Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Global Agenda’s Loot System Fails

Like character advancement, the advancement engendered by loot can be seen as vertical or horizontal. An item that vertically advances your character has flat-out better stats than your previous item, but does nothing that the previous item didn't do. Horizontal loot advancement comes from new abilities granted by items, or different kinds of damage dealt, absorbed, mitigated, etc.

Vertical loot is only exciting if it represents a big gain. Horizontal loot can be more exciting more often without necessarily advancing the character, because it can afford the player more interesting options to try out as long as the metagame is not in a moribund state.

The real question is: What effects can an item have? The more you restrict this, the more boring the system will be. If you go too far, you risk imbalancing the game due to the slot machine taking over and player skill being no more than a secondary factor in gameplay. This isn't a problem in most MMOs because such games are no more than social environments with slot machines that require mostly-thought-free manual effort to pull the lever by killing mobs, opening chests, and completing quests. In a(n ostensibly) skill-based game like GA, a prevalent slot machine turns what otherwise is a fun PvP system into an awkward environment where time-based play and skill-based play clash.

The universe of possible useful pieces of loot in GA is too small. It's exacerbated by the fact that the sole way of progression available, vertical progression to higher bonuses, caps out at 21% with an exponentially lower chance of getting loot of higher qualities once you get above the base 10%-ish. Boring, linear vertical progression with no horizontal opportunities is not fun. If I know what I want and feel like I'm just waiting for the random number generator to swing my way, I'm having less fun than if there is a reasonable chance I may find something cool that I hadn't considered.

The number of useful pieces of loot that you can possibly find starts out small and only gets smaller. Because GA is skill-based, players set their skill specs in stone and know exactly what they want to make it work optimally. Because gear is primarily vertical in variety, the player knows exactly what he needs at any given time for his spec if he has even a minimal knowledge of how the game works. there is no chance of a serendipitous drop--only for drops that either give the player a "finally" feeling, or drops that are useless to the player.

You only get loot in GA when you win missions or PvP matches. In PvP, particularly, your chance of victory is largely dependent on the skill level of the rest of your team. Only the top 5% (or less) of players can carry any team to victory—and even they can’t successfully do it every game they’d like to.

Global Agenda’s loot system is a boring, naked time-sink. The best that can be said of it is that it provides an object lesson in how not to design a loot system.


Logan said...

what's odd is that they've kept the level and loot system even though they aren't trying to charge a subscription anymore...

the only reason for level and gear grinds is to keep people playing long enough to milk a few months of subscription money from them.

at this point GA would be a lot better off just getting rid of levels and gear upgrades completely.

other than the grind.. the only other thing i dislike about GA is how damn strong the turrets are... i just don't like how a turret can wipe me out quicker than an actual player.

i realize they need to be somewhat strong so that they are actually useful and people think twice about attacking a fortified position... but as a medic it sucks when i have to wait for a recon to take out the turrets, since i can't do squat against them.

Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps the loot system allows for some tradeoffs with item stats/ mods - like having more aoe radius or more range or more damage (not for all items, though). But they somewhat murdered this by introducing the "best in solt" OC items, purchased only with tokens, that have BASE damage increased and add damage bonus on top of that. This mostly removes choice once you can get such an item.

Anonymous said...

I must note that gameplay is really fun (once you know the basics), it's a pity they haven't thought out the progression system.

Anonymous said...

I've never quite understood the point of gear upgrades in the traditional RPG based sense in a game where you're playing against primarily other people in a real time, twitch based environment. That has a lot to do with why I don't like PVP in WoW for example (balance issues aside); gear, especially weapons in the case of melee classes, can cover up for a lot of skill deficit on the low and middle levels of PVP play. At the basic level isn't the point of PVP to be an entirely skill based exercise?

Unrelated, I'm quite glad you guys are back! Where on earth did you go in the first place? I was about to delete my bookmark and thought to check it beforehand a lo! you were back.

evizaer said...

Logan: When I played most (at the peak of the game's fun, I think, before Sandstorm)turrets were not too powerful aside from nests in certain places on certain maps that were a real bitch to deal with. Unfortunately I can't say much more about it before the maps were so similar in appearance that I could never remember their names. I played every class to the upper PvP brackets except for recon and turrets weren't usually more dangerous than actual players. You just have to stay aware of their position and come in behind them, shield yourself, or avoid them entirely.

Skyve: GA was a lot of fun before Sandstorm turned it into more of an MMORPG snoozefest. At no point did the devs engender confidence in their ability to improve their product, I think they may've simply gotten lucky with the original PvP fun.

Anon: PvP systems in deep vertical advancement-focused MMORPGs are not supposed to actually be skill measuring sticks. PvP in that environment is meant to make the player want to invest more time in the game so he can have all the "I win" buttons and feel superior. The pretense of a skill basis exists to sell the game to as many poor fools as possible.

The blog stopped for a while because I become totally disillusioned with MMORPGs and their design. I think the genre is basically an overt trap. Gameplay is never particularly good--the games are predicated on reward grinding and anticipation of alleviated boredom which seldom comes as expected.

I also got a new fulltime job as a software developer, which significantly cut into the time I could spend on the blog. I was unemployed and looking for most of this blog's lifetime. (A little more than a calendar year.) This afforded me plenty of time to write. Now I'm settled into my new job enough to put out articles on occasion, though they're most likely not going to focus on MMOs.

Logan said...

I've been disenchanted with MMOs recently also...

been playing SC2 again, and a little GA and QuakeLive...

i kinda wish someone would make a game that combines QuakeLive and GA... basically GA's style of tactical combat but QuakeLive's everything else... or just QuakeLive with a 3rd person view, energy pool instead of ammo, and jet-packs... playability in a browser would be icing on the cake.

Kenny said...

"as long as the metagame is not in a moribund state"

Can you give an example for such a game? In my experience horizontal loot = slot machine with more slots and even less chance of getting what you want. Different abilities and resists and dmg type and whatnot are nice unless you were already there and know that it is crap and won't help your setup advance.

BTW today I learned a new word ("moribund"), thank you. :]

evizaer said...

The only two inevitabilities in game design are that your metagame will die and that there will always be bugs. The only way to avoid a dead metagame is to let no one play your game.

You can't avoid the inevitable fate of all loot mechanics: slot machines. The way to circumvent this is to let players break down loot into components that they can use to craft, but then why not just drop the crafting ingredients instead?

This highlights loot systems' inherent incompatibility with skill-based play.