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Loot Pinata Making 101

Loot design is an important piece for any ARPG. Today's post looks at some guidelines and how three very different ARPGs made use of them.

With the release of Borderlands 2 only a few weeks away, I decided to replay the first one, which was one of my favorite games from the last decade. Even at the early game, the sense of value in the loot already feels more refined then it did in Diablo 3. The same I could say about relating the game: Path of Exile to Diablo 3. Looking at these three games closely, each one uses randomization and loot tables to dictate item generation. But there are some elements that make Borderlands and Path of Exile's loot more meaningful compared to Diablo 3.

(Note: Borderlands has additional loot in the form of shields and grenades, each with their own series of attributes and effects. To keep this post focused, I'm going to ignore them and focus on the guns and modifiers.

Consistent Purpose of Attributes:

Each game relies on growth to show both the character's development and the progression of new loot. No one wants to use the same piece of gear for hours on end with exception to rarer items. Each one features a different set of attributes that are tied to the overall progression of loot and character development.

For Diablo 3 there are:

• Strength
• Dexterity
• Intelligence
• Vitality

In Path of Exile there are:

Strength
• Dexterity
• Intelligence

Borderlands, being a role playing shooter, doesn't have any character attributes. Instead every weapon in the game is built on 4 attributes:

• Bullet Damage
• Accuracy
• Firing Rate
• Ammo Capacity

Looking at each title, we can see where they differ and how it affects the decision behind loot. In Diablo 3, while they are 4 attributes, only two are important to each individual class: the primary attribute and vitality. The reason is that the primary attribute affects both damage potential and the defenses of the character.

 

                                             Path of Exile

If we look at Path of Exile, even though there are only three attributes, each one has a purpose regardless of the class. Besides being a gear prerequisite and improving skills, each stat has a dual purpose in terms of character development. For example: Increasing Strength will affect both the character's health pool and the amount of damage the player can do with physical attacks.

Lastly with Borderlands, every attribute has a value to the weapon and a choice for the player to make. Do I take a gun that does 100 points of damage, but shoots one bullet at a time? Or a gun that does 25 points of damage but shoots four times faster than the previous? Throw in ammo capacity and accuracy and the idea of a "perfect choice" becomes blurred.

As you play any of the three games, you're going to amass a lot of loot, but the amount of actual choices is different. In Diablo 3, there are a lot of false choices, as loot that doesn't have bonuses to your primary attribute or vitality won't help improve your character. But in the other two games, the attribute's purpose remains the same regardless of the item and the character, giving the player more options to decide from.

In my Diablo 3 analysis I suggested that the designers should have gave every attribute some kind of meaningful value to every class. That way it would open up choices to the player and make the search for loot, not so dry. The other angle of loot generation is in the use of modifiers: Special affects or bonuses that can be attached to loot. Once again, the design of the modifiers has a huge affect on loot generation.

Masterful Modifiers:

Modifiers in loot generation are meant to be game changers, as their purpose is to raise the value and lifetime of wearing a piece of gear, while offering the player more choices. The more varied the modifiers are in game, is usually better. However, quality can be just as, if not more important than quantity.

In Diablo 3, there are a lot of modifiers, which we can separate into three groups: universal, item specific and class specific. Universal modifiers are ones that can appear on any item, such as: bonuses to specific attributes. Item specific are ones that are exclusive to certain pieces of equipment such as: "increase movement speed" on boots. Lastly, class specific affect either the specific resource pool of the class, or skills and are restricted largely to class specific gear ( I have seen some of these modifiers on regular gear, but few in far between.)

The problem with Diablo 3 is how there are so many modifiers that are useless in the grand scheme of things. The different types of elemental effects are negligible and lack the specific bonuses seen in Diablo 2. The other reason is that modifiers around special effects like “freezing" or “cause enemy to flee" have their chance to happen so low, that it's impossible to build your character around them to use them effectively without focusing on the Auction House.

 Only a few of the modifiers are really important for surviving in Diablo 3: + primary attribute, life on hit, resist all, + vitality. While magic find is only useful when the player has to farm areas repeatedly.

Class specific modifiers fall into the same problem of having their bonuses so low and hard to find one that is applicable to the player, that you can't build your character around them. In Diablo 2, the chance of finding class specific loot was far greater, with rarer items having multiple class specific bonuses. Another major negative to Diablo 3, is how class specific gear, more times than not, have bonuses to attributes other then the primary attached, further downplaying their importance.

In order for modifiers to work, they must have a purpose and noticeable effect on the character. Path of Exile has weapon modifiers (which will be discussed in the next section) and a variety of universal modifiers. Unlike Diablo 3, elemental affects have major in game uses: ice has a chance to freeze enemies; lightning can cause enemies to take more damage for a few seconds, etc. Path of Exile takes things a step further with every piece of gear, having a randomized set of sockets attached to them. These sockets are used in combination with the skill gem system for equipping and enhancing skills for the character.

 

                                          Borderlands' weapon description

Borderlands has the least number of modifiers of the three, but that doesn't make them any less important. Weapons can have modifiers in the form of positive and negative effects, while rarer weapons can have special effects, such as a shotgun rocket launcher. One of the most useful effects is whether or not a weapon has a scope attached, as a scope can get around a weapon with a default low accuracy rating.

Borderlands does have elemental effects with each one built around a strategic decision. For instance: electrical based attacks do massive damage against shields, but not so much against armor, with the opposite being true for corrosive damage. The important part is that each one becomes an important choice for the player: "Do I take a weaker weapon, but one that has an elemental affect over one that has a higher base damage?"

Differentiating Weapons

Finally, the more varied the weapons are from each other, not only gives the game more flavor, but it also increases the choices for the player.

This is an area that Diablo 3 is the weakest at. Because the primary attribute factors so much into character growth, the weapons themselves are homogenize because of it. For instance, a dagger could be stronger than a two handed battle axe. Instead of offering choices to the player, there is no discernible difference between each weapon class.

The Path of Exile team came up with an interesting solution. Each weapon class has base values associated to it that grow with each new version of it. A dagger for example will not do anywhere near the same base damage as a 2 handed club of comparative level. The other factor is that every weapon class comes with a modifier regardless of its rarity. As an example: clubs always have a higher stun chance, while claws will drain the enemies’ health and give it back to the player.

Not only does this give each weapon personality, but it becomes a factor in how the player builds their character. The weapon also affects what skill gems can be used, as certain special abilities can only be used with specific weapon classes.

Borderlands is one of my favorites in this regard, due to how the developers added personality by integrating the setting of the game. As in Path of Exile, each weapon class has a base set of attribute values. A shotgun will never be as accurate as a sniper rifle, or a SMG will not do as much damage in one bullet compared to a Rocket Launcher for instance.

Each class has proficiencies in several weapon types, but the player is free to use any of the weapons that they find. The developers took this concept of fleshing out the weapon types further with the use of gun manufacturers.

In the Borderlands universe, there are several powerful mega corporations, with each one having their own weapons line. Each weapon manufacturer had a different philosophy on weapon design which is factored into their weapons. One company specialized in elemental damage, and every one of their guns will have an elemental modifier. While another one is all about damage, and their guns have the highest base damage rate, but usually at the expense of something else.

Of the three games mentioned, the weapons in Borderlands easily have the most personality of the three. Making the choice of what is the "best weapon" never easy. And when that choice is not clear cut, it makes every new weapon, or the opening of a treasure chest, even more exciting.

An action RPG without great loot can make it feel like half the game is missing. And the search for a cooler gun, or a shiner sword can be all the motivation needed to wade through dungeons and the armies of evil.

Josh Bycer

reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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