25/10/2016

How Much RNG Can We Take?

The unhappiness about the announcement in regards to how endgame gearing will work in Knights of the Eternal Throne has made me really think about random number generation (RNG for short) in MMOs, especially in regards to loot. It's interesting because I've seen similar grievances as those of the SWTOR players spring up in other MMOs as well - for example Neverwinter players are currently outraged about an upcoming patch that won't allow them to decline the random rewards from a dungeon chest anymore without also losing their chest key. And from what I've been hearing about World of Warcraft's Legion expansion, one of the more divisive additions there was the introduction of legendary (very powerful) items just randomly dropping out in the world.

Every now and then I see someone say that they hate all RNG, but it can't be denied that it's a staple of both RPGs and their board game predecessors, which frequently rely on dice rolls or random card draws to make sure that no two games are exactly the same. If we had no RNG in MMOs, there would be no chance to hit or crit, every mob would die from the exact same number of attacks and always drop the same precisely predetermined loot. I think it would get boring quickly.

But a lot can go wrong with RNG too. In the reddit discussion about the Galactic Command announcement, one comment that really made me laugh went like this:

Why not make every thing random? Like, your Class and Advanced Class, your Level, the Companions you have. Random! Everything random. Today your character is a Level 56 Juggernaut, tomorrow he is a level 16 Trooper and the other day a level 70 Assassin.

While intentionally over the top, I think it really highlights the problem with too much randomness: it makes the game unpredictable to the point where it becomes frustrating to play because you can't plan for anything and influence your progress accordingly.

Now, when it comes to gearing, randomness in MMOs mostly seems to serve two purposes: keeping things interesting with a bit of unpredictability, and increasing longevity. If few people can expect to get all the drops they want within a short amount of time, they have to keep playing for longer. The latter can also be achieved without RNG, but then you have "the grind" - while you never have the chance of getting what you want on the very first try, you are guaranteed to get it after, say, fifty runs. That has its own issues...

But staying with RNG, how can these goals be achieved in a manner that isn't super annoying? To me, the following points came to mind:

The first option is to give the player some agency in how the RNG functions. This can be done by giving them the option to affect their chances. As an example, if your biggest problem is that you have to roll off against a large number of other people in a raid group for the item you want, you can make sure that you run with your friends, who have promised that they will let you have that particular drop, therefore increasing your chances that you will get it.

Another way of easing the pain of RNG is to give the player some options. Dungeon boss A may only have a one in ten chance of dropping the chest piece you want, but dungeon boss B drops a similar piece which isn't quite best in slot but is seen much more frequently. Currency systems that allow you to purchase a maybe slightly inferior but similar piece after X runs also fall under this umbrella. This way you keep the excitement of having randomness in there but help out players that want to avoid RNG at all costs or who simply end up being very unlucky.

Finally, the actual importance of what is being dropped also has to be considered. For example few players will seriously complain about a rare mount having only a one percent chance to drop. Why? Because generally there are other perfectly serviceable mounts out there that are much easier to obtain and while the special skin is nice, people usually won't feel disadvantaged for not having it.

SWTOR has been an extremely easy-going and casual-friendly MMO in terms of gear-related RNG for a long time. You knew which operations boss dropped which set piece and could target them specifically, while the token drops themselves could be turned in by any class. Additional random drops were mostly used as a bonus to min-max certain stats or to gear up alts. The commendation/crystal system provided guaranteed gear after a certain amount of content had been done (even if it lacked set bonuses), with all currencies being handed out fairly generously. In PvE, the system also offered additional options, as you could earn crystals from different sources, such as flashpoints or dailies.

The proposed Galactic Command system does away with both agency and options - the "option" of being able to earn GCXP through a multitude of activities is really a false one because what matters is whether you can get different outcomes, not just whether there are different ways of getting the same thing. Under the new system, the only thing a player will be able to do to increase their chances is grind more, thereby getting the worst of both worlds - RNG and grind.

The matter of importance gave me pause however. If randomness and bad odds are fine for things that don't really matter to the majority, there could be a world in which the SWTOR player base is happy with Galactic Command - if said player base mostly consists of players who don't care about gear. If you are such a player, you don't care about getting a full set of anything, but every lucky drop is a source of happiness, even more so since you can now also get one from simply doing your dailies. You also mustn't be of a competitive mindset, because in a scenario like PvP the fact that some lucky opponent has better gear than you because of sheer chance would be frustrating.

I hope that I don't sound dismissive of that sort of play style in the above paragraph, because I certainly don't mean to be. I am a player like that in Neverwinter for example, though that game makes gear matter somewhat more even while soloing, as open world mobs tend to get progressively harder as you advance through the zones. But I just tend to shy away from anything that's too hard there, and I stay the hell away from PvP.

Suddenly, I understand Bioware's thinking that much better - this is geared towards a truly casual player base, and not just because you will be able to get the best gear from comparatively easy activities, but because these players are the ones who won't be fussed if they don't get everything they want within a couple of weeks.

You need to keep RNG in check if you are dealing with things that are important to the players, but for minority interests it's much less of a concern. Or to actually answer the question posed in the title of this post: We can take a lot as long as it doesn't affect the parts of the game where we want to be completionists and actually care about "having all the things". It's just a shame that gear acquisition being demoted to a minority interest is another step towards alienating SWTOR's remaining more "hardcore" players like raiders and PvPers. I'm certainly glad that I care less about these things than I used to, so that the threat of Galactic Command - while unappealing - is not as upsetting to me as it might have been some years ago.

18 comments :

  1. It also helps that Gear Rating is apparently not going to be as diverse as it used to be; apparently, "NiM" gear rating is only 12 tiers higher than current 224 gear at 236, which is roughly were SM or HM should be if it adhered to how things were done in the past.

    They really are making it seem that gear increments don't matter that much anymore. Rather than each new expansion providing a significant step-up in gear and ratings it's now akin to simply upgrading from 220 to 224; a nice bonus but not required to pull good numbers.

    At least that's how I'm trying to persuade myself how it will be.

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    1. This also makes it easier to 'integrate' into PvP for certain players. 208 will likely be too squishy but 220/224 should be more than enough to survive.

      Of course this really doesn't help players or characters who only have 208 rating gear... =\

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    2. I think the important question will be what the highest level of gear will be that can be acquired pre-GC, as in: those blues that we currently vendor without a second thought.

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    3. I'm guessing the blues will be 224 whilst the purples will be either 226 or 228 as the equivalent of 208 - I believe Augments have been datamined as being 228.

      Good chance that KotET chapters (and Veteran/Master KotFE ones) will drop gear of similar rating as well as ambient loot.

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  2. I'm that casual player this system won't be so "bad" for. If they deliver on their promise to let me craft raid level gear, I'm actually in a pretty sweet spot.

    I came to SWTOR as a "semi-retired" MMO player who does alt-ing exclusively. I've NEVER had access to set bonuses. If I'm going for alliance crates and get some lucky drops, then BOOM, I look like a non-filty-non-casual! :)

    The people that will really have problems with this gearing system are raiders who want to fill multiple roles. Since the drops are keyed to whatever discipline you're in at the time, when you switch disciplines you start over.

    Once again though, all you're actually grinding for is the set bonuses. If the set bonuses aren't life changing, lots of people may just skip it.

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    1. The issue is that those set bonuses ARE life changing for high end PvE and PvP though (at least they are thought to be, I don't have much personal experience), so this RNG system has the potential to really hurt hardcore raiders and ranked PvP players. Add in the character specific rewards, and it's a further "kick me while I am down" moment.

      Outside of those two arenas, everything is bolstered or level synced (not sure about Uprisings) so your existing 4.0 set bonus should be fine. So go grind out some warzone comms and get as many tokens now so you can buy a set bonus before 5.0 drops. It will still be useful, and will get you by until you can get a new one (if you care that much about it). As an example, I tanked a pug LI HM using unaugmented 204 pvp gear with a L50 healer and we did just fine. We only wiped because people didn't know the mechanics that well, not because of gear. So unless the bolster system changes in 5.0, your existing gear should get you through most content.

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    2. I forgot to comment on your phrase "lots of people may just skip it".

      To me, that's another real problem with this system. Gating the new set bonuses behind this RNG grind is only going to discourage people from joining HM Ops and ranked PvP - which will only further diminish those populations.

      The conspiracy theorist in me says this is all a calculated play by BioWare to discourage participation in these endgame activites so that come January, when they talk about new group content they can say "well, metrics show people are not participating in HM Ops, so we will no longer continue to develop them". But that's just a conspiracy theory, and I'll take my tinfoil hat off now.

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    3. Just read the Dulfy's post on crafting changes. Supposedly mods will require materials from PvP in order to craft. Since I don't PvP, I won't be doing any crafting.

      So just like every one else, this system is actually WORSE for me. There is no "target audience" for this system.

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    4. PvP isn't the exclusive source of those mats, though; or least that was the impression I got. As long as they drop at a decent rate to be affordable on the GTN, though.... (This is not a safe assumption)

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    5. Yeah, just saw that. I guess crafting becoming more of a thing again will be one upside of the new system. But it's hard to predict how it will all interact with each other.

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    6. It's the old saw about the 5 blind men and the elephant; updated for the modern age. Add a healthy helping of not-unjustified paranoia, some really bad communications management by the guy whose job it is to manage the community, and the usual internet rumor mill, and you get the Official Forums.

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    7. Believe it or not, juggling my "network" of crafters is actually a fun mini-game. It's a game of getting maximum returns for minimum effort and cost. This "meta" game is what I do instead of queuing for Flashpoints/PVP/GSF/OPS.

      I don't need to craft max-level gear for minimum effort, since I haven't ever before. I just need to know I can get my 22'nd alt fairly geared without queuing, and for something less than 300 billion credits. :)

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    8. I'm curious what you are actually crafting to make a profit right now? Augments? Dyes? I can't imagine it being a lot of different items...

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    9. I just discovered that stuff in my synthweaver's Archive section sells well enough...

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    10. I do make a fair amount of money posting mats as a "side light". The idea of being able to craft any mod, earpiece, relic or implant a character might need is mostly about saving money, and making sure I have a good supply.

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  3. I'm pretty much a casual player - I don't do any of the end game stuff, I don't PVP, I mostly don't even group with people. But I also don't care about end game gear. Because I'm not doing end game stuff. So I find this change completely baffling.

    It appears that they're making it far more difficult/annoying for the people who care about the things that will be RNG dropped by Galactic Command to get those things... so that they can give those things at random to people who don't really care. (And, as far as I can tell, it's not like those of us who don't care can hand them off or sell them to the people who do care.)

    Do other casual players care more than I do? Or is Bioware making a very odd decision here?

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    1. I suppose they are hoping that if they start dropping the gear in your lap for doing dailies or whatever, you will start caring enough about completing your set to keep subscribing and grinding away. Whether people really think that way... I guess we'll find out.

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  4. I can, personally, take quite a bit of randomness. And I took away one interesting point from the livestream, that crafting was intended to be the primary anti-RNG mitigation ("catch-up" they called it) mechanism.

    Now, that only works if set bonus is a marginal performance improvement. Which today, it's not. But, they've been "reducing" the importance of set bonus since I've been aware of it, and if they roll a little bit more of today's "set bonus" into the classes as part of the level cap increase, and make it mainly an "output/input (DPS/HPS/Damage mitigation) booster" rather than actually change rotations and priorities and taunt cooldown times, that the median player really only needs for Master-level content, that could offset the RNG as well.

    I want to see the whole thing; because it really can't be appreciated by part.

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