Belly Up To The (Loot) Bar: A Potential New Way Forward For Free MMOs

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor


Since the dawn of time, RPGs have used something akin to real-life “rules” when it comes to loot acquisition: if you kill something or someone, you can take stuff from their corpses. While some games, especially MMOs, have abandoned some of that realism in terms of exactly what you loot – such as getting a sword from a bear – the most basic expectation is that if you kill a thing, you can get a physical item from it: gold, items, body parts, or the like.

Lately, though, a number of MMOs are doing things differently. How it plays out could have major repercussions for how games, especially free-to-play games, are designed in the future.

The “loot bar” system

Instead of simply awarding “drops” from slain enemies, some games use a “loot bar” system that awards a number of points for each kill, or other relevant action, and awards loot when milestones are reached. It's not dissimilar to how experience points are gained and levels are “awarded” when the XP bar is filled. While many games have some aspect of the loot bar system, they're often used as a supplement for other activities rather than as the main means of acquiring loot, but one prominent MMO recently shifted to using it as its primary means of loot acquisition, and another will soon be adding its own version of the system.

Earlier this month, Star Wars: The Old Republic implemented its Galactic Command system as the means by which max-level subscribers would acquire gear. To wit, once you reach max level, you'll gain Command XP for everything you do, and once your Command XP bar is full, you increase your Command Rank and get a randomized box of loot.

Meanwhile, Marvel Heroes is calling its upcoming loot bar Bonus Item Find, or BIF. You'll need to equip boosts that increase your BIF rating for it to function, but when that's the case, you'll fill up your bar based on how big your BIF rating is. When it's full, you'll get a “special loot drop that comes from an exclusive BIF loot table” that is useful to your current hero and his or her level.


In general, people aren't happy with SWTOR's Galactic Command but reactions to Marvel Heroes' BIF are a little more positive, or at least on the level of “let's wait and see how good the loot is.” Galactic Command's major issues are probably that it a) is limited to subscribers, so it essentially costs money, while BIF is available to free players; and b) wholly replaces other means of getting loot, while Marvel Heroes' BIF is, as its name implies, a “bonus.”

Point a) is understandably going to rub people the wrong way. Point b) is the more questionable point, though. I can understand why it wouldn't make sense for an established MMO like SWTOR, where players are used to getting things in a certain way – like getting rare drops from operation (raid) bosses – but I wonder if it could work in an MMO developed that way from the start. In other words, could a loot bar system completely replace standard MMO loot drops?

Why do it?

Why advocate for such a thing? It's because of the frustration you, I, and everyone else gets when the drops just aren't going your way. When you farm an area for hours and never get the rare drop you want from mobs. When you do a five-man dungeon or 20-man raid over and over and never win a roll. The typical drop system is fickle and tied to RNG, while a loot bar system, if done correctly, offers the possibility for a sure reward that's not wholly reliant on luck.

Your “level up” rewards should be non-random, so you always know what you're striving for and won't see all your time and effort “wasted.”

When it comes to the reward you get for “leveling up” your loot bar, SWTOR fails grossly on this level. Even Marvel Heroes, with its promise of an “appropriate” reward for your hero, could provide a less-than-thrilling reward, such as level 32 boots to replace your still-adequate level 31 boots. I think that, for this system to work, your “level up” rewards should be non-random, so you always know what you're striving for and won't see all your time and effort “wasted” with an inadequate reward. Otherwise, you're just trading one RNG system for another.

On the other hand, I agree that there should be some excitement from the possibility of getting a cool random drop. Perhaps you can get smaller, incremental random rewards as you fill up your loot bar, or perhaps you get an additional random reward at the end of your bar in addition to your fixed reward. I think Guild Wars 2 does a good job of this with its reward tracks for PvP and WvW play. You've got a solid reward at the end of your track, with a few mostly randomized bits of loot as you go along. I like the system and wish an MMO would adopt it wholesale.


Already in use

While I've singled out a couple of MMORPGs as games that use, or will soon use, a loot bar system, it should be noted that something similar is already in place in scores of F2P games – nearly all of them PvP. Those types of games rarely have you “loot” enemies – nobody expects to “loot” or “salvage” an enemy they kill in World of Tanks or League of Legends – so their creators probably realized right from the start that they'd need some alternate method for people to progress and get loot. PvP games that have you accumulate XP or currency to unlock new things – skins, new characters, vehicles, upgrades – already use systems similar to loot bars, and they're totally acceptable in that realm. So why hasn't the idea caught on wholeheartedly in more PvE-focused games, like MMORPGs?

Part of the reason is, as mentioned, the belief that you should be able to “loot” a monster that you kill in the game world. Even if you can get past that point of immersion, PvE MMOs have such complex and convoluted payment models and loot tables, having to cover such a wide range of content and activities, that they too often produce something objectionable on other levels – walling off content here, questionable pay-to-win there, oppressive grinds over there – thus making the whole system look bad.

So what if this were the case: Suppose a free-to-play MMORPG had no loot on kills, no loot from doing quests, no loot from dungeons, raids, or PvP. Instead, you filled your loot meter, as appropriate for the challenge – a small amount for killing a random monster, a huge amount for a raid boss. So far, it's similar to SWTOR's Galactic Command.

PvP games that have you accumulate XP or currency to unlock new things – skins, new characters, vehicles, upgrades – already use systems similar to loot bars, and they're totally acceptable in that realm.

However, this would be the base loot system for the game, and thus be free for all players, while probably implementing some mix of fixed and random rewards as described above – both unlike Galactic Command. Monetization would come in the same forms it typically does for PvP games: cosmetics, conveniences like character slots and inventory space, and boosts, most notably boosts to your loot bar XP gain. No content is walled off, no caps on levels or currency, etc., just like a MOBA or FPS. Would that be good enough for you to overcome the loss of “immersion” from not being able to scrounge through a dead monster's pockets? Would it even work financially for the developer? It has for plenty of PvP games.

And maybe this could be a way forward for free-to-play PvE MMOs, which always seem to get more pushback from players with their monetization methods than their PvP counterparts. By reducing the number of “moving parts” in the loot equation and boiling it down to some form of a loot bar, those types of games have largely avoided the anger that Free MMO players have expressed over distasteful things like lockboxes, exclusive cash shop items, paywalls, and general nickel-and-diming.

This isn't to say that those sort of undesirable elements would necessarily go away, of course; it needs to be done right, not like the way Star Wars: The Old Republic is doing it. But the “drop” system for loot is several generations removed from its origins, and, like many other older MMO systems that have evaporated or changed over the years, maybe it's time for it to change.

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor

Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

More Stories by Jason Winter

Discussion (12)

pppoe 7 years ago
I don't think this solution is going to solve a lot.
This is basically a variation of token systems present in games like TERA.
A) It works marvellously.
B) Wait what? Well, it doesn't matter because mmos - especially f2p ones don't have insurmountable walls of grind just because they can't think of something better yet because rng casinos and other addiction based systems aren't there for your enjoyment as much as they're set up to milk players for money. Statistics on players reactions are used to find the point where players are frustrated enough to quit and then the system is set to push players towards that point without crossing it as it effectively makes players drop money for more rng boxes etc. as well as artificially stretches out the game covering it's lack of content. So with that in mind even if a token/bar based system is put in the game to fix the core of the experience - nothing stops devs and publishers from tweaking it to bare minimum required and putting a wall of rng boxes and other shenanigans to pad out remaining (lack) of content as well as their pockets (again just like in TERA's example).
And so your solution would first have to address that to make it work in the long run.

Ghestly 7 years ago
@meatbag Yes there were no auction house, if you were lucky you could get shout from hero :D good old days, sometime its good to get nostalgic.

tolshortte 7 years ago
my idea for loot, which I thought up years ago, was to implement a token system of some kind., but points work just as well. just have them not tradable as normal currency but can buy your gear, gems, sockets, etc with. loot treadmill not providing enough content to have players continue on to earn those points? np. simply make skins, mounts, and gear addons purchasable too!! include crafting recipes and mats and the grind becomes endless for those interested in those activities. no one is upset they didn't get what they wanted and there is still plenty of things to use those points on once they have all of their gear!! as an added bonus to really sell the idea, include "level tokens" that can be sold on the AH and/or used on alts to limit the leveling process which has come under scrutiny as of late.

of course this was before the massive f2p takeover, but its still viable. you can sell "point potions" on top of the cosmetic stuff outright as a way to bring in cash while still allowing some things to be obtained in game which as we know makes players happy.

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Merkadis 7 years ago
Nonsense for browser based sh!t, is what this system is, sounds like an incredible bore to me.

Best pve loot i remember was in ol' Lineage2, you could simply go kill agro mobs in order to clear way as you go somewhere else and drop something incredibly valuable while doing so, by sheer accident/luck.

That, was actually fun.
The crafting system back then was fun too, items required a whole lot of items and you could go and farm ALL of them.

Compared to today... mmos seem to degrade more and more as time goes by, turning into games that play themselves.... disgusting.

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