Why Boss Drops Are a Good Mechanic

Over the past couple of months, I have watched the Turbine crew prepare Lord of the Rings Online for its shift to becoming a free-to-play game. Although there are many new and changed features one could talk about, I’d like to focus attention on the scaled instances and their rewards.

The developers have taken the original instances, both fellowship and raid content, and transformed them into scaleable dungeons. This means that a level 65 can go back and play through the Great Barrows, but at a level suitable to his or her ability. It may sound somewhat similar to the Heroic dungeons system in World of Warcraft, and it is to an extent. As WoW has a currency that drops from heroic dungeons, so does LOTRO. But, as WoW has specific gear available from each heroic boss on top of the currency rewards, LOTRO does not.

LOTRO Skirmish Mark

This play-for-currency system has been in place since the last expansion Siege of Mirkwood when the skirmish system was released. A player can instantly enter into a scripted instance, typically only about 20 minutes long, with friends or alone, and acquire Skirmish Marks of varying levels depending on difficulty and size. The Marks can then be bartered with a vendor for a myriad of items, both cosmetic and combat.

The play-for-currency design is simple and easy to manage for both developers and players. Bag space is already limited, so instead of making characters loot along the way, one just gives them a currency type and lets them buy what they want. It’s like getting Gift Cards at Christmas instead of big, shiny boxes (full of unwanted crap).

However, with the new Free-to-Play system, Classic instances are going into this play-for-currency scheme as well. I can run a 24-man raid and not see any drops from the boss. As long as I do it enough times, I’ll get to pick what gear I want and be happy.

At first glance, the system seems flawless. No one has to grind for their gear. No one has to design multiple loot tables for different levels (since the instance can be scaled). No one has to do anything hard.

As old school as I may be, I’m not going to champion “hard” meaning endless grind as the best, or as the “good old days”. However, I do want to make case for boss loot tables and random drops.

I remember being a fresh 60 in World of Warcraft, now some 5 years ago. At the time, one ran dungeons to get the first tier of gear. For me, it was the Wildheart set. Even now, I distinctly remember the 17 runs it took to get my shoulder piece. It dropped in Lower Blackrock Spire from Gizrul, one of the wolves. I remember the anticipation of that hallway coming up to the boss room. Would they drop this time? Would my search be over? Would I have to run this yet again? I remember the way Halycon looked running into the room. I remember the feeling I had when they finally dropped. So much happiness and satisfaction. And 17 runs was nothing. Some people ran many, many more. This isn’t to say that huge loot tables with low droprates are the way to go. It’s really just the other extreme of loot acquisition.

And yet, five years later, I remember that piece of gear and I remember its history. Each piece of armor in these games can be a kind of cultural artifact. It has memories and emotions associated with it that relive events and recapture feelings of success and fulfillment. The history wrapped up in each piece makes it unique, despite the fact it has the same graphics and stats as every other one with its name.

Items I buy from the skirmish vendor do not have that. All they remind me of is some anonymous number of random skirmishes, none of which stand out. Same with Frost Badges in World of Warcraft, the current type of gear currency. I bought a piece of gear with them – it means nothing. It’s a piece I wear because it’s the best for that slot but it doesn’t give me any happy thoughts. It doesn’t make me proud. It shows nothing about my character except the fact I ran a bunch of random dungeons like everybody else. It doesn’t provoke questions of, “How many times did it take you?” or “Wow, I really want that piece!” It’s meaningless.

Despite these drastic differences between items that can be bought and items that drop, I recognize the need for a gear currency system. In WoW, it allows new 80s to gear up quickly to be able to participate with everyone else. I also recognize the intent behind the skirmish system – it makes it a hell of a lot easier to manage instance scaling and the many items associated with skirmishes, not to mention skirmish soldiers. But it also makes it a hell of a lot easier to forget. Adding this currency system into the classic instances while completely removing the random loot tables makes the experiences less profound. It is a still a beautiful place and still a challenging fight, but part of the reward is missing.

Ding! Level up!

Part of the way MMOs work is by giving a player a task and then rewarding them. The fun is in the dynamic of anticipation and fulfillment. Yes, sometimes it feels like a grind, but we do it, because at the end it feels worth it. (If it doesn’t, the balance is off.) Players who focus too much on the grind and ignore the rest of the risk/reward mechanic fail to understand the actual fun of the game.

It isn’t too much to ask that quests be inventive and fun, but failing to acknowledge that a substantial portion of the fun comes from achieving levels, skill points, and gear is failing to understand the genre. Without a balance between risk and reward, with risk being calculated often in time and difficulty, the genre becomes boring, a themepark, too easy, dumbed down, etc.

Instances that only reward gear currency feel like a grind without the reward. Instead of having the reward closely associated with the pursuit, such as the Wildheart Spaulders being only available from Gizrul, the reward becomes detached from the effort in the player’s mind. This makes both the reward feel less rewarding and the effort less fulfilling. Further, players become less invested in the instance they are running. It becomes a mindless dungeon crawl they’ve done a thousand times. Nothing different will happen this time – just a few more marks to spend.

I look forward to running old instances again, but I know I won’t do it for long because it will feel like a grind without a reward.

14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Longasc
    Aug 11, 2010 @ 18:20:50

    I do not know if there will be rare drops, or just marks/badges of the one of the other kind.

    This does not only apply to LOTRO, there are many games that have fallen victim to BADGERISM.

    Badgerism is the communist distribution of gear for your input of work. ;) It was meant to give players a chance to get good gear without having to rely on a x-y % cance drop. This is what badge systems do really well.

    But if they are the only means to acquire gear, things get stale, predictable, WORK… Star Trek Online did that in Season 1. All purple gear was there for certain daily quests. So you could calculate how often you had to do your daily, ideally daily, to get your gear.

    Season 2 features chances for mobs/ships and certain mission rewards for fleet actions to be rare stuff of high quality. The somewhat revised badge system still stays, but it is not the only source of quality loot anymore.

    Why no hybrid system for LOTRO? It retains the strengths of the lucky drop and some convenience reward for the unlucky suckers.

    I am afraid they are going a bit over board with the Skirmish System, we already have legendary item attribute scroll grinds incorporated in the Skirmish System, which somewhat turned me off already late 2009.

    I think some revisions of the Skirmish system are necessary, otherwise people will farm skirmishes by efficiency and rob themselves of all fun in the work process to acquire new gear. Just like farming the Swordhalls over and over for radiance gear.

    Reply

  2. DocHoliday
    Aug 11, 2010 @ 18:48:38

    I think the key here is the skirmish system for the re-vamped instances are only for the older instances. The current Mirkwood instances still will have their unique drops and I believe it will continue in this fashion. Meaning that the current end-game content will still have unique drops but once they go through the scaling process they will be converted to skirmish rewards.

    Reply

    • Noel Ang
      Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:17:07

      This is not the case. Any instances that receiving the scaling treatment lose their unique drops. There’s a thread in the Beta forums that speak to this. A Turbine developer/rep has confirmed it.

      Reply

    • Noel Ang
      Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:23:28

      … And I need to learn to read. Sorry about that.

      Reply

      • DocHoliday
        Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:26:20

        No worries, the way I understand it is that current and new content will still have unique drops. But once we pass that content and need to scale those instances to another level cap then they’ll lose their unique drops.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m bummed there’s not a level 65 Coldbear Axe but I can’t imagine the amount of work it would take to scale all that gear :)

      • Adarel
        Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:40:25

        They are redoing mechanics for the fights. Compared to that, making loot tables should be less work. Seeing as almost everyone has the same gear now, it would be really nice to have legitimate choices in gear that are of the same level statwise and that give me different goals for different characters. Further, it seems they could have a loot-table for every 5 levels instead of every one. Work, yes, but worth it I think.

  3. Adarel
    Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:25:42

    Even the unique drops of current content are imbalanced. Otherwise, people would not run Sword Halls over and over and over again, never stepping foot in the other 3-mans, in order to get their radiance gear – through the token system.

    Reply

    • DocHoliday
      Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:27:29

      Very true – but I did find out there’s a pretty snazzy tactical cloak from Warg Pens so I’m wondering if there are other drops that people just don’t know about since they’re mainly doing SH and SG.

      Reply

  4. Noel Ang
    Aug 11, 2010 @ 19:38:03

    Agreed, absolutely. I’m burnt out on skirmishes. Incremental reward is appealing for low-hanging fruit, but big-ticket items that take dozens of runs is mind-numbing.

    Now I will have to do the same activity with instances. Reward badges/tokens have begun to blur. Now venues will, too.

    And grinding at your own pace is not a valid argument, not when it concerns group content. If you wait too long you will be left behind. Aggregate focus moves on. If you miss the bus, you’ll have to wait for the next wave.

    Unique loot also contributes to the personality of instances.

    Turbine seems hell bent on converging all its loot systems to bartering structures. I’m sure from a development standpoint it’s seductively expedient. I’m very concerned where this is all going. I think there’s a fixation with content reusability. But that’s a technical trick, and the price for that accomplishment is the death of personality and artistry.

    Reply

  5. DocHoliday
    Aug 11, 2010 @ 20:06:43

    I will agree with you guys (Noel and Adarel) if they change existing content to this methodology.

    However, the initial rollout there will have numerous instances to farm for the radiance armor and numerous instances to farm for the unique drops. Some of those overlap but others are just single purpose for Armor (or mark rewards). There seems to be a combination of randomness and known grinds, now some may argue it is too far skewed in one direction, but at least there are options.

    I look at this as a good first step towards the current itemization issues in LOTRO as we now will have various Radiance armor sets to choose from, which for me was a HUGE issue. Step 2 will be on the rest of the items in the game and I think that’s where these unique drops really come into play.

    Reply

  6. Scott
    Aug 12, 2010 @ 13:29:53

    I’m fine with the system as long as, as Doc has said, they keep a few drop-only items in the current top-tier dungeons and raids then later when that content is no longer top-tier, retrofit it with the scaling system. It at least keeps content in play rather than forgetting about it unless you’re extremely lucky while leveling an alt and get a group. Unfortunately MMO’s (and LOTRO is no exception) have thus far taught us to only do activities that most efficiently upgrade our character; the idea of “fun” seems to be an afterthought.

    Reply

  7. Padyndas
    Aug 12, 2010 @ 13:40:47

    I agree with you to a certain extent. However, to me it is actually more daunting with the schedule I have, to think I would have to run an instance some unknown amount of times to possible get a loot drop. I’m okay with having this feature in an instance but I don’t see why there cannot be a combination of these things. Currency for certain items and for even more rare items there could be drops. It would not have to be drops on every level an instance can be run but rather just a possible drop from the highest level instance that it can be run at.

    Another thing that needs to be addressed as far as the currency system is space. There are far too many different types of marks and this will just add to it. There really needs to be a currency bag that is specifically just for currency.

    Reply

  8. Pung
    Aug 17, 2010 @ 12:42:33

    5 years ago at reaching level 60? Is it so long ago? o.O

    Come to think of it, it does feel quite long ago, wahahaha. :D

    Yea i remember going through LBRS numerous times with my fellow warrior friend Vanguard and NingNing so we can both get our blue warrior set, shoulders I think too. It was great fun and hilarious cos we ran it so many times, trying to 3 man a 5 men instance, 2 warriors and a priest. Think we probably wiped a lot too. xD

    Doesn’t feel quite the same with a badge system. Nothing like a little good old element of chance to set the heart racing. Never did see that mythical <1% mount drop from the Baron at Strat on SC too. o.O

    Hope you're doing great Ada. I miss you guys wherever you may all be now. :)

    Reply

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