The Day the Loot Stopped Dropping

Munch's ScreamWhat would happen if suddenly all the loot stopped dropping in your favorite MMORPG? Would there be widespread panic in the streets? Would your online world come to a grinding halt? Would you continue to adventure and quest if material gain were suddenly taken out of your gameplay equation?

Six years ago while playing EverQuest questions such as these had no place in my thoughts. Yet I do recall fantasizing about owning some of the rarest and most sought after armor in all of Norrath. It was called Rubicite and only available as spoils of victory from various vanquished bosses in the not so Lost Temple of Cazic Thule. Seeing these were primitive lizard-like people I pondered the question: Where does all that Rubicite armor really come from? Where is it made and how?

When you enter the tropical Temple of Cazic Thule it quickly becomes apparent that there are no smiths, miners, forges, resources or tools that would enable a barely sentient race like the lizardmen to create superior armor such as Rubicite. At least with dragons they have a mythological propensity to hoard treasure; one assumes they have stolen most of their loot or taken it from foolhardy adventurers. So how do we rationalize the typical dungeon that overflows with treasure given the fact there is no explanation for the loot being there in the first place?

Maybe every virtual world has a Santa’s Workshop hidden away where busy elves work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year creating magical weapons, armor and other items for distribution to the dungeons of the world. Perhaps the bosses of each dungeon place orders with Santa’s elves so that intrepid adventurers will always have the latest treasure on their corpses whenever they are slain. How else can we explain how online games today as so inundated with magical items?

All joking aside, I often wonder how the average player can rationalize the how’s and why’s of NPC’s that drop loot. I remember watching cartoons as a kid and recall how Bugs Bunny would literally pull hammers, saws, guns and other items literally out of thin air. Perhaps we’ve all been conditioned to suspend our disbelief too readily these days. I can think of many other examples from MMORPG’s that invoke similar questions; such as stationary vendors that don’t have stalls but seem to be able to dispense copious amounts of food, drink and items. Then there are the giants that wield 100 pound weapons that magically change into one pound swords after being looted and equipped by the adventurer.

When you stop to think about the number of items that enters the economy in online games like Word of Warcraft it literally staggers the imagination. The world of Azeroth would need a city the size of Gary, Indiana complete with factories and smokestacks in order to process the raw materials and manufacture the millions of tons of steel needed to create just the weapons that are introduced daily into WoW. You’d need a labor force of thousands to work those factories which would make Charles Dickens’s Victorian England look like Club Med.

Hopefully someday designers will create online worlds where things make more sense in an organic way. Cause and effect should apply even in virtual worlds. The concept of magic and fantasy should never be used as an excuse to let lazy devs off the hook when designing and building these worlds. Yet there is hope on the horizon. Sigil Games President Jeff Butler at the recent Fanguard Beta Event held in Las Vegas stated that NPC’s will drop appropriate items in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. No more snakes dropping swords. Finally a victory for common sense and immersion. Let’s hope this philosophy will translate into all aspects of the world of Telon.

The undeniable fact of most fantasy based online games is that without items these games would grind to a halt. Item acquisition is a central fact of most MMORPG’s. Items give us reasons to improve our characters. Better items enable your character to advance faster and become more powerful by defeating tougher monsters. The more powerful your character becomes the better items you can get which enables you to kill even more powerful monsters. And so it goes.

For many of us who play online offerings such as WoW the procuring, crafting, buying and selling of items has become an end it itself. High level instances such as Scholomance, Stratholme and Upper Blackrock Spire in WoW are very dangerous and fun the first few times but end up being reduced to Monty Haul farming runs in each subsequent visit. At this point online gaming is reduced to a transactional model where a player invests their time in the hope of getting a piece of loot that will be an upgrade to their current gear. Others seeking to cash in on this paradigm have hired legions of gold farmers who work in third world sweatshops killing monsters for items and in-game currency which in turn is sold to players for real life cash.

Yet who can blame players for their lust for loot? Equipping rare items is still the only appreciable way that a player can truly change the world they exist in. When you stop and think about it nothing really changes in today’s virtual worlds except you the player. Items such as armor and weapons are one of the few status symbols in today’s online games that are crying out for ways for players to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Players need more avenues to promote their individuality and item procurement is still the best idea that game designers have come up with to allow this to happen.

The problem with an item-centric online game is the items end up becoming an end in themselves. The initial reasons we chose to be part of an online world such as adventuring, immersion, role-playing and exploring start to take a back seat as we get caught up in the one-dimensional pursuit of better gear. As players we often hit a level cap with nothing else to do. We end up wondering: what loot can I get today that will make me more powerful? Loot even determines who we associate with. Often a player will leave their guild of good friends to join a uber guild of hardcore raiders just so they can have access to superior items. If trading in your friends for better gear isn’t an indictment of the item-centric online gaming model I don’t know what is.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a player’s actions and deeds counted for more then the shiny armor they wear? Wouldn’t it be refreshing if someday existence in virtual worlds meant something deeper and more cerebral then being one big phat lewt fest? Maybe online worlds are just a reflection of the values of a modern industrialized society where having a bumper sticker like “He who dies with the most stuff wins” is an anthemic prayer for a civilization that considers the shopping mall as its temple.

Perhaps online game devs have it right after all by basing the core of their games on combat and item acquisition. Maybe they understand they human condition better then someone like me who is crying out for a more enlightened, deeper virtual world experience. Let’s stop kidding ourselves because in the final analysis we MMORPG players are nothing more then brigands, pirates, looters and pillagers who indulge in online murder and mayhem for material gain. There is very little that is noble in virtual worlds these days. We log on to these online worlds and shamelessly act out fantasies that we could never do in the real world. We are the online equivalent of mild-mannered citizens that turn into ugly soccer hooligans given the anonymity of the Internet. We have our fun, log off, then return to our safe comfortable lives as if nothing had happened.

For me the importance of items to online gaming really hit home when I watched a preview video of EverQuest 2 where a SOE producer aptly summed up the fantasy online gaming genre with the following quote: “It’s all about killing monsters and taking their stuff…” I’m afraid he was dead right in disassembling the MMORPG phenomena down to a simple slogan. Of course we can’t forget the importance of the community aspect of online gaming — so I would have added “with your friends” to make that quote perfect. Still I’m left with a hollow feeling about where we are headed in online gaming. Is this all there is for virtual fantasy worlds? Have we really taken this genre to its full potential? Is this the best we can do? Clearly the answer is designers aren’t doing nearly enough to provide players with alternative methods of expression, progression and self-actualization for their characters in today’s online worlds. The online gaming industry like their counterparts in the film and music industry continues to favor predictability over innovation and homogeneity over originality.

So again I ponder the question that I prefaced this article with: what would happen if suddenly all the loot stopped dropping in your favorite MMORPG? Would players still slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress if there were no rewards dangled about like carrots? Would the typical fantasy online game even have a purpose if you took away the items or lessened their importance? Who knows? Maybe we’d actually be forced to talk to each other. Perhaps random acts of role-playing would break out in the streets. Players might actually start taking an interest in the lore and explore areas they previously avoided. I’d imagine players would feel much like being trapped in an crowded elevator with strangers — uncomfortable at first but eventually coming to the realization that it’s people and friendships that are the true treasures of online gaming.

–Wolfshead

(note: this article was also published at Gamergod.com)

Latest Comments

  1. Daniel Harting September 20, 2005
  2. Wolfshead September 22, 2005

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