Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

26 October, 2006

Useless features
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:08 PM

Ryan Shwayder wrote a bit on his blog about WYSIWYGn’t Loot. He argues that if you see it on a monster, it should drop in the loot when the monster dies. It’s rewarding and fun, after all.

Of course, he realizes that there are some problems with this. So, he talks about how to make it so that tons of loot that would likely drop won’t bog down the economy, primarily by making most items worthless. Of course, he doesn’t consider the impact of this behavior on the technical side.

So, let’s talk about why some ideas, like this one, aren’t implemented in current games.

I talked a bit about this before in a post about, “That’s not very realistic!” talking about use-based systems and how people optimize their gameplay at the expense of “realism” in use-based systems. The assassin skipping along collecting flowers is doing what is necessary to advance. It may be more realistic for said assassin to skulk along at night looking for mushrooms under logs in a swamp, but that isn’t as much fun: it’s hard to see at night and you could be eaten by a grue (or the Oblivion equivalent). And, ignoring certain plants because they aren’t “assassin” enough for you means your alchemy skill (needed to brew those vile poisons) will go up much slower.

But, why is that assassin skipping through the meadows picking flowers instead of doing more assassin-like thing? Because the player is playing a game, not necessarily living in the world. (We start to see shades of the “game” vs. “world” debate rearing its ugly head, hmm?) The player made the choice, and the game side won out.

Okay, so what does this have to do with the issue at hand? The reason why monsters don’t drop all their visible loot is because it’s most likely part of a game, not a simulation. As long as goodies drop on a regular basis that are worth something, it doesn’t matter that does or doesn’t drop from the monster for most people. In fact, one of the comments to Ryan’s post suggests that you could just shunt off the items to a separate window nobody has to look at. So, the question is: why include it if it’s going to be ignored by most players by design? One commenter mentions that the single-player game Titan Quest did something similar and it was just annoying, even with a mechanism to highlight non-junk items.

Further, there are additional costs to dropping a bunch of “useless” loot as suggested. This means more development time writing descriptions, making art, and adding entries to a database, but for what result? Let’s be honest here, most people don’t care about this. Does any developer really think we need more tasks added to the development of an online game that will have practically no useful result? Even though adding useless items isn’t necessarily going to be complicated, adding a few hundred of these items will take up an amount of time that could have been spent making quests a little more interesting or balancing out some other aspect of the economy. I think either of these goals is preferable.

Now, let me tell you what happens when you don’t think these things through. In one update to Meridian 59 when I was still at 3DO, we added human-looking faction soldiers to the game. These looked like player characters and were intended to be enemies players could fight. They would spawn in common areas around flagpoles the players could claim. I was tasked with coding the faction soldiers, and like Ryan, I thought it would be neat for them to drop the equipment they had. I mean, it made sense, right?

Well, it was a mess. After the patch, the economy for equipment, weapons and armor, went through the floor. It was depressingly common to get these items, since the faction soldiers were standing in easy-to-access areas, in some cases right outside the gates of major cities! I did eventually put in a check so that the soldiers only had a chance to drop the items they carried. It took a while before we found a good level for this, but by that time the damage had been done. By the time we relaunched Meridian 59 under Near Death Studios, the problem had been fixed. But, it was a very poor decision back in the day.

The other problem here is that once you start down this road, it always seems that you can never do enough. As one commenter points out, if the monsters have the items they drop, why would they ever drop a potion? Wouldn’t they drink it to save their own skin? Well, sure. The problem is that this adds a layer of unpredictability to the game. If I’m killing a monster and it happens to have a few healing potions, the fight may not be quite what I expected. In most level-based games, this is going to throw the “consideration” system out of whack.

But, we can see some people suggesting some interesting alternatives in the comments. The most interesting suggestion is to allow players to salvage this “garbage” loot to make components for crafting. That orc mail shirt might be useless, but it can be melted down to some iron which can be reformed into something useful. Now we are finally getting rid of the useless aspect of the treasure and it becomes an interesting design question: is this better than having players harvest nodes or locations? Is the additional development work to come up with garbage loot worthwhile? This is similar to the system in DAoC, or the enchanting system in WoW, where even useless items can have some purpose for crafters.

So, what do you think? Do you think development time should be spent on “favor” like this? Do you think that adding a more interesting system would be better? Or, is it all a waste of time and developers should get back to cranking out expansions?


  1. Heh, you’re not getting off so easily. You’ve seen inside the beast, so you have that burden of knowledge that doesn’t allow you to get away with that line! ;)

    Dev costs are a major part of the reason why some things get done and others do not in a game, so you can’t ignore them even as a player. Otherwise, you’ll be continuously disappointed. ;)

    Comment by Psychochild — 26 October, 2006 @ 6:29 PM

  2. Fascinating subject.

    Perhaps the flaw was with an unrealistic economy rather than a too realistic gear model? That’s a jibe at the whole genre by the way, not just M59 (never played it)… so perhaps unfair but you did not go into depth on how gear was obtained, prior to making that decision.

    For non-humanoid mobs, there can be “collectors” who you turn in, say, x rat tails, for a schnazzy piece of gear. I didn’t make that up, but it works.

    The dilemma I see is in epic mobs. What does one of the top 10 toughest encounters in your game drop if it is a giant spider? A massive proc that can be applied to any weapon?

    Comment by robusticus — 26 October, 2006 @ 8:29 PM

  3. On dropping useless items: I’ve always considered it implied that monsters drop useless items. We all carry worthless items, but when you’re mugged in an alley they only want your purse or wallet. And really, they only want the money that’s inside, or perhaps that nice iPod you’ve got strung around your neck. They could care less about your water bottle or your shoes or your keys. So the loot window should only show us what is lootable. Everything in that window should be of some value. The rest is implied but unimportant in the context of looting.

    On mobs dropping what they use: I don’t know that the vast majority of players cares about this too much. If you could do it in a way that doesn’t unbalance the game, that’s could be an interesting feature. Otherwise I think there are other ways to improve immersion.

    On mobs using the stuff they carry: Again, I’ve always considered it implied. That orange con Orc you’re going toe-to-toe with is going to use whatever it can to stay alive, including drinking potions. But of course he doesn’t really drink a potion, it’s just abstracted in the consider system. When he drops, he might have some unused potions left, and then you get to take them. And if he drops something he couldn’t have used, this is not immersion breaking. Think about the junk your character carries around that she can’t use, usually in the form of drops you’re going to sell when you get back to town.

    Having blathered all that, I think it could be an interesting design challenge to try to design a world from the ground up, where mobs drop what they wear, and use what they carry. You couldn’t bolt it onto any existing system, you’d have to do it from the ground up. It seems to me that the current camping mentality wouldn’t work, and that fights would be perhaps be more epic in nature. After all, if you’re going for realism, then it just doesn’t make sense that your character is going to haul 75 suits of Orcish armor and broken swords back to town.

    Comment by Amber — 27 October, 2006 @ 9:10 AM

  4. Why Mobs Shouldn’t Drop Their Equipment

    [...] Ryan Shwayder says it’s fun. Brian Green says it’s a waste of time. I say the data management makes it harder than you think. [...]

    Pingback by We Can Fix That with Data — 27 October, 2006 @ 10:23 AM

  5. Okay, if I can’t get away with it so easily… In an itemcentric game, WYSIWYG loot is extremely problematic. If you can loot what you see on a mob, then you probably can’t loot what you can’t see on a mob. That is, anything that doesn’t have armor or weapons isn’t going to drop either, so fighting direbears and dragons becomes an issue.

    You can get around the limitation in some ways. For example, direbears could drop pristine claws or flawless hides that could be converted to equipment via tradeskills or even an NPC. Dragons, when slain, could drop perfect dragonscales and elongated claws that could be converted the same way, and you could gain access to their horde (essentially their loot table in a neat little room, so you can indeed reward players with super cool loot immediately).

    The problem, though, goes multiple ways. For design, it becomes a hell of a lot harder and more time consuming to create loot tables, not to mention tradeskill recipes and all the rest. For players, you no longer get the instant gratification of receiving that cool upgrade to your equipment unless you’re fighting something humanoid (or at least something that uses armor or weapons).

    Whether you have methods for players getting cool equipment from beast type creatures or not, the lack of instant gratification is going to make them less attractive targets, and most players won’t like killing such creatures because it’s less rewarding than killing humanoids.

    There are even more issues with implementing WYSIWYG loot that I could go into, but I think the point comes across here. I personally find it more fun, and I make my MMO Rant posts without the burden of knowledge that usually limits my posts. ;) That said, I think WYSIWYG loot can still be done simply and in a way that is fun when we’re talking about a game that is not itemcentric, but I won’t go into that here.

    Comment by Ryan Shwayder — 27 October, 2006 @ 11:47 AM

  6. WYSIWYG loot

    [...] It’s been a while since I did a straight-up design topic, and both Sara Jensen (at her new blog!) and Brian Green jumped in to reply to Ryan Shwayder’s original post on the subject, so why not perpetuate it? [...]

    Pingback by Raph’s Website — 27 October, 2006 @ 12:27 PM

  7. Amber’s comment got me thinking: If a mob drops what it uses, then technically the best loot comes from the hardest mobs to kill. If that sword has amazingly high DPS, then that monster is going to be doing amazingly high DPS to whoever it fights. There’s a built-in balance there that I hadn’t really thought about, and I like it. It definitely still leads to a lot of balancing concerns, but it makes me think there’s something worthwhile in there that we should probe further into.

    Comment by Bartoneus — 30 October, 2006 @ 11:57 AM

  8. Looting 2.0

    [...] The MMO-dev blog topic of the moment is WYSIWYG loot. This one started at Nerfbat, and spread over time to Psychochild, Raph, Sara Jensen, Darniaq, and probably a dozen other places I haven’t found yet. [...]

    Pingback by Voyages in Eternity — 31 October, 2006 @ 7:31 PM

  9. I’m actually a fan of WYSIWYG loot. Of course, like Oblivion, that means the vast majority of items in the world are essentially useless. Players don’t steal everything from all the homes in Oblivion because the majority of it is just useless. Almost all drops in the world could be almost valueless. A small percentage of items (it should be obvious which ones) have higher values so it winds up mostly the same as a normal system. As far as monster drops, they don’t drop anything. The body is the drop – let players canibalize it to get their claws, scales, fur, etc.

    Comment by Kelson — 1 November, 2006 @ 1:00 AM

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