Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Joys of Looting

I like killing things and taking their stuff. This has been the basis of fantasy gaming at least ever since Arneson met Gygax. You find that 8x& room, you kill the ubiquitous orc and you take whatever it was that he left in the chest he was guarding. Imagine, for a moment, you're in a role playing game where you've finally broken into the warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Do you go for the Ark like you're being paid to? No, you crack every last crate in the warehouse looking for goodies. Or at least something to pawn.

One of the basic principles of good game design is that you want to reward your players for doing something fun. Killing orcs is fun. Killing orcs and then finding gold pieces is a reward for having fun. Exploring the depths of a Soviet ICBM silo is fun. Finding a sweet new rifle when you're doing it makes you want to do it even more.

The trouble comes when the game you're playing gives you perverse incentives; it penalizes you for looting too zealously. Often times the designers do this with an appeal towards realism. Let's look at an example.

How much does gold weigh? In many games there's no limit given for how many gold coins you can carry. To an extent that's reasonable; given current prices (about $1500 an ounce) you could lug around the price of a decent house all day (vague numbers provided by courtesy of I can't be asked to look up the conversion from troy ounces.) Assuming you're dealing with lesser sums, then the gold coin you're carrying will worry you less than that full plate armor. So quite a few games take the reasonable approximation that gold doesn't weigh anything.

Of course, this easily gets silly, granted people's natural desire to loot. By the end of a game of Fallout II I'd almost invariably have a hundred thousand caps stored up. (I like looting; perhaps more than most.) On the more extreme side, when I played The Realm Online people would routinely walk around with tens of millions in gold.

Now let's say you put a little extra realism into your game design. Let's say you want gold to weigh something. I spent several hours playing Return to Krondor, which was a game that had exactly this in mind. Care to guess why I'm discussing it now? Anyhow, a single coin weighs one twentieth of a pound in that game. Once you get up to a hundred, five hundred and a thousand they automatically exchange your coins for jewels whenever you visit a shop. A diamond worth 1000 coins weighs one tenth of a pound. Well enough so far, if you'll ignore my confusion when I first encountered the mechanic. (I don't remember looting this diamond. With my gold reserves I'm rich! Hey; where'd they go?")

The trouble arose when they sent me on a mission up the coast. I spent a while wandering around in the wild, gathering beaten up bits of armor and such to sell off, and grabbing a dozen coins from each bandit that I met. Unfortunately, there isn't a shop on the entirety of the coast. So not only was I desperately lugging around all kinds of loot that I didn't strictly need, I had amassed about a thousand gold pieces. That's fifty pounds of weight, necessarily restricting my abilities to loot other things. What's worse, combat speed is based partly off of how much weight you're carrying, so by picking up all those gold coins I'm making myself less and less able to fend off those bandits that I want to loot so very very much.

And that's the crux of the issue; by giving me several options, all of which frustrate me (kill efficiently but abandon any loot; loot as much as I can but waddle through combat), the game makes itself annoying to play. That's not something you want to do as a designer.

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