item, the item should drop to its original drop percentage. While there will still be more items introduced into the economy this way than by the current method, the effect will be lessened and will not benefit any specific player over another.

Limit the Number of Items

Second, it's also important to think about the costs of running the game. Keeping a running percentage variable for every player for every item in the game, especially for a game with millions of players and hundreds of thousands of items, would practically double of the storage costs of the game company. This is a nontrivial amount of cost, so this aspect needs to be addressed.

First and foremost, not every item in the game must be tracked in this way – only rarely items. Anything with over a 25% percent drop rate shouldn't need increasing drop rates – the item isn't rare anyway. That cuts the numbers down considerably, to only a few thousand rare items. It's possible now that the extra storage needed is feasible with the current setup. However, if it isn't, I propose another system: let the player choose which items she is working on at any given moment, and limit the number of items that can be tracked.

If a player is allowed to track and increase the drop rate on only five items, storage costs are comparatively nothing, especially with how many other variables are being tracked for each character in the game. However, for the player, five items currently being pursued at any one time is probably enough to dramatically increase player enjoyment when searching for these items.

Item Tracking – Hidden or Transparent?

Now, this tracking can be transparent or hidden to the player, but I suggest transparent. If hidden, the game would simply keep track of the last five or so rare items on the creatures the player is currently killing and up the drop rates for those items as the player continues to kill them – if the player moves on to new creatures with new types of items, progress on the previous items is lost.

However, I believe that a small tracking window in the UI should allow players to specify what rare items they are currently pursing and even see the progress they are making on that item – the drop rate should be transparent and dynamic as they kill more creatures. This would allow players to see the progression, increase anticipation, and also allow players to feel as though they are more in control of their own play experience. Of course, finding a lore-based reason for tracking these items (a new secondary skill, a magic power, a special ability, etc.) could also be used to explain this ability to players.

Now, an easy objection to this system is that it takes away the mystery of killing a creature if you know what it drops. Loot should be a surprise, you say. Perhaps. However, this notion doesn't take into account the various meta-game influences that outside factors have on the game. Websites like Wowhead, Thottbot, and Wowwiki have catalogued the entire game already. Any item the player wishes to find an item need only search the database. There are also in-game user interface modifications that display loot from any type of creature in the game. In fact, Blizzard, the creator of the game, is planning on inserting this type of information, albeit in a limited fashion, in a future patch. My point is, this information is already available for a player who wants it – making the information easily accessible in the game only makes the information more convenient for players, increasing game enjoyment.

Reposted from my personal site:

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