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The Inner Loop (and Outer Loop) of RPGs

So, in the throes of my Star Wars Hating, I wrote:

Starting and ending combat is irritating and distracting. Starting requires rebuffing your 20 second long buffs EVERY TIME. Ending requires finding the body to click on in order to loot. Why does a Jedi or Sith Master care about loot anyway? I think this game would have been better served leaving commerce out altogether. Maybe you get reputation (good or bad) for doing stuff, and can use that to improve your stuffs.

After some further IM ranting, psu took the opportunity to rant about loot in general. I found this comment particularly interesting, though:

Ugh, the surprise of finding something nifty in a chest or barrel is half the fun of playing RPGs for me. This has nothing to do with realism, it's just that I love the exploration aspects.

So, the question in my mind is -- why do I enjoy looting in WoW, but not in KOTOR2? In both cases, there's irritating inventory management, and random crap that mostly I can't use except to turn into money. Why not cut out the middleman and get right to the "gimme money" part?

I think that fundamentally, it comes down to the inner loop and the outer loop of the game mechanic. I'm going to say the inner loop is what psu calls the "30 seconds of fun." It's the repetitive mini-game that makes up the core of the experience. The outer loop is the meta-game -- it's how the inner loop's rewards are translated into long term character improvement.

The inner loop is the most important -- it is, essentially, the game. How much of your inner loop is spent doing the fun stuff? How is it distributed between buffs/combat/looting/resting for next fight? How hard is it to accomplish any of these stages? Am I clicking too many times per stage?

My objection to KOTOR2 was that the inner loop was a pain -- you had to click excessively to buff and loot. Depending on how you set up your character, downtime could be minimal -- but the healing to reduce downtime interfered with the buff portion of the next combat, because healing and buffing used the same shortcut key. Combat consisted of allowing the auto-attack to go off, or using one of several special abilities, all of which are really oriented around attacking guys who are weaker than you, because D20's combat system is kind of stupid. Looting was also irritating, because the loot didn't spawn until a few seconds after combat, and required clicking on a small portion of the screen (not necessarily the same place you had been clicking for combat), then clicking in some other portion of the screen to accept the loot.

Contrast this to WoW: most buffs remain around for 30 minutes, not 20 seconds. The grunt part of combat -- swinging your sword -- is automatic, leaving you to worry about strategic decisions about what combat abilities you will use. You might argue this is the same as the KOTOR case, except that the combat abilities here actually affect something more than your critical strike chance. Looting, to be fair, also requires finding a smaller area to click on -- the fallen corpse -- but you can shift-click to loot everything in one swoop. So, the high level details are the same, but the excessive clicks and mouse motion have been optimized out of the inner loop.

(Side note on buffs: there is one class in WoW -- the Paladin -- which has shorter term buffs. What's interesting, though, is that the casting of buffs is actual part of the combat phase, because you can "judge" these buffs onto enemies, turning your buffs into your enemy's debuffs. So, in this one case, the act of buffing is integral part of the combat cycle, as opposed to an irritating chore.)

So, what to do with that loot you get? Well, here's where we get into the outer loop -- what do you do with the spoils of the inner loop.

In KOTOR, the loot is irritating because there's (A) so goddamned much of it, and (B) you will -- with the exception of maybe 3 sequences -- NEVER EVER USE ANY OF IT. A lot of the loot is blasters and mines and grenades and... combat stuff that Jedi never use. And let's be clear -- the Jedi are so over-powered compared to any other class in this game, that unlike KOTOR1, it's actually possible to turn most if not all of your party members from blaster-wielding thugs INTO Jedi. So... most of the loot is pointless. On top of that, there's no cost to keeping all of that loot, because you have no inventory restrictions. So it starts to pile up. But surely, you say, you would sell it so you could get AWESOME GEAR from merchants! The problem is that there is no awesome gear from merchants -- it's more of this blaster/grenade/mine crap. There's the occasional Jedi robe, but nothing you won't see drop out of some... spider or bounty hunter.

So. No inventory restrictions. No reason to sell loot, because no reason to spend money. Why do I care so much, you ask -- it sounds like I just won't ever look at my inventory. Well, that's the problem right there. First off, I'm taking valuable time out of my inner loop to populate this inventory -- but I don't care about it. Secondly, every so often I do care about it -- some upgrade for my armor drops, or some miscellaneous item which I don't know much about, and might want to use. But, because inventory is chock-full of crap that I never bothered to sell, because -- for twelve hours straight -- there was no game mechanic that told me selling was a worthwhile endeavor to bother with, I've pack-ratted up 400 blasters because I might need one someday. And now I can't find the +10 shoulder pads of ninjosity, because it's hidden in a field of crap.

Obviously, yes, if I did my chores and was a good boy, this "wouldn't be a problem," but it turns out I'm playing this game to have fun, not to do my chores.

So again, let's contrast with WoW. What's interesting in WoW is that all that crap you'll never use? It's clearly highlighted as such. Items come in rarity classes -- grey, white, green, blue, purple -- and grey stuff is explicitly put in the game for you to turn into cash. No player will ever want it, but vendors will pay absurd amounts of money for it. White stuff is similar, except that player-craftable items might use it. Green and better drop infrequently, and we'll discuss them later.

So you've spent 30 minutes killing bugbears and your bags are getting full of grey and white stuff. Here's where another interesting part of the outer loop comes in -- similar monsters drop similar kinds of grey and white stuff, and the stuff stacks to some extent. So the outer loop is actually encouraging you to keep doing what you're doing, because you'll get more efficient use out of your bag space. It means that collecting crap for vendors is no long merely a grind as you populate your bags with mountains of miscellania -- you're actually playing a resource management metagame as you decide how to pursue various quests and still keep your bag space free.

But... what do you do with all that money? After all, in KOTOR2, it's pointless. In WoW, you actually need to acquire a certain amount of in-game cash just to keep playing. Armor wears down, and must be repaired. Fast travel costs money (although hoofing it is always free). Resources to improve your inner loop -- bigger bags, water & food to replenish health & mana -- cost money. Group content requires you to spend money on spell reagents and (for high-end content) protective potions. Once you've acquired some piece of gear you think you'll be using for a while, you might want to spend some bling to get it enchanted to make it even more badass. There's a sense of weight to currency that doesn't exist in KOTOR2.

On top of that, there's the fancy green and better items, which -- in some cases -- even if you can't use, someone else might be able to. So there's a whole economy mini-game based around selling this stuff to other players, either through negotiation or auctioning. Or that you might try to acquire for yourself, rather than spending hours hoping your magic boots might drop. Time spent is turned into money acquired; and money acquired can turn into time not spent. This is in stark contrast to a game where "getting through the levels" is the predominate design philosophy, so money and time are no longer fungible resources.

The short version, for the TLDR crowd: loot needs to not be intrusive in the inner loop (easy looting, stackable loot when you're engaged in the same task so that there's only a cost when you shift gears) and rewarding in the outer loop (money means something and contributes to your character advancement) in order to be a useful game mechanic. Otherwise -- it's just wanking.


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