I guess another issue that’s related to this that I kind of wanted to address was just the idea of equating ease of gear acquisition with the ease of the game in general. There’s a few things about this approach to gauging the content of a game like Lost Epoch that I think are flawed that I could speak to a little bit here:
The first thing being, what’s actually the case is that items that are optimal or close to optimal are part of the content of the game itself. They are the things that validate for you if a build really scales well at the end of the game or not, which is where we end up playing a significant portion of our playthroughs in order to try out different things that might drop for us and see how they fit into the build that we’ve chosen to run with by that point. This is also where the bosses are that we test those builds on. As such, the time it takes to get to those items isn’t the ease of the game itself, but rather the time investment required to see the content that exists within the game. Difficulty would be something more akin to how many decisions you have to make in a row to defend yourself like in a match of Starcraft, or how many skills or how much you have to know to do in order to stay alive against a boss or elite pack of enemies before you defeat them. We’d measure this in the number of button presses, decisions per second, etc. rather than time investment itself. In a fighting game, you might measure skill level in time played, but this is because the knowledge you gain from playing is the skill level. There isn’t an easy way to measure how well you know the match-ups and button presses necessary to get out of a particular scenario, precisely because there are a nearly unlimited number of scenarios. And your muscle memory can be better for some than others. When we’re talking about how long it takes us to grind for a particular item or set, we’re not talking about measuring knowledge or skill, since we’re doing content over again for the vast majority of that grind. We’re actually just talking about time spent physically playing the game.
The second thing goes along with the first and that’s that I feel then that since the time it takes to reach certain parts of the content is what is at issue, we should think about the time required to acquire a “best-in-slot” item as an arbitrary barrier created through the tuning of crafting and drop chances in the game. The reason this is done is to create a sense of accomplishment when an item we want drops or is crafted. While I feel that this is a somewhat valid incentive in ARPGs, the problem with it is really two-fold: One, it’s an artificial accomplishment. What I mean by that is, the actions taken to produce the outcome don’t directly correlate with the drop itself. In other words, if it’s not repeatable, you haven’t really performed an act of skill or knowledge that you had to acquire. You’ve mostly just asked the game to drop for you something that it didn’t drop before by killing some more enemies. This is that slot machine analogy again: What the player gets out of the experience is very limited. Two is that the progress is non-linear, which enforces a schedule of reinforcement on the player to continue doing things they’ve already done at the same or higher level of motivation. This ramps up naturally over time as the rarity of the items we still need increases. In this way, the motivation players feel to continue playing is not necessarily coming from the item reward itself, or the quality of what the player is doing while grinding, but the fact that the items are coming intermittently. This is also partially what I am referring to when I call this incentive model ‘artificial’ or ‘arbitrary.’ It is not a direct or linear relationship between effort and reward. It is still somewhat valid because how many items we need to complete a build is limited by the number of equipment slots. It is finite in this way, so putting in the time to get them is still validated at the end of the process.
If we then change our perspective to see the time required for a player to play to acquire a desired item is not difficulty, and that it is in fact a barrier to see and enjoy content within the game, then we can consequently assess the quality of what the player is doing during that time and how much time is spent and weigh these both against the rewards that are given to the player to determine if the content comes too quickly or is padded too greatly given what the player gets out of the experience per minute or hour played. This is the critical evaluation I try to do in my head when I decide if I feel like grinding for the next item, or indeed any item, that would help me to complete my build. I don’t see the time it takes as difficulty so much as a stop-light that I’m merely waiting at before I’m allowed to see the next thing the game has to show to me.
This is why I’m not sure that crafting that has permanent failure involved is even a good time tradeoff for a player, let alone if this is how players should be required to acquire best-in-slot items. This is because there isn’t value added for time spent: Say you’re doing things you’ve done before, and you’re spending 20, 40, 60 hours, or more, to complete one build; Then afterwards say there’s only a few hours of really challenging content to test it on. Is that the appropriate amount of time to require players to see that content with that gear? Now consider that you might be interested in playing multiple builds and you have to do that grind over again every time to complete it. It’s easy to see then how time-gating the content in this way starts to add up rapidly.
I wanted to at least say something here about this being why time-gating in subscription based MMO’s and mobile games is so onerous; They are getting people to be highly motivated about a relatively small amount of content, and artificially segmenting out how much of it they can see at a time. To me, this is a sign that value is not being delivered to the player, and the same thing applies to extremely low drop chances for items.
And this is a concern because our time is precious and limited. Most of us that work spend about 40-50 hours a week trying to make ends meet. To me, if a game asks me to spend more time playing it to complete a build - a large fraction of that spent doing monotonous tasks that I’ve already done before - than I spend at work in a week, that game wants to be played as a job. That’s just how I value my time. If I notice this, I then have to ask myself if I am getting fewer fun experiences and interesting rewards during that playtime than I think I should be having. If I also face setbacks that make me feel like that time was wasted, then that also causes me to reevaluate if it’s really a worthwhile investment. And there are, of course, plenty of other games to compare these experiences against to determine if there’s more fun out there to be had, as the library of games available continues to expand daily.
If ARPG players embraced this perspective on content, I suspect the quality of their experiences and the amount of the content within the game they can enjoy per hour played would increase dramatically. We all only have a limited amount of time and there are lots of fun experiences and things left for us to enjoy. So why spend large amounts of it doing the same things over again hoping for different rewards? If we know that’s what we’re doing, why not do less of it? Why not simply have more content to get, rather than pad out how long it takes to get it?
I hope this helps explain why I feel that the changes I’ve proposed to the crafting system make sense in context of time required, and why that time required isn’t really a game’s difficulty. I also hope maybe this perspective inspires at least someone who is thinking about how to properly place value on their time. That’s something I’m very passionate about as well.
(Edit: typos / added one detail to paragraph 2)