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The Social Hub: The Impact of Loot

Column By Christina Gonzalez on September 16, 2013

Hearing people discuss MMO economies, and with many sandbox fans calling for more player-driven systems, I kept thinking about the subject of loot recently. Loot is obviously not just developers throwing players some crap as a prize for slaying some wolves, but part of the greater economy that impacts the community too, from behavior to how much people even interact with one another. Now that several games with subscriptions are making a return (including the just out of the gate Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, WildStar, The Elder Scrolls Online), will that affect loot systems as opposed to the loot in free-to-play games? What considerations should developers listen to when deciding what sorts of loot systems to implement?

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Loot systems vary from game to game, with the age of the game sometimes determining its general type, but not always correlating. Loot generally falls into several types:

  • Mats/Resources you can turn into other things
  • Gear
  • Consumables
  • FFA player loot (not our focus this time around)
  • Gray/trash items

You can further divide Gear into a few subcategories: armor, clothes (without buffs), and maybe PvP gear. In more player-driven economies, loot consists of mainly resources for player trade and crafting. This was more prevalent in the past, but games like Camelot Unchained aim to bring a system like this back. The key is not the loot itself, but the interdependence this kind of system brings to the community. When players craft the items and supply the economy, then there's a certain dependence that causes players to interact, trade, barter, and set goals that include other people more often.

Auction houses and player markets have been the go-to system in most games for some time now, though some games still let players run their own shops or stands. Some say the genre has never recovered from auction houses, markets, and other utility tools like dungeon finders, but they did remove barriers.

So how does free-to-play come into the picture? Granted, cash shops have actually improved, in my opinion, in the past 5-6 years, but the types of items that have been often shifted out into the paid space were things we were used to having before as part of the full game experience. Customization items, recolors, dyes, and skins by virtue of their lack of impact upon game balance, became the things with a price tag. These items are more social than anything. Along with other social infrastructure items, they have been changed or restricted. That said, I have purchased cosmetic items for games expressly for customization. One of the first things I did in Lord of the Rings Online was buy my Hobbit a nicer dress than the patchwork one she wore in early levels. It was white. I dyed it purple.

Yet loot systems in any game with any economic model can have an impact on the community in several ways, and that impact runs in multiple directions. I don't envy the job of developers who have to make sure the game's economy works while still making rules that impact how players will treat one another. Practical reasons and number crunching aside, if you've ever been inspected and kicked from a team just because you weren't wearing the absolute best gear, you might be left feeling the inequity sometimes present in these systems. Skinner Box comparisons, with the idea that there's always something better and better offered as a carrot to keep going, ring true.

Sometimes loot will remain out of reach for any number of reasons. Perhaps it was given out as part of some past event. Maybe you don't have a month to prepare, grind, and then take on a particular challenge before the boss in question goes into hibernation for another six months. Whatever the reason may be, sometimes it's about perception as much as it is reality. If you've ever felt like “everyone” had something you didn't, and that the requirements to get that item eluded you for one reason or another, maybe you've felt that sense of inequity.

Now, I'm not advocating a system where everything is easy, so put the pitchforks down. But perhaps a series of tiers for some items that have a type of timed exclusivity. Make the restrictions to obtain the item looser over time, perhaps, letting others have a shot. This wouldn't work for limited or event items, but the idea is to make players feel special for their accomplishments without alienating others. Some people might favor a complete meritocracy and not care about that. That's fine, and it does make sense, because games are a challenge and offer goals to reach. There's room for those players in the earlier waves, where everything is at a normal or elevated level of challenge. By the time the benchmark has been loosened a tad, there will be more to chase for the hungry.  Toss in a loot and economic system that actually makes players talk to one another to trade or sell their wares, and bring some interdependence back. Having global trade centered upon the fleets or a kiosk on your ship in SWTOR is one bad design that comes to mind (even if I did enjoy the game itself).

There will always be people soloing, but designing a loot system under a broader economy that lets people get together more is a good goal to keep in mind. What games had your favorite loot systems and markets? I'm curious to hear feedback on preferences, perhaps for a revisit of this general topic.

Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her at RTSGuru as the site's Associate Editor and news writer. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez

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