As MMO gamers, we’re conditioned to expect a handful of specific tropes in our favorite genre. When a new game hits the shelves, we’re certain to line it up against a series of checkboxes to determine if it represents our cultured interests. For some, that means an MMORPG has to have a solid character progression system and an open world worth interacting with and exploring. For others, a new game had better incorporate community-dependent features like crafting, a player economy, or a fully realized PvP system. Furthermore, most all of these hallmarks of the MMO genre are reliant upon one of the oldest RPG tropes: loot.
No matter the subgenre, we’ve come to expect MMO developers to handle loot in a specific way that allows us to pursue a persuasive gear treadmill throughout the character progression process and especially at the level cap. Whether it be fantasy (The Lord of the Rings Online), science fiction (PlanetSide 2), modern (The Secret World), or superhero (Marvel Heroes), we’re looking for items, weapons, armor, and more goodies to (sometimes literally) explode off of mobs as we tear our way through content. It’s a satisfying feeling to get a shiny new piece of gear after some dedicated adventuring, and there’s a little addictive dopamine rush that goes along with seeing loot pile up after every successful battle.
Having recently gotten back into playing Marvel Heroes, I’ve been questioning some of the design decisions that have gone into that game’s loot system. If you’ve played Gazillion Entertainment’s Marvel-based MMO, which is inspired by lootfests like Diablo (itself co-created by Gazillion CEO David Brevik), you’ll know that the game employs an action RPG-style approach to loot acquisition and management. Yet, Diablo, Titan Quest, Torchlight, and the like allow you to revel in the overabundance of loot that you get from monsters and marvel (heh) at the way new items look on your character. Marvel Heroes, which runs into the issue of wanting you to look like iconic superheroes and not some mishmash of unrelated weaponry, allows you to equip new items but without any cosmetic difference.
I have no problem telling you that inventory management is my least favorite activity in MMOs, coming second only to grinding reputation. The inventory system in Marvel Heroes is not particularly streamlined, and the prospect of having a backpack full of identical Wolverine claws that have varying stats is not appealing to me. Of course, I have to go through my inventory fairly regularly because of the sheer amount of items that I pick up throughout each mission, but it becomes such a chore that I’ve started ignoring loot that isn’t of a certain quality. Furthermore, I know that the game’s free-to-play monetization model is contingent upon selling costumes that will allow your character to have a different look, which makes the promise of undifferentiated loot that much less alluring.
The process of item acquisition and management in Marvel Heroes has got me thinking about loot in the game as a whole, with the question on my mind being, does loot in Marvel Heroes matter? It’s certainly required, in the way that you’ll need to get better loot as you level up to take on harder missions, and so on. But part of the joy in collecting loot is seeing it on your character, showing it off to your guildmates, and taking screenshots and posting them on GroupMe (don’t judge me). Not being able to differentiate between your old +1 Spider-Man Boots of Web-Thwipping and your new +2 Spider-Man Sneakers of MJ-Kissing is kind of a bummer, and not much mitigated by the fact that you can just buy a new costume in the in-game store.
This scenario begs the larger question, does loot in any MMO matter? I don’t mean to ask this in an existential, why-do-we-play-video-games sort of way, but more in a design capacity. What role does loot play, and what benefit does it bring to the core gaming experience that isn’t served by different types of character progression? From a purely mercenary, capitalistic perspective, it certainly provides a treadmill to keep players engaged, particularly past a game’s level cap. It also serves as an easy reward structure for adventuring, raiding, PvPing, and other activities. Yet, it could be argued that other incentives would work just as nicely, such as character advancement perks or unlocking new content.
There’s no doubt that the act of discovering and collecting new loot is itself a fun activity, in much the same way that opening a booster pack for Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone can make you salivate in Pavlovian anticipation. If new items were only doled out as part of leveling milestones, as some games have embraced as part of larger loot systems, there would be something missing from the sense of wonder and exploration that only MMOs and RPGs can offer. An MMORPG like Marvel Heroes, because of its action RPG pedigree, requires some kind of loot system to remain engaging in the same vein as the lootfests that preceded it. Perhaps it justs needs a different system that makes the loot discovery and itemization feel more meaningful.
I’m interested in hearing what you think about loot in MMORPGs, especially because I really have no interest in inventory management, but I know there are people out there who do. Does loot matter to you in MMOs and RPGs, and what purpose does it serve for you? And for the love of all that is good about well-designed user interfaces, do you like inventory management?