I want to raise the proposition that players would be better off in general if RNG were removed from crafting in ARPG’s and open it to discussion here. In fact, I have for awhile now. We’ve had a lot of productive and interesting conversations around topics like these in the past here on LE forums. One such conversation with Llama8 inspired this one. And after taking a big break to ponder the subject, I’ve finally decided to come back to it. Thanks ahead of time for indulging me. I hope you’ll enjoy this.
I should probably start by clarifying a few things: What I mean when I say “better off” has to do with some value judgments I’ve discussed on the forum in the past. These are a couple of metrics, but they’re ones I think are important for a few reasons. One is the rate of novel meaningful experiences. We all know what we mean when we refer to “the grind.” This is the game asking us to do the same or similar tasks over and over again to get different loot. We mean what we’re doing isn’t novel or meaningful. The activity in and of itself doesn’t compel us. Another is the quality of those experiences, IE what do we actually get out of them? This includes things like story payoffs, the amount of rewards we get for the time spent, etc. These are intertwined in my view because having to do the same content over again is inherently a low quality experience. It’s not no-value, but as I’ve said in the past, it’s lower value because it’s uninteresting and there’s a lot of other games with new and interesting experiences we could be spending our time on instead. With the amount of experiences available in life, let alone videogames, and a limited amount of time, I posit it would be a richer life to trade that time for more and better experiences. Hopefully we can at least agree on this, since this is important to being able to assess quality, which is what I’m attempting to do here.
Another thing I mean when I say “better off” is actually related to health. I start from a baseline assumption that anything that is compelling you to spend undue time on it comes with risks. We all know there are people that can’t get up from the poker table or the slot machine. This comes from what is called a “schedule of reinforcement.” To give you the short version, rewards or payoffs that are uncertain and become gradually less common over time cause you to want them more rather than less. Humans become more motivated in these situations for reasons stemming from the psychological will to succeed at these things when it’s a necessity in nature. That’s just how we are. In my view, when this is the main or only thing that compels you to do something that you would otherwise find boring, that’s inherently a low quality experience because it’s not rich enough on its own to entertain you.
Having clarified this, I’d submit that the RNG used in crafting systems in various ARPG’s do not provide value along these metrics, and mainly compel players to craft due to schedules of reinforcement.
To support this, let me discuss the activity of crafting that involves RNG for a moment: First off, what are we really doing when we craft an item? We’d have to agree that we have an end goal in mind, and that would be to make the best item possible. Now in the course of that we might spend resources we earned, pick the specific bonuses we want, reroll some things, etc. But despite any of the other things that might be involved, that is still what we’re doing. We’re trying to make the best item possible.
Now what does RNG add to that experience? It really only adds one thing, which is an arbitrary chance of failure. Since it’s not skill based, you can’t get good at it and thereby eliminate it. That’s why I say arbitrary.
So if we take it that we’re trying to make the best item possible, is failing an arbitrary number of times while crafting adding unique or meaningful experiences to the process? In other words, is the player getting to experience new things or learn more about how to succeed next time from these experiences? The answer to this would have to be “no.” Failure is failure, and once you’ve failed once, every following failure might be different goals denied, but they will all still be arbitrary in the way they were arrived at. This is simply an extra unnecessary step the game requires to get the item. You clicked the button and didn’t get the outcome desired, is what each of them amounts to. Does this convey some new or interesting meaning each time? Individually, clearly not. In the aggregate, they might tell us a little bit about the rates of success for certain bonuses to show up, but this is not a human experience. It requires a great deal of data that the human mind doesn’t passively experience. That’s the sort of thing you need a spreadsheet and a lot of attempts to actually see. You wouldn’t inherently notice how it’s going unless the outcomes you wanted were fairly close together. And even if they were, that information would only be useful if there were powerful and reliable ways to influence it as the player, which we’re taking for granted the player isn’t given; If they were, this RNG could be eliminated somehow. All of this being the case, we’re missing out on novel and meaningful experiences we could be having doing something else.
Now over time, as we succeed in getting items we actually want, the next item we need that would be an improvement inherently becomes more unlikely to be crafted. The better or more unusual the bonuses we need, typically the less likely those will be as well. So we actually do have a decreasing rate of success built into games like this that require you to loot or craft with RNG involved. This is a schedule of reinforcement with a decreasing rate of success. So this is also a negative aspect to having this system.
One thing someone might then say in response to this is that the arbitrary failure is actually adding a sense of suspense, or otherwise delaying gratification, which makes the eventual success more satisfying. What I’d like to point out though is that what people are experiencing in this case is actually the relief from future potential failure, and mistaking that relief for satisfaction. Think about it: If the failures aren’t imparting a sense of fulfillment or fun, then what is creating that feeling in the body when one succeeds? Is it the item itself? If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be the same amount of fun if the item were completed the first time? So then it can’t be the reward being doled out that causes the good feeling. I’d argue for this reason that it has to be the relief from the previous failures and not having to worry about failing again that causes us to feel better when we get the bonuses we were hoping for out of crafting. This isn’t meaningful or interesting in and of itself. It’s just a mechanism in our psychology that is causing us to spend time on something that we otherwise could have been allowed to do with much less effort. This is mainly a way of padding an amount of content to last longer than it would have. We could instead delay gratification by simply playing more interesting content in the game.
Now another thing that might be said in regards to this is that the point is actually to never succeed or indeed, never reach a state of completion. This is difficult to accept: If the point is to never acquire a perfect or near-perfect item, then what is the player’s goal when grinding for that item? Does anyone truly do anything with the intention to never succeed? Moreover, if the goal is to compel the player to play indefinitely, even after they’ve run out of new and interesting things to do in the game itself, is that a reasonable amount of time to ask the player to play in order to see the content they clearly consider the goal of their efforts? To me, that doesn’t seem reasonable. But for the sake of argument, suppose that it is: In either case, even if we rule out success or completion entirely, we would still have to evaluate the quality of what we we’re doing in the interim on the criteria laid out earlier: Are the experiences the player is having while playing novel and meaningful, and is the RNG for loot or crafting compelling them to spend time playing that they otherwise wouldn’t have? If the answers are “no” to the first or “yes” to the second, then these are low quality experiences. Players would have more fun playing a game that was giving them novel meaningful interactions and that didn’t compel them psychologically with schedules of reinforcement, regardless of when the end goal arrives, or if it ever arrives at all.
Yet another thing that might be said in objection to this is simply that RNG makes loot or crafting more fun. I’ve thought about it quite a bit and the only context in which I think this is a strong argument is if you suppose that the goal of RNG is to provide a small variety of items each battle and have you examine to determine between them which of them is useful. This is the game that loot becomes. This seems to be true, because doing this requires knowledge and choice on the part of the player and impacts gameplay since the player can use the item. It can also be different every time. All of this together means these situations are novel and meaningful to players. It’s me getting off-track a bit, but I would push back on this a little by saying that loot is something we spend a disproportionately small amount of time on compared to the other activities in the game. This is especially the case by the time endgame rolls around since so few candidates for upgrades ever present themselves. Moreover, this argument doesn’t work for crafting, since in crafting we have the end goal in mind already: To make the best item possible. While this proposition is generally true of looting in the early to mid game, by the end game we’re also trying to pick up the best item possible, since incremental upgrades have already become exceedingly rare, or at least much rarer than earlier in the game. Maybe we can extend this fun by replaying the game as each class and build the game offers, but item selection during early and mid game is only a small part of the overall value of doing this. It’s not nothing. But I’d argue it’s not enough to outweigh the volume of lower quality experiences due to RNG that we have far more of later on at endgame.
Let’s have some fun while we’re on this subject also: If in defending this idea someone were to state that it is simply the excitement of RNG in general that makes things more fun, that would come with some logical problems. This would mainly be that it proves too much. (This is to say, the underlying principles of the statement could be used to reach other conclusions that are difficult to accept, so there must be problems with them.) Say I were to roll four six-sided dice until they turn up all identical, or all ones, before eating dinner every night. We would all agree that would be strange. It wouldn’t make my dinner taste any better, I don’t think. And certainly, I would end up being hungry for longer, which is not something most people are interested in prolonging. That’s kind of the point of eating. So, would an arbitrary chance of delay before any activity make it more enjoyable? By this example, probably not. I don’t think rolling dice would make the news more fun to watch. Maybe not seeing it for longer would be enjoyable, but I could just not turn it on in the first place. We see then that we can’t make a blanket statement about RNG being fun, since, as with most things, context definitely matters.
What we’d end up being stuck with is the argument “RNG and some amount of effort makes some things fun.” I think that this statement would be much more likely to be provable, especially since I was able to describe earlier at least one situation created by RNG looting that seems to be richer due to RNG. The problem is that you’re stuck with determining what amount of effort, what RNG and what kind of RNG-created scenario can then become more fun, as well as why. You’re left needing a lot of specific and hard-to-know information in order to know how this works case-by-case, a large amount of data, which is probably why you don’t hear it made very often when it comes to discussions around these types of mechanics. And what I suspect you would still find out after analyzing all of that information is that in a great majority of cases people are experiencing a sense of relief rather than actual gratification.
To give credit here, Llama8 objected to removing the RNG from crafting by saying that what we would be left with is an item editor. This is another objection I wanted to address because it is interesting. We might not think of it as such, but crafting with RNG, as we have in Last Epoch, is already an item editor. It’s just an item editor with more steps and delays built in. As we’ve discussed a bit here, those steps are not making the final item more interesting or useful. They are just making it take longer to acquire, by some random arbitrary amount of time. This means that the issue of it being an item editor is really a moot point. To argue taking them out would be bad, maybe what is meant is that it would just be too quick or simple to make the item you want so as to be unrewarding, since people like the sense of accomplishment they get from tasks that require time and effort, or some form of problem solving. What I would then argue is similar to what I’ve said in the past: That effort should track in some linear fashion with the amount of time played, so that we’re ensuring the player has a higher amount of unique and meaningful experiences across time, and so that we’re not imposing schedules of reinforcement on them in the process. Maybe we just make an item cost more resources, thus taking longer to get. Maybe we put in a bunch of components or bonuses you can only get by completing certain tasks or challenges. Maybe we also put so many possible bonuses in the game it becomes difficult for the community to theory-craft and test them all with each other, so that it requires more effort for the player to know which ones work the best for their particular build. All of this can contribute to an amount of time it takes the player before they reach their goal, that is not in any way governed by RNG, and that would satisfy the requirement for a sense of accomplishment. Of course, there are endless other ways of providing this sensation without using RNG. I’m sure there are even better ways of doing this that someone more creative than I am would come up with.
All of this is why I propose developers in the future look at removing RNG from crafting and focus on finding alternatives to give challenge and accomplishment to players using crafting systems. I believe it can be done, and would be better for everyone involved.
Thanks for hearing me out, as always. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts as well soon.
(Edit: Grammar / Typos)