In role-playing games and online role-playing games, the term "drop" refers to the loot or equipment that a monster or enemy leaves behind after it is killed. And often, you'll play these games for hours hunting for the perfect "drop" that will give you that final piece of magical armor that you've been looking for, or gathering the last item that you need to finish a quest. Figuring out what kind of items get "dropped" has become something of a science to game designers, because you want to give players what they want, but you also need to string them along so that they'll feel compelled to keep going. Titan Quest, the debut action role-playing game from Iron Lore Studios, will remind you a lot of the Diablo games, which had addictive drop systems. In this chapter of our designer diaries, Arthur Bruno, the lead systems designer for Titan Quest, gives us his thoughts as to how to create the perfect drop system.
Drops For the MassesBy Arthur Bruno
Lead Systems Designer, Iron Lore
The concept of self-betterment through the collection of wearable equipment is perhaps the most fundamental and addictive gameplay element of the role-playing genre. "Self-betterment" is the process of improving one's self, and there is a powerful innate drive in most human beings to engage in some form of this. When we each do something that we perceive has bettered our own state in life, whether it is exercise and eating right to improve our body, learning to improve our knowledge and ability, or social and material gain to advance our status, we feel rewarded. The positive feeling triggered inside us is a powerful motivator--and this is the metaphorical carrot held before the player in role-playing games. Of course, in a role-playing game you're not directly improving yourself, but you are bettering the representation of yourself in the game: Your avatar. If the gameplay and world are immersive enough, though, the positive feelings triggered by accomplishments in the role-playing world will mirror those in real life.
The two forms of self-betterment that occur in most role-playing games are character development and, of course, the collection of equipment. The equipment treasure hunt, however, has an additional characteristic of unpredictability. Usually there are things you can do to improve your chances of finding desirable loot, but within limits. This makes it a little like gambling, which is compelling because for some nonsensical reason, most of us think we can predict random events or, in other words, "luck." If you've ever performed some repetitive action hoping for a particular random outcome, such as playing a slot machine in real life or, in the role-playing world, camping a rare spawn, and at some point you started to feel as though you'd done it enough that the outcome you were waiting for was bound to happen any moment, then you've experienced this phenomenon. I myself remember countless times when I was trying to log out of a certain role-playing game when I'd notice a chest at the top edge of the screen and think, "I need to log out, but just one more chest. Maybe something good will drop." Even though I'd opened 999 chests and found nothing worthwhile that same night, I couldn't resist the temptation to open just one more. Of course, when I walked to that chest and opened it to find nothing useful, I was now able to see another chest just at the edge of the screen...
A totally random system, however, is not as addictive as a system that offers ways for the player to improve their odds of finding the items they seek. This helps to alleviate the hopelessness that players might feel when facing the remote odds of finding a particular item they're after in a totally random system. In a partially random system, the player has means of adjusting the odds in their favor; this builds hope and excitement of attaining that item. They can play in a location and fight the monsters they know have the highest chances of dropping these items. Learning where and how to get these items is also a fun part of the treasure hunt. In designing the Titan Quest loot system these considerations were taken into account.
There are different layers of loot randomization in the game. At the lowest level, monsters and chests drop items. Because monsters actually use the equipment they spawn with, and that equipment therefore has to be appropriate for them to use, there is a limit to the degree of randomness at this base level. So you can at least predict what types of equipment will be available off certain monster spawns. Additionally, some monsters can spawn with special types of equipment unique to them, such as centaurs spawning with a centaur war helm. These monster-specific items often have multiple levels of quality, with the really great version being relatively rare. The next layer of randomness is the randomly generated magical modifiers that can appear on any piece of common equipment and most pieces of monster-specific equipment. The random magical modifier system can create hundreds of thousands of powerful combinations. Trying to find a really good combination of modifiers for your character type on the weapons or armor your class uses is a lot of fun. Finally, there are hundreds of unique items that have more random dropping patterns but offer an even greater level of reward. With so many different types of equipment and such a complex dropping system, it will be an exciting challenge for casual and hardcore players to optimize their treasure hunting and customize their characters.