The Devil Is in the Details of Action RPGs - Part One: The Logistics of Loot
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
As I've been counting the minutes for either Diablo 3 or Torchlight 2 to be released, I ran through Torchlight 1. Playing it, I noticed several things that didn't seem right with the mechanics that I wanted to take a closer look at.
When it comes to the action RPG genre, any fan knows about the cycle: you fight enemies to get loot to help you level up and repeat. In other words, the magic phrase is: Fight, Loot, and Level. If any of those three are not represented correctly, it can bring the experience down. We're going to ignore "Fight" for this post, as everyone should know what is good or bad about it.
Loot is the big one, and is one of the main draws of any action RPG. With loot, there are two schools of design: set or random. Set loot, means that the designers hard coded every item, piece of equipment and weapon in the entire game. Demon's Souls and Dark Souls are currently the best examples of this practice.
The advantage of set design is that by knowing every piece of gear in the game, it gives the designers freedom to get creative. In Dark Souls, each weapon type is unique in its feel and utility. This also allowed the designers to easily set up a general pace of getting equipment and balancing it out with enemy encounters.
There are two disadvantages to set loot design. First is that it has a cap, there is such a thing as the "best sword in the game" or "best piece of armor". Meaning, that eventually the drive for better loot disappears, which is one third of the pull of playing action RPGs. Playing Demon's Souls; I lost a lot of the motivation to continue playing new game +s as there is no new equipment to find.
The other has to do with PvP; set loot largely turns PvP into a race to get the best loot before anyone else. When I played PvP in Dark Souls, no matter how great I was at avoiding damage, all it took was one hit from someone’s high level weapon to kill me instantly. This forced me out of PvP until I could grab better weapons which would take awhile.
Randomized loot design which is used in most action RPGs, is that instead of defining set pieces of gear in the game. The designers set up algorithms for loot generations. If you look at Diablo 2, every item that has unique stats or bonuses comes with a prefix/suffix or prefixes, such as "burning" or "spiked". These adjectives defined what kinds of bonuses are attached to the gear and from there the weapon is given the amount of that type. That means that my "freezing, burning axe" could be different from your "freezing burning axe". Items are also graded in terms of rarity. This allowed the player to quickly see what equipment is more powerful and affects the bonuses from the adjectives. Diablo 2's loot table is still one of the best of the genre with all the variables that go into generating loot.
Obviously the big advantage of randomized loot is replay ability. You never know if that chest or enemy will drop some super piece of gear. New gear provides both a visual boost (better gear = shiner avatar) and of course the stat boost. With Diablo 2, the harder the difficulty level, the chance of finding rarer gear is increased further encouraging play.
The problems with random loot and where Torchlight fits into this post, is that there is more to it than just creating random gear. In order for loot to motivate people, there must be an ascending trend of power over time. Meaning the further the player gets, the better the loot they find.
In Torchlight the loot table was not as refined as Diablo 2 was. For example while playing on hardcore mode; I used a chest armor I found within the first 5 floors of the game, as my only piece of chest armor for the entire game. While the idea of being able to find any equipment anywhere in the game sounds good on paper, it does cause two problems.
First is that it breaks the flow of the game. Enemies are designed around the generalized loot in the area. Meaning, if the best armor in the area can only block 3 points of damage, then enemies shouldn't be set at dealing 30 damage per hit. If the loot table isn't balanced with the enemies it can lead to the player either demolishing everything, or barely able to survive. Not properly balancing loot and enemies also makes it difficult to determine where to introduce new enemies or strengthen existing ones.
That leads to problem two, having the randomized element of the game work against the player. In Torchlight, my first character on very hard difficulty did not get lucky finding new pistols and armor to use. I went 5 floors using the same gun and armor. When I arrived in a new area, I could barely kill anything and enemies were nearly killing me with each hit.
The problem with Torchlight is that the loot table is not ascending as much as Diablo 2. If I find a rare item on floor 3 in Torchlight and another on floor 5, there is a good chance the former is as powerful or stronger then the latter. However in Diablo 2, finding a rare sword at the beginning of an act and at the end, you are practically guaranteed that the latter is stronger than the former.
Looking deeper at Torchlight one of the problem areas I saw has to do with the types of rarity. Ignoring normal or white weapons Torchlight has the following categories: green for magical, blue for rare, gold for unique, and purple for set items (items that go together.) The problem with this is that with only a few categories, it makes it harder to find better gear.
If you get lucky and get gold equipment early on, chances are you won't find anything to replace it for a long time (such as 4 or 5 floors or more). Likewise if you are stuck with a blue or green item, you're going to find plenty of them which may or may not be better then what you have. Due to the rate of finding blue items which most unique monsters drop, it lowers the value of green items outside of the very beginning of the game.
Another issue with Torchlight is that there is more quantity then quality with loot. Some unique enemies and chests drop multiple pieces of the same equipment type all within the same level range. This makes it a crap shoot when it comes to getting new gear. Sometimes you'll find something that is miles above what you have, and other times you'll find 2 or more pieces of equipment equal to or worse then what you have. As an example while fighting level 11 enemies, I saw loot as low as level 8 dropping. If the quality of loot increased at a faster rate, that would elevate some of the issues.
Going back to Diablo 2 it had the following categories (not counting normal or low quality): high quality, magical, rare, set and unique. That's 5 to Torchlight's 4, meaning there is a greater spread of items to find. In Torchlight my chance of getting a unique item to replace a rare is low. However in Diablo 2, I have a much greater chance of replacing my high quality item with something better. Combine that with the quality of loot rising at a fast pace, makes the hunt for loot an enjoyable one and not an act of necessity.
The challenge of using loot as a motivator is that the player shouldn't be surviving from one piece to another, and at the same time, going hours using the same gear also doesn't work. That does it for part one, in part two we'll take a look at leveling and see if Diablo 2 still stands as the best in this area.