Last month, I posted a bit about the concept of risk in MMOs and the conclusion I came up with is that most modern themepark MMOs have sanitized their gameplay such that risk is no longer a factor. I feel that risk is an intriguing design element and that without it, our MMOs are less than they could be. In this article, I am going to talk about a traditional MMO death penalty that has been abandoned in most modern games, Losing Your Cool Stuff.
Of course, the most extreme example of this penalty is the Full Loot/Corpse Run — you die and everything you own is left on your corpse. You might have a window where only you can loot your corpse, or if the game is “full loot”, then your corpse is fair game. This is the death penalty of old-school, “hardcore” games like Ultima Online, Everquest and more recently, Vanguard and Darkfall. I understand why people don’t like corpse runs. You play through dozens of quests and instances to get great gear, only to die in the middle of a lava pit and have to sit naked and forlorn, staring at your unreachable corpse as the timer runs down and your precious items vanish. Full loot is even worse because almost every death brings with it the loss of your good stuff — and most players hate losing their stuff.
The Drop Chance System
This is a simple tweak to the full loot idea. When you die, instead of dropping all of your items on your corpse, each item has a small percentage chance that it drops — say between 2 and 5 percent. When an item drops, it will either stay on your corpse, to be possibly looted by players, or it will appear in the inventory of the monster that killed you. Most of the time, players will be able to shrug off death, having lost nothing, or only trivial items. However, every so often, death will mean the loss of a powerful weapon or armor and the player will have to decide whether it is worth the effort to get it back.
One of the problems you see in full-loot games is that items lose a lot of their value. You might own a powerful sword, but because the chance of losing it is so high, you never take it out of the bank. At this point, though the sword might be worth quite a bit of in-game currency, it isn’t in play and thus becomes pointless. If you want a game with lots of important, powerful gear, full-loot probably isn’t the way to go. Darkfall is a good example of this. Gear is important in the sense that it makes a difference in combat, but it is all expendable (and consumable) and so no specific piece of gear is interesting.
By making item loss possible, we add an element of risk. By making item loss rare, we increase the expected return of a player equipping his best gear. If there is only a 2% chance of losing the Greatsword of Doom and it increases your combat abilities by 20%, that is a pretty good bet that most players will be willing to make. We get our element of risk, but still get more gear, and more interesting gear, into the game.
Let’s take a look at some other ramifications and possibilities of this system.
Spicing Up Loot Tables: If you die to a mob, any items lost will be found on the inventory of that creature when you kill it. This gives players a chance to get their gear back, if they are so inclined, but also means that any mob kill has a chance to turn up some unexpected gear dropped by another hapless player. I like the idea of killing a wandering goblin and finding he just killed an unfortunate adventurer to the tune of a couple hundred gold and a nice sword.
Spicing Up the Monsters: Take that one step further and actually give the creature the benefits of any items he takes from players. I would mark these creatures in some way (ideally by putting the armor/weapon model on them) to show players these creatures are enhanced, but carry more loot than usual. You would have to limit this to humanoids, or just accept that this is a little goofy — how would a raging boar wield a sword? Still, imagine coming across a goblin in the wilderness and jumping him, only to find that he is wielding a wand of fire, or going up against a giant ogre boss when you know he just wiped the previous group and snatched a particularly powerful mace… but man do you want that mace!
Unique Items: One possibility I find very intriguing is that this system would allow the inclusion of powerful unique items in the game. These artifacts would be more powerful than similar items of their level, or have unique effects, but would have much larger drop chances. They are worth seeking out and owning, but you know that you won’t keep them for very long. Sooner or later, you will die and the item will pass on to the next owner.
Spicing Up the Economy: Part of the game’s economy could be focused around drop chance. Because the drop chance is low, I think people will be more willing to use (and lose) cooler stuff. However, because the chance to lose your good gear is there, most people will have backup sets. These sets will have to be looted, bought or crafted and I think a viable economy would exist for “second-tier” items. Crafted “second-tier” items would be even more in demand if you made the drop chance for crafted gear lower than that of looted gear.
A possible variation of this system is that drop chances could start low, but then increase as the player died. Certain classes or crafters could have access to enchants or buffs that lowered the drop chance. An economy would certainly spring up around these enchants as people tried to protect their best pieces of equipment.
Tying Risk to Reward: You could make certain areas of the game increase the base drop chance of the items of anyone who dies there. Increasing the drop chance increases the risk, because players who die have a higher chance of losing items. However, the rewards in that reason would be increased, either because the designers put the best stuff there, or just because all the monsters you are facing are likely to be carrying player gear. Dungeons could have the absolute best rewards, but only if you were willing to brave a greatly increased chance of dropping your best items.
So that’s the idea… If I were to be creating an MMO, I would consider a drop chance system as a compromise between a hardcore risk system like full loot and a no risk system like durability loss. Still, there are other ways to inject risk into a traditional themepark game and we will explore another one of those next post. Until then, I hope you have some questions, comments or ideas of your own. I would love to hear them.