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.