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 F2P 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.