Has RNG outlived its usefulness?
I have a friend in my guild who works as a professional game designer – she’s very smart and I’ve learned to listen when she talks and think about what she says. And she hates RNG. She hates it with a passion. RNG is short for random number generator, and its the randomness when you do something like roll for loot, or even the randomness that determines whether a certain piece of loot even drops – whether loot is set to personal, or you’re using master looter, there’s always some randomness because a boss doesn’t drop everything it could drop when you kill it. So when my friend started talking about RNG and her dislike for it as a part of game design, I started thinking about my own feelings about randomness in-game and how it is currently utilized by the design.
We’ve had a lot of iterations of randomization and how to combat streakiness over the years. One of those iterations was the original Badge of Justice design, back in The Burning Crusade. At first, only the bosses in five-man heroic dungeons dropped Badges, and they could be used to buy gear from a vendor so that if you had a long streak of no luck on drops (either the gear you wanted didn’t drop, or you didn’t win the roll) you could still eventually get pieces of gear. This got expanded over the life of the expansion as Badges were put on raid bosses and new tiers of Badge gear were introduced. By the time Sunwell rolled around, there was a Badge vendor on the Isle of Quel’Danas who sold gear as powerful as Mount Hyjal/Black Temple gear, including weapons. (My DPS set used the two fist weapons from the Isle, in fact, before I finished upgrading my crafted 2h sword.)
This system changed several times before it was replaced with the reroll system that debuted in Mists of Pandaria. In Mists these two systems coexisted to a degree, but the Justice and Valor Point system (the last iteration of the Badge of Justice idea) was stripped of much of the flexibility and usefulness it had in Cataclysm. After a certain point, you were better off saving your points for upgrading gear, because there simply wasn’t anything to buy with them. The reroll system allows for you to spend currency (currently Seals of Fate) if the item you want doesn’t drop or you don’t win it. However, the reroll system itself is still random. You can get the item you want, some other item entirely, or nothing but a few paltry gold pieces. While it serves the same basic function as the older point system did (make up for streakiness and bad luck in RNG based loot systems) it does so not by guaranteeing you an item if you put in the effort, but rather, by appealing to the same random system that failed and hoping this time it won’t. You can easily burn all of your Seals of Fate and get nothing for it.
I don’t know why we decided that an eventual guaranteed item was a bad idea, much less an eventual guarantee of getting an item you actually want, instead of (as an example) rolling the dice again and getting a pair of gloves with haste and versatility on them, so that even though they’re ten ilevels better than what you have on you can’t use them without sacrificing crit and mastery. I understand that many of the changes were made for simplicity and ease of use – you get a piece of gear and you can equip it, you don’t, you can roll and try again instead of keeping track of how many Badges or points you have and finding a vendor somewhere to go buy an upgrade. This is shown in how our tier pieces work this time around, which I think is a good change. But I greatly dislike the idea that randomness is automatically the best option. Much as how we removed Reforging to simplify gearing, we failed to realize we were losing flexibility and the ability to make up for bad gearing options. Before, if you got gloves that were a big ilevel upgrade, you could make up for the bad stats to some degree. Now, it’s shard them and hope something better drops.
That’s the real basis for everything now. Hope something better drops. If it doesn’t, spend a Seal, roll again, hope something better drops. I’m not sure that hope is the best design choice when it comes to gearing. And with the current system, although there are safeguards in place so that eventually if you keep spending Seals and getting nothing there will be an increased chance of an item dropping, nothing guarantees it’s a useful item. If you’re a protection paladin, and your loot specialization is set to protection, you might get the shield you’re desperate for, or the bracers you already have, or the helmet with stats you don’t even want to look at, or the cloak you have a better option for already. And nothing guarantees that Seal will do any better. You can luck out and get two swords off of Gruul in one night, or you can not. And there’s nothing else you as a player can do. You can’t save up and get exactly what you need to plug that hole in your itemization – you could end up raiding Heroic BRF in a mishmash of gear that hits the basic ilevel requirements, because you have pieces well over that threshold and pieces way below it, and you’ll just have to look at those 540 bracers and hope you get a follower mission, or a lucky drop, or a coin roll will go your way.
I’m not saying the system doesn’t work – a lot of my guildmates have gotten pieces well above what they could expect from these methods. But it’s random. It’s luck. When you get lucky, it feels great. When you don’t get lucky, and don’t get lucky, and still don’t get lucky as you spend all your Seals… it doesn’t feel like you can win. You’re at the mercy of the random number generator.
I’m not sure I have a better option. But I do wonder if we could come up with something that gave more control back to the player, even at the cost of time.
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